The recent hubbub over Wikia Search had many questioning the wisdom of tech stalwarts Jimmy Wales and Gil Penchina. What were they thinking, introing a rudimentary search app that delivered poor results? At varying times called a “practice run,” “doom [for] Wikia as a business,” and my personal favorite “weapons grade fail,” seasoned tech bloggers were unrelenting in their criticisms. After talking with Gil earlier this week, though, I think the most interesting angle on this story has been MIA.
Wikia could have stemmed some of the criticism upfront with more effective messaging. Though coverage in the BBC and New York Times was more even-handed, Wales still trumpeted to them the message of community participation in search result creation. I don’t think that’s the real story here. According to Penchina, while the goal of Wikia Search is indeed to create a community-created search engine, it’s also to open up the algorithm of search on a larger scale, allowing people to create their own engines. (To download the crawler and create your own engine, visit Grub.org) Bringing the power of open source to search, a heretofore secretive and highly guarded tech sector.
This is not a search engine to compete with Google. Reviewers who tackled the search function itself, testing certain phrases to see which results came back, were set up to fail. Wikia set out to bring a Web-2.0-level of open innovation to search and, in the process, launched an engine of their own. Whether Wikia Search can direct you to relevant results on a topic isn’t the point, at least not now. Wales and Penchina hit a nerve with Wikipedia and saw how strongly the Internet community wanted involvement in its technology.
It’s what more and more companies are doing these days: sharing powerful technology with the community at large to do with as they see fit. MetaWeb (Freebase), Faraday Media (APML), Franz (AllegroGraph), and now Wikia – all developed sophisticated technologies that are now available for the greater good. It’s a bit of technology socialism, if you will.
Gil ended our conversation with an excellent analogy. The open source world is a relay race. Some will work on a technology for a while, burn out and drop the baton. There will always be someone else running by, willing to pick it up and contribute their own effort. Wikia Search isn’t a single product to be evaluated in the now. It’s a new attitude toward building search engines, one that will bear fruits down the road, each to stand or fall on its own merits.
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