I never do guest posts on Clue Wagon. Never. But last week, I wrote a post about Geni, which was really not so much about Geni, but about the general concepts of free stuff on the internet, contributing content to websites, and great big shared family trees. The comments were fascinating, and lots of smart people weighed in. One of those people was Chris Whitten, who owns WikiTree, another family tree site. In the comments, I offered Chris the chance to do a guest post about all this, because even though I don’t do guest posts, I’m fascinated by this topic.
I have no connection whatsoever to WikiTree other than the fact that I really like two of their employees. I just think this is a good conversation to be having, and one that’s long overdue. Since people seem to be listening now…let’s talk.
So here’s Chris’ post. I can’t wait to read your comments.
There’s a controversy right now regarding a shared family tree site run by a private company, and what many genealogists regard as a serious violation of their trust. As the creator of WikiTree.com, another shared family tree site run by a private company, I’d like to make a few points.
You guessed it, these will be entirely self-serving points and cannot be considered objective. Kerry was kind enough to offer me this forum and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. These are obviously my words; she didn’t vet them.
Is there such a thing as a free lunch?
There’s an old adage, made famous by the economist Milton Friedman, that says “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”
It comes from bars that used to advertise free lunches. The catch was that you had to buy a drink. And the drink was probably overpriced. And if you bought one drink they knew you’d probably buy another.
The point is that hardly anything is free. If someone offers you a free lunch, you’re probably going to pay for it one way or another.
Still, if what’s being offered isn’t a physical good, when it isn’t something to hold in your hands like a sandwich, the cost you’ll pay may not be very high. On the Internet, production and delivery costs are especially low. So plenty of websites are offered for free.
Should you look a gift-horse in the mouth?
Absolutely, cowboy. It might be rude, but the care and feeding of a horse is no small thing. You might not want to invest your time and energy if she’s long in the tooth.
When someone offers you a free lunch or a free horse, it’s wise to understand why they’re offering it. What do they get out of the deal? It must be something. If you can understand what it is, you can make an informed decision.
The cool thing is that it’s generally not hard to figure out motivations. We know people usually act according to their own self-interest. As Adam Smith said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
Self-interest puts food on our table, and it creates a lot of cool products and services. Some of which are offered for free.
How do you look a website in the mouth?
If a website is free, it probably has one of two basic business models.
The first is advertising. This is easy to understand. Plenty of websites are free and ad-supported, in the same way that TV and radio is ad-supported. Take Cyndi’s List. Or Find A Grave. Or Google. Or ten million others. Often the ads are reasonably unobtrusive, like on Kerry’s blog here.
The second is the “freemium” model, where you give away some things for free, but you make your money through premium memberships. That is, you charge a subset of your audience for upgraded services and benefits.
Assuming some level of rational self-interest, you can expect ad-supported websites to try to build a quality website that will attract a wide audience. You can expect freemium sites to try build a quality website, but to keep the best information and services for premium members.
Which is better for a shared family tree: ad-supported or freemium?
As the creator of WikiTree.com, an ad-supported site, care to guess how I’m gonna come down on this one?
I don’t think the freemium model is well-suited to growing a shared family tree. The interests of the publishers of the website and its contributing members are not well-aligned.
It would be one thing if the website was offering you the shared tree as a product they created. This would be more akin to Ancestry.com, where they are selling you access to data that they scanned and indexed. Fair enough. They’re kind of a freemium site in that they periodically give away access to limited information and then try to sell you a membership.
But on a user-generated shared family tree, the users are contributing the valuable information. Whether they be free or paying members, it’s the users who are growing the tree. This tree then becomes a core asset of the company.
If the company is in the business of selling memberships, you can expect that they will use this asset (the information you and others contributed) to sell you a membership. If you invite others to the site, or the information you added attracts others, you can trust that they’ll try to sell them memberships. That is their business, after all.
This is why I say I don’t think that a freemium model works well for a shared tree. When you look in the mouth of this gift-horse, when you ask why this free lunch is being offered, I don’t think you’ll want it.
But Chris, why would using a shared family tree to make money through ads be any better?
I think it’s because there are aligned motivations. If it’s ad-supported it’s all about the content. For all of us.
As an ad-supported site, it’s in our rational self-interest to grow a well-sourced, genuinely-useful shared family tree. We could get some short-term benefits by creating millions of junk pages, but that won’t work in the long run. In the long run we’ll only succeed if we offer something truly useful. We need people in the media and on blogs like this to look at WikiTree and see it as something worth recommending. We need people to get excited about it and tell their friends and family.
As an ad-supported site, we need your trust. Again, we’re talking about user-generated content here. As the publishers of the website, we offers tools and features and support and infrastructure and bandwidth and the rest. The community creates the shared family tree. If you don’t think it’s a worthwhile project, you won’t participate.
This also means we can’t overload the site with ads. If you see too many ads you won’t keep returning. What’s more, after their latest update, Google actually punishes websites with too many ads.
The bottom line is that as an ad-supported user-generated content site, WikiTree needs you to grow a shared family tree. If we were a freemium site, we’d need you to buy a membership.
Wouldn’t it be better if the website had no commercial interest at all?
What if the shared family tree were run by a non-profit corporation instead of a for-profit business? Wouldn’t that be best?
Maybe. There are pros and cons and I have some familiarity with both sides. I started a 501(c)3 non-profit in 1995 to host an online community and operated it for six years. It’s dead now but I’m proud of what we did there.
Non-profits still have expenses. Someone has to pay them. Wikipedia doesn’t run ads but they hit up their users for donations. With ads.
If users aren’t making donations, who is? What are their motivations?
When I was starting FAQ Farm in 2002 (later to become WikiAnswers, and later Answers.com) another Q&A website came along and called themselves a non-profit. They attracted this amazing cadre of librarians to volunteer to answer questions for them. Then, later, the non-profit converted to a for-profit. Now they’re gone entirely and the contributions that those librarians made are lost.
That’s not to say that non-profit genealogy sites can’t offer great things. We’re all well-aware of the wonderful contributions that the LDS Church has made to our hobby. And there’s a genealogy wiki run by a non-profit called WeRelate. WeRelate has a lot of good things going for it.
I’ll leave it at that. (With a plug for WeRelate?) There is much more I could say about WikiTree. Many hard questions I could be asked. Maybe some will come in the comments. And heck, I haven’t even touched on whether a shared family tree would be a good thing. Maybe Kerry will invite me back.
Photo by aforero