Should Wikipedia Take The Money?

from the penny-wise-pound-foolish dept

My friend Jerry Brito thinks that Wikipedia should stop begging its users for money and should start selling ads instead. I'm not sure I agree. Part of the genius of Wikipedia's design is that its editing process self-selects for people who are passionate about designing a great encyclopedia. It has to, because if you don't find editing Wikipedia enjoyable, there isn't much else to draw you in. As a result, the senior Wikipedia editors tend to be strongly focused on making Wikipedia the best encyclopedia it can be, and while politics certainly happens, it's a relatively minor aspect of the site's operations. People either learn to get along with one another or leave the site in frustration. One beneficial consequence of Wikipedia's current structure is that it doesn't matter very much who captures the most senior leadership positions on the site, because all you win is the opportunity to review hundreds of editing disputes among other contributors.

If Wikipedia began selling ads, it would generate millions of dollars almost overnight. Suddenly, it would matter a lot who held the top leadership positions in the organization. Being a member of the Wikipedia board would no longer be a thankless exercise in public service, but would be a relatively glamorous opportunity to direct hundreds of thousands of dollars to one's pet causes. Over time, the senior leadership positions would be sought out by people who are more excited about doling out largesse than editing an encyclopedia. And indeed, in the long run, it's not hard to imagine the senior management of Wikipedia coming to view Wikipedia as a cash cow rather than a public trust. Having hired a large staff and set up various programs, Wikipedia executives would be increasingly reluctant to make decisions that would improve the encyclopedia but might reduce ad revenue. And that, in turn, could gradually antagonize rank-and-file Wikipedians, who might resent having their labors generating millions of dollars to be spent by a self-perpetuating elite that may or may not represent their own interests and values.

Wikipedia's value as a public resource vastly outweighs the advertising revenue the site might generate. It would be penny-wise and pound-foolish to jeopardize the site's decentralized, voluntarist spirit by injecting large sums of money into the equation. The "tin-cup approach" may be irritating, but it has the cardinal virtue of keeping the site's leadership firmly anchored to the interests of its most avid users. Jerry cites Craigslist and Mozilla as examples of nonprofits that have avoided the path of corruption, but I think there are important distinctions to be drawn. Craigslist does not depend on the goodwill of hundreds of thousands of volunteers, and it's run by an unusually public-spirited founder. As for Mozilla, I think it's too early to tell whether Mozilla's millions will have pernicious effects on the organization's long-term health. So far I've been skeptical of charges that the Mozilla-Google relationship is corrupting, but the relationship is only a few years old. There's still plenty of time for things to go wrong.



Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Jake, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 3:28pm

    More Pragmatically

    If the extra revenue exceeded a certain amount, the Wikimedia Foundation could well find itself losing its charitable status and the associated tax exemptions. That would probably do more harm than good, both in terms of raw revenue and the ensuing bad publicity.

     

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  2.  
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    Stephen Colbert, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 3:30pm

    African Elephants

    The number of African elephants has quadrupled in last two years!

     

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  3.  
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    Bert or Ernie, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 3:48pm

    Public Funding?

    They should be given public funding, if they aren't already.

     

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  4.  
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    Mark Murphy, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 4:05pm

    Craigslist Correction, And Other Thoughts

    According to the Craigslist Web site, it "was incorporated as a for-profit in 1999."

    It's an easy mistake to make — they still use .org ("It symbolizes the relatively uncommercial nature of craigslist, as well as our service mission and non-corporate culture") and there is the separate Craigslist Foundation founded by Mr. Newmark.

    With respect to the premise of the post, there's many shades of gray between "no ads" and "more ads than the Sunday paper", such as:

    • Sidebar banners from sponsors, akin to PBS sponsor promos at the start of shows

    • Only running ads on a percentage of pages, and then only to the point where they hit a pre-determined threshold (e.g., cover budgeted fiscal year operating expenses).

    • Slashdot-style "subscribe and the ads vanish" plan, with a side-effect of encouraging more people to create accounts and log in, thereby reducing anonymous edits some


    Admittedly, there will be a strong temptation to wrench open the spigot more, to hire more staff and do more things. That's a question of discipline of the Wikimedia Foundation board members (note: not necessarily the same folk as the Wikipedia editors).

     

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  5.  
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    Fabio Prudente, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 4:10pm

    Extra cash...

    Mozilla's extra cash has made a revolution in Firefox' technology, which is driving changes in all other borwsers.

    The software behind Wikipedia (MediaWiki) has the same opportunity to become a revolutionary environment for collaboration, far beyond it currently is.

    Of course, we cannot put ads in wikipedia, and bring in lots of money, without changing its administrative structures and rules, but this does not implies that wikipedia should not decide for ad support, or that this decision, automatically, would bring corruption.

     

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  6.  
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    Tim Lee, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 4:17pm

    Re: Craigslist Correction, And Other Thoughts

    That's a good point about Craig's list. They act a lot like a non-profit organization even if they technically aren't one.

    And yes, there are a variety of ways they could limit ad revenue. But I think the temptation to turn the spigot all the way on would be overwhelming. If a little bit of money is good, isn't a lot better? The only way to avoid going down that path is to not start on it.

     

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  7.  
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    Lothar, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 4:23pm

    Should WMF Take The Money?

    "Being a member of the Wikipedia board would no longer be a thankless exercise in public service"

    There is no such thing as "the Wikipedia board", perhaps you are thinking of the Wikimedia Foundation - and it certainly has no difficulty in sucking up money, whether sucker donations as now, or advertizing revenue in the future.

    "Wikipedia's value as a public resource vastly outweighs the advertising revenue the site might generate."

    As much value as a freebie RPG.

    Lothar

     

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  8.  
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    [pH] - Monte, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 4:43pm

    Re: African Elephants

    yes they have, and that is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. We must stop this Shenanigan!!

     

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  9.  
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    Ron Larson, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 4:53pm

    Yes. Absolutely. Wikipedia is too valuable and too promising to loose. They can strike a balance between ads and content. Google does it. I trust that they can keep integrity without compromise.

    If they make good money, then excellent. They can hire full time researchers, fact checkers, and developers to improve the product. If they loose non-profit status, then so be it.

    Otherwise, Wikipedia will go the way of other idealist concepts such as communism, communes, etc. A failed experiment that collapsed under the weight of reality.

     

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  10.  
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    Ethan Bauley, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 5:19pm

    Craigslist doens't depend on volunteers?

    "Craigslist does not depend on the goodwill of hundreds of thousands of volunteers"

    I think this should be re-thought, since 99% of the activity on craigslist is non-transactional. (e.g. think of every posting as if it were a Wiki edit).

    That's a little rough but I hope you see my point.

    I think Mike Murphy's suggestions are great. Also:

    TIPJOY

     

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  11.  
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    Seth Brundle, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 5:42pm

    Wikipedia is an information cabal

    Wikipedia, like Google, is an info-nightmare.

    Google controls the 90% of search results, and more and more Wikpedia is one of the top 5 results for virtually - everything.

    Meanwhile, only 6% of Wikipedia users contribute, and a tiny cabal decides what contributions stick.

    We have already seen major sites like Digg.com become completely gamed, and the cracks are starting to show in Wikipedia editorial integrity also.

    Personally I would love to see Wikipedia and Google just fail and dissapear to 20-30 competitors.

     

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  12.  
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    Hoeppner, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 6:16pm

    I think one of the better ideas would be opening up a commercial section on some pages.

    for instance walmart could buy a section near the bottom that is clearly marked as being from walmart, for adding their 'word' to the article without conflicts of interest.

     

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  13.  
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    \, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 6:48pm

    Re: African Elephants

    Impossible.
    Elephants gestation period is longer than a year and there is fair wait in between children. At most, given a -% mortality rate during that time, the population could have doubled (give birth right at the beginning of the two years and then again at the end).

    :P

    cue the "The More You Know" star

     

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  14.  
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    Le Blue Dude, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 10:13pm

    Huh

    Good thing Wiki doesn't take the money, bad thing Yahoo doesn't? Or are you realizing that there are situations where taking the money and running (while 'correct' from a purely rational veiwpoint) still isn't correct/doesn't work in actuality? (Points you to the prisoner's problem just to see what you would think of it... and to chicken... and 'overlord'. and 'take or leave' and other psychological experiments that prove that humans are irrational... and that irrationality WORKS, especially in ways that rationality never would)

     

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  15.  
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    manikandan.J, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 10:18pm

    wikipedia one of the best provider information

    wikipedia is not money taker. Because of the many information providing and any need then easily search then we are find the information

     

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  16.  
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    manikandan.J, Mar 13th, 2008 @ 10:20pm

    wikipedia one of the best provider information

    wikipedia is not money taker. Because of the many information providing and any need then easily search then we are find the information

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
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    Tim Lee, Mar 14th, 2008 @ 8:16am

    Re: Huh

    Yahoo! is a for-profit corporation, so its primary responsibility is to maximize shareholder value.

     

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  18.  
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    Stephen Colbert, Mar 14th, 2008 @ 8:52am

    Re: Re: African Elephants

    All the pregnant elephants gave birth to triplets! Anyways me being a top contributor to wiki, a well liked user and friend of a moderator, I bet my entry will stay on............ wikiality my friends!!

     

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  19.  
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    perezda, Mar 14th, 2008 @ 10:53am

    maybe restructure?

    Away from a foundation to a for-profit who's bylaws state that it is going to give all revenues (minus the money they need to operate) to the foundation. The foundation would be well funded and could do some real good (beyond the great stuff they are already doing).

     

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  20.  
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    SATYANARAYAN MOHAPATRA, Mar 15th, 2008 @ 7:54am

    WIKIPEDIA

    As much I love Wikipedia, as I can not think of any down ward journey of it in my mind`s spheres. I keenly urge that such a site never to be disturbed in any cicumstances. Had I been a rich man; I had contributed immensely to it`s funds. But I don`t possess such wealth in reality. I think the denial of taking up to advertisement is not a bright idea. The named philanthropists have to take funds to survive and spread the religion. Many days ago Radio Cylone and BBC were in cotroversial positions whether to go for advertisements. The balance tilted towards taking it. If we stick to our principles that much strictly then time would come that it would be very much hardship to roll the caravan. Nothing is bad with advertisement and only our view toward it is narrower. I hope for the best.

     

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  21.  
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    Adam Katz, Mar 16th, 2008 @ 2:02pm

    A well-formed non-profit chooses where its money g

    I'd be for the ads if they invest the proceeds carefully, and I'm confident they would. A non-profit CAN'T give that money to board members. If they structure it properly, they can put some of the money in a rainy-day fund, some of it into infrastructure, some of it into future technology (security audits of organization and software, code reviews for efficiency improvements, and future feature developments), and the rest into content.

    Hell, if they'd really be netting millions per day, they could afford to beef up WikiNews to a level at which it competes with Lexis-Nexus in the same way that WikiPedia competes with Encyclopedia Britannica. Of course, that might hurt smaller secondary news sources like techdirt...

     

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  22.  
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    john huffstickler, Nov 30th, 2008 @ 7:28am

    wikipedia

    I disagree: let 'em take the $. Wiki's current "independence of ideas" is an illusion, and obviously one that is of some importance to them- so let them lose it, publicly.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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