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Wikipedia's tin-cup approach wears thin

The nonprofit website needs to raise funds, but it resists selling ads.

March 10, 2008|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The new headquarters of one of the world's most popular websites is 3,000 square feet of rented space furnished with desks and chairs bought on the cheap from EBay and Craigslist.

A sheet of printer paper taped to the door says the office belongs to the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia, the online almanac of anything and everything that users want to chronicle, from Thomas Aquinas to Zorba the Greek.

With about 300 million page views a day, the site by some estimates could be worth many hundreds of millions of dollars if it sold advertising space. It doesn't. Wikipedia's business plan is, basically, to hold out a tin cup whenever it runs low on funds, which is very often.

When it comes to money, "we are about as unsophisticated as we could possibly be," Executive Director Sue Gardner said as she swept up Styrofoam packing nuts in the office, the foundation's home since it relocated in January from St. Petersburg, Fla. "It's time for us to grow up a little bit."

Growing up can be hard to do.

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.

"Imagine if the other top 10 websites in the world, like Yahoo or Google, tried to run their budgets by asking for donations from 14-year olds," said Chad Horohoe, a 19-year-old college student in Richmond, Va., who was until recently a Wikipedia site administrator, one of the 1,500 or so people authorized to delete pages or block users from making changes to articles. "It isn't sustainable."

Looking at it one way, it's cheap to run Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation's other endeavors, which include an online compendium of quotations and a multilingual dictionary and thesaurus. The annual budget is $4.6 million, more than half of it dedicated to 300 computer servers and other equipment. On the other hand, the foundation has a tough time raising a few million dollars. The last fundraising campaign featured a video of co-founder Jimmy Wales literally wringing his hands in desperation.

The 45,000 or so individuals who contribute annually give an average of $33 each, so campaigns, which are conducted online, raise only about one-third of what's needed.

For the rest, foundation directors have to hit up outside donors, such as Stephen J. Luczo of Seagate Technology and U2's Bono.

Recent money-making proposals include a Wikipedia television game show, a Wikipedia board game and Wikipedia T-shirts. Gardner said that a board game might by OK but that a game show would be problematic, because game shows are competitive and Wikipedia is collaborative.

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.

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 Espanol. Its founders said that advertising "implied the existence of a commercialization of the selfless work of volunteers."

Ads would be "threatening to Wikipedia's neutrality," said Michael Bimmler, a 16-year-old high school student who has been a contributor for more than four years and is president of the foundation's Swiss chapter. Readers would be suspicious about articles if ads were near them, he said, and would wonder why certain articles were longer than others. Besides, he added, ads are ugly.

The debate over Wikipedia's future took a tabloid turn last week when gossip sites started buzzing over allegations by former Wikipedian Danny Wool, who recently launched Veripedia, which says it authenticates Wikipedia articles. Wool posted on his blog claims that co-founder Wales had, among other things, been imprudent with Wikipedia funds, asking the foundation to pay for visits to massage parlors and other non-Wikipedia-related activities.

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