Saturday, August 27, 2011, WikiTree and Charging for User-Contributed Content

Like a lot of folks, I've been following the kerfluffle.  I just had a chance to listen to the recording of the Geneabloggers Radio show with the CEO of, and I have a few thoughts.

First, a bit of background.  Before the announcement, I hadn't been terribly impressed with before this -- I posted a small tree and found it frustrating that it wouldn't accept place names it didn't recognize (which I assume was a result of privileging the ability to use a master place name database for cool mapping purposes over the ability to enter the name of a place as it was used at the time of the event), the lack of basic error-proofing (like simple date checking to prevent accidentally entering a death that was earlier than a birth), and the fact that I found content from my personal website lifted wholesale and pasted in as a "document" without any credit whatsoever.  I also don't care for what seems like constant and almost deceptive attempts to get me to upgrade to pro.

I am now unimpressed with as a company -- they didn't handle the introduction of these changes well, and now that I've listened to Noah explain the problem they were trying to solve, I have to say that the problem, which is a variation of data decay, is one anyone working professionally with databases should have predicted from the beginning.  If they're not great programmers and not great communicators, what are they great at?

I've also entered a small tree at WikiTree, and, while I like the basic idea, and the ad-based income model, I fear that they may be a bit too techie for the average genealogist.  I found it tricky to figure out how to edit the various sections, and I think I'm pretty web savvy.

Part of the general problem here has nothing to do with genealogy.  All over the web there are social sites wrestling with the same problem.  Developing and operating a good site is not free and requires full-time attention, so the host is not being unreasonable to want some revenue.  However, while the host may provide the site and the features, there really is no product until the users contribute a critical mass of content (or social-ness), which they are usually doing for free.  Thus, when a site operator sells the site, or starts charging for it, those members who contributed often feel betrayed or robbed; of course, if the site operator tries to continue subsidizing the site, the operator, and the site, probably won't last.

While I was doing interviews for my doctoral research, I heard a lot about a very similar situation in another hobby area.  When the site operator decided to stop going to a full-time job all day and supporting the social site all night and try to make a living from the site, the community almost imploded; many formerly active participants left and have never returned.  After a few false steps, I personally think the site operator has found a good balance -- the parts of the site that depend on free contributions from users are free to use, and she has put a her effort into finding ways to provide other features that premium users are willing to pay for.  And, no (I'm talking to you,, site search and editing your own content don't count as premium features.

So...on one hand, this mess is not caused by some flaw that's unique to, because this is an issue that is coming up all over the web and hasn't been resolved, but, on the other hand, this issue has come up before, so should have seen it coming. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Julia,

    I've read a lot on the "kerfluffle" :-) but haven't seen much with as many good insights. I'm surprised at how well you understand the perspective of site creators.

    I'd love to hear your input on usability for WikiTree. We've worked hard to make the site user-friendly, but I know we have a ways to go. And, of course, it's an ongoing process. With every added feature comes the risk of added complexity.

    Please e-mail me at chris (at) whenever you have suggestions.


    Chris Whitten Creator