The morbidity of Wikitravel (owned by Internet Brands) and possible consolidation of ex-Wikitravel communities in a new Wikimedia project (I support the latter and have no opinion on squabbles somewhere in between) makes this a good time to revisit themes of three old blog posts.
In 2004 I wrote about copying text across World66 and Wikitravel, two then-independent sites, quasi-wiki and wiki respectively, under then-compatible licenses. I already gave this post its 8 year refutation, noting that I didn’t fully comply with the licenses and people don’t care about licenses anyway.
If people did care, it would be worth noting that the two are no longer under compatible licenses. World66 has stayed at Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 which had overlooked compatibility with future versions, while Wikitravel migrated to Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 (a process I cheered) Curiously the Wikitravel license upgrade page claims World66 used Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0, which was never the case. The morbidity of World66 (another data point: I seem to have made the last edit to the World66 article on Austin, in 2004) since and maybe prior to its Internet Brands acquisition perhaps says something about IB management, but first, the acquisition.
World66 and Wikitravel were both announced to have been acquired by IB in 2006 (document below says the acquisition happened in 2005). I don’t know that the terms for either were disclosed, despite a joking request to add them to a wiki page. But now one figure is included in an IB legal document (backstory on that document): $1.7m for Wikitravel.
Later in 2006 I claimed that community is the new IP (yes I hate the term IP when expanded to “Intellectual Property” too, but I didn’t expand it; in any case I meant that a community and its location/identifier is a barrier to competitive entrants, which is also one effect of copyright, patent, trademark, etc.) and cited the acquisitions of Wikitravel and YouTube (for almost 1000x as much — that is not to denigrate Wikitravel — $1.7m may be wholly uninteresting to venture investors, but sounds very nice for what I imagine required very little capital other than sweat). The idea that a large community, or “community”, or loyal userbase, or at least lots of users that would find it difficult to move, is valuable, has been shown many times subsequently (e.g., Facebook and Twitter valuations) and isn’t even interesting. My ulterior motive in claiming that “community is the new IP” was to say that copyright in particular is irrelevant for web startups and that as such these should allow users to contribute such that all have equal rights. Well, copyright probably is mostly irrelevant (consider Twitter and Facebook; though a few people have gotten worked up over whether one could “copyright a tweet”, legal risk from copying tweets must be far down any list of Twitter lock-in mechanisms; same for Facebook, even moreso, as much of the stuff people visit that site for is never public, and use of many of the photos would run into personality/privacy/publicity rights even if copyright did not exist), but so it would seem are equal copyright permissions for users — precious few startups have offered such and I don’t know of any that are huge successes.
Wikitravel co-founder Evan Prodromou’s current StatusNet is one of those, but that’s another story which I hope will be huge one day. Pre-StatusNet, Prodromou was working on additional commercial wikis, and in 2007 I was impressed with his guidelines for such. From a business perspective community may be an excludable resource, but like any advantage a business might have, it can be squandered. I’d love it if someone more knowledgeable about IB and Wikitravel over the past few years could say whether Prodromou’s guidelines capture what IB hasn’t done right — and whether the guidelines could be usefully amended and expanded based on several more years of commercial wikis, not only those run by IB.
IB’s current troubles with Wikitravel will probably serve as a minor negative case for future statups, but in which sense? To avoid free licensing altogether, in order to make it more difficult for users to leave in the event of your mismanagement? Or to follow something like Prodromou’s guidelines in spirit and practice for a healthy, happy community and long-term business success? And will a more substantial proportion of users ever care?
All of the above aside, I still find Wikitravel one of the ever better stories for free public licenses, the travel guide materials having now been hosted by a small startup, acquired by IB, forked to community sites (Wikivoyage), small bits copied into Wikipedia articles, and perhaps soon, some form of mass copying into a new Wikimedia-hosted travel project, all with no copyright barriers.
Finally, it has been noted that with volunteer administrators gone, Wikitravel is being buried in spam. This (and general frustration with spam on small wikis and nearby over the years) is what prompted me last week to microblog that archeologists of the future will dig through layers of spam as contemporary ones dig through layers of dirt. 10 years (did anyone note it?) must be far beyond the half-life of websites.