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.

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Comments on “Should Wikipedia Take The Money?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: African Elephants

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).


cue the “The More You Know” star

Mark Murphy says:

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).

Tim Lee (user link) says:

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.

Fabio Prudente says:

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.

Lothar says:

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.


Ron Larson (profile) says:

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.

Ethan Bauley (user link) says:

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:


Seth Brundle says:

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 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.

Le Blue Dude says:


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)



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.

Adam Katz says:

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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