Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

Internet Brands to Wikitravel admins: go to hell!

For a while, the contributors to Wikitravel have been in rather a mutinous mood. A proposal has been made on Wikimedia Meta called Wiki Travel Guide which has asked the Wikimedia community to incubate and eventually run a travel guide site.

The Wikimedia community seems to have been broadly but cautiously receptive to the idea, and the Wikimedia Foundation board have approved the creation of the travel site.

Part of the motivation for doing so is the ownership of Wikitravel by a company called Internet Brands. Internet Brands own hundreds of websites but have a history of, well, not ingratiating themselves particularly well with the communities they’ve purchased. Back in 2007, Internet Brands bought Jelsoft, who make the popular vBulletin PHP message board software. They then promptly played bait-and-switch on the licensing of vBulletin, forcing users to upgrade in order to continue getting support. This caused some anger with customers, who took to the message boards to complain. Internet Brands responded by banning their own paying customers from the customer message board. Smart move guys. See this post by econsultancy.

The original developers of vBulletin then went on to start a new competing message board software, XenForo. Internet Brands responded by… suing the developers. Here’s the announcement on XenForo’s site. There’s lots to read about it. Needless to say, vBulletin’s former customers aren’t too happy about Internet Brands…

Which brings us back to Wikitravel. The bulk of the administrators want to leave and move to a Wikimedia hosted competitor. Internet Brands aren’t happy about this. The Wikitravel contributors are simply exercising their right to fork, which is legally granted to the users by the Creative Commons license.

Internet Brands has responded by attempting to sue Wikitravel administrators. The Wikimedia Foundation have filed a countersuit to defend the Wikitravel volunteers from this kind of intimidation from Internet Brands.

On Wikitravel, Internet Brands have been furiously trying to shut down any discussion about the now seemingly inevitable WMF-hosted fork. Here is a diff with a thread. Below I’ve excerpted a few posts:

It seems like the editing of sitenotices on every language has been blocked, even to bureaucrats. This seems like an attempt to prevent people from announcing the move to wikivoyage, but the sitenotice shouldn’t be blocked just for that reason. Alot of the sitenotices on other languages are very outdated and need updating anyway. –sumone10154

One of the users that was banned by IBobi (Paul O’Brien from Internet Brands) responds to his ban:

Thank you for that clarification Jc8136, I think it is important that anyone reading this understands that. This is in a way what I am getting setting out to say with the “Rogue Administrator” commentary. However it should be clarified and understood that he is not actually a Wiki Project administrator in the ‘normal’ sense of it. He is able to readily access the system because his employer (IB) own the servers upon which this travel Wiki project (currently known a Wikitravel) is hosted.

Really he has currently just become a Troll with administrator level access.

I am quite disappointed, not just for the project but also because I actually thought he was smarter than this. I guess I was wrong. By the way, I am still blocked, it may just be yet another server error, or maybe the Rogue Administrator has a backdoor that stays un-logged.

I sort of imagined they were running the servers out of an old laundry cupboard in their garage so I would be surprised if there was room for a backdoor. Indeed for me there is not even a front door at the moment, I am coming through a split in the formica panelling, not sure where IBobi is coming from. –Felix505

People were pointing out the idiocy of Internet Brands…

Internet Brands could have chosen to ride out these events and maintain the goodwill of the former contributors, or it could have chosen to stifle dissent and discussion in a futile attempt to delay the inevitable. The two options are mutually exclusive, and it is now painfully clear which one has been chosen. More’s the pity. –LtPowers

IBobi’s user talk page is also worth pursuing. IBobi has been protecting pages furiously to prevent discussion and desysopping and decratting people, even going so far as to remove bureaucrat status from Evan Prodromou, one of the founders of Wikitravel.

Evidently, Internet Brands doesn’t particularly want the Wikitravel community any more. Oh well, I’m sure they will be made welcome by the Wikimedia community. Heh.

I’ll leave the final comments to Sertmann, one of the Wikitravel former admins, who posted the backstory on the XenForo forum:

Short backstory, the relatively small core community of regular contributers and administrators have been thinking about forking for a while, since we received nearly no tech support, many of them denied or taking years, no mediawiki upgrades from 2007 to 2011 leaving us vulnerable to sort of abuse, see this example or this one for a good show of IB arrogance, even though they eventually budged. This is despite a promise they made when they purchased the site from the founders, that they wouldn’t interfere with the community.

They also promised a major advantage of being owned by IB would be substantial resources for development and better servers, yet despite this, we have lived with a misconfigured database for years, often at months at a time making the site nearly unusable, especially for us patrolling the site and doing mass edits to keep the site clean. We lost a lot of valuable contributors this way, and those who remained were increasingly unable to keep up with spammers since the site was running so slow that simple tasks as reversions took 30-40 seconds per click, rather than the 1-2 seconds it takes on Wikipedia. Saving an edit in some of the largest articles would take minutes. When you have to vet 100-200 edits per day, this builds up a lot of frustration. We cried foul, IB promised improvements, nothing happened - and this repeated itself again and again and …

At some point we started to discuss the possibility of a fork seriously, and left a bot crawling on the site, so we would have a backup plan in case we actually went through with it. But forking of course has a price, and rebuilding all the linkjuice (that we justifiably have/had, since its all original content, a full 26.000 pages of it) that drives in casual contributors would take years. So we kept putting it off, until a user involved with both Wikitravel and high level Wikimedia staff opened a door to Wikipedia, and a opportunity to get away from IB incompetence while remaining relevant opened up.

At one point the IB learned about this and went to Wikimania to talk us out of it, having been feed lie upon lie upon lie, we didn’t bite, and they were rather shocked to learn we had a full, up to date, copy of the site with the full contribution history preserved (a requirement to forking while adhering to the CC-by-SA license). Their reaction was to shut down all discussion taking place on site, blanking and protecting user pages with users explaining why they retired and where they could be found, making frivolous legal threats for users stating an opinion, banning the most revered admins and contributors without them breaking a single term of service or site policy, etc. etc. etc. etc.

We then learned recently that they had actually sued an administrator and a contributor, as individuals, this was before Wikimedia stepped up and went into the legal fray, so we were all pretty shellshocked. The Wikimedia foundation rising up to this, is for me, pretty much a Deus ex machina moment, and boy do I hope they suffer, at the very least, irreparable damage to their reputation so they can no longer buy up any more online communities.