Wikipedia’s glory and golden geese

Erik Moeller posted an interesting essay today on why Wikipedia and ads don’t mix.  I think the argument is much stronger than Erik makes it out to be.  He leaves out three key points:

1) Being ad-free is the most visible way in which Wikipedia does the right thing where the rest of the Internet has been mired in half-hearted compromises for many years.  Wikipedia challenges its visitors to stop viewing the Internet as a series of commercial tubes where utility and truth takes a back seat to ads; and to start viewing it as a tool they can use to fix things themselves.  Just as Wikipedia implements two-way links, provides strong attribution and history preservation for public data, and provides true transclusion, it separates neutral presentation of relevant material from bias, flame wars, and advertising. These are the project’s greatest advantages, and should be strengthened, not weakened.  It is embarrassing to seriously consider sacrificing such a strength for any reason.

2) Ads are an inefficient way to support such a vibrant site — like spreading Miracle-Gro on a mossy knoll in the rainforest, because you want flowers to grow there instead of moss.   They sap the very lifeblood of a site intended for collaboration: they reduce the usable space on-screen, space used avidly by its readers and contributors.  And they develop nothing in the way of lasting artefacts or community.

3) Ads obscure the great moral lesson of the projects: the self-sufficiency that they have long embodied.  This is the first in a modern line of societal triumphs that have existed in every age : the coordination of large portions of civilization to achieve things unimaginable by small groups.  Finding a way to empower the rest of Wikipedia’s supporters to directly contribute to its mission, rather than forcing significant contributions through the seive of finance, is necessary to sustain this triumph. There are many popular global sites, and there will be many more, but the self-sufficient vitality and transparency of Wikipedia is yet unique.

Wikipedia needs resources now only because it is handling so many resources — millions of hours of talented in-kind support each year.  Time and again, this sort of problem has been resolved by asking the same community whose growth brings on these concerns to fix it, using both edges of growth’s sword.

We know best those supporters who have excelled at sharing their support through our most efficient channels : the tools of the wiki itself.  They are only a tenth of one percent of the community of active users, however.   We should find ways to tap into the interest of the other 99.9% — some of who, for instance, might not find it difficult to directly address the core hardware and bandwidth needs of the projects.
I wonder what would happen if Wikipedia spent a few days of banner space asking not for individual donations, but for in-kind offers to sponsor our hardware and bandwidth needs.  I would be surprised if we did not see a number of large companies offering what they could.

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