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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Thursday, November 29, 2007

This Just In: ODP Still Sucks

While Googling my byline a month or so ago to keep current on any recent gossip about me, I stumbled upon a thread at Digital Point discussing the merits (or lack thereof) of the Dmoz Sucks website. One "Rezo," who is apparently (one of?) the proprietor(s) of the SevenSeek web directory, pointed out Dmoz (aka ODP) sucks (ambiguity intentional) and recommended browsing the eponymous Dmoz Sucks website; one "nebuchadrezzar" followed up with a glowing reference of both me and XODP, closing with, "You guys should make yourselves known to [David Prenatt], he would probably give you a few pointers."

Nebuchadrezzar also pointed out the fact that Jimbo Wales frequented XODP back in the day and opined that XODP may have played a role in helping Jimbo avoid many of the pitfalls of ODP in creating Wikipedia. I'd like to think that were true, but (knowing Jimbo) I doubt that he would acknowledge that XODP had any kind of profound impact on him or on Wikipedia. Even so, Wikipedia is precisely the sort of open content community that I had hoped to inspire and/or create when I founded XODP, and while I have my reservations about Wikipedia, they are minor ones, and I make a point of extolling the virtues of Wikipedia from time to time on XODP and elsewhere.

I first came across Jimbo Wales during my tenure as Chief Evangelist at the-late-and-never-that-great Wherewithal. Much to my surprise, Jimbo had a distant history with one of Wherewithal's founders, and there was some talk of licensing Wherewithal's ad serving technology to Jimbo's company Bomis. At the time, my stock as an Internet celebrity was very high because of XODP, which is how I and Wherewithal first came to Jimbo's attention. At the time, I was also consulting with Project Napa as their Chief Ontologist and Community Architect, and I also tried to sell them on the idea of serving up ads a la Wherewithal as a way of generating revenue for their open content people portal. However, both of these promising business leads (and many others) were burned by Wherewithal's founders who simply did not have the wherewithal (pun intended) to put a profitable business deal together. Consequently, I stopped bringing the leads to Wherewithal and started operating in stealth mode, quietly playing matchmaker with my various business contacts while Wherewithal faded into obscurity.

The dot-com bubble had already begun to burst when I signed on at Wherewithal and Project Napa, but I felt (and still feel) that there was (and still is) quite a bit of promise in the area of open content generation and indexing. Even now I think that the ideas underlying Wherewithal and Project Napa were sound, and I've long toyed with the idea of reincarnating both of them in some form. Instead, I have focused on the needs of my paying clients; occasionally, I have worked on various XODP Web Guides and contributed to Wikipedia to satisfy my innate need to index online content.

In addition to satisfying my innate need to index online content, the XODP Web Guides have allowed me to demonstrate "proof of concept." And but for the fact that I am making a decent living as an Internet consultant for attorneys, work that I truly enjoy, I would embrace the opportunity to make more money by publishing XODP Web Guides while also improving the quality of online content indexing. Indeed, there may yet come a day when an investor throws so much money at me that I will take the necessary time and effort to hire and train enough staff to publish and maintain thousands (or even tens of thousands) of XODP Web Guides instead of the three hundred or so I currently publish. Of course, if making money were my primary motivation for indexing online content, I would probably start up a Web Directory like the aforementioned Seven Seek and charge for website submissions.

While I don't know how Seven Seek is doing financially, charging for website submissions is a proven business model that has worked on a large scale for Yahoo! and LookSmart and on a smaller scale for GoGuides and Best of the Web. Getting back to the subject implied by the title of this post, if there is a failure inherent in the ODP business model, it is the fact that ODP has no business model. Rather, when Netscape acquired ODP for the sum of one million dollars back in 1999, it purchased the good will of the then nascent open content indexing community.

When Netscape acquired ODP, it almost seemed to make sense, as Netscape had (a largely unearned) reputation for being a good 'Netizen. However, when AOL acquired Netscape and gave away ODP's content (albeit with bizarre and probably unenforceable licensing restrictions), it made sense to do so in a different way: Business sense. To wit, because AOL exercised editorial control over ODP content, it was able to offer quid pro quo to professional content providers like AOL and Rolling Stone. It also took the profit out of LookSmart's bottom line as a content provider, thereby appearing to eliminate a serious AOL competitor from growing and prospering. However, when LookSmart turned the tables on AOL and offered to share advertising revenue with its publishers, ODP became totally irrelevant and has been ever since.

My original purpose in founding XODP was to point out the flaws in ODP and foster discussion about the future of the Open Content Movement. Since that time, Wikipedia has deposed ODP and rightfully claimed the mantle of that movement with a viable business model that relies upon charitable donations. However, rather than letting ODP die with dignity, AOL keeps ODP on public display in its critical care unit, a sad state of affairs that will probably last at least until the next ODP system crash occurs. In a perfect world, the powers that be at Wikipedia would acquire ODP and make it a truly open directory, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that to happen. As for the proprietors of the aforementioned Dmoz Sucks website, I wish them well, and they are more than welcome to join XODP and rant. However, I really can't be bothered to review their website any deeper than their Home Page and offer a substantive opinion on it: The fact that ODP sucks ain't news, and it hasn't been for quite some time.

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