Recently, while in a trance of “Random Article” clicks on Wikipedia, I became distracted from a page on the viviparous lizard by an advertisement at the top of the screen. Recalling Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’ statement, “When I founded Wikipedia, I could have made it into a for-profit company with advertising banners, but I decided to do something different,” I curiously clicked through this banner to find something even more annoying than a pop-up telling me I’ve won a free iPod: a plea for a $1 donation. The solicitation came from Wales’ colleague, a woman named Maryana Pinchuk, who was quick to add that she “was working on a PhD at Harvard so that (she) could go on to be a professor at a big university… but instead couldn’t leave Wikipedia.” A bit smug perhaps, but some context describing the talent and altruism within Wikipedia never hurt anyone.
However, the smug tone continued. A few more mentions of Harvard later, Pinchuk assured us that there’s “not a single advertisement [notably forgetting that an advertisement delivers users to her letter in the first place]—and there never will be—because that could bias the information in our articles. We’re able to keep it ad-free… on the change that people scrape from their couches.”
Turns out, Wikipedia doesn’t have a donations problem; Wikipedia has an ego problem and a snobbish, elitist obsession with remaining non-commercialized. If Wikipedia were truly concerned about “put(ting) (information) out there for everybody on the planet to use,” the site would have suppressed its arrogant obsession with advertisements, cashed in, and have made a far greater impact on the world than merely providing the wealthy western hemisphere with a free encyclopedia.
Pinchuk, of course, would be quick to chirp about how advertisements could “bias the information in (Wikipedia’s) articles.” However, if she and the rest of Wales’ cadre of starving web programmers believe that each high profile page on Wikipedia hasn’t already been chewed up and spit out by publicists, attorneys, and marketing strategists alike, they are mistaken. If Wikipedia truly is an open forum for information sharing, then we can be sure that parties with a vested interest in a Wiki are the most vigilant updaters of a page, scrutinizing and altering Wikis down to each semicolon. Wikipedia already has full exposure to commercial interests, advertisements or not, and could probably benefit from further investments to protect the site from hacking or manipulation at the hands of commercial interests. In addition, with the revenue and resource potential of Wikipedia, the site could surely engineer a way to involve advertisements while protecting the sanctity of liberal information sharing. Google’s means of ad-delivery based on content and sketchily-collected user data are not the only way to commercialize a website; Wikipedia’s assumption that advertisements inherently pollute the sharing of information is remarkably closed-minded. The group hasn’t even tried.
According to a study conducted in March, only 30 percent of the world’s population can connect to the Internet. Websites with as much traffic as Wikipedia casually generate hundreds of millions of dollars per year, and if Wikipedia were able to drop its smug self-satisfaction with keeping its website free from an unfairly perceived evil, the group could have a substantial charitable impact by bringing the internet to countries without the infrastructure. Then, in the name of sharing information between all of humanity, impoverished localities could write Wikis on their regions, tribes, and customs rather than an Oxford professor thousands of miles away. Until then, wealthy people in the western hemisphere will continue to use Wikipedia without advertisements while school children in Somalia lack the means to access the Internet, not to mention far more basic necessities.
Wikipedia has indeed revolutionized the way information is shared. The site is a one-stop-shop for information on everything from Sir Francis Drake to the dysentery that killed him. The benefit has been considerable; anyone with an Internet connection can now educate himself on whatever he desires, entirely at the hands of user contributions. But if Wikipedia truly cares about sharing information with everyone on earth, as Pinchuk declares, the group must find subtle ways to monetize the site while protecting the sanctity of user provided information. With revenue generated, Wikipedia can have a far greater impact on humanity than it currently does presiding over a site that generates no revenue.
As for Wales and Pinchuk, banners for Subway on Wikipedia do not mean they cannot continue to pat themselves on the back for working in a “rented 2nd floor... hunched at wobbly folding tables” rather than a sprawling Silicon Valley campus, since profits could easily be committed towards charitable efforts. If Wikipedia truly cares about creating a worldwide online encyclopedia, it must dedicate itself more towards bringing information to the masses and less to its snobbish obsession with remaining advertisement-free.