Questionable WikiStage

Logo WikiStage. © 2014 wikistage.org
Logo WikiStage. © 2014 wikistage.org

Recently, the project WikiStage was brought to my attention. I had a closer look in the meanwhile and I have to admit that I do not share the enthusiasm about it. I write this article to explain my concerns and hope for a fruitful discussion.

Short summary: Do not consider WikiStage for contribution!

Let's have a closer look.

What is WikiStage?

To answer this question, you may want to check out their visually very attractive website http://www.wikistage.org. Somewhere in the middle of their page you find the following statement.

Events and videos - and a big dream:
to collaboratively create an interdisciplinary and multilingual video library of questions

This is not really helpful. The founder Johannes Bittel had probably rather a library to answer questions in mind, than the set of questions alone.

To get a better understanding, an explainatory Youtube video is provided. The invitation to read about WikiStage in their blog takes you to an empty error page, but a valid link is provided in the very bottom of their site: http://wikistage.tumblr.com1.

I will try to summarise the concept with my own words. The idea of WikiStage is to provide an audience to someone to give a talk about an isolated aspect (question) to make the audience (curious to) learn more. The chance to step up to give a talk is especially brought to “brilliant people [that] have never spoken at a conference before”2. Speakers are asked to practive their talk beforehand. The talk is recorded, edited and published on Youtube1.

So far, it sounds like a nice child project. The idea reminds me a lot on different other projects.

  • TED (short presentations about Technology, Entertainment, Design)
  • MOOC (Massive open online course) in general
  • Popular Science Café in particular (organised by Couchsurfers in Berlin)
  • Science Slams / Einstein Slams (all over the world, e.g. from Berlin)
  • Treize Minutes (Paris, Marseille, see videos)

In the following I would like to address some issues that keep me from sharing the enthusiasm.

How does WikiStage differ from others?

So what makes WikiStage special? This question is supposed to get answered in a dedicated blog post. The difference between the inspiration Wikipedia and WikiStage is obvious. The difference between TED and and WikiStage is more delicate. It is argued that the selection of speakers for TED is much more competitive and the presenting enterprise much more powerfull (both in influence and financial means).

I agree. When I try to think of a community driven project, it wouldn't be TED to come in my mind. Alternatives are always good and might lead to better innovations.

Unfortunately this seems to me a crucial missing point. Having a look on the listed speakers at http://essec.wikistage.org/, one finds mostly business people, directors and professors of the hosting business school. I doubt that these speakers “have never spoken at a conference before”. The topic-wise view angle seems to be rather limited to the curriclum of the hosting school. So far, the difference to TED is rather small.

Who is owning WikiStage and its videos?

In comparison with Wikipedia, Treize Minutes and at least the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by the France Université Numerique, WikiStage has even a huge drawback. It is not clear at all who is behind WikiStage.

All three mentioned projects indicate very clearly that the content can be freely used and distributed under a Creative Commons license3.

So I was investigating the conditions that apply to WikiStage. The videos are solely hosted on their Youtube account. (I wonder if they receive an income by advertisements.) Youtube allows to specify the license. Unfortunately, not a free one was chosen.

I go back to their own page and look for the legal notices to learn more about the copyright. I could not find anything. On the very bottom, "Copyright 2014" is stated. I can only guess, that the entity "WikiStage" is the holder of the copyright. In the German jurisdiction internet pages are required to announce at least a responsible person and provide means to contact this person. The whois request reveals that the website is registered in the United States. A US address and phone number of the founder is included as well.

Somewhere in the interweb I found that WikiStage is actually a registered Association in France. I cannot find it anymore.

I would like to emphasise again the importance of a proper license for such a project. Opensource software and open knowledge only started to gain momentum after the license was already clear to assure the general availability of the aggregated work of many people. Relicensing of existing content can be very complicated. Thus, Contributor License Agreements (CLA) are often setup before any content is accepted to ease this issue in the future. Otherwise, this can become very cumbersome/impossible to do afterwards. However, I could not find any information of such a CLA.

I would consider a proper license to be the minimum requirement to consider my voluntary involvement to a project like this. I want to give you a nice counter-example to illustrate the problem. Back in 2003 the hospitality network Couchsurfing was founded. A project that aimed to bring people together by providing a platform to exchange offers and searches for accommodation while travelling. As an active Couchsurfer, I find the idea brilliant. It was for free – until the founder decided in 2011 to take the platform, that has been build by volunteers only until then, and turn it into a for-profit platform. Venture capital was raised and decisions were taken without agreement of the (original) community to please share holders. A proper legal non-profit entity and a proper license of the Couchsurfing platform could have prevented this step. This is clearly a loss for the community that helped to establish Couchsurfing and made it popular.

Assuming that we are a big WikiStage enthusiast, we will oversee this problem and find out how we can contribute our own video. Very soon, it gets clear that WikiStage actually does not address directly the speakers, but offers more a ready-to-use brand to teams that want to host their own conferences. To do so, one has to fill a demand and ask for a license that comes with certain obligations. The license is hosted by Google1.

I missed the crucial part in the license where the non-profit purpose of WikiStage is emphasised and the content attribution (to the public) is clarified. I find the license very incomplete, it's sole purpose seems to protect the brand name. Licensing the name “WikiStage Berlin” to sell hot sausages on Alexanderplatz would totally comply with it.

What means spreading curiosity?

The project aims to “spread curiosity”. So what does this mean? I watched the WikiTalk given by Phil Waknell on What are the secrets of a great WikiTalk?. He explains his interpretation on how a WikiTalk is supposed to affect on the audiance. I agree mostly with his recommendations when it comes to prepare a talk that is easy to follow, but Phil goes far beyond that. He suggests talks that please the audience—not to speak of advertising.

You want to entertain.

This is a major difference to Wikipedia that aims to be an easy to understand encyclopedia, but without any other intentions (no advertisement, neutral, formal style of writing).

This reminds me on the criticism by Benjamin Bratton. He gave a TEDx talk on New Perspectives - What's Wrong with TED Talks. Among other things, he raises doubts on the positive outcome of TED talks in general. His criticism of distracting the audience from the real problems by giving oversimplified infotainment talks seem to apply to WikiStage as well. Personally, I see that the approach of very short, non-scientific talks with performance interludes to keep the audience awake fits perfectly in our today's society that measures everything in the length of tweets, Facebook status posts or “How I met your mother” episodes. This is just another piece of evidence of the constant change of our means of communication—in my opinion—to the worse.

It is left to answer: What are the consequences? Do we want to support this change?

Conclusion

“If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the question, and only five minutes finding the solution.” – Albert Einstein

This quote is taken from http://speakers.wikistage.org/. WikiStage has a very appealing homepage and promotional videos that promise something really great, but feature plenty of buzz words (see: Urban Dictionary), e.g. passion, knowledge, uniqueness, curiosity, inspiration, sharing, fun, fun, fun. That the audience is not listening anymore the final important conlusion of the talk on how to talk, because they were supposed to play with balloons, is not important anymore, because the “former chief evangelist of Apple, Entrepeneur and Author” already stated that WikiStage is a great idea.

I do not believe that the current state of the project justifies its prefix “wiki”. There is no free license (e.g. cc-by-na or GFDL) and it is difficult to contribute. There are no guidelines given on how the community is supposed to work together.

I wonder if the founders of this project read the quote of Albert Einstein. For now, this seems to be a project to demonstrate capabilities in management and marketing. The spirit of freedom of information and a vivid community did not emerge yet.

There are similar projects that went like this. There is http://wikihow.com, which provides at least all content under a proper license. Another example is https://www.ehow.com. Did you ever use these sites? I don't.

So why it is like this? Maybe the web search for “wikistage revenue” brought the answer. On the website of the Youth Citizen Entrepeneurship Competition you can find some explanations that are missing on the official WikiStage websites:

Sustainability and future plans

Following the values of Wikipedia4, our non-profit association taps into additional sources of revenue other than donations and crowd funding. WikiStage Conferences creates revenue from ticket sales and event sponsoring. Sponsors can selectively choose to support events that correspond to their geographic focus or individual priorities. Further, we aim to obtain the traffic that will allow us to sell specifically targeted advertising via our platform. A biotechnology company could - for example - buy visibility in the biotech section of our video library. WikiStage is and will always be a non-profit. Nevertheless, we are set up with a profitable business model.

Let's change something to prevent that WikiStage is taking the path to the next global, commercial knowledge provider that turns public knowledge into restricted values for sell5. There is a reason, that still today the schools and universities are supposed to be backed by tax payer's money and not the private sector.