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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  1. identicon
    Tim Lee, 13 Mar 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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