Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Monday, March 10, 2008

Wikipedia's tin-cup approach wears thin. Timely LA Times article.

Wikipedia, the "encyclopedia anyone can edit," is stuck in a weird Internet time warp, part grass-roots labor of love, part runaway success.

A global democracy beloved by high school term paper writers and run largely by volunteers, the site is controlled for now by people who seem to view revenue with suspicion and worry that too much money -- maybe even just a little money -- would defile and possibly ruin the biggest encyclopedia in the history of the written word.


How about selling advertising space like most big-time websites do? Don't go there unless you want to start a Wikipedian riot. Some members of the foundation's board of trustees and most of the site's editors and contributing writers zealously oppose advertising. [Are you reading this, Danny?]

After a staff member in 2002 raised the possibility in the Wikipedia community, a facet of the Spanish-language branch quit and created the forever ad-free Enciclopedia Libre Universal en EspaƱol. Its founders said that advertising "implied the existence of a commercialization of the selfless work of volunteers."


As Wikimedia adds features to its pages, such as videos, costs will rise. "Without financial stability and strong planning, the foundation runs the risk of needing to take drastic steps at some point in the next couple years," said Nathan Awrich, a 26-year-old Wikipedia editor from Vermont who supports advertising.

Outsiders find it hard to see how the site can avoid selling ad space.

"They either have to charge people or run ads, or both," said Greg Sterling, an analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, which specializes in consumer behavior online.


Wales said that the free culture movement, as it's called, has to think creatively if it wants to keep spreading information to computers around the world.

"There are some real problems with a nonprofit structure," he said. "One of the basic problems is funding: We can get enough money to survive but don't really have the funding to push forward or innovate."


Scarian said...

What do you think? Should we push for advertising?

How long can Wikipedia last before demand outstrips supply in terms of charitable donations?

llywrch said...

Supporting Wikipedia with advertising is a mirage, if you look closely.

Let's ignore, for the moment, the impact having advertising would be on the volunteer community. Actually, one could dismiss this problem quickly, even if we didn't: based on my experience, after the initial wave of resignations & loss of contributors, new volunteers would emerge to take their place, & eventually many of whom would have no concept of an "advertisement-free" Wikipedia. The one constant I've seen in my years involved with Wikipedia is the churn in community membership; every day good, constructive members are quitting for one reason or another, some important & some trivial or irrelevant to the project.

No, the first problem is that advertising wouldn't bring in that much more money. Danny threw out one estimate for how much advertising might bring in, but didn't finish the math. He stopped with the figure $1800.-- an hour. Now there are 24 x 365.24 hours in a year, or just under 8766; $1800 x 8766 gives us $15.78 million -- about three times what the Wikipemia Foundation currently gets from passing the hat. It's more, but not the bottomless goldmine many think it is -- unless you stuff the pages with advertising. And compared to many foundations dedicated to advance education and culture, not all of whom have the name recognition Wikipedia/Wikimedia has, not a big amount.

Of course, the stream of donations would effectively dry up: when the Foundation holds its annual fund drive, how many people are likely to think -- or say -- that it gets enough from advertising that it doesn't need my small donation? and keep their money in their pocket. Also, there is a large chunk of in-kind donations keeping Wikipedia running, such as free Internet bandwidth from Google & Yahoo. How likely are they -- & others -- to continue subsidizing free bandwidth when Wikimedia is making money from page views?

The Foundation might still be able to attract donations from other foundations, but that money usually is given for very specific purposes, & often requires years to obtain. At the same time, the Foundation will find itself targetted by other groups wanting money for their own, related causes. They can't categorically say no to all of them: in many cases, fund-raising is a "scratch my back & I'll scratch yours" activity, & for tactical reasons the Foundation may find itself donating $5,000 to one group in order to have a chance at $250,000 from another.

And I haven't gotten into the problems of taxes on this revenue stream; all non-profits end up paying some taxes in some form.

So after a few tumultuous years, the Foundation would find itself right back where it started, only on a little larger scale: a top-10 website it has problems affording to operate, dreams of doing things like outreach & education, & a steady churn in its volunteer base.


Ben Yates said...

What's the solution?

llywrch said...

Answering your question at face value is simple: I don't have a better solution for getting more money. However, in a more theoretical sense, I do have an answer.

Silly as it may sound, one step would be for the foundation to provide a vision or mission statement for why they need more money. I've written it elsewhere that most readers and editors have no idea what it does beyond running a website and an annual conference -- and providing material for the occasional news article.

Sometimes I suspect that the message of the Wikipedia success story is that there are a lot of suckers out there who will give their labor away for free -- and Jimmy Wales has found the secret of how to do it. In other words, crowdsourcing -- despite all denials to the contrary. (And the attraction of the idea is that these crowds don't need to be paid or acknowledged -- beyond the occasional t-shirt or other bit of swag.)

Once people understood what that mission was, I think the donations would increase -- or they'd be able to convince enough people that advertising was the best next step. But to say that the Foundation needs money without first saying what it is going for is not getting us anywhere.