Julia Angwin, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, has asked me the following question: "I guess I would just like to understand your objections to the Internet Brands purchase of Wikitravel and what your plans are for taking the German content and starting a new site." --- A simple question that requires a complex response, just like "Explain me the meaning of live." I would like to respond in two FAQs, one about commercialisation (this one) and another about my (our) ideas about forking (still to be done).
Is the Internet Brands purchase of Wikitravel your main reason for forking?
It is one of several reasons. In some of the discussions, people have tried to reduce my objections on the fact that IB runs commercially. That's a simplification of my more complex reasons.
So, what other reasons do you have?
Some of the reasons are rooted in the way Wikitravel has been led, even in the time before the purchase. However, I suppose your main interests are not Wikitravel internas, so I treat them as short as possible if I do mention them at all.
What's bad about the purchase of Wikitravel?
Let me distinguish two aspects of this question: The process of decision making that led to the selling and the resulting situation after the purchase. I will answer each of them in more detail.
How about decision making?
Concerning the decision making, there are rather Wikitravel internal points to criticize. From the legal point of view, it was Evan's and Michelle's right to sell their rights on the domain wikitravel.org and all their personal intellectual property in respect to Wikitravel. On the other hand, in the more than 2 1/2 years Wikitravel exists, they always had been suggesting to guarantee for some basic principals of community work on the wiki. A wiki community only can work if contributors und readers have confidence in the maintainers of the server. Both, Evan and Michelle, repeatedly have emphasized the importance of making decisions on the wiki by consensus. There are several policies about Wikitravel's goals and social interaction of the members of the wiki community, mostly written by Evan himself. For example, in the very fundamental policy Goals and non-goals (of Wikitravel as whole) Evan says "However, blatant advertising is not welcome." This policy has not been changed or even questioned before the purchase. Even worse, there never had been any announcement at all from the two founders that would have given any information about the intension to sell the domain. For all of us, it was a big surprise when Evan and Michelle announced the selling of wikitravel.org.
Did you believe Evan and Michelle would pay for the Server forever?
For everyone who have had deeper insight into Wikitravel's organisation, it was evident that Evan and Michelle could not pay the Wikitravel server from their private budgets for all eternity. It also was obviously that Evan slowly had turned to be overstrained from all the technical maintenance tasks, especially in the last month before the purchase. So, probably many had expected that something had to be changed.
Wasn't the selling the logical consequence?
No, even if Evan and Michelle have repeatedly tried to explain that this was the best decision for Wikitravel. I'm sure it was not and there had been other options. But I cannot deny that there was a big temptation to take the money from selling wikitravel.org and getting a paid job for things they, especially Evan, have been doing all the time anyway.
What else could Evan and Michelle have done?
In my opinion, the appropriate approach would have been to line out the existing problems to the community, to discuss possible solutions on a wide base and to find a way supported by as many wikitravellers as possible. There would have been very different ways out of the problems. For example, a (non-profit) association could have been founded or a decision for controlled advertising could have been made. A community based decision would have been most important. Even if the community decided to ask Evan and Michelle to sell the domain, it would at least have been a decision made on a wide base and not that of two single persons.
Does it make such a big difference whether there was a community decision or not?
What Evan and Michelle have done was to ignore basic community principals and policies. Instead, they have simply informed the community about accomplished and irreversible facts. Because of that they have lost a lot of my confidence.
How about the fact that Wikitravel's new owner has commercial interests?
IB did not purchase Wikitravel for common benefit. It's a profit orientated company and, of course, they want to make money with Wikitravel.
I suppose you don't like that somebody makes money with free content.
Some Wikitravellers have argued that they are not willing to work for free for a project where others make money with. That's short sighted. Wikitravel's licence, the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 1.0 licence, allowes to use Wikitravel's contents commercially, which is all right for me.
What's the difference between making money with the content and purchasing the wiki?
Let me answer this question from wiki community's point of view: What's the difference between granting others the right to make money with the content and selling the wiki?
Selling the wiki means handing over the total control over the wiki to somebody else. It's a big difference allowing others to make money with the result of your work. It's like selling your working room and letting other people decide how it is furnished, how walls are painted, what music you have to listen to while working, how much access you get to your own work and maybe even on what topics you have (or don't have) to work. In the worst case, it may happen that the new owner decides to close down your room and uses it as a storage room.
What do you mean with the music?
Listening to the right music at the right moment is pleasant. But being forced to listen to music you don't like can be very awkward and bothering. IB is an advertising company and all of their other sites are overloaded with text and even banner ads. For me, it's a question of time until this will apply to wikitravel.org, too.
You don't like advertising?
Who does? But let me point out some differences.
The need of advertising for paying your server is one thing. In this case, you yourself determine how much, which and where the advertising is put . You can put only as much ads on the pages as you need for paying your costs.
IB's aims are probably different. They will try to maximize their profit and, of course, as a company they have much more expenses than a community of idealistic volunteers. Since probably most of their income results of advertisings, it's easy to imagine how wikitravel.org is going to look like in a few months.
How do you mean "access to your own work"?
The whole content of Wikitravel is licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 1.0 licence. That actually guarantees that everybody is allowed to reuse, redistribute, sell and modify the community work of Wikitravel. But what's the benefit of a free licence if the work is not fully accessible to public? At the moment, it is impossible to download the travel guide as whole.
Dumps are not available unless you write a formal request to IB. Finally, IB decides whether you get a dump or not. Their criteria for decision are still completely intransparent. On my request for dumps of the German language version, I have been told that "IB considers whether to make an XML feed available [...]. This will typically involve deciding how much work you're asking for versus how much benefit it will be for Wikitravel." As we see, getting the dumps or not depends on the benefit for an advertising company. This is the logical behaviour of a profit orientated company.
From the wiki community's point of view, of course, this is an inacceptable situation. Wikitravel's guides are the product of community work, written in the intension to be free for everybody, independent from the benefit for a single person or organisation.
I admit, with some programming skills, it is possible to download article by article automatically, but this is practicable only for some specialists.
Do you think a profit orientated maintainer of the server has an impact on the independence of its content?
Definitely yes. Most newspapers or journals know quite well that it is dangerous to upset their large advertising clients. If some advertiser would stop his contracts for protest, there would be a remarkable loss in income that cannot simply be compensated by more readers.
Do you believe it's different with an internet based travel guide? It would be Evan's or Michelle's job to moderate contributors if they would write negative things about IB's advertising partners. Imagine IB makes a good advertising bussines with a hotel chain or some airline. They cannot risk to lose them only for some intractable contributor. Possibly conflicts will arise and contributors may drop off.
Don't you think a company as maintainer of the project is more enduring than two private persons?
Yes, it isn't.
Yes, because a company is interested in maintaining the server as long as the wiki makes profit or promits to make profit. A company is less susceptible for changes of mood or for personal incidents.
No, because what if they don't make profit with the wiki? What if the company runs into insolvency? What if IB is sold itself and a travel wiki does not fit any more into the new bussines model? Maybe, the domain would be sold for some other purposes. And the wikis with all the content? In the worst case, they simply get shut down and the project dies. If the wiki community is lucky, there would be some more or less recent data dumps available somewhere in the internet.
Don't you think the financial background of IB could be a benefit for Wikitravel?
For sure in the last months it was. But let us regard the things from the business point of view. IB has done an investment in purchasing Wikitravel. And they are still continuing to invest since they pay for Evan and Michelle and for the technical infrastructure. What have they got out of it? Nothing, not yet. A good investment must offer some advantage, strategically or financially. It's hard for me to figure out what the strategical advantage could be. So, let's talk about money. The favorite way of making money with an internet site for an advertising company will be putting ads on the site, as much ads as necessary to maximize the profit. If Wikitravel has been a good investment for IB, it will bring enough money for paying all its costs, including 1 1/2 jobs for Evan and Michelle, plus some profit for the company. To sum up, capital must run out of Wikitravel, not into it.
Evan has stated a win-win situation. If Wikitravel has been a good investment for IB, IB will win. But what's the profit for the Wikitravel community project? All the seemingly benefits like professional leaders and technical infrastructure are in fact paid by the earnings that come out of wikitravel.org itself. Compare this with the situation we would have if the wiki community had decided to keep the control on the server, but putting ads on it. Even in this case, there would have been some income that could be spend for all kinds of technical infrastructure and, if necessary, for professional Wikitravellers. But there is one difference: If there were a surplus, it would not be booked as profit for some company, but be kept by the project itself.
The only real win-win situation would be the rather hypothetical case that IB would work so much more efficiently than the community, that they were worth their extra cut they get. But honestly, I don't believe this. A company has a lot more expenses than a community of volunteers. Furthermore, there are a lot of out-of-the-box providers for easy to include advertisings (even context sensitive), so that even a non-specialist can get some pretty good income with a server.
Do you think IB would be unprofessional enough to discard the power of the community?
How do you mean unprofessional? It is professional to use the most efficient strategy to achieve one's own goals. The community and IB have different goals. Sure, some of them coincident, but others don't. It's an euphemism to state that everything what's good for Wikitravel is good for IB. After the selling, the term "Wikitravel" has got at least two different meanings. On one hand, there is the IB section "Wikitravel" that must make profit. On the other hand, there is the community project "Wikitravel", that should be open for everybody to contribute, to read and to reuse.
Ask people from the wiki community what is good for Wikitravel, and they will tell you that IB has to pay for all the costs and leave basically everything as it is. Is this good for the IB section "Wikitravel"? Of course, it isn't. Now ask IB what's good for Wikitravel, and they probably will tell you (not officially, of course) that contributors should write as much and as well as they can, but should not ask for anything else. A good contributor works hard and tolerates a lot of advertising.
And in between, there are our professional Wikitravellers. They have to manage the different targets. But don't forget, they are paid by IB, not by the community. If they do their job well, they will shape the community according to the interests of IB. It's their job to get rid of critical contributors and to keep and aquire those willing to work under the new circumstances. For a company, wiki contributors are basically a human resource. Like any other resource, it has to be optimized in accordance to the new needs after having been purchased. This is a process that needs some months or perhaps even years, but it already has begun. At the end, there will be a community that swallows a lot more than the current one.
I think, it's short sighted to refer to the power of the community against IB. The community is already about to run through IB's optimisation process. The optimal community may have decreased somehow, but for sure it will be more squeezable.
And now, let me ask you a counterquestion:
What do you think why there is not yet advertising on wikitravel.org after almost 3 months?
There are other wikis running commercially. Why not even Wikitravel?
Yes, there are. Many smaller wikis use context sensitive ads, some in pure text, others even with banners. The most prominent wiki with text ads is perhaps wikia.com. It is run by a company founded and led by Jimbo Wales and Angela Beesley, two board members of the Wikipedia Foundation.
Comparing both projects, we see the pioneers of the definitely largest open community wikis on one hand. They are experienced wiki contributors themselves. On the other hand there are the founders of Wikitravel as employees of advertising specialists. Both groups run their wikis commercially, but on a completely different background. I do believe that running a Wiki is a passion for all four people. But Jimbo and Angela are their own bosses, whereas Evan and Michelle are only employees of an advertising company.
Let's also have a look at the way both, Wikia and Wikitravel, include or are supposed to include ads. What Wikia does is pretty standard, some out-of-the-box context sensitive text ads. For establishing that kind of advertising, it would not have been necessary to sell Wikitravel. This could easily have been done by Evan himself. Well, we do not yet know about IB's advertising plans on Wikitravel, but if you take a look at their other sites, you easily realize that their way of advertising is much more elaborated and even more blatant. Only putting some text ads on a site is not the way an advertising company works.