Today I learnt from the blog of Wikimedia Germany about plans to merge the two wiki-based collaborative travel guide projects Wikitravel and WikiVoyage into a new Wikimedia project such as Wikipedia or Wiktionary, governed by the Wikimedia Foundation. Denis Barthel from Wikimedia Germany describes the history of the two projects as follows (my translation): went live in July 2003 with the goal to collaboratively create a travel guide under an open license. Today, Wikitravel features 19 different language versions with up to 26.000 travel guides. In 2006 the founders decided to sell the trademark “Wikitravel” to the firm Internetbrands to put Wikitravel on more solid grounds. Internetbrands provided for hosting and guaranteed independence of the community with regard to contents. First problems arose when Internetbrands decided to run ads on the site. This decision led to a debate on principles and eventually to a fork: the German community refused to work in a commercial environment. As a result, WikiVoyage emerged, carried by a German-based association. WikiVoyage hosts the bigger stock of German articles (~12.000 compared to ~5.000 at Wikitravel) and a very active and well organized community. Furthermore, there is an Italian version with a shared database for images similar to Wikimedia Commons and “Locations”, some kind of WikiData for locations.

Currently, the Wikimedia Communities are debating whether accepting a merger of these two communities as a new Wikimedia project is both feasible and desirable. And while the majority seems to support the inclusion of the newly merged project into the family of Wikimedia projects, several concerns are raised:

  • “This isn’t as simple as changing the URLs and calling it a day. I don’t see it as being possible to do a seamless import, i.e. bring over all of the content, all of the editors, all of the policies, all of the page histories, etc., and leave nothing behind at the old domain.”
  • “Doesn’t seem like the kind of project the WMF would want anyway… Everything else is verifiable, encyclopedic, news worthy, etc. but Travel stuff could be so opinionated.”
  • “A travel site would fit nicely in the WMF remit. However this travel site is not a good fit for our culture; there is resistance to basic things like removal of advertising [...], increased use of (or encouragement of) source material.”
  • “We have enough neglected, inactive projects. Let’s focus on what already needs to get done.”
  • “Against further Wikimedia scope creep and empire building. Wikimedia runs on donations, it’s lean enough as it is, and I’m not convinced that the proposed travel vertical would bring in any significant new audience, engagement or revenue for other Wikimedia projects.”

Thinking about this case, I realized that I am aware of several theoretical (e.g. Nyman et al. 2011) and empirical (e.g. Fung et al. 2012) works on forking communities in the context commons-based peer producation, mainly in the realm of open source software (see also “The Foundation Model: OpenOffice Following Wikimedia’s example?“). But I cannot recall a single article dealing with the challenges of merging such communities. This lack of studies is surprising since open content licensing allows both forking and merging communities that developed around compatible licenses. However, merging open content communities is seemingly not so common a case.

What I found when searching Google scholar was a paper on merging communities of practice by Hilde van Vlaenderen (2004), regrettably not available in an open access version. Also, the paper is on the interaction between a community of researchers and members of the community addressed by them – a setting completely different from the one of interest here. And, of course, there are tons of studies on M&A in corporate contexts but hardly any (at least to my knowledge) on M&A in non-profit and volunteer community settings.

Is it that there is hardly any research on this issue because the phenomenon is so rare? Has it just been neglected? Or is it no different from corporate M&A? Maybe we have an open field for research here.