Lonely Planet: This is Not the End

not-the-endCommenting on the affairs of past employers is bad karma, but the media circus surrounding Lonely Planet’s recent restructuring, with Skift’s hash of disgruntled misinformation and the Guardian’s premature obituary, is sufficiently misguided to warrant an unsolicited opinion.

Lonely Planet is and has always been a print publishing operation. Despite their carefully cultivated hippy-dippy image, the Wheelers ran a tight ship and LP was known in the industry for being able to produce and distribute more guidebooks of higher quality at a lower cost than anyone else in the business. This was achieved by a relentless focus on tweaking the publishing machine, and during my time there were regular mini-celebrations for (say) switching to a new printer that allowed cheaper color pages or trimming editing time by 10% by automating tasks that were previously done by hand in layout.

Yet being a print house left the company unprepared for the digital era, and despite its early web presence, it never seized the chance to become Expedia or TripAdvisor. Two anecdotes illustrate why:

Industrial History Museum, Merrickville, CanadaEarly on, one of the publishing execs was taking me through The Spreadsheet, which forecast in minute detail and often with stunning accuracy how much a book would cost to create and how much it would sell, taking into account everything from the cost of public transport in the destination to the impact of upcoming titles from the competition. Offhand, she remarked, “I don’t think we should be investing in digital until its revenues exceed print.”

Taken at face value, this seemed absurd. How would digital ever grow without any investment? Only later did it dawn on me: “investment” for her meant doing what the spreadsheet measures, which is putting money into books. Digital revenue would come anyway from e-books, which would be faithful replicas of print books, and once the magical 50% tipping point was reached, they could start by adding video clips of the Eiffel Tower to page 294 in the e-book.

But what if people don’t want e-books?

Later on, I mentioned the travel potential of Google Glass to one of the people in the product development team, responsible for dreaming up Lonely Planet’s future products. “Yes!”, he enthused, “just imagine if somebody wearing Glass looked at our guidebook, and they could see the latest edits superimposed on top!”

But what if people stop buying printed guidebooks?

Mind you, these were both consummate publishing professionals who live and breathe print. So at the end of the day, even though they and others at LP knew in their bones that print was falling, and that e-books and apps weren’t making up the slack, they simply didn’t know what to do about it, other than to cut more costs and churn out more books.

The new CTO Gus, on the other hand, does. LP’s asset is its independent content beholden to no-one, which drives its website and its brand. Despite debacles like BBC’s catastrophic mismanagement of Thorn Tree, at 100m+ visitors/year LP’s digital footprint remains head and shoulders above its print competitors, and its vetted content has no match (yet) elsewhere in the digital world. What’s more, they’ve already spent years putting in the hard yards to bring their technical backend up to speed as well. A relentless focus on digital is LP’s best shot at survival, and last week’s layoffs, far from being a portent of doom, are the most concrete sign yet that NC2 Media gets this as well.

National Arboretum, Canberra, AustraliaParticularly important is the unheralded switch to a “destination editor” model, which finally breaks the stranglehold the book publishing schedule has had on the operations of the entire company.  For example, this will allow the website to be updated continuously, instead of having to wait for the next book edition to roll around.  Far from giving up on content, this puts it front and center, and the move parallels The Guardian‘s digital transformation that has seen the newspaper grab a sizable online audience far outside its native UK market.

None of this diminishes the human tragedy of letting go people who have poured years of their lives into what was indeed for many more of a family than a company. But as the only alternative is slow and inexorable decline guaranteed to lead to the elimination of every single job, this is the best hand the company can play.  As the last page of LP’s guidebooks used to proclaim: “THIS IS NOT THE END”.

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Free travel guide Wikivoyage comes out of beta and is already kicking ass

Tomorrow, January 15th, marks the official launch date of Wikivoyage, the new free travel guide from the Wikimedia Foundation.  Born from a split with Wikitravel, here are six reasons it’s already better than its ancestor.

  1. Wikivoyage has a great mobile version.  This uses the same systems as the massively popular mobile version of Wikipedia, and is thus fast, compatible with virtually every device, and close to bug-free.
  2. Wikivoyage supports scrollable, zoomable web maps, courtesy of OpenStreetMaps.  These are so new there aren’t many around yet, but here’s an example from the Italian page for Funchal; expect to see plenty more soon.
  3. Wikivoyage lets you collect articles into books, which can be turned into a PDF or EPUB for offline reading, or shipped to you as a printed book.  (And thus Wikivoyage Press came to life at the flick of a switch.  D’oh!)
  4. No more screen scraping: full data dumps of Wikivoyage are already available.  Thanks to the Creative Commons license, you can freely use this data for travel mashups and more.
  5. Thanks to its active community, Wikivoyage already gets more content updates, and has spam firmly under control thanks to the Foundation’s years of experience in combating it.
  6. Last but not least, Wikivoyage does not suck: there are no punch-the-monkey ads, in-your-face flight booking dialogs, database backends that flake out randomly when you’re trying to edit, or company-appointed admins who censor and ban at will.

So what does this mean in practice?

Short term impact

As part of the launch, every Wikipedia page that once pointed to Wikitravel will now start pointing to Wikivoyage instead.  In addition, every Wikipedia page will temporarily be festooned with a notice pointing to the site, which means a cool 6.5 billion ad impressions a day. The traffic boost from these will be massive, so you can expect to see a lot more Wikivoyage in your search results quite soon.

South Beach, Perhentian Besar, MalaysiaThis is not to say it’s all peaches and cream, as the site remains a work in progress.  For example, while merging Wikivoyage’s image backend with Wikimedia’s Commons allowed access to a wealth of new pictures and illustrations, it also means that several thousand pages now have broken image links.  These are being fixed one by one, and the backlog has already been cut in half since mid-December, but plenty of work remains.

Long-time readers may also recall that there was a complicated tangle of lawsuits between Wikitravel’s owner Internet Brands (IB), some of its erstwhile users, and the Wikimedia Foundation.  The first lawsuit, by Internet Brands against two Wikitravel users, was dismissed on November 28, 2012, and although they could technically try again in state court, IB appears to have given up (unsurprising, as they had no case).  The second and arguably more meaningful lawsuit between the Wikimedia Foundation and Internet Brands is still rumbling on though, with both sides stomping around the sumo stadium, slapping thighs and grunting menacingly, but no court date set.  Keep an eye on the Wikimedia blog for updates; nonetheless, the Foundation has stated that this will have no impact on Wikivoyage itself.

Long term impact

While I have no doubt that Wikivoyage will surpass and supplant Wikitravel, its impact on the wider travel industry remains an open question.  For Wikivoyage to become as globally ubiquitous as Wikipedia, at least some of these hard problems will have to be cracked:

  • Oysters in Adelaide, AustraliaClearer separation between objective and subjective travel information.  Wikis are great for “the train takes 15 minutes and costs $2.50”, but not so much for “the pizzas are great and the music rocks”.  Allowing multiple comments, reviews or ratings of some kind for listings is needed.
  • Building a database backend.  Wikivoyage articles are long, flat pages of text, with a little markup for points of interest and geographical hierarchy.  Turning them into anything other than pages of text, or even getting the various language versions to share information, would require reworking the site to use a database of some kind, not a trivial exercise, although it would definitely be an intriguing application for the budding Wikidata.
  • Lack of vision and desire.  To a first approximation, the Wikimedia Foundation allocates its meager resources based on site popularity, which is why Wikipedia gets almost all of the love and the Foundation will have precisely zero Wikivoyage people on staff.  This means that not only is the Foundation unlikely to be able to make the large investments needed to bring the site to the next level, but there won’t even be anybody who could direct those investments if the money and will suddenly came up.
  • Lack of funding.  That money is unlikely to come up, though, since Wikimedia is funded entirely by donations and the vast majority of them go to pay for Wikipedia.  While adding eg. hotel bookings to Wikivoyage would be a near-guaranteed money spinner and, if done right, a genuine enhancement to the site, it would be an uphill battle to get the occasionally rabidly anti-capitalist wider Wikimedia community to accept this taint of Mammon.

I should probably underline that I’m not trying to rag on the Foundation with those latter two points, they’re operating quite sensibly with the constraints they have as a non-profit organization.

This also explains why, as a travel industry insider myself, I don’t think Wikivoyage poses an existential threat to TripAdvisor, Google or, for that matter, Lonely Planet: it’s simply not playing the same game.  Quite the contrary, it promises to be a great resource of information for everybody.  In the same way that Google pulls in data for Wikipedia for its search results and Lonely Planet’s website uses images sourced from Wikimedia Commons, other travel guides will be able to complement their own content with additional data from Wikivoyage.

 

No cheeseburger for you: A look at the Internet Brands v. Wikitravel volunteers lawsuit

This is a followup to Wikimedia confirms creation of travel wiki, sues Internet Brands to end legal threats against volunteers, so please read that first if you haven’t already.

There’s been plenty of analysis of the Wikimedia Foundation’s countersuit against Internet Brands, but little of the original lawsuit by Internet Brands against its volunteers, mostly because it took a few days until a copy was published.  Here’s a fast food themed attempt to fill that gap, with extra pickles and ketchup.

Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t even play one on the Internet, so take what you’re about to read with a fistful of french fries.  But if you can punch any holes in my amateur logic, I’m all ears.

So.  The four counts made by Internet Brands against Wikitravel users Ryan “Wrh2” Holliday and James “Jmh649” Heilman are:

  1. Common Law Trademark Infringement
  2. Federal Unfair Competition, False Designation of Origin and Trade Name Infringement (aka Lanham Act)
  3. Unfair competition
  4. Civil conspiracy

And the single most curious statement in a very curious lawsuit is:

49. Defendants are offering Administrators, contributors and other users a competitive website by trading on Internet Brands’ Wikitravel Trademark.

Well, no, they aren’t: there is no competing website yet.  In other words, Internet Brands is not suing because somebody is actually competing against them with some falsely labeled product, but merely because they think they will.  To put that in perspective, imagine McDonald’s having an effective monopoly on selling hamburgers in a town, and then Burger King announces that they’re considering opening an outlet that will also sell hamburgers.   How far would a lawsuit against them made on that basis alone fly?

It gets even sillier: the lawsuit is not even against the putative future competing entity (Wikimedia), but against two volunteers of the existing site, who are not employees of either.  To continue our burgerrific analogy, imagine two customers of McDonald’s publicly announcing that they’d eat hamburgers at Burger King if one opened up, and then getting sued for it.  Seriously?

What’s more, since Holliday and Heilman are both unpaid volunteers, the applicability of any of the charges is seriously questionable.  For example, Lanham Act Section 43(a) requires that the trademark be used “in commerce“, but what commerce has taken place?  For unfair competition, Internet Brands alleges that they “have engaged, and continue to engage, in wrongful business conduct“, but what business are they talking about?  And while every charge ends in the boilerplate claim that “Defendants have been unjustly enriched“, I entirely fail to see how Holliday and Heilman have been “enriched” in any way.  Quite the contrary, it’s the work of unpaid volunteers like them that has been enriching Internet Brands in the past five years.

But those three arguments actually unnecessarily dignify the charges, since you could come away with the misleading impression that they would have some merit once the competing website is up and running.  IB’s argument against Heilman seems to hinge on this claim:

22. Heilman announced that the “new” site, which would combine the Wikitravel Website through a straw-man transaction with Wikivoyage.org (the “Wikivoyage Website”) into a Wikimedia Foundation website that would be called “Wiki Travel Guide” (the “Infringing Website”).

Nope.  As clearly stated in the proposal, the final name of the site remains undecided, although it seems likely to launch as travel.wikimedia.org.  The working name “Wiki Travel Guide” (as in, a travel guide that’s a wiki) was used for a few days, but it was dropped on April 24 in favor of the generic “Travel Guide”, four months before the end of the discussion period on August 23.

Also, given that Wikivoyage e.V. has been an independent German registered association since 2006, characterizing it as a “straw-man” for Heilman and Holliday seems both ludicrous and potentially defamatory.

Holliday’s original sin, on the other hand, was allegedly this:

30. Specifically, Holliday’s email contained the Subject Line, “Important information about Wikitravel” and its body stated, “This email is being sent to you on behalf of the Wikitravel administrators since you have put some real time and effort into working on Wikitravel.  We wanted to make sure that you are up to date and in the loop regardling big changes in the community that will affect the future of your work!  As you may already have heard, Wikitravel’s community is looking to migrate to the Wikimedia Foundation.”

31. Holliday and Heilman clearly intended to confuse Wikitravel Website participants into thinking the Wikitravel Website is migrating to Wikimedia, in order to gain, through improper and illegal means, all the traffic and content creators currently contributing to Wikitravel.

Or in short, on Planet IB, the terms “Wikitravel”, “Wikitravel administrators” and “Wikitravel’s community” are all to be interpreted to be referring to web host Internet Brands alone, as opposed to the users and the content that make up the site.  This is nonsensical, especially given that the users “intended to [be] confused” were exclusively those long-term, prolific Wikitravel contributors most familiar with the site.  Internet Brands themselves is well aware of the distinction (see eg. this comment where they distinguish admins and community, and this for host vs community), but burgerizing it makes it even clearer:

This email is being sent to you on behalf of the McDonald’s fan club since you have put some real time and effort into eating at McDonald’s.  We wanted to make sure that you are up to date and in the loop regarding big changes in the fan community that will affect the future of your meals!  As you may already have heard, McDonald’s diners are looking to go eat at Burger King.

Would you read that as saying that the McDonald’s Corporation is is moving over to Burger King?  I don’t think so.

And there’s more:

  1. At the same time that they’re suing for trademark infringement, Internet Brands themselves continues to describe Wikitravel as “Wikipedia for travel.”  Needless to say, Wikipedia is a trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation.  Oops!
  2. The last action attributed to the defendants occurred on August 18, 2012, but Internet Brands only applied to register “Wikitravel” as a trademark on August 22, 2012.  (Deep links to the USPTO aren’t allowed, but try a trademark search on TESS.)  Now, unregistered trademarks can still be trademarks, but it’s still interesting that IB apparently didn’t care about it until this year!

Internet Brands’ final claim is that there is the “civil conspiracy” against them and that the defendants have engaged in all sorts of dastardly “unlawful acts”.  In particular:

32. Holliday not only violated trademark laws, he violated the administrative access given to him by Internet Brands by improperly using personal information stored on Internet Brands’ servers about users and writing to them by name, in an attempt to bolster the appearance of a direct communication from the owners of the Wikitravel Website.

Where to begin?  First, Internet Brands did not “give” Holliday administrator access; he has been an administrator since June 2005, before Internet Brands bought the site.  Second, administrative access is not necessary to mail users, as anybody who is logged in can do it: here’s a form for sending mail to everybody’s favorite Internet Brands apologist, Paul “IBobi” O’Brien.   (Be nice, mmkay?)   And third, “bolster the appearance” and “writing to them by name” are just nonsensical, since MediaWiki form e-mails clearly show the name of the sender and does not expose any of the receiver’s personal information.

Last and least, my favorite claim of all:

26. On July 12, 2012, Heilman met at the Wikimania convention with a number of Administrators and others to reach a further meeting of the minds as to the unlawful acts to be undertaken.

Guess who else was in on this conspiratorial “meeting of the minds”?  Chuck Hoover, CMO of Internet Brands, who was even courteous enough to announce his visit publicly!

And there is one interesting thing that Internet Brands is not doing: at no point do they dispute the validity of the Creative Commons license, which indicates that even their legal team thinks they have no chance of stopping the content itself from being forked.  They are clutching desperately at straws to try to get the community to stop leaving, but the lawsuit has more holes than a chip frying basket, and is likely to get crumpled up and thrown away like a used burger wrapper as soon as a judge sees it.

Final disclaimer: McDonald’s is a trademark of McDonalds Corp. Burger King is a trademark of Burger King Inc.  Any references to either in this post are illustrative works of fiction.

Drinking from the travel literature firehose and choking on my last gulp

One of the unexpected little perks of working at Lonely Planet is that there’s a steady stream of other publishers flinging free books our way in the hope that they’ll end up on the website,  and I’ve joined the group of volunteers who sip daintily at this firehose of new books and write up reviews for them.  As this isn’t exactly what I was hired to do, it’s a purely an extracurricular activity, but I do get a small consideration, a shiny new book to keep, and a captive audience for my immortal thoughts.

Over the past year of doing this, though, I’ve come to realize that travel literature is really heavily competed field, and in the words of Finnish poet Lauri Viita, while there are plenty of writers who can speak five languages, precious few of them have anything to say.  Here are my last five reviews that made it onto the site, with the rather decent up top and the fairly awful at the bottom:

  • A Tiger in the Kitchen, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, 9/10.  “A deep travelogue this is not, but if you’d like to vicariously eat your way through Singapore, take a peek inside a Nonya kitchen and have a nifty stack of recipes left over, add this book to your shopping cart.”
  • A Geek in Japan, Hector García, 8/10.  “If you’re looking for a gift for a teenage nephew who already has the full set of Neon Genesis Evangelion on DVD, you could hardly do better than this book – but if you’re looking for a scholarly treatise on the Land of the Rising Sun, then, well, a book called A Geek in Japan probably wasn’t too high on your radar in the first place.”
  • In Praise of Savagery, Warwick Cairns, 8/10.  “If you haven’t read Arabian Sands yet, buy that first. But if you have, want more and can’t find a copy of the long out-of-print Danakil Diary, this is an engaging and often thought-provoking substitute.”
  • Trip of the Tongue, Elizabeth Little, 7/10.  “What the cover promises to be a ‘witty and endearing’ tour of America’s lesser-known languages turns out to be a sequence of potted histories recounting why that particular language is dying or already dead.”
  • The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds, Eric Enno Tamm, 5/10.  “Even through Tamm’s rose-tinted glasses it is ‘as dry of titillating details as the Taklimakan is of water’ and characterised by a ‘stiff unreality’, which would explain why it languished for nearly 70 years without a reprint.”

In retrospect, all those ratings seem a little overly positive, as I recently read Redmond O’Hanlon’s Congo Journey and was completely bowled over by its brilliance: this, ladies and gentlemen, is what travel literature should be like.  By turns both hilarious and deeply disturbing, the book and, above all, the people in it are simply so vivid that by the end you feel like you’ve been trekking in the Congo yourself, and weeks later you still find yourself thinking about what happened to the people you just “met”.

Which brings me to the main reason I’m writing this blog post.  In the same way that Lonely Planet guidebooks don’t include hotels that aren’t worth staying in, the Lonely Planet website doesn’t review books that simply aren’t worth reading.  Unfortunately, I recently pulled the short straw and ended up with a mug-puckering lemon unfit to print, so here it is its review for posterity.

~ ~ ~

You’d be excused for thinking that Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and Hopeful is a travelogue about going on three very different pilgrimages around the world, but you’d be wrong. As the author candidly admits, “I only like travel writing when it’s not about travel at all but rather about friendship, lies, digression, amateurism, trains and sex.”

A worrisome premise to start with, but turns out there’s precious little friendship, lies, trains or even sex in this book. The main topic of digression – or, rather, the actual theme of the book – is Lewis-Kraus’s conflicted relationship with his father, a closeted rabbi who came out and, in the author’s view, more or less abandoned his family so he could carouse in the gay bars of New York and New Orleans.

So the author flits aimlessly from one hipster mecca to another (San Francisco, Berlin, Shanghai), laden with angst about how hard it is to have relationships or write this book. He does the Christian pilgrimage of Camino de Santiago across Spain (800 km on foot) on a drunken lark, finds it interesting enough that he tries the Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan (1,100 km) solo, and finishes off attempting to reconcile with his brother and father at the Hasidic Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah in Uman, Ukraine. Yet with little interest in his surroundings or ability to communicate with the locals, the pilgrimages consist of griping about the weather, poor wifi and blisters, with endless tedious mulling over the last e-mail or phone call from his father and its inevitable subtext of implied insults and insufficiently sincere apologies. And every now and then there’s a slab of dense to indecipherable philosophising, often quoted directly from someone like Mircea Eliade or Paul Elie:

What would presumably, then, be something other than an imitation of life would be an experience the cost of which we do not simultaneously calculate, an experience the consequences of which we do not simultaneously fear; it would mean the sort of presentness generated by utter certainty.”

Since this book made it to the printer, I can only presume there are people who enjoy this sort of thing, but I nearly gave up 50 pages in and regret plowing through to the end in hope of it getting better. Steer clear.

Why Google will most likely kill Frommer’s, and why that’s probably a mistake

By buying a travel guidebook publisher solely to bolster its local search content, Google risks both straddling itself with an unprofitable albatross and missing out on a way to differentiate itself from its rivals.

Google’s recent acquisition of Frommer’s has given rise to much comment about the “real” intentions of the Big G and what this means for other travel publishers.  While it’s less entertaining than some of the theories floating around, for time being I’m willing to accept their stated rationale at face value: just another stepping stone to “provide a review for every relevant place in the world“, and thus a tactical move to bolster local coverage for the ailing Google+.

There are, however, two fundamental problems with the purchase and this goal that do not seem to have garnered much attention.

The first is the problem of content creation.  Frommer’s claims “4,500 destinations, 50,000 images and 300,000 events“, but they leave unsaid the source of every one of those bits of data: their own printed guidebooks.  Google thus has an unpalatable array of choices:

  1. Keep producing printed guidebooks and digitizing the incoming content as usual.  This is clearly Google’s starting point, as they will be retaining Frommer’s print staff, but it’s also almost certainly a money-losing proposition: given the fire sale price of barely over 1x revenue, there’s no way the books are making money.  With the overall travel guidebook market declining by 10% year and the new owner focused on entirely different things, a turnaround seems fanciful.  Google will thus be looking to jettison them as soon as it can, which leads us to the next option:
  2. Stop print production, but keep the authors and editors around producing travel guides in digital form.  Alas, this would only exacerbate the losses, as e-book and app sales make up only a small fraction of printed book sales and the actual printing is only a fraction of the cost of book production. This option seems thus very unlikely, and my money is thus on:
  3. Stop producing guidebooks in any shape or form, dispense with narrative content entirely and focus purely on points of interest.  (This is what Zagat has always done.)  It also means throwing any direct revenue model out the window, although it does keep their B2B arm Frommer’s Unlimited afloat.  It will be interesting to see how much money Google is willing to sink into paying authors and editors to update those reviews, but it’s quite conceivable that the answer is “none”, in which case we end up at the final option:
  4. Fire all editorial staff and let the content decay.  If the purchase is indeed purely a tactical ploy to temporarily beef up their reviews while they wait for Google+ to reach critical mass and start to create fresh, user-generated content à la Zagat, this actually makes perfect sense.  Google doesn’t even need authors for the other half of their usual job, verifying practicalities details (addresses, telephones, etc), as Google has already mastered that process through other means.

If Google goes with the 3rd or 4th option, and I have hard time seeing them not do so, their second problem (or, rather, missed opportunity) will be the lack of content curation.  By treating guidebooks as no more than a database in print form, turning them into a homogenous soup of atomic points of interest, Google is effectively conceding to compete on a level playing field with local search rivals like Facebook and Foursquare.   All three now assume that users are searching for individual points, easily filtered on individual axes: “best five-star hotel in New York by user ratings”, “cheap Japanese restaurant in Melbourne CBD open for lunch” etc.

But a guidebook is not the same as a phone book: it’s supposed to contain a careful selection of the best places to go, arranged in a sensible way.  Neither Facebook nor Foursquare can offer a sensible answer to real travel questions like “Funkiest bars in Brussels”, “Romantic day in Paris”, “Three-day hike in New Zealand”, whereas any guidebook about those places that is worth its salt can.  As an engineering-driven company, Google has given things like this little thought simply because they are hard problems for artificial intelligence to solve — but using Frommer’s team of authors, it would be possible to augment the automated results produced by things like the Knowledge Graph to field hand-curated content as well.

If Google goes ahead and does this, then the Guidebook of the Future will be that much closer to reality and travel publishers will have a real problem on their hands.  But I doubt it, and that’s why those publishers are breathing a sigh of temporary relief: one competitor less means a bigger slice of the shrinking pie for the rest.

Wikitravel editors abandon Internet Brands, join up with Wikipedia

On July 11, 2012, the Wikimedia Foundation of Wikipedia fame made a decision that has been a long time coming: they decided to support hosting a new wiki devoted to travel, populated with Wikitravel content and, most importantly, the community that built Wikitravel.  It’s not a done deal yet, as the decision has to be confirmed by public discussion, but as it’s looking pretty good so far; and if it comes true, this second shot at success is almost certain to result in the new gold standard for user-written travel guides, in the same way that Wikipedia redefined encyclopedias.

Let me start by making it clear that this is a personal blog post that does not claim to represent the view of all 72,000+ Wikitravellers out there, much less the Wikimedia Foundation.  I’ve played little role in and claim no credit for making this fork (legal cloning) happen, and my present employer Lonely Planet has nothing to do with any of this.  However, as a Wikitravel user and administrator since 2004, who has done business with Wikitravel’s current owner Internet Brands and seen first hand how they operate, I’ll take a shot at answering three questions I expect to be asked: why the fork is necessary, whether the fork will succeed, and how Internet Brands will react.

First, a quick history recap.  Founded in 2003 by Evan Prodromou and Michele Ann Jenkins as a project to create a free, complete, up-to-date and reliable world-wide travel guide, Wikitravel grew at an explosive pace in its initial years and seemed on track to do to printed travel guides what Wikipedia had done to encyclopedias.  But in 2006, with ever-increasing hosting and support demands and no money coming in, the Prodromous made the decision to sell the site to website conglomerate Internet Brands (IB), best known at the time for selling used cars at CarsDirect.com.

IB made many promises at the time to respect the community, keep developing the site and tread carefully while commercializing it.  The German and Italian wings of Wikitravel didn’t believe a word it, so they rose up in revolt and started up Wikivoyage, the first fork of Wikitravel, which did successfully supplant the original for those two languages.  But the rest of us, including myself, opted to give IB a chance and see how things turned out.

Now to give Internet Brands credit where credit is due, it could have been considerably worse.  They’ve kept the lights on for the past 5 years, although overloaded or outright crashed database servers often made editing near-impossible.  They have respected the letter of the Creative Commons license, if not the spirit, as from day one they have refused to supply data dumps.   And they grudgingly abandoned some of their daftest ideas, like splitting each page into tiny chunks for search-engine optimization, after community outcry.  On a personal level, I also dealt with IB while running Wikitravel Press, and while they could be a tough negotiating partner, whatever they agreed on, they also delivered.

What they did not do, though, was develop the site in any way that did not translate directly into additional ad revenue.  The original promise to restrain themselves to “unobtrusive, targeted, well-identified ads” soon mutated into people eating spiders and monkey-punching Flash monstrosities, with plans to cram in a mid-page booking engine despite vociferous community opposition.   Once Evan & Michele were kicked off the payroll, bug reports stayed unattended for years, and neither did a single new feature come through, with the solitary exception of a CAPTCHA filter in a feeble attempt to plug the ever-increasing amount of spam.  Even the MediaWiki software running the site was, until very recently, stuck on version 1.11, five years and a full eight point releases behind Wikipedia.  Unsurprisingly, the once active community started to fade away, with all of Wikitravel’s statistics (Alexa rank, page views, new articles, edits) slowly flatlining.

By 2012, with various feeble ultimatums ignored by IB and no other way out in sight, the 40-odd admins of the site got together and decided to fork. After a short debate and a few feelers sent out in various directions, unanimous agreement was reached that jumping ship to the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) was the way to go, with Wikivoyage also happy to join in.  Reaction on the Wikimedia side was almost as positive, and as I type this the birth of a new, truly free travel wiki appears to be only weeks away.  (Sign up here to be notified when it is!)

The natural question is thus, which of the two forks will win?  Internet Brands has triggered many a community revolt before, but the track record of those revolts is distinctly mixed.  QuattroWorld has found a stable user base but is still below AudiWorld in traffic rank; Cubits.org did not put a dent in Dave’s Garden; and the jury is still out on FlyerTalk vs MilePoint, but FlyerTalk retains a commanding lead.

Nevertheless, in Wikitravel’s case, I feel confident in predicting the answer: the new fork will win, by a mile.  Many of the reasons are clear — Wikitravel’s license allows copying all the content, nearly all editors and admins will jump ship, and the Foundation’s technical skills in running MediaWiki are second to none — but one takes some explaining.

The primary reason Wikitravel shows up so well in Google results is that it is linked from nearly every article about a place in Wikipedia.  Now, ordinary garden-variety links from Wikipedia to other sites are ignored completely by Google, because they have the magic anti-spam rel=nofollow attribute set.  However, Wikitravel is one of a very few sites that are linked through an obscure feature called “interwiki links“, which do not have that attribute set, and are thus counted in full by Google when it computes the importance of pages.  Thus, the moment those links are changed to point to the new fork — and all it will take is one edit of this page — the new site will be propelled to Google fame and Wikitravel.org will begin its inexorable descent to Internet obscurity.

The final question thus presents itself: How will Internet Brands react?  We have some clues already: as soon as they twigged on, they simultaneously pleaded that everybody return to their grandmotherly embrace, tried to spin the fork as a “self-destructive” rogue admin coup against a Nixonesque “silent supermajority”, and attempted to censor discussion on Wikitravel itself.  When these attempts unsurprisingly fell flat, the phone lines started ringing, with head honcho Bob “Passion to Mission” Brisco calling up the WMF with promises of “innovative collaboration” if only they can keep their sticky fingers in the pie.

From Wikitravel’s point of view, it would obviously be best if Internet Brands cheerfully admitted defeat and handed over the domain and trademark to the WMF, which would avoid the necessity for a messy renaming. However, having followed the (private) discussion from the sidelines for a few days now, Internet Brands insists on keeping full control of the site and minting advertising money, and all they want from the WMF is a seal of approval, paid for with a slice of the loot.  The non-profit Foundation, on the other hand, aims simply to freely share knowledge and has a long-standing aversion to advertising, so all they are able to offer is an easy way out from what will otherwise be a PR disaster.  I’d still like to hope a deal can be done, but quite frankly, the gap between these two positions does not look bridgeable at the moment.

The other extreme is that Internet Brands tries to prevent or sabotage the fork via legal action, as they did in the vBulletin vs XenForo case that’s apparently still rumbling through the courts.  I think this is even more unlikely though: all they own is the Wikitravel trademark and domain, so as long as the new (and presently undecided) name is sufficiently dissimilar, they will not have a legal leg to stand on.  Unlike the XenForo case, there are no employees jumping ship, the software is open source, and the content itself is Creative Commons licensed and can be copied at will.

The most likely option is thus status quo: IB will keep doing the only thing it can, squeezing every last drop of revenue from visitors venturing in, and probably turning up the infomercial volume to 11.  But with the community soon to turn into a ghost town, and increasing numbers of spammers and vandals dropping in to trash the place with nobody left to clean up after them, they will probably have to disable editing sooner or later, and Wikitravel.org the site will die a slow, ignominious death.

It remains to be seen if the new travel guide can succeed among a broader public: travel information online and collaborative writing have both moved on since 2003, and there are still unresolved problems with asking users to write and agree on fundamentally subjective content.  But the new Wikitravel will remain the world’s largest open travel information site for the foreseeable future, and will certainly give the closed competition a run for their money.  Wikitravel is dead, long live Wikitravel!

To register your support or opposition to the fork proposal, please head to the Request for Comment on the Wikimedia Meta site.  Translations of the RFC into other languages are particularly welcome.  

The RFC is expected to run until the end of August, with a formal decision and the launch of the new site to follow soon thereafter.  To be notified if and when the new site it goes live, please sign up at this form.  You will receive a single mail, and your e-mail address will then be thrown away.

Update: On September 5, the Wikimedia Foundation officially announced that they will proceed with the fork, and contrary to my optimistic prediction, Internet Brands is suing everyone left, right, and center.  See follow-up post.

Update 2: The new site, called Wikivoyage, was launched on January 15, 2013 and is already better than Wikitravel ever was.

Why the Web will gut paid e-books and apps, and why free can pay for authors and publishers

Selling digital content at any price above zero is not sustainable: the Web is cheaper for readers, cheaper for writers and publishers, and far more discoverable and shareable than the squabbling hermit kingdoms of e-books and apps.  For both authors and publishers, the best strategy is to distribute for free and find another way to pay the bills. (Part 2 of 2.)

Back in 2008, I attended the Frankfurt Book Fair, our little Wikitravel Press stand in Hall 4.2 just around the corner from the main area for technical talks.  And whenever there was something about e-books on, suddenly the hall would fill with sweaty publishing execs in cheap, crumpled suits, craning their heads and hoping against hope to hear and believe the message of joy: “Printed books may die, but paid digital content will save you!  Just keep calm, carry on, and sell your books as e-books and apps instead!”

For a publisher, this vision of beauty is an immensely seductive proposition: keep your business model, keep your pipeline, keep your editorial process.  Sell a slightly-tarted up version of your print-ready book, turned into an ePub or .mobi or iOS app or whatever flavor of the day your snake-oil CMS merchants tell you need, and as a bonus get rid of all that tedious faffing about with print runs, distribution and unsold stock.  And now, 5 years later, it all seems to be coming together!  What could possibly go wrong?

Only one thing: for the vast majority of publishers, paid content is as real as green-haired fairy princesses, because the Web will gut the business model for paid apps and e-books.  There are three reasons for this.

First and foremost, you can’t beat the Web on price.  The price of a printed book has been established through decades of trial and error: it accurately reflects the cost of creating and distributing the physical book, the price the market will pay, the level of competition with other printed book publishers and the margin the publisher needs to survive.  The current price of e-books and apps, on the other hand, is entirely disconnected from the actual cost of creating and distributing each additional copy, which is essentially zero. If the same content, or at least substitutable content, is available on a website for free — and the Internet being what it is, the answer is usually “yes” — there will be relentless price pressure to drive those prices down to match.  Forget $9.99 e-books or even $0.99 e-books: the price point to beat is $0.00.

Second, the Web allows drastically lower overheads for connecting authors to readers.  Building e-books and getting them distributed, much less building mobile applications and getting them into the famously developer-hostile iTunes store, are arcane arts limited to expensive professionals wearing propeller beanies.  Any monkey with a keyboard, on the other hand, can hammer out and publish a blog or forum post, and while the vast majority of them deservedly sink without a trace, a truly original or insightful idea will go viral on its own merits.

Third, apps (eg. iTunes) and e-books (eg. Kindle Store) are walled gardens, and history tells us that walled gardens always lose.  Minitel, Compuserve, America Online etc all restricted the users to officially approved islands of inaccessibility cut off from the rest of the Net, and despite an initial run of success due to clean, well-integrated interfaces and lots of industry players taking advantage of easy ways to bill users, none could compete in the long run with the sheer breadth of content and what Technology Review‘s Jason Pontin recently dubbed the “linky-ness” of the Web.  Probably the simplest way to visualize just how crippling these walls are is to simply search for (say) *Paris* with your favorite search engine, and see how many links to apps and e-books you get back: you’ll find the answer is zero.

The forces outlined here are clear and inescapable, and they mean that it will gradually become harder and harder to profit simply by selling copies.  And once there are no copies to sell, and no bookstores to sell them to, the last justifications of a traditional publisher’s existence — sales, distribution and chasing up invoices — disappear, with editing, design and marketing becoming optional add-ons instead of mandatory parts of the package.

The solution?  Join the light side of the force, throw away your precious business model, and become a website yourself.

Now, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that just because the vast majority of websites are free to access, they must also be free to produce, and hence it must be a losing proposition to pipe content that has been paid for into a free website.  This is, of course, a fallacy: the incremental cost of serving an additional reader via the Web may be virtually zero, but keeping any website of significance up and running is an expensive proposition. TripAdvisor, famed purveyors of travel information they notionally didn’t pay a cent for, had operating expenses of $338.5 million last year, a large chunk of which went into paying people to fish out the most egregious chunks of spam from their firehose of contributions.  In the dead trees publishing world, this is called “editing”, and while TripAdvisor’s focus is very much on quantity over quality, others may choose the opposite.

Authors in this new world will thus have a choice.  One option is to exchange risk for the certainty of a fixed but low paycheck and write work-for-hire for a website that monetises itself with any of the existing business models out there for the Web: advertising, transactions (brokerage), associated merchandising, etc.  In the world of reference publishing, including travel, work-for-hire is already the norm and these authors will see little difference — assuming, of course, that the companies they work for survive the transition, which is by no means a given.

The more exciting but financially dangerous choice is to strike out on their own.  If your main goal is to share your writing or ideas with the world, the digital world is your oyster: start blogging and promoting, and worry about money later.  If Karl Marx was publishing The Communist Manifesto today, would he make it a website or a $0.99 e-book?

If you already have a significant following and would like to turn it into a career, simply asking your fans for money may work, but the guaranteed advance revenue of Kickstarter-style crowd funding seems more appealing; Seth Godin recently just pulled in $130,000 in a few hours.  Cory Doctorow famously gives away copies of all his e-books and makes it back in increased print sales, a format which, much as we like it to diss it, will be around for a while, especially in the deluxe hardcover editions that fans love and authors earn well from.

Now here’s the catch: both these authors could easily charge for what they write, since some of their fans would pay to unlock the gate and pass through the digital wall to read their next book.  But they choose not to, since every book they lock away represents one less opportunity for a new fan to find them.

And if you are publishing your first novel, you would be a fool to barricade yourself in a digital fortress and hope that some greater fool is willing to take a punt on paying you even 99 cents, when there is an ever-increasing plethora of free alternatives.  Achieving fame as an aspiring novelist has always been a long shot, why sabotage your already meager odds for the 34 cents that are left over after Amazon takes its 65% cut?  As Cory says:

There has never been a time when more people were reading more words by more authors. The Internet is a literary world of written words. What a fine thing that is for writers.

Did you miss Part 1?  Check out Eat yourself or be eaten: a tale of two travel publishers.