Yes, Wikipedia should take the money

by on March 18, 2008 · 6 comments

17wiki.190-1.jpgOver at Techdirt (and here on TLF), Tim Lee takes issue with my post suggesting that Wikipedia should consider selling ads instead of asking for donations. He has a good point, which is that right now the only reason to volunteer to work for Wikipedia is because you’re passionate about it, but that might change if money became involved. But I think Tim overstates his case:

Being a member of the Wikipedia board would no longer be a thankless exercise in public service, but would be a relatively glamorous opportunity to direct hundreds of thousands of dollars to one’s pet causes. Over time, the senior leadership positions would be sought out by people who are more excited about doling out largesse than editing an encyclopedia.

I’m not sure why that would be the case. By that rationale we could never have large philanthropic foundations because they would attract self-interested directors. As long as their actions are transparent and they are accountable to the wikipedians, I don’t see why the money couldn’t be directed for the benefit of Wikipedia. And if the directors enjoy some vicarious “glamour” as a result, then I think that’s a fine reward for hard work—it might even attract better candidates than are interested today.

Since it’s Sunshine Week I’ll stress that the key is transparency. And Tim is right on this point, too: institutions matter. Right now Jimmy Wales is taking some heat for conducting his Wikipedia business in a less than transparent manner. If that’s how Wkipedia is going to operate, them perhaps money will corrupt it and Tim is right that “there’s no reason to think an institution built to edit an encyclopedia is going to have any special competence to oversee the spending of millions of dollars.” Still, I guess I’m just more optimistic about what the Wikipedia community is capable of.

P.S. Yeah, I love Twitter! Check me out at twitter.com/jerrybrito.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    The difference is that the primary (indeed, only) purpose of most philanthropic foundations is to hand out money. So if you attract people whose primary interest is in handing out money (note that I did not say anything about self-interest), that’s find because that’s what the foundation is for.

    But the primary purpose of Wikipedia, and by extension the Wikimedia board and staff, is to preserve the integrity of Wikipedia’s editing process. To do this well, it’s crucial that Wikipedia’s senior leadership be closely connected to the Wikipedia editing process. They need to be people who understand how Wikipedia editing works and have strong ties to a lot of prolific Wikipedians.

    Right now, that happens automatically because the only real motivation for seeking a seat on Wikimedia’s board or staff is out of love for the encyclopedia. But in a world where the Wikimedia Foundation was a non-profit organization with a budget in the tens of millions of dollars, there’s a much bigger danger of a rift forming between Wikipedia, the encyclopedia, and Wikimedia, the cash cow.

    The “accountable to Wikipedians” part is key. In most non-profits, the primary mechanism for accountability comes from the fact that the members provide most of the revenue. This wouldn’t be true in an ad-supported Wikipedia. While in the long run, Wikipedia’s revenues would be generated by its members, those members wouldn’t have any practical ability to withhold ad revenue if they were unhappy with the way the organization was being run. Which means that if they were unhappy with the way the foundation was being run, their only recourse would be through politics. And rancorous battles over money are the last thing an encyclopedia built on editor goodwill needs.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    The difference is that the primary (indeed, only) purpose of most philanthropic foundations is to hand out money. So if you attract people whose primary interest is in handing out money (note that I did not say anything about self-interest), that’s find because that’s what the foundation is for.

    But the primary purpose of Wikipedia, and by extension the Wikimedia board and staff, is to preserve the integrity of Wikipedia’s editing process. To do this well, it’s crucial that Wikipedia’s senior leadership be closely connected to the Wikipedia editing process. They need to be people who understand how Wikipedia editing works and have strong ties to a lot of prolific Wikipedians.

    Right now, that happens automatically because the only real motivation for seeking a seat on Wikimedia’s board or staff is out of love for the encyclopedia. But in a world where the Wikimedia Foundation was a non-profit organization with a budget in the tens of millions of dollars, there’s a much bigger danger of a rift forming between Wikipedia, the encyclopedia, and Wikimedia, the cash cow.

    The “accountable to Wikipedians” part is key. In most non-profits, the primary mechanism for accountability comes from the fact that the members provide most of the revenue. This wouldn’t be true in an ad-supported Wikipedia. While in the long run, Wikipedia’s revenues would be generated by its members, those members wouldn’t have any practical ability to withhold ad revenue if they were unhappy with the way the organization was being run. Which means that if they were unhappy with the way the foundation was being run, their only recourse would be through politics. And rancorous battles over money are the last thing an encyclopedia built on editor goodwill needs.

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