GreenReaper (greenreaper) wrote,

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Wikia buys out game wiki founders for $$,$$$ + stock; users cry foul

What follows is a long and somewhat sad tale of the impact of money on wiki communities - and how a well-regarded hosting company provided the means for individuals to profit off the work of many. It involves the questions of who really owns a wiki - its host, its administrators, or its users - and how changes of ownership and hosting should be handled. Now, these are not easy questions, but there are some answers that really don't add up.

Wikia's motto is "creating communities." But given the purchase of wikis such as GuildWiki and FFXIclopedia from founders under the noses of their members earlier this month, and other subtle and not-so-subtle changes at the company, I'm wondering if that's really their goal anymore. Instead, they seem to be concentrating on developing flashy features and buying content and eyeballs for eventual resale. The dot-com bubble rides again!

Before I start, here are a few sources. They make interesting reading:
For GuildWiki: GuildWiki:Wikia Move and GuildWiki talk:Wikia Move
For FFXIclopedia: Third-party forum post and blog, and the official forum thread.
(be wary of these - I don't doubt that they picked and chose portions of the emails, which were obtained illicitly. As far as I know, though, Wikia has not denied their content.)

Gaming wikis are particularly popular, as they provide large pools of information that people want to look at regularly. Wikia has gone after gaming in a big way - but recent attempts to entice wikis to join followed a rather disturbing pattern. First, they look around for popular wikis about games which they cannot realistically compete with - it's hard to beat an entrenched wiki with thousands of pages. They talk privately with the founders about moving it to Wikia. Sooner or later, the question of money comes up. And it's a fair chunk of money, too - payments to founders for terminating their own hosting and transferring domains appear to be somewhere in the mid-tens to hundreds of thousands, depending on the wiki. Said money changes hands, and a few days later, the site is hosted by Wikia.

So where's the problem? The founders paid for the server, and they can stop it, sell the domain, and redirect readers - it's just business, right? But making private decisions about the future of a wiki without discussing it with the users who have created the content - or disclosing such minor interests as the $$,$$$ delivered to your checking account - goes against everything the wiki model stands for, especially for those wikis which have been founded under explicitly non-commercial licenses, like GuildWiki.

It's not all in cash, of course - a significant amount is in Wikia stock, which ties the founders to the company. They are, then and until it becomes worth something significant, in the thrall of the company. After all, if Wikia isn't a success, they lose a large portion of the payoff. And yet . . . if the community leaders' interests are no longer with the community, but permanently aligned with their host, are they any better than employees? Maybe they secretly are employees? How can they be trusted?

In short, a fair few community members are outraged to find that the communal homes which they occupied and helped to fill with content were sold out from under them for the private benefit of the founders. There is a feeling that this is morally wrong, regardless of the end result.

It's not like they couldn't just ask. History has shown that communities are willing to entertain the idea of moving to Wikia if it is presented to them. Of course, they haven't always decided to go along with it, but then that's rather the point, isn't it? Hosting costs for the more popular sites are not insignificant let alone maintenance, and it can be a good deal. The community might even be willing to let the founders have a reasonable share of any money involved, although that's a bit more iffy (GuildWiki users expressed a preference to donate such money to charity, and I would agree with that).

The trouble is the way that Wikia has been going about it - private deals with the founders, with the community having no idea of the sums involved, and no say in whether or not the "blood money" is taken or how it is distributed. This is especially concerning in the cases where donations have been made by community members to keep the servers going independently. Not everyone has been keeping a ledger, and in the case of FFXIclopedia it seems the money was hardly being held in trust. Instead, the founders were betraying that trust - and Wikia was apparently willing to help them cover up their tracks, and even give suggestions as to how best to mollify users.

Of course, these aren't likely to be the only deals involving significant amounts of money - they're just the ones that have been discovered.

This isn't the only issue at Wikia. Several features of the open company test proudly posted a few years ago are looking shaky today. Certainly, while MediaWiki remains open-source, Wikia is unlikely to share the code for its shiny new widget system in the new skin. The Wikia bug database went private several months ago, though that didn't stop me getting a notification that a trivial bug (fixing redirects from /wiki to /wiki/) had been closed because it wasn't in Wikia's interests to better support domain redirection - unless they owned the domain. At least they had the good grace to apologize for the wording when I told them I knew, though it was the intent that saddened me the most.

I believe this is a change in company culture that comes from the top. In particular, I suspect the key investors and board members Gil Penchina, Jeremy Levine, and Jeff Blackburn are responsible for setting the tone - although co-founders Jimbo Wales and Angela Beesley are by no means blameless for letting things get to this point. Angela and Wales have been members of the board of Wikimedia; they of all people should understand the problem with buying out community sites from their founders without discussing it with the community. But then, they probably have plenty of stock in Wikia . . .

Ultimately, it's all just a symptom of the root cause - large piles of money, and the prospect of more to come. While it has indeed provided many benefits, the $14 million of investment funding ($4 mil. from Bessemer Venture Partners, $10 mil. from Amazon) has tainted Wikia, and the founders of those sites which they have purchased with it. They seem to have lost the idealistic spark which made it a special place - one that I was proud to help.

I have some misgivings about posting this, because I personally have little concrete to complain about. I'm not a regular member of either of the wikis mentioned - I came to Wikia in Christmas 2004 as a co-founder of Creatures Wiki, and went on to found WikiFur and the GalCiv Wiki. The quality of service has remained good, though the intent of Wikia to force a new default site skin onto the wikis it hosts is deeply concerning to me. Their technical team is on the ball when it comes to uptime, and I am thankful for it.

So, don't get me wrong: For the last two and a half years, Wikia has been a great bargain for communities like WikiFur, and they are likely to remain so for the near-to-mid future. They boast talented staff who are - usually - easy to work with. I can understand their need to grow their market share. If they have to use money to do so, so be it. But I wish their leadership would focus on doing the right thing - work honestly with entire communities from the beginning - rather than taking shortcuts and then trying to look like they're doing the right thing when they're found out. That's not the same, and users can smell the difference a mile off. It's certainly not the mark of an open company.

When looking for a host, I chose Wikia because I thought it had better values - not just in terms of features, or cost, but in terms of philosophy. Now, I have to be concerned about a future where we're controlled by an unknown entity who ponies up the hundreds of millions they're probably looking to sell the company for. They're likely to want their money back sooner or later. In the meantime, I'm trying to deal with changes like the new skin, Quartz, which seems as much an attempt to distinguish Wikia sites from other wikis as it is to improve them for users. I guess they think it will improve the resale value.

Of course, if Wikia truly goes bad - which I don't expect in the near future - users still have the ultimate card to play: the right to leave. If necessary, we will simply take copies of our content with us, and host it ourselves. WikiFur's administrators are more than capable of doing this. The cost in effort of forking the wiki is high - which is why we wouldn't do it unless we had to - but it is not insurmountable. Given that on most fan wikis a handful of editors provide the majority of edits, we would not be the only ones to pay a heavy price. Wikia could not maintain the wikis without their editors, and they know that.

The question is: Will it come to that, or can users and hosts come to a consensus about the right approach for profitable hosting, and the separation of powers between host and community? If they do, whether those currently bankrolling the company will go along with it? Answers on a postcard . . .

(For the curious, the only money Wikia has ever paid me was my registration and room fees for attending Wikimania 2006. I do not regret that - I presented A Tale of Two Wikis there, which was - hopefully - more than worth it for those that attended. I was asked at one point if I would be interested in a very part-time job, but I turned it down - and I'm glad I did so. I've mostly been a fan of what Wikia has been doing up until now, and I have several friends there, but I've always felt a little uneasy about the idea of being employed by them, and now I know why. Friends are free to speak their minds publicly - employees cannot.)
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