Ship ahoy! New travel site finally afloat
The logo of Wikivoyage, the WMF's newly launched travel content project.
After six years without creating a new class of content projects, the Wikimedia Foundation has finally expanded into a new area: travel. Wikivoyage was formally launched on 15 January—though without a traditional ship's christening—having started as a beta trial on 10 November. Wikivoyage has been taken under the WMF's umbrella on the argument that information resources that help with travel are educational and therefore within the scope of the foundation's mission.
The story of the new travel site is already complicated, having involved the migration of volunteer editors and content from two other sites. The first source is Wikitravel.com, which has about 25,000 destinations in English and coverage in 20 languages. It is owned by the company Internet Brands, which strongly objected to the proposal and took pre-emptive legal action against two of its volunteers in an attempt to stop the haemorrhaging of editors and admins (Signpost coverage). Wikitravel is still active, with some 500 edits a day, and appears to be continuing to sell advertising space. At least three active volunteer administrators remain, while 35 are listed at the English Wikivoyage—eight of them bureaucrats.
The second precursor to the foundation's travel site was the non-commercial German-led travel site that forked from Wikitravel in 2006, Wikivoyage, which has given its name to the WMF's site by vote and no longer exists as a separate entity. Until the WMF launch, this Wikivoyage had about 12,000 articles in German and was the largest travel-guide wiki in the German language. The new Wikivoyage also inherits the smaller Italian-language version, with 2,500 articles, as well as a Commons-like file-repository with about 29,000 files and a location database. The fork imported much of Wikitravel.com's English-language freely licensed content in the migration preparations.
The new sites
Wikivoyage's reincarnation now has nine language versions—English, German, Italian, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, and Russian. Wikimedians are welcome to visit and join in the task of improving these projects.
For all its similarities to other foundation wikis, the English Wikivoyage is fundamentally different from the English Wikipedia in several respects. Wikipedians will immediately notice the language tends to be less formal in articles, the structure of articles is very different, and there is no policy on verification or original sources (footnotes and ref-tags are not a feature of the text). The informal register in which de.voy articles are written is one topic that has sparked debates on the German Wikipedia, prompted by the release of a detailed memorandum on the state of Wikivoyage written by Ziko, a senior German Wikipedian and chair of the Dutch Wikimedia chapter (basics in English).
Compared with the Wikipedia readership, visitors to Wikivoyage are likely to be younger and to be seeking up-to-date, highly changeable information of a relatively narrow scope; if "on the road", they tend to want access to that information instantly and in an easy-to-read form; if planning their travel, their needs are likely to be akin to those of most visitors to Wikipedia.
Amsterdam's red-light district ... a policy issue for Wikivoyage?
The Signpost has identified three issues of public interest, now that Wikivoyage is part of the Wikimedia family. The first is the sex tourism policy, which did not change significantly for many years. In the light of the BBC's recent shut-down of its Lonely Planet travel site after "posts that discussed topics related to paedophilia", the Signpost made inquiries about the apparent inadequacy of the English Wikivoyage policy. Shortly after, the policy was hurriedly strengthened against such possible behaviour. The policy had presented a neutral definition of "sex tourism" to include "sex with children"—an issue about which the rest of the policy had been silent. The recent change has added this explanation, in which the last statement is unverified, as far as the Signpost can determine: "Any information on that [sex with children] is against our policies and will be deleted on sight. Note that many Western countries have laws which allow prosecution of their citizens for this, even if the act takes place in another country. Also, the countries where it takes place are cracking down heavily on it."
The rest of the policy proceeds—as it did before the recent change—to express the site's attitude to sex tourism in terms of negative preference: "We prefer not to include sex tourism information on Wikivoyage", followed by a list of such negative preferences, including pricing information, locations, "quality information" on and tips for picking up prostitutes. But there appears to be a fuzzy line: "Descriptions of locations or areas where prostitutes may be found—so-called "red light districts"—may be useful to non-sex tourists." And "expressions like single males will be happy at this hotel should be avoided in favour of direct language".
Before the policy was changed, the Signpost asked several administrators and other editors for their views on the text, and presented a hypothetical situation in which visitors post questions or comments about the age of consent on the talk page of an article related to a particular country. Evan Prodromou is a bureaucrat on the English Wikivoyage and one of two founders of the original non-profit Wikitravel site in 2003. He told the Signpost, "We've never had problems with sex tourism specifically for children. We've had issues with differing expectations for readers on information about sex tourism for adult prostitutes in places where this is legal locally; thus the policy."
Mark Jaroski said: "Evan [Prodromou] came up with the original text of the sex tourism policy nearly 10 years ago. If you go over his notes on the talk page you can see that he was really uneasy about allowing this sort of material on the site at all, but at the same time recognizing that for some reason people do consider the red-light district in Amsterdam to be an legitimate tourist "attraction", for lack of a better term. In any case the point of the policy was to give potential contributors an unsubtle hint that they should crawl off to some other corner of the Internet and leave us alone.
"I think that the policy has always been played down to avoid making it higher-profile, [which might have inadvertently attracted] the attention of the very people we were trying to avoid having as contributors. That sort of thing does happen on the Internet after all. I suppose that if someone were to raise the point in the mainstream media that might well have the same effect of attracting those people, and that we might have to get rid of them again in somewhat stronger terms. I would like to think that that won't happen, but I figure we'll fight that battle when we have to, and not before."
Pashley told the Signpost: "That policy is tricky and has been extensively discussed on the talk page. There have been arguments for both a looser and a stricter policy. ... As I see it, the current version is sadly lacking and I have proposed a rewrite at Pashley/STP. That has not gained wide acceptance." Pashley says he knows of no instances on the site like the recent one on Lonely Planet.
Doc James, who played an important role in the creation of the new site, said, "I never knew that Wikivoyage had a policy on sex tourism before you mentioned it. We as a movement should take a stance against anything related to sex tourism and children as it is not only illegal but unethical. ... These policies need to clarified. There is some subtlety but there is also a very clear bright line: 'no discussion / content that promotes sex tourism with children'."
DerFussi, chairman of the German non-profit association that hosted Wikivoyage until November, told the Signpost: "Our sex policies are the same (en: and de:) in general. ... The community has an eye on all edits. I am not aware of any scenario like this. Discussion sites have never been used for discussions about having sex on a travel destination and the community and Wikivoyage would never accept this. The Wikivoyage sites are not a travel forum. I am going to check the rules on de: concerning using talk pages."
Jay Walsh, the foundation's senior director, communications, responded to our invitation to comment on the issue:
Plagiarism and copyright
Off the beaten track
, featured on the main page of Wikivoyage ... Staraya Russa, a small historic town in Russia
The English Wikivoyage's copyright policy is that "fair use in Wikivoyage of works from other sources, with the exception of short quotes and excerpts of text, is not acceptable". We asked editors whether they are aware of any instances of plagiarism on the previous sites, or of its policing. Is there a need for a warning about copying slabs of text from copyrighted travel guides in the edit mode display?
Pashley said he's aware of many instances of plagiarism, "including quite a few I deleted myself and many more that other admins dealt with." Evan Prodromou pointed out that the "no fair use" policy dates back to the founding of Wikitravel (2003–04). The Creative Commons 1.0 license had some assertions about clear rights to the works, so I added the "be careful about fair use" stuff to the Wikitravel policies. It was mainly for Wikipedians. Wikipedia has gotten a lot [stricter] about "fair use", so this is less of an issue now. As for plagiarism from other guides: it's occasionally a problem, but it's usually easy to detect and correct."
Mark Jaroski said "our usual problem is that people copy their own promotional material into the wiki, and when questioned produce evidence of copyright ownership. Usually that language gets reverted, toned down, or rewritten in terms of our no-touting rule, rather than the copyright rule. In any case we've always tried for a more or less consistent tone, and that tone is not the same as the kind of promotional material that people tend to copy in. Meanwhile we've also made it clear that we don't want big chunks of material copied in from Wikipedia or anywhere else.
"Copying of user-submitted reviews from other travel sites is a lot harder to detect, but usually that kind of writing is too personal to match our style, so it gets noticed and reverted or reworked anyhow. We might need to do more to avoid that kind of thing in the future, but so far having enough eyes on RecentChanges has kept it manageable. Certainly we make it clear that copyright violations are not acceptable."
DerFussi told the Signpost that "plagiarism and copyright violations are not accepted and are deleted immediately under our deletion policy. People sometimes copy text from anywhere—mostly from—yes, Wikipedia. The WMF wikis don't have any technology to attribute articles properly (our old Wikivoyage wikis had this technology :) ). It seems even Wikipedians are not aware of this and copy text to us—and we delete it. Thanks for reminding us to put a warning to the edit page. The old wikis had these information, but they were not migrated by the WMF. We have to rewrite them."
A travel wiki is inevitably exposed to the risk of touting and product placement. Is this hard to police? Editors we asked admitted there is a problem, but do not doubt the site's ability to deal with it. For Evan, "it's tricky, but the community has gotten pretty good at it." Mark said, "we have a no-touting policy, and that pretty much covers us for product placement. That said the whole point of a travel guide is to let people know about commercial services like hotels and restaurants, so they are going to be in there, but we don't keep promotional language around as above. We also don't allow travel aggregators and booking agencies under the "other guides" rule, so that keeps us mostly covered."
For Pashley, "it is a perennial problem, but fairly easily dealt with given those policies and a community with enough people who keep track of articles they are interested in and/or check the "recent changes" page fairly often. The same goes for most other major problems: spam, a user page offering a hot young girl to escort men around Shanghai, other ads, plagiarism, libelous reviews, ... As long as we have enough people who will spend some time on janitorial work, those can be dealt with."
DerFussi told the Signpost: "We cannot avoid product placement completely. But the community has a good sense for it by just checking the edits. There are ideas for future features like being able to edit the restaurant and hotel sections [only] when you have 100 edits. On the previous German Wikivoyage site there were not that many problems with product placement. We removed the ones we had. But I am sure we will face it." He said there are signs to watch out for—these include obvious user names like ACCOR France, and users or anons who just place recommendations for hotels and restaurants in multiple articles (often of the same company), place just a single edit and disappear, write excessively positive comments, or position their recommendation on the top of a list.
DerFussi made a broader point that since forking in 2006, the English-language Wikitravel and the German-language Wikivoyage "did not talk with each other, and now they are reunited". Therefore, our policies may differ slightly and it will take a short time to grow back together again. ... One of our main future objectives is to coordinate the policies and work on the wikis and help the small language versions. An application as a thematic organisation is one step we can take. Another is to become a more international."