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Wikipedia: Innovation without profit?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 00:00 UK time, Friday, 14 January 2011

If you're a frequent visitor to Wikipedia - like rather a lot of essay-writing students of my acquaintance - you may now be sick of the sight of a bearded man demanding cash.

The collaborative encyclopaedia, soon to celebrate its 10th anniversary, has been on a fundraising drive and its founder Jimmy Wales has been the face of that campaign.

When I met him this week, he laughed ruefully when I told him that some were getting a bit tired of seeing him on every page and apologised that his "ugly mug" had been cluttering up the site.

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He said he hadn't wanted his picture to be used but that his staff told him it had tested better than others and it had worked, raising a substantial amount of the money needed to keep the non-profit making venture running.

And that of course is the wonderful thing about Wikipedia, it has grown and flourished for a decade as a voluntary organisation, a shining example of how innovation can flourish without the profit motive. It's now the fifth most popular website on the planet, all as a result of harnessing the collective wisdom of thousands of volunteer editors around the world.

But let us take a step back and ask whether Wikipedia's achievements and its future might now be more secure if it was a commercial business. After all, there are suggestions that some of its volunteers are getting bored, now that so many subjects have been exhausted, and that the whole project could have peaked. There are certainly few signs of innovation in recent years.

When I put that thesis to Jimmy Wales he was sceptical: "We are a charity and that's a stable model," he said. "Look at the pressures commercial ventures would be under - suddenly there's a need to meet quarterly results, suddenly there's a need to bring in money." Instead, he maintained Wikipedia could be true to its mission, "a temple to the mind."

But don't underestimate the challenges a charity faces in trying to innovate while pleasing different constituencies.

As Mr Wales explained how tricky it was making changes to the software which would bring in new editors without offending veteran Wikipedians, my mind turned to a recent conversation with another huge web brand which has taken a different route.

Last month, on a visit to Facebook for a forthcoming radio series on social networking, I met the man whose job it has been to push through all sorts of changes to the website's interface. In just about every case, the users have hated them, but Chris Cox and the Facebook team have just pushed ahead, and eventually the changes have proved immensely popular

He told me: "We knew that in the history of innovation, it's never received well. But getting through those first few days, this is a lesson you want to tell anyone who's an artist or a creator or a builder - you just need to have your own vision, and you need to be willing to stick to it in the face of criticism."

Now, like Wikipedia's Wales, Facebook has a strong, assertive leader in Mark Zuckerberg. And, despite the fact that he's running a commercial business that needs one day to make a profit, he has been even more confident than his counterpart at Wikipedia in sticking to his vision of where the web is heading net, however unpopular that makes him in the short-term.

Perhaps Facebook's secret is that it has so far resisted pressure to become a public company and face those quarterly examinations by Wall Street analysts, that, in Jimmy Wales' view, can stifle innovation. It looks easier for private companies to think long-term.

In our interview Jimmy Wales did not rule out putting adverts on Wikipedia at some stage. But perhaps a better course of action would be to imitate Facebook, attract huge amounts of venture capital on promises of a profitable future and then pursue his own vision of Wikipedia's future, while resisting an IPO for as long as possible. At least Mr Wales would not have to pop up each year on the site, holding out his cap for funds.


  • Comment number 1.

    Lets see if Facebook reaches ten years old before trying to teach Wikipedia any lessons! I just don't think RCJ understands the motivation behind not-for-profit projects whether it be Wikipedia or Linux.

  • Comment number 2.

    Wikipedia must be an attactive investment for Google.

    Anyone who asks Google a question (RIP Jeeves) looks for the wikipedia answer first. To provide the advertising contineously throughout this knowledge stream just seems to make sense.

  • Comment number 3.

    I agree with Sven

  • Comment number 4.

    There are 1000’s of charities, big and small, that rely on donations to survive. Online there are also some full-time bloggers that survive financially by asking for donations. (One I use a lot is Ken Rockwell’s photography website).

    Wikipedia’s mission remains tightly focused – it’s an online encyclopaedia. It does what it says on the tin. Most of the work is done by unpaid volunteers; introduce a for-profit element and many would ask why should they work for free?

    It is possible activity has peaked; there can’t be many major topics that haven’t now got an entry; but the goal was to produce an on-line encyclopaedia. It has been phenomenally successful in achieving that.

    If donations one day tail off Wikipedia could introduce some advertising; but if it become a for-profit public company then the pressure for year-on-year payouts to shareholders, each larger that the year before, would mean that increasing advertising income would become its goal, not producing an encyclopaedia.

    Becoming a for-profit business could mean pressure to charge people to access pages; pressure for some of the more obscure entries to be deleted if they didn’t attract many hits (after all they take up server space); that the Wikipedia brand had to diversify (Wikipedia coffee shops anyone?) to drive up income.

    If Wikipedia can survive as a charity then why shouldn’t they continue to do so? Becoming a public company could do more to harm Wikipedia than good. The same argument applies to any other successful charity.

    Comparing Wikipedia with Facebook is like comparing a library with a nightclub; they have completely different ethos and purpose.

  • Comment number 5.

    I laughed when I heard Richard Dawkins commenting on the apparent altruism of the contributors to the on line dictionary. This man has two faces, one in his books and then this sort of stuff, when put on the spot and commenting off the cuff. He was so shocked by the outbreak of community spirit that he had to resort to one of the most tangled bits of contemporary evolutionary theory to describe the state of mind of people making information available for all to share. It was so revealing about this writers own state of mind and the fact that he considers his ideas so valuable that he is only willing to share them by selling them.

    In his response Dawkins was completely overlooking the fundamental motivation for all bloggers and internet contributors, facebook, myspace, etc -and something all animals do, IT'S ATTENTION SEEKING.

  • Comment number 6.

    Wikipedia is a precipitation of the internet paradigm into the broader domain of human knowledge. The reason for its success is trust between user and creator, facilitated by the existence of a diverse, connected, community.

    RFCs are a library of specifications, freely available and commentable upon, started in 1969. This collaborative library of RFCs created what you are looking at: The Internet.

    An appreciation of what Jimmy Wales' organisation is doing, requires some awareness of this context, which shows that this type of phenomenon is far more robust than might otherwise be imagined.

    More than half the sum of human knowledge is now available to anyone with an Internet connection. Wikipedia is one of the ways we share the bits we understand with others who may one day understand it better than ourselves.

  • Comment number 7.

    Ooh, I did put a comment on the other article, but some one has obviously changed their minds about using comments there!

    So, in regards to Mediawiki (the soft ware) being too difficult to use, well that is very true.

    Admittedly, it is not terribly hard to learn, but many people are not interested in having to learn a whole new system just so they can contribute a paragraph or two.

    I think Wikipedia could learn a lot from the interfaces for things like Google Site, Joomla, Wordpress and so on. (I have proved as much by installing Mediawiki for a company and seeing a low take up, then replacing it with Google sites, which is wiki-like, and suddenly everyone is contributing!)

    The ideal would be that a user can choose to do even the most complex of articles, including nicely embedded images, referencing, internal links and so on, without having to know even one note of mark up. That would also encourage some older, wiser people like my mother to contribute - people who have a lifetime of knowledge and a rather long list of corrections that they would like to make to Wikipedia. (So far, my Mother, and ancient academic, has a rather low opinion of the quality of writing on Wikipedia and would like to take her virtual red pen to rather a lot of it!)

    There are a lot of older people out there that have been alienated by the complexity of Wikipedia - all that combined knowledge being ignored.

    Having said all that, I know of one or two frequent contributors who are already foaming at the mouth about such changes. "It means anyone will be able to mess it up!" Said one friend of mine, who is far too elitist.

    That, I thought, was rather the point!

  • Comment number 8.

    "We knew that in the history of innovation, it's never received well. But getting through those first few days, this is a lesson you want to tell anyone who's an artist or a creator or a builder - you just need to have your own vision, and you need to be willing to stick to it in the face of criticism."

    Wise Words.

    It really is a case of numbers, at the end of the day. Politicians know this as do the designers of the BBC website.

    If you make a change and a thousand people bang their chests and threaten to storm out, you have to counter that against the half a million or so who said nothing, either because they dont care, or dont mind, or have better things to worry about.

    When the BBC changed Have Your Say - several hundred people were up in arms and said they would never use the service again. A week after the change, they were still saying it and months on, some are still moaning. Strange though, they still seem to be here. And at a brief glance, the Have Your Say numbers are probably around the same as they were before, and that number is a tiny percentage of the people who use the website.

    Some Facebook campaigns have had THOUSANDS of people signing up about changes on Facebook. Not sure what the other 500 million people thought about it though.

  • Comment number 9.

    I've been through the whole gamut of emotions with Wikipedia - first excited, dying to get stuck in, articles, photographs. Then it began to get all a little common, and the ops and people who have appointed themselves began to clamp down and stifle creativitity. An article I'd written would once snowball and receive loads of contributions, now all it gets is "not enough citations" tag and a B-class rating. My level of input into the site has plummeted despite having plenty interesting topics to write for in detail.

    It was good to see an acknowledgement of problems with the obtuse Wiki markup. That would be a big step in the right direction. But what administrators and others "in charge" at the project could really do to help would be to work with the vast pool of contributors, instead of simply sticking a tag on their work telling them why it's not good enough.

  • Comment number 10.

    The best line I got from one of the Wiki contributors (I mean, one of the regulars) was when I commented that it was unnecessary to put up a rather nasty image - describing the issue with the image was sufficient.

    I was told "you obviously have no understanding of academia."

    Either Wikipedia is the utopian free for all, or it is a fully edited, elitist and restricted resource.

    If it has a weakness it is that it is trying to be both and the result is very uneven.

    This is probably why Schools in many countries tell pupils that they must not use Wikipedia for research - it is not that there aren't good and accurate articles on there (there are plenty), it is that you cannot tell which are and which aren't.

  • Comment number 11.

    I don't agree that Wikipedia is running out of articles... There are a vast amount of topics that need further research and development as well as updating as events pass,and vast subject areas that need expansion. For example,have a look at the area you live in on Wikipedia,maybe the local history is very sketchily covered...There must be dozens of possible new articles out of one village or suburb,all of interest to certain people and researchers. The wonder of Wikipedia is the huge breadth of topics covered that no other encyclopaedia has ever even dared to contemplate.

  • Comment number 12.

    Wales says "we are a charity". Not in the UK they're not. The Charity Commissioners decided that compiling an encyclopedia wasn't a charitable activity. I have three specific interest areas which I know about directly or which list me as a "player". Wikipedia won't let me edit those entries, so what's left there is delibrately inaccurate and misleading, because actual participants in a topic are barred. It's crazy.

  • Comment number 13.

    Wikipedia is a good idea for many things, where is simply a matter of accumulating factual information in one place - however in the case of controversial topics the articles can be taken over by a determined bunch of fanatics. Anyone who dissents is banned by the wikipedia arbcom who are mainly inexperienced American college kids.

    As pointed out Wikipedia gets top ranking by Google because of its depth which is missleading as other websites can be more honest in their content.

  • Comment number 14.

    It does make you wonder if there is room for a free encyclopaedia where true experts can contribute (for nothing) and there is a funded editorial team, properly set up with assessment panels as you get in the great encyclopaedias.

    What we are missing in this world of "education for all" is free, detailed and RELIABLE sources.

  • Comment number 15.

    Whilst Wikipedia is a great starting point for getting some information to write a university homework report, it is hardly possible to just copy and paste if you actually want to write something that is worthy of a pass. In my area of study (engineering) there are some fantastic articles that give a good background understanding of a topic (say, vibration) and a derivation of equations from first principles, but anything more and you have to go somewhere else. Thankfully Wikipedia lists sources at the bottom so I can either look up a document online or find a book (yes, we students do still use them from time to time) that is listed in the citations in the uni library.

    I think Wikipedia should remain as a charity for a number of reasons, not least because many of the contributors will jump ship if someone starts making a profit out of their effort. If it were to become a for-profit company, who's to say that major companies won't buy shares and then control the information contained to swing articles in their favour? A little extreme perhaps, but it could easily happen. From my own personal experiences, the least accurate articles are those about celebrities, probably due to the gossip surrounding their life. Much of the scientific information that I have read has tied in with relevant textbooks (as I always try and cross-reference information anyway).

    Finally, it doesn't matter that contributions are falling, as the vast majority of topics are now covered. Of course more information can be (and is being) added, but once you have a significant chunk of the essential information, there will be a drop in the number of people who are knowledgeable enough to expand on an article.

  • Comment number 16.

    Rory Cellan-Jones wrote:

    "If you're a frequent visitor to Wikipedia - like rather a lot of essay-writing students of my acquaintance - you may now be sick of the sight of a bearded man demanding cash."

    He's been "demanding cash?" Oh really? How does someone **asking** for financial help turn in to a demand?

  • Comment number 17.

    Re the comments about wikimarkup
    We have been trying to move towards a friendlier WYSIWYG interface, but there are several hurdles in the way. The issue has been raised many times and it is still being discussed and looked at, but there is no easy solution.
    Checkout this mailing list thread for example:

  • Comment number 18.

    Chris Grant wrote:

    "We have been trying to move towards a friendlier WYSIWYG interface, but there are several hurdles in the way...."

    The solution, I mean a proper solution, probably needs to be horrendous.

    Since wikitext (*as far as I understand) is stored as binary files rather than as text data, this kind of complicates things further.

    However the data is stored it needs to be rendered as HTML at some point - the advantage of storing as wikitext is that as HTML specification changes, so all that is needed is for the tool that renders to change, not the text itself.

    The dissadvantage to storing everything as wikitext is that wikitext is far more limited than html markup.

    My preferred approach to a solution is to use a way of storing the data that allows for the most versatility. For instance something like an XML based system; Open Document Format perhapsm since it is heavily maintained (and why reinvent the wheel). This is then stored as raw data in a table.

    Now, when it comes to creating or editing the page, you can choose your own interface - wikitext, html, html via wysiwyg. I am sure there would be plenty of alternate interfaces developed that took one input and rendered it into ODF.

    As for moving from the old system to the new, well that would be horrendous - but it need not happen in one go. Since the table that is used to decide which text you see is separate from the actual text, you add a field that decides whether you are looking in the old wikimarkup "text" table, or the new XML table. You can then convert in batches as you feel brave enough.

    One way or another, SOMETHING needs to be done. To steal an overused term, with HTML 5 coming along and goodness knows what else in the future, wikitext is basically no longer "fit for purpose."

  • Comment number 19.

    It is noteworthy that much of the criticism of Wikipedia comes from people who'd prefer you to spend money (preferably with them or their publishers) to get information, instead of having it for free.

  • Comment number 20.

    @Einveldi gets it spot on.

    WikiPedia did not used to have such draconian editors as they do now - editors who seem to award themselves with personal accolades as to how great they are and how many pages they've editied, stifling creativity and interesting articles along the way.

    i had a beatifully created page - which many other people had contributed to - that contained information not available elsewhere. it was not rude, or slanderous but a useful page of information.

    then one over zealous wiki-editor came along and slashed the content of the page back by about 90% claiming that everything needed to be linked and sourced. yet it couldn't be sourced/citied because that information did not exist elsewhere on the internet.

    so... is that all WikiPedia is then? a website that just collectively has all the links to a particular subject to everywhere else on the internet? why don't they just call it 'wikilinks' then, if that's all it can contain. if that's what the editors want then there's no need for WikiPedia, because all the information that it is linking to already exists elsewhere on the internet.

    which is why everytime i see Jimmy Whales face annoyingly demanding money (i agree with RCJ, it *is*) intrusive, i get a little annoyed and think "no!".

    I think all popular websites go this way. eBay used to be really good in the beginning but is now just bloated, charges too much and over-run by scammers. Facebook you can tell is alowly starting to go down the same path. Happens to all the popular websites. even the BBC, which used to be really good before the News re-design last year ...

  • Comment number 21.

    @geofftech: I've had the same things happen to me. Some articles have been deleted, contributions and corrections removed because there was no citation on the internet, etc. As far as I can see, contributions only get on there if the 'editors' allow it and if it's already on the web somewhere - so it's probably better to use Google or Bing to find out about something rather than rely on Wikipedia. A wysiwyg editor isn't going to change that. It might seem like anyone can edit something, but in reality only the people who spend inordinate amounts of time on it get their contributions in. Some of us have a life. :)

  • Comment number 22.

    You don't have to cite a source on the internet, as far as I know, you can site a published printed source as you would do normally, giving details as to the book or periodical and publisher, page number and so on.

    It gets more complicated when you want to add something as a witness. If you write a book or a paper, it is your work and you are at liberty to say "I went and looked at it and it is blue." This also applies to articles in regular encyclopaedia where the article author is quoted.

    Wikipedia is not personal articles in that way, so I am not sure what you do to add a personal, possibly unique knowledge, and therefore are unable to add a citation.

  • Comment number 23.

    @geofftech, @Laurence

    There is a need to maintain quality. When writing an article you should cite your sources (whether it be a website, book, magazine interview), otherwise for all we know you could be making the entire thing up.

    That said the editor base is definitely getting worse, more pedantic and more prone to fighting over stupid things. Personally I think Wikipedia has peaked.

    As a rule Wikipedia only accepts content that can be supported by a published source: see

  • Comment number 24.

    Chris Grant wrote:

    "As a rule Wikipedia only accepts content that can be supported by a published source: see"

    Although I understand why they do this, it does, unfortunately, limit Wikipedia as it effectively stops some true expert researchers adding to or correcting an entry based on their reputation and original research.

    It maybe that wikipedia should have a section that is all about original research where articles are submitted for peer review first as they would be for The Lancet or National Geographic and so on. It would be interesting.


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