Blogs have been buzzing lately about the introduction of a new(-ish) platform from Google called Knol. Check out the announcement about Knol on Google's blog. The idea is that Knol is a cross between Wikipedia and one of a few systems (e.g. Squidoo, Mahalo, Hubpages) that give users tools for creating portal pages on specific topics. The hope is that people will take ownership of particular topics, style themselves as experts, summarize and edit all the content that's out there in the cloud for everyone's benefit. Most of these sites have thus far tried to motivate users through a combination of reputation and community involvement. And let's not forget the value of the knowledge base itself.

Google is tackling issues of motivation and quality with reputational and social networking tools, just like everyone else. But with Knol, they also seem to be stepping in with the increasingly classic Google move: add cash. How else is a deep-pocketed late-comer supposed to make a dent in the market? The strategy is no-doubt driven by Google's bevy of economists who argue: when a rational person has the choice between doing something just for the warm-fuzzies, or for warm-fuzzies and cash, that person will go for the cash.

I'm surprised, however, that for all the talent they have on staff, no one around there has told them how dangerous this idea is. It turns out there's all sorts of evidence that when you add monetary payments (or, more generally extrinsic incentives), all kinds of unexpected things can happen. Motivation can be reduced, quality can dip, resentment brewed. I recommend the good folks at Google get started by reading Not Just for the Money by Bruno Frey (an economist!) and The Hidden Costs of Reward edited by Lepper and Greene.

Of course, all of this will depend on just how carefully Google designs their system. One of the most fascinating areas of my research is understanding how the minutiae of user interaction and design elements can influence social psychological motivations. Crowding out (when extrinsic incentives push out intrinsic ones instead of adding to them) can in some cases be crowding in when the context is right. We know so very little about this stuff right now, at least in a scientific sense.

Ultimately, there's a pretty fundamental divide here. Wikipedia is the 10-ton gorilla of knowledge sharing, and they've gotten this far without paying people a cent. Google is betting that Knol will be able to leech away contributors from Wikipedia. Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch seems to agree. And they may be right. But, I worry, to Google's own peril. Who are those users who will abandon Wikipedia to feed from the Google cash trough? Are they they the invested, high quality, knowledgeable contributors that Google would need to build a respectable knowledge repository? Doubtful. But it may be presumptuous of me to assume that Google cares about the quality of their Knol content. Maybe sheer volume is enough. It's their own property, so they can promote it in their search results all they want, and if the eyeballs and ad revenues are there, maybe Google is happy. But then let's not fool ourselves by calling it a 'knowledge repository' when it's really just another ad vehicle.