Wikipedia: Innovation without profit?
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.
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.