Wikipedia To Run Out Of Money?

Last week at the LIFT07 conference in Geneva, Florence Devouard, chairwoman of Wikimedia, the organisation behind the ubiquitous, editable-by-all online encyclopedia warned that Wikipedia was facing a serious financial crisis if it did not receive more funding soon.

Wikipedia To Run Out Of Money?Whilst there have been sensationalist reports that Wikipedia would be forced to close in three to four months if the current financial situation continued, this has shown not to be the case by an interview of Devouard. She does stress, however, that Wikipedia cannot continue growing at the current pace if it does not find ways to raise money.

Currently Wikimedia (which is a non-profit organisation) is funded almost entirely from donations, with the occasional content license deal. There can be little doubt that if Wikipedia were to run advertising, it could instantly become self sufficient, as Jason Calacanis, web media entrepreneur, has been advocating. They point to the success of the Mozilla Foundation (the makers of Firefox), another non-profit organisation, who are in a very good financial position thanks to an advertising deal with Google.

However, Wikimedia has not been keen to accept such advertising, in part due to the fear that it would taint the non-commercial nature of Wikipedia, and in part due to opposition from some users.

It would seem that Wikimedia has two options for the future of its funding; continue with the current approach of soliciting donations as the main source of income or accept advertising, with all the negative consequences that may follow.

There may, however, be a third way. I would like to see Wikipedia commercialised; there can be little doubt that it would be of enormous commercial value to a purchaser, and that its status as a revenue generating business would help to guarantee its future. Wikipedia’s objectivity as an organisation is sacrosanct, but so are Google’s search results. Google recognised when it was founded that it would cease to be of any value to its users the day that it accepted money for placement within its search results. The result is clearly labeled advertising which in no way detracts from a useful product, and an emphatically revenue positive company.

I see no reason why Wikipedia cannot experience the same kind of success that Google has enjoyed; a rich Wikipedia could afford to pay experts to review its articles, improving style and accuracy (and thereby removing a major concern which is a barrier to its mass adoption as a trusted source of information). A rich Wikipedia would ensure that this resource which has become crucial to our information age will remain for as long as it is needed.

Don’t forget that you can support Wikipedia by sending donations to support Wikipedia.
(Thanks Mikker)

Huw Leslie is editor of UK-based Web 2.0 and software blog Gizbuzz, and the co-founder of technology blog network Oratos Media. His personal blog is For Crying Out Loud!

10 thoughts on “Wikipedia To Run Out Of Money?”

  1. Frankly, the suggestion that Wikipedia could become a commercialised is downright daft and astonishingly ignorant of Wikipedia culture. The strength of this encyclopedia is clearly its open nature and the fact that thousands of intelligent and dedicated individuals contribute to it. Were it to become commericalised many (perhaps most) of these users would become disillusioned and simply fork. Besides, claiming copyright over Wikipedia’s content is legally impossible as it’s released on a user-per-user basis under the GNU Free Documentation License. Changing it would be impossible.

    Furthermore, the commercial reasoning of the article is suspect – Britannica (who does pay “experts” to review articles) is in dire financial trouble, why would a commericialised Wikipedia be any different? (Especially since forked competitors with the exact same content would soon emerge).

  2. Mikker – My personal view is the same as yours, commercialisation is not what Wikipedia is about – both in terms of ethos, and as you point out, authorship of the content.

    The question still remains – how will Wikipedia continue to provide the excellent free information that it does (you’ll probably know that we link to it when we can), if it’s bandwidth charges for 2007 are projected to be $60k-100k/month and projected hardware spend is $1m for six months? (ref)

    Donations could work, but as many charities find out, even the best intentioned supporters eventually get fatigue when they are continuously asked for money.

    Perhaps one way would be to let people pay X on a monthly basis.

    As a small point – I’m not sure your argument comparing with Britannica holds. Wikipedia is the default reference point for many, many people – quite different Britannica.

    Your posting has prompted me to add a link to sending donations to support Wikipedia.

  3. I disagree:

    You talk of the open nature of Wikipedia, but as Jason Calacanis points out, ordinary users are not involved in the process of decision making – it is controlled by a relatively small group of hard core users. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it allows more agile decision making. My point is that this way of running it is not significantly different from how a commercial wikipedia is run.

    The strength of Wikipedia does lie in its wiki nature, which makes it up to date and gives it a huge corpus of information. However, it does make it inaccurate, particularly when dealing with obscure topics, and it also leads to a frankly poor style. Expert review, combined with the current wiki approach, would help improve public confidence as well as solve these problems.

    Britannica isn’t a wiki, so you can’t compare the two.

  4. ***

    I made several points:
    (1) Commericalising Wikipedia is legally impossible (important bit: the information is released under the GNU on a user-per-user basis – this means all editors own the copyright to their contributions but agree to release it for free. Changing this copyright is impossible).
    (2) If Wikipedia tried to become commericialised, many (if not most) of its users – including the “hard core” you refer to – would defect by simply forking. (Like the Spanish version did a number of years ago. In fact, the Spanish illustrate my point nicely – they forked simply because they feared the introduction of advertising to support a non-commercial encyclopedia!). “Ordinary” users DO make decisions on a day-to-day basis, such people include the admins, ‘crats, arbcom members and editors with an established reputation. These people are perfectly ordinary; what distinguishes them is their experience and level of participation. Anyone can become as involved as any of these people.

    Therefore, Wikipedia cannot become commercialised because (1) it’s legally impossible and (2) the hard-core of users who actually keep the place afloat (like myself) would simply fork.

    Huw, as for your suggestion that Wikipedia should rely more on experts, the co-founder of the encyclopedia, Larry Sanger (who split with Jimbo), has implemented a fork that does exactly this. It’s called ” Citizendium” ( – you can judge for yourself whether it is better than Wikipedia.

    Furthermore, that Wikipedia lacks experts is a myth (I know numerous regular editors with Ph.ds) and, besides, as the Nature review showed, Britannica’s accuracy is comparable to Wikipedia’s.

    In light of the above, I think my central points stand. The key suggestion that Huw made in the article, that he would ” like to see Wikipedia commercialized”, is simply daft and could only be made by someone completely ignorant of how Wikipedia actually operates and in ignorance of Wikipdia article copyright (technically, copyleft). I would suggest that it is downright irresponsible to publish something like this without a great deal of knowledge. Fittingly, Wikipedia’s article on itself ( is a good place to start on further researh.

  5. That’s all well and good, regarding the “daft” idea of commercialization. I tend to agree.

    But if somebody doesn’t come up with a model for covering this site’s operating expenses, it WILL disappear.

  6. Mikker – I think you’re being over-harsh on Huw, without a wide basis to make your assumption. He’s got a strong knowledge of many of the areas you mention.

    I realised when Huw put this piece forward, it was controversial, and I suspected it would illicit comments, but I thought worth publishing. You say “downright irresponsible to publish,” I say good for public debate – I mean, it prompted you to contribute and put the other side didn’t it?

    Where do you stand on the funding side to keep Wikipedia alive? What do you think is a realistic solution?

  7. I think you’re misunderstanding the ramifications of commercialisation, Mikker. The copyright could remain owned by all contributors. The company wouldn’t take control of the content at all. It would just have the chance to make money on top of the overheads for running Wikipedia from advertising.

    Regarding Citizendium – I am advocating a different approach than Larry Sanger is attempting. I don’t propose a change from the ‘anyone can edit’ Wikipedia mentality. All I would do is identify certain articles that could do with style improvement, or fact checking, or general expert input, and pay an expert for their time to do that. I think that would give the best of both worlds.

    If users chose to fork, then they would be free to take all the content with them, and there would be no general loss to the community. The only risk is for the company that would acquire Wikipedia, as to whether they would lose their traffic.

    For what its worth I am a keen supporter of what Wikipedia does, and I have in fact donated in the past. I’m just very keen to see it stay open, and I think that Wikipedia would be put in a better position if it were commercial.

  8. ***

    Firstly, though Wikipedia does need more money, the initial reports that it is in dire financial trouble are inaccurate. See (See also: Hence, (to reply to Simon) I doubt drastic measures are necessary. The donations based financial strategy can continue indefinitely I think. (If it ever came down to the wire and Wikipedia was running out of cash, there would be a surge of donations – as we saw when the media picked up on Devourd’s comment. Donation fatigue is certainly an issue, but I doubt Wikipedia will continue to grow exponentially for much longer, its costs should therefore start to plateau and donations should suffice to cover running costs).

    Secondly, my point about editor defection stands. It takes a lot of effort to keep Wikipedia running: there is RC patrol, content checking, XFD, warnings, blocking, FAC, FAR, the various projects, admin promotion, ITN, mediation, the ARBCOM, DYK etc. etc. etc. That is, it takes the efforts of thousands of dedicated and intelligent editors just to keep the place afloat, not even to mention writing new articles or keeping old ones updated. If a lot of editors forked, therefore, Wikipedia would literally fall apart under a surge of vandalism or good-faith but bad n00b edits. Your assertion that there would be “no general loss to the community” is consequently not exactly accurate. And if even placing advertisements on Wikipedia to support its not-for-profit activities is perennially controversial (even leading to a fork by the Spanish) you can easily imagine what editors’ reactions would be. I for one would not donate my time to a money-making enterprise, and I assure you many other (“hard core”) editors would feel the same. Remember, Wikipedia editors tend to buy into the open-source movement, which in turn tends to be anti-corporate. A commercialized Wikipedia could never afford to pay enough people to do what these individuals currently do for free.

    In any case, what exactly are the benefits of commercialization vs. an ad driven charity? For one, that would piss fewer users off and Wikipedia would then retain its tax-exempt status. Furthermore, I again dispute that it’s necessary to pay experts to review articles because (1) experts are already doing this for free and (2) Wikipedia articles are about as accurate as Britannica’s expert written ones.

    Thirdly, there are inherent problems in integrating expert editing into existing Wikipedia policies. What happens, for example, when Expert A writes “yada yada” and I disagree with her and want to change it to “yaaada yaaada”? If the expert’s version wins, then you are advocating overturning WP:CONSENSUS (which editors would never agree to), if my version wins the expert isn’t helping the article.

    SO… Wikipedia isn’t in dire financial trouble so drastic measures are not necessary, commercializing Wikipedia isn’t feasible because those who keep it afloat would defect if it were tried and there are no benefits to commercialization (vs. an ad-driven charity) anyway.

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