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Open Culture

Wikitravel is a wiki dedicated to providing a “free, complete, up-to-date and reliable world-wide travel guide” that is built by collaboration of wikitravellers from 42 countries around the globe and in a variety of different languages including English, German, French and Japanese. The wiki tool, of course, lets any Internet reader create, update, edit, and illustrate any article on the Web site. Currently, wikitravel has 8,847 destination guides and other articles related to travel.

Wikitravel was begun in July 2003 by its two founders, Evan and Maj (Michele Ann Jenkins). It was inspired by Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, and by the needs of travelers for timely information that long book-publishing cycles can’t seem to meet.

In April 2006, Wikitravel and World66, another travel wiki, were acquired by Internet Brands, Inc., an operator of consumer information Web sites. The sites are growing exponentially, collectively attracting more than 2 million visits per month, more than triple a year ago.

Wikitravel is licensed to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license. Mia Garlick of Creative Commons asked Evan & Michele to explain a little about wikitravel and their experience of using a Creative Commons license.

CC: Why did you start Wikitravel?

Evan: Michele and I started Wikitravel to scratch a personal itch. We’d been traveling in Southeast Asia in the winter of 2002-2003 and we’d had really poor experience with the (brand new) guidebooks we were using. They were just hopelessly out-of-date and inaccurate. Restaurants that were listed were closed or moved; hotels were out of business; “unknown” beaches overrun with other people.

Michele writes all over guidebooks: scribbling out restaurants that are gone, changing phone numbers, updating addresses. It’s partly because we need the information, and she has to write it down somewhere. But I think it’s also just to show how wrong the books are.

At one point, as Michele drew a line through yet another non-existent hotel she started to grumble. “So how many other people out there do you think have come down this same road and not find a hotel and how many are going to? Making the change in my guidebook isn’t going to do them any good.” The idea of posting changes to a website came up, but we quickly realized that it wouldn’t be enough for just two people making updates on one or two guidebooks. I’d had experience with Wikipedia (which was pretty young at the time), and it dawned on us that we could recruit the entire Internet to write and update guidebooks for us, a little bit at a time. It was really our selfish desire for reliable travel guides that got us started on Wikitravel.

Michele: It always bothered me that thousands of readers were subjected to the travel opinions of a handful of writers and editors — and in some cases just one. If those few people didn’t find a place worth covering, it might as well not exist. And if they didn’t get a chance to double check a listing, how many people would lug their backpack down the wrong road in the middle of the night between editions? Then you have the big-trip problem: do you pack 1000-plus pages of guidebooks and then tear out pages as you go along? Do you buy the guidebooks along the way? What if your trip is San Francisco-Bangkok-Hanoi-Lisbon? Is that 4 huge country or region guides or four small city guides? We both saw a lot of flaws in the current travel guide model.

CC: “User generated content” seems to be the new buzzword but it does depend on getting users to take the time to generate the content. How did you attract users to the two sites to make contributions?

Evan: I think the main reason people contribute is because they can. They arrive on and read the pages that are on Wikitravel right now, and in some way or another the page is wrong. There’s a misspelling, or a phone number is incorrect, and people hit the “edit” button and edit the page. They mostly do it out of frustration; it’s like Michele scribbling in our paper guidebooks. But in this case, the corrected listings are shared with the entire Internet. Everybody has the corrected version of the book.

Other people really identify as “travelers” — it’s part of who they are — so becoming heavily involved in Wikitravel lets them express that part of their identity. Some others are really disappointed in the coverage of some region or city by a commercial travel guide, and they want to “set the record straight.” Others want to share their information about their hometown or home state.

Mostly I think people believe in the idea – that travelers’ best information source is other travelers. They think it’s logical, and they want to see it work. So they add in whatever knowledge they’ve got to share, and help out in any way they can.

Michele: Wikitravel brings together the travelers’ natural instinct for sharing information with the speed and reach of the Internet and the low threshold for entry of a wiki. It turns travel guides from a one-to-many communication stream to a many-to-many. Anyone who’s sat through a friend’s vacation slides knows that the problem is rarely getting people to contribute. The challenge is focusing all that energy and information into something that is consistent and reliable for other users.

CC: What kinds of policies do you have in place to manage the nature of contributions — to settle disagreements and ensure the content is high quality?

Evan & Michele: When we first started, we had some really strong ideas about what we wanted to do, and we figured we’d take a few months to work on the site on our own. But somehow people heard about it, and all of a sudden we had contributors coming out of nowhere — like the baseball players coming out of the cornfields in Field of Dreams. It’s true – “If you build it, they will come.”

But people didn’t all grok our concept of doing collaborative travel guide – people were just taking the name wiki + travel and interpreting that however they wanted. We wanted people’s input, but if things descended into chaos, we’d have wasted this opportunity.

So we scrambled to come up with some organizing principles for how to structure the guides. Almost immediately, we created a list of our goals and non-goals – what we wanted to do, what we thought was a distraction and off-topic. We also created a list of article templates – standard layouts for each travel guide – and a manual of style that describes how to say things in a consistent way. We want readers to understand any guide on the site after they’ve read another guide; and we want contributors to concentrate on sharing knowledge, rather than re-organizing each guide for each destination (“How should we lay out restaurant listings for Paris? OK, what about for Rome? OK, what about for Santa Barbara?”)

As for disagreements, we’ve always worked in a real consensus-oriented decision-making style. Anything in our manual of style, in our policies, or in the content of the guides is up for discussion. We want everyone to feel like they’ve got a say in how Wikitravel works – that their ideas and opinions matter. When we have a conflict, we try to keep our goals in the forefront, and ask what’s going to make a better travel guide, versus what’s just going to gratify contributors in the short term. We really think that the traveler comes first. Wikitravel isn’t an art-therapy exercise, where what matters is giving the contributor a warm fuzzy feeling; it’s a serious project for making guides that travelers need. We want people to feel satisfied with their work, of course, but when it comes down to personal satisfaction versus the quality of the guides, well, we want to err on the side of quality.

We don’t really have a lot of the typical structures around group decision-making, like votes and referendums and arbitration and such. We think that collaboration requires making decisions together, rather than waging war on each other. So we try to stay more consensus-oriented rather than conflict-oriented. And the fact is that we’re in this project for the long term – things don’t have to be decided right now, we have time to think it through together.

That all said, we’ve left a lot on the cutting room floor in getting to where we are. And now we want to think about the best ways to get it back up front, and let people contribute however they can. We’re really good right now at “we travel” — objective, factual guides, built together, with consensus point of view. We want to expand in the coming year into “me travel” — personal experience, opinions, photo galleries, blogs, reviews. We want to bring that personal dimension of travel information into the equation – we call it the “yin-yang” approach. We think there’s something there for the reader, too.

CC: Do you have stats about the sites?

Evan & Michele: Today, we have about 8800 travel guides in various states of completion on the English version of Wikitravel, and about 14,000 travel guides in all languages. Add to that the 19,000 on, and there’s a whole lot of guidebooks going on!

We cover the entire globe, but places that have pretty intensive travel industries get covered the deepest. We have some really interesting off-the-beaten-path destination guides (like Svalbard, Pencticton, and the Falkland Islands), which I think are the biggest beneficiaries of the wiki model of travel guide development.

Last count of contributors was somewhere around 6000 registered users, but that’s kind of deceptive since you don’t have to register to contribute. I think our unregistered users are somewhere around 25,000-30,000 — people who’ve changed a page or added a guide without registering.

Our read-to-edit ratio is high — something like 40 or 50 people read an article before one person edits it. But that’s OK – we’re grateful for that one person!

CC: How did you hear about Creative Commons licensing?

Evan & Michele: When we started Wikitravel, we looked to Wikipedia for a model on a lot of the ideas. And Wikipedia was using the GNU Free Documentation License, which when Wikipedia started was really the only game in town for free content licenses. The fact that they started out as “GNUpedia” probably also had something to do with it.

We had a couple of problems with the GFDL, though. It requires that the full license be included with every copy of the work. While that’s not a burden for an encyclopedia or software manual, it’s a real hassle for someone distributing 2&nash;3-page printouts of a travel guide if they have to have to include 12 pages of boring legal text. Also, the GFDL has requirements for distribution of the source code — again, something that doesn’t make sense for small distributors of short works.

And we really see those small distributors as some of the big re-distributors of our guides. B&Bs, hotels, tourist information offices, teachers on field trips — there are a lot of people who can benefit from having a lot of printed handouts of Wikitravel guides handy. We gave out copies of the Montreal guide to each of the guests at our 2004 wedding — and people really appreciated it.

So, we started looking around at other Open Content licenses. I think the main reason we heard from them was from the FSF site, which had this self-righteous screed about them, since you could just include the URL of the license, rather than the whole license, and maybe in the flying-car future, by the time copyright expired, URLs would be no longer used. I was like, “Just the URL? That’s just what we need!

Looking over the licenses themselves, and at the material on, we thought that the licenses made a lot more sense for us than the software-manual-oriented GFDL, which had all this confusing stuff about Front Cover Text and Back Cover Matter and all these things that just didn’t apply in our case.

At the time in summer 2003, the CC 1.0 licenses were only about 6 months old, but we thought it was a good bet that they’d continue to gain momentum and that people would understand the Creative Commons idea well into the future.

CC: Why did you decide to apply a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license to the sites?

Evan & Michele: We wanted to get the CC license that was closest in spirit to the GFDL, so that contributors who were used to Wikipedia would understand that they had about the same deal on Wikitravel as they did there. And the copyleft provisions in the by-sa 1.0 license seemed to be the best fit.

We really wanted the license to represent a deal between contributors and the site, and between contributors and the rest of the world. We thought that people who put a lot of work into a travel guidebook at least deserve attribution — the respect of recognition of their work. And we thought that the copyleft ShareAlike requirements were a way to ask readers and redistributors to “pay it forward” for the favor of the shared information. Copyleft keeps a community orientation — it keeps the collaboration flowing.

We avoided some of the other license elements, like NonCommercial. It’s always been one of our goals to have commercial travel guidebooks include Wikitravel information in them. We want people to have up-to-date, reliable content, and however they get it, that’s OK with us. Putting a non-commercial requirement on the guides would really cut out a lot of the channels of people getting that data.

CC: Have you had any feedback — whether positive or negative — from contributors to or users of the site about the use of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license?

Evan & Michele: I think the biggest feedback we’ve had has been that the strong copyleft provisions of both the BY-SA 1.0 and the GFDL make it hard to share text, images, and so forth between Wikitravel and Wikipedia (or other Wikimedia sites). I’ve got mixed feelings about the matter; I think that for the most part encyclopedia pages aren’t really that good as travel guides. The way you talk about a city in an encyclopedia is different from the perspective you take in a travel guide. A travel guide has hotel listings, opening hours of restaurants, prices for admission to museums, directions to get to bars, and so many other things that just wouldn’t go in an encyclopedia article. That’s the other reason that people don’t carry encyclopedias in their suitcases when they travel.

But mostly we’ve had really good feedback. People understand that Creative Commons means sharing what you know, and they like that idea. CC is a big part of how we get the Wikitravel idea across to users.

CC: In April 2006, Internet Brands, Inc. (“IB”), an operator of consumer information websites, acquired Wikitravel. Did they have any comments or concerns about the use of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license?

Evan & Michele:When they first approached us, we felt like we had to explain the license: “You know this is all under a CC license, right?” But IB totally understood where we were going with Wikitravel, and they embraced it. They think that the license, and the impression that readers and contributors get from the license, is key to the success of the site.

Posted 20 June 2006