Brother, Can You Spare Wikipedia a Dime?

‘Tis the season for giving, and that means every trip to Wikipedia is going to be accompanied by the pleading visage of Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. The annual Wikipedia funding drive has kicked off, as Wales seeks money to keep Wikipedia afloat, while helping to prop up the other, truly underfunded, projects of the Wikimedia Foundation (e.g. Wikiversity and Wiktionary). Google co-founder Sergey Brin has helped get the party started, offering up $500,000. Wikipedia, the #5 website on the Internet, runs on only 679 servers and 95 staff members – a far cry from what other websites in their strata boast. But, you don’t see Larry Page begging for money to keep Google in the black, so why does this drive happen every year for Wikipedia? Mostly, it is because Wikipedia does something almost no other major website does – it stays ad-free. Industry analysts estimate that Wikipedia could pull in hundreds of millions of dollars a year through advertising revenue, a far cry from the $6-10 million it pulls in from donations in any given year. So, why not slap a few ads on Wikipedia and call it a day? The answer, like most things involving money, is complicated.

Wikipedia exists as a not-for-profit organization. Advertising revenue is decidedly commercial, presenting a challenge to Wikipedia’s mission to be a neutral, not-for-profit educational website for the greater good. The view of advertisements as an insidious, corruptible influence is not without merit, though it is often overstated. Wales himself has taken a hard anti-advertising stance, stating that,

“Wikipedia is something special. It is like a library or a public park. It is like a temple for the mind. It is a place we can all go to think, to learn, to share our knowledge with others.”

Wikipedia thrives on reputation as much as content, and a large part of that reputation comes from being ad-free, and thus influence-free. Advertisements are mentioned, and nightmares of big corporations demanding friendly articles for their brands and products in return for continued financial support begin to take shape.

That’s speculation, but the history of journalism has taught us that it isn’t without legitimacy. That’s why, should the Wikimedia Foundation turn to ad revenue, careful planning is vital. Using Google’s AdSense would make the most sense, effectively randomizing ads and using Google as a buffer to insulate Wikipedia from direct demands of corporate or business sponsors. Simple, text-based, non-intrusive ads would help to mitigate the damage done to Wikipedia’s image, while still raking in massive amounts of money. But, as the legendary Biggie Smalls once said, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” Wikipedia is firmly established as a not-for-profit. So, where does all that money go?

First and foremost, ad revenue would go toward paying the staff and expanding Wikipedia’s network infrastructure. Wikipedia can’t deny the need for more servers – people in areas of the world far away from Wikipedia’s servers often have difficulty accessing the site. Ads could hurt the mission of a neutral, educational source of public good, but if people can’t even access the site, the mission is completely failed. The massive influx of ad money could allow the Wikimedia Foundation to establish itself as a powerhouse social enterprise, meaning that advertising revenue could be reinvested into educational projects in developing nations, for example, rather than collected as profit. Not to mention the fact that more staff could be hired to improve the vetting process of Wikipedia’s articles, many of which are tainted with bias and claims that lack citations, even without real or perceived advertiser influence. The money, used wisely, could allow the Wikimedia Foundation to live up to its educational mission far more than it can now.

There still are critical drawbacks to a Wikipedia with ads. Deserved or not, ads will have a massive psychological impact on all the players. Some users will be more skeptical of the site, which could lead to a downturn in popularity. Some volunteers and major contributors will be incensed and refuse to contribute their work to the site – a loss potentially far greater than the revenue missed out on now. If Wikipedia loses even one expert contributor, so much the worse off we are for not having access to what knowledge they can share. Today, a lack of advertisements is something we associate closely with Wikipedia, if for no other reason than that an ad-free website is so rare on the Internet today. Deserved or not, Wikipedia’s reputation will suffer a blow if ads are put on the site in any form, and the consequences of that need to be reckoned with before a decision can be made.

Wikipedia can never become a for-profit enterprise. To do that would be to destroy what Wikipedia essentially is – a public service, by the people, for the people. That doesn’t mean ads can’t be placed on the website, but it does mean that implementation needs to be carefully planned. A clear budget detailing exactly where advertising revenue would go, backed by a strong and consistent strategy for development of the Wikimedia Foundation’s projects and developmental aid to parts of the world most in need would help to prevent infighting about how money should be used in the future. Ads would need to be unobtrusive, in order to mitigate damage to Wikipedia’s reputation and preserve the site’s clean, user-friendly interface. Money doesn’t have to be the root of all evil, but things can turn that way very quickly with rash action. Here’s hoping whatever poor, pleading Jimmy Wales decides in the future (seriously, those puppy dog eyes!), Wikipedia stays true to itself – a remarkable educational tool that has helped knowledge spread throughout the world like nothing else ever has. If you’d like to donate to Wikipedia, here’s the link to Wales’ increasingly famous annual appeal. If you don’t want to, hey, that’s cool, too (his sentiments, no less).