Comic-Book Fan Site Wikia Turns Geeks’ Free Labor Into ProfitDevin Leonard
Nathan Elliott used to be just one of the 130,000 fans who faithfully attend Comic-Con International, the annual geek culture convention in San Diego.
He suited up as his favorite comic book characters and waited in line for hours to get into panel discussions about upcoming superhero movies. There were parties at night with celebrities. Nobody invited Elliott. He didn’t care. It was enough just to be surrounded by fellow nerds.
At last July’s Comic-Con, however, Elliott was a star. He went through the VIP line, enjoyed free drinks, and had his picture taken on the red carpet at a party at the Hard Rock Cafe thrown by Wikia Inc., the user-generated website primarily devoted to video games, comic books, and movies.
Wikia was created by Wikipedia co-founders Jimmy Wales and Angela Beesley. Unlike Wikipedia, it’s a for-profit company. Because Elliott is one of the site’s most prolific writers and commenters, the San Francisco-based company had picked him to be one of its 25 Wikia Stars, who recruit more visitors and persuade entertainment companies to collaborate with them on their Wikia fan sites.
Elliott, a nuclear physicist from Albuquerque, New Mexico, was thrilled to be at the party.
“It’s way better than walking by and looking in,” he says.
The campaign is part of Chief Executive Officer Craig Palmer’s effort to raise the profile of the seven-year-old closely held company. Wikia is deepening its relationships with studios such as Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros. and Comcast Corp.’s Universal, enabling it to give fans of “Batman” and “The Hobbit” a first look at the franchises’ video games.
In November the site had 19 million U.S. visitors, up 20 percent from the year before, according to ComScore Inc., and raised about $10 million from a group led by Institutional Venture Partners. Other investors include Bessemer Venture Partners and Amazon.com Inc.
Wikia’s executives say the company, which makes money selling advertising, has been profitable for three years. Palmer says he would like to take Wikia public or sell it one day. To do that, he needs to keep users like Elliott happy and active.
“The care and feeding of these Stars and exposing them is a critical aspect of continuing to make Wikia great,” he says.
The site’s contributors are encouraged to go on at Dostoyevskian lengths about their passions.
“The Wikia community is engaged in documenting things in really excruciating detail,” says Wales, the company’s chairman.
The Wikia DC Comics database has about 75,000 pages; its Marvel Comics database has more than 102,000.
The Marvel and DC repositories were created in 2005 by Jamie Hari, another Wikia Star who was feted at last year’s Comic-Con. A tech support manager at a Waterloo, Ontario-based software company, Hari started the Marvel database with a page about the superhero Rogue. From there, he and other users set out to document every Marvel comic book dating to 1939, when the Human Torch made his debut.
“It was like a second full-time job,” Hari says.
Wikia didn’t pay him, but stardom has its rewards: Hari told his story of starting the database over a cheeseburger and fries paid for by Wikia executives.
Elliott discovered the Marvel database in 2007 and became its top contributor. The company says he has more than 100,000 “edits,” which range from correcting another user’s spelling to creating a new page. Elliott estimates that he has written 500 pages about Spider-Man alone and has devoted as many as 40 hours a week to Wikia. He has since reduced his weekly commitment to “5 or 10 hours.”
His wife, Tara, seated beside him at the convention dressed as the telekinetic Phoenix from the “X-Men” comics, made it clear that she thinks her husband sometimes overdoes it. And his schedule is tighter now that the couple has 3-year-old twins.
Since Comic-Con, Hari has been trying to woo executives at both Marvel and DC to help him enhance Wikia’s comic book-related pages. In October, Elliott covered the New York Comic-Con for the site. He has also been grooming the next generation of contributors, and just enjoying the experience of being a celebrity of sorts.
“I was very happy to hear that any of my work had been even noticed, let alone appreciated,” he writes in an e-mail.
“My wife was very happy that all the hours I had put into my passion actually had some value to it and wasn’t completely wasted.”