Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Ongoing Viability of Wikia and Wikimedia

For reasons that defy rational explanation, the powers that be at Wikia dispute the claim that Wikia is the for-profit counterpart of the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. No doubt important distinctions can be made between these two business entities, but the one that stands out to most people is that the for-profit Wikia's primary source of funding is venture capital and banner advertising, whereas the non-profit Wikimedia relies entirely upon charitable donations, and that distinction does not change the fact that both entities sprang from common roots, much like modern primates and humans evolved from a common ancestor. In sum, Wikia and Wikimedia are both free software/free content success stories that involve many of the same characters and that are still being written.

In a blog entry that I posted over a year ago, I asserted that rumors of Wikipedia's imminent demise were greatly exaggerated, Wikipedia being the original free content/free software project from which the Wikimedia Foundation was born. Indeed, even if both Wikia and Wikimedia were to go out of business tomorrow for some reason, the software and content that they've generated up until now would persist and remain viable for the foreseeable future in some other form. Only a far-reaching, cataclysmic event could change that because both the data and software for sites like Wikipedia are free to anyone who wants them, and a truly unique Web 2.0 informational resource like Wikipedia puts Google and all other search engines like Google to shame in certain ways. Most notably, Wikipedia does a much better job than Google does when it comes to disambiguation of keywords.

The key to Wikipedia's success is the more or less selfless contributors who can and often do come and go at will and may number from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands, depending on whose being counted and whose doing the counting. And while Wikia's various communities are diminutive by comparison to Wikipedia, they operate on the same principles of openness and freedom, and they are just as capable of generating quality content on a wide variety of topics. And while both Wikia and Wikimedia sustain equally viable and "free" communities, they are very different business entities when it comes to their core philosophies in re commercial advertising. To wit, Wikimedia goes out of its way to shelter its users from commercial advertising, whereas Wikia supports its 5,500 or so "free" online communities with above the fold banner advertisements. Not that there's anything wrong with that. As the old GNU saying goes, " [T]hink of free as in free speech not as in free beer."

As of this writing, Wikipedia dominates Google's search results and Wikia's Alexa Ranking is a respectable 339 and rising, with both funding and actual revenue continuing to increase, thereby giving one every reason to believe that the thousands of online communities associated with Wikia and Wikimedia will continue to grow and thrive. At the same time, I would be remiss if I did not comment on the inadequacies of Wikia Search, a Wikia product that went live in January of 2008. Don't get me wrong: I think it's a great idea to have human editors rank and rate search results. That's why I started compiling the XODP Search Results Guides, to work in conjunction with the brute force of existing search engine algorithms, providing added value after said algorithms had done virtually all of the heavy lifting. That having been said, there is a general consensus that Wikia Search truly sucks, and I'm quite mystified as to what Jimbo Wales and his cohorts are trying to accomplish.

Like the late great Open Directory Project (aka ODP, aka dMOZ), Wikia Search hopes to employ an army of volunteers to do . . . well, after reading through the Wikia Search Mailing List Archives, that's not exactly clear. There doesn't seem to be any sort of workable theme behind Wikia Search, and the idea of "trusted user feedback" doesn't seem to have any context or relevance to a wiki-based search engine. What wikis do quite well is allow an exceptionally large group of users to collaborate on content generation, but the only things that this seems to bring to the search engine technology table are: (1) disambiguation of keyword-based search queries; (2) trusted sources of URLs; and (3) the possibility of trustworthy URL meta data. (In theory, the late great ODP was supposed to provide some trustworthy meta data, but ODP is now a historical object lesson in large scale and recalcitrant denial of quality control failure.)

The true believers of Wiki Search counter their critics by pointing to the unlikely success of Wikipedia and the aforementioned inaccurate rumors of Wikipedia's imminent demise. I think a better comparison would be the recalcitrant denial of Larry Sanger and company in re the failure of the Nupedia concept by creating Citizendium, a failure that has already been answered by the unqualified success of Wikipedia. To wit, Wikia Search is a vaporware solution in search of a problem that already has an adequate solution. This sad current state of affairs in re Wikia Search doesn't detract from the accomplishments of Wikia and Wikimedia, which by all accounts should remain viable entities for the foreseeable future.

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