Fundraising 2007/Why Give blog/Why Wikipedia doesn't have advertising

This blog entry has been posted as part of the Wikimedia Fundraising 2007 blog. Please see Fundraising 2007/Why Give blog for more details on these blog posts.

Advertising is a part of daily life. Should it be part of Wikipedia as well?

Wikipedia and its sister projects are supported almost exclusively by donations like yours. Every donor gives an average of about US$ 30. The projects are operating on a shoestring budget: While similarly popular "Web 2.0" websites like YouTube, Facebook and MySpace are valuated at billions of dollars, our annual budget is less than $5 million. Wikipedia is the only top-10 website that's operated by a non-profit organization, dedicated not to the benefit of its owners, but to the benefit of humankind.

Even though we're non-profit, it would be possible for Wikipedia to run advertising. There would be some legal complexities, and the income from ads would not be tax-exempt. Without a doubt, Wikipedia could make tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions, every year through advertising: more than enough to sustain the site without public support. So why don't we run ads?

Above all, our reliance on support by the public also means equity: Your donation is an explicit decision to support us. But if you feel we are going down the wrong path, you can also choose not to donate. For example, webcomic artist Howard Tayler has called for a boycott of our annual fundraiser due to Wikipedia's deletion policies regarding web comics and other topics (see also our Wikinews story).

Whether you agree with Tayler or not (I agree on some level, but feel that any kind of top down decision would only make matters worse), the point is that the volunteer and reader community, together, runs Wikipedia. Even the call to not donate is a form of dialogue and equity. And by supporting us, you can thank the thousands of volunteer contributors who build Wikipedia and its sister projects. They collaborate to put together articles like History of the board game 'Monopoly' or Autostereogram without any financial reward. Through the work of these individuals, Wikipedia has become the largest reference work in history. Even the content is under a "copyleft" license that allows anyone to re-use it. In this way, fundraisers connect readers and authors.

Read, if you will, through the comments left by our donors:

  • "Giving back to a repository which has given so much to me."
  • "Better than all of my university textbooks combined."
  • "Thanks for improving civilization."

What would the world look like if we made millions of dollars every year through advertising? Probably, we would not be able to make this connection between readers and writers, because people would no longer feel a need to donate. We would be seen as a "dot-com" like MySpace or YouTube. And soon contributors would rightly wonder why the Foundation does not give some of the millions of dollars to its contributors. Injecting advertising revenue into the volunteer community could easily turn into a nightmare of false incentives and administration overhead -- and not doing so could be considered extremely unfair.

Within our contributor community, the idea of advertising is extremely controversial for these and other reasons, and it is almost certain that a large number of people would stop authoring content if Wikipedia started to run ads. In fact, even vague rumors of advertising led to a split of the Spanish Wikipedia into two communities in February 2002. It took many years for the project to recover from this division. One can hardly imagine the consequences of a major internal division on a project the size of the English Wikipedia.

How would the rest of the world see us: universities, libraries and museums -- if the first thing they see on the Wikipedia article about "coffee" is a link to Starbucks? Would we still be seen as a mission-driven charity that wants to bring free knowledge to developing nations? How would it affect our credibility? What kind of influence might advertisers or ad sellers have on our content? Even a perception of bias in favor of those who "pay the bill" could be highly problematic.

Mind you, nobody is saying that Wikipedia does not have many internal challenges to overcome. Our recently launched quality initiative gives you an idea, however, what Wikipedia wants to be: a comprehensive, truly free and accurate resource available to everyone.

Does that mean that Wikipedia will never, ever run advertising of any kind, anywhere? We would not be good stewards of our projects if we took that position dogmatically. Right now, with your support, there's no reason to change our policy on advertising. It is up to you, really: If you agree with our belief that Wikipedia will be a greater resource, a truly public good, without ads on its articles -- make a contribution. :-) And if you want to make a major gift, please contact us at: majordonors AT wikimedia DOT org

Erik Möller has been a Wikipedia contributor since 2001, and was elected to the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees in 2006. This post is a personal opinion, and does not represent an official statement from the Wikimedia Foundation.