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TWiki's hunt for cash fractures its community

TWiki.net demonstrates how to destroy a community--and ruin its commercial prospects in the process.

Can an open-source project be acquired against its will? Apparently, the answer is "yes," as the recent experience of the TWiki community demonstrates.

In this case, TWiki.net (the company) has taken over Twiki.org (the project), booting all nonemployee contributors from the core project, leaving the TWiki.org community fuming (and forking).

In fact, the TWiki.org community is calling it a "hostile takeover," and the name may well be apt, though no shares have changed hands. TWiki.net has sought to reform the TWiki.org community under the auspices of the Relaunch Twiki.org Project, but it's not clear that this kind of reform was needed, at least from the community's perspective.

TWiki.net, however, begs to differ. The company suggests that its new governance model is based on Ubuntu, and is designed to foster clearer direction and better brand protection. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen's classic line to Dan Quayle, "I know Ubuntu, Mr. TWiki, and you're no Ubuntu."

Indeed, while Ubuntu seems to be in no hurry to turn a profit, it is almost certainly a desire for cash that has spurred TWiki.net's overhaul of the TWiki.org governance model. Founded in 1998 by Peter Thoeny, the company raised a small series A funding round in early 2007 and has been on the prowl for more funding in 2008. The company almost certainly needs more cash.

Does it also need more community? If so, it chose the wrong way to go about it.

Back when Thoeny spun up a company around the TWiki.org open-source project, some within the TWiki.org community worried that the move would damage its community, concern that now seems fully justified:

TWiki.NET (the commercial off-shoot) rolled over the open source project like a tsunami. TWiki.NET would strengthen the community, but forgot to respect existing structures. Without hesitation their marketing-department came with slogans that claimed work of the many volunteers that contributed over the years as their own.

Today, TWiki has fractured its community, much as Compiere once did when it neglected to remember the community that fed it (and gave birth to Adempiere and Openbravo in the process). NextWiki has emerged as the community's response.

Was it the right thing to do for Thoeny? Time will tell, but most VCs that I know are reluctant to touch an open-source project that lacks a vibrant community, or has the potential for one. TWiki is now radioactive. In an apparent attempt to make itself ripe for venture investment, TWiki.net may have gone sour.

TWiki.net's (likely) failed experiment with commercializing TWiki.org should be a lesson to any VC or entrepreneur hoping to commercialize an open-source project. There are good examples to follow (e.g., Acquia with Drupal.org, or Red Hat with the Linux kernel), and then there are bad examples (e.g., the Compiere debacle mentioned above).

It's impossible to please all community members all of the time within any given project, but when one's actions antagonize a majority...that's not only bad community outreach, it's bad business.

Disclosure: I know and deeply respect Tom Barton, TWiki.net's interim CEO and chairman. I'm also an adviser to MindTouch, an open-source Wiki collaboration company. I honestly didn't think of either fact when writing this, as the lesson learned from TWiki.net/.org is bigger than any particular product competition.