Wikipedia Begging, Needs New Revenue Model

    December 31, 2008
    WebProNews Staff

When all is said and done, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’ legacy is secured. He created one of the best resources of information in history. Keeping that legacy alive, though, may require a new revenue model.

Across the top of collective knowledge, Wales has placed a banner asking for donations. Clicking over to his appeal, he says operating costs have soared to $6 million a year, a relative pittance for running the fourth most popular website in the world.

Donations, accepted at a $30 minimum, are the primary ways Wikipedia funds itself, in addition to grants and gifts, but advertising is still not on the table as an option. Wales is transparent about breaking down the costs: tech is $2.7 million, finance and admin costs are $1.6 million, and the rest is allocated for programs, legal, Wikimania, the Board, and the office of the executive director, who gets close to half a million.

That last one is a point of contention among detractors, as is Wales’ alleged willingness to offer special protection to one’s Wikipedia entry for a sizable donation, along with his alleged luxurious lifestyle. And yet, no advertising allowed.

“Wikipedia is different,” writes Wales. “It’s the largest encyclopedia in history, written by volunteers. Like a national park or a school, we don’t believe advertising should have a place in Wikipedia.”

Wikipedia Begging, Needs New Revenue Model

Special protections, maybe, but not advertising. Maybe it’s time all those idealistic purist Web revolutionaries reconsidered. Advertising itself isn’t an evil. High school yearbooks, newspapers, baseball fields, lots and lots of good organizations have taken the advertising route to keep their noble causes afloat. The evil comes in when advertising dictates the content. It undermines the purity of the venture as the content is compromised for the sake of money, kind of like when special protections are offered for donations.

Other websites have found this useful and have thrived despite user protests: Digg, YouTube, MySpace. Google’s mission of indexing the world’s information is remarkably similar to Wikipedia’s. In his plea for donations, Wales sums it up this way: Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s our commitment.

Is that commitment worse served by selling ad space? Google obviously thought not, and has yet to have any funding woes or any meaningful backlash from users. Google from the outset was a for-profit company, but maybe it’s time Wikipedia found a way to be self-sustaining instead of asking a recently cash-strapped populace to keep it afloat with minimum donations. Hey, Barack Obama raised enormous sums of cash—far more than $6 million—at $5 a pop. Maybe if Wales was less restrictive about revenue streams, he wouldn’t have to appeal to the better natures of the masses to achieve his goals.


Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica posits the traditional pitfalls of user-generated content and advertising: “what big-time brand wants to take a chance on appearing above unvetted and potentially libelous entries that could, at any moment, have key words replaced by terms for genitalia?”

I wonder if this question is out of date. Surely advertisers are getting past this guilt-by-association game in this day and age. If they haven’t gotten past this, they need to. But it doesn’t have to big name advertisers either. If Wales wants to keep it as pure as possible, why not become an ad haven for mom-and-pops, small businesses, enviro-friendly pursuits, other nonprofit organizations (they do, advertise, you know). As many caveats as one likes could be produced.

Or, if special protections are sometimes okay—as a couple of people have alleged in recent years—why not a sister service where people and companies can pay for a Wikipedia page of their own where they can tell their own stories? Why can’t, at the top of the community-edited page, a link be provided to the subject’s own version of events? It’s a form of special protection, just more transparent.

The revenue paths for a site as popular and beloved as Wikipedia are potentially limitless, yet Wales wishes to rely on, well, charity.