Dear Wikipedia — instead of asking for money, why not ask for help?

15 Nov 2022

The co-founder of Wikipedia has had enough. At least so he says in a 2 November email to me. He thanks me for the two contributions I made since becoming a Wikipedia supporter in 2018. “This makes you one of the rare exceptions who chooses to support a project that’s helpful to everyone on the planet.”

Suggestions about how to partially commercialise Wikipedia has the potential of derailing this brave experiment in human collaboration. (Christian Rummel / iStock Unreleased / Getty Images)

Wales goes on to complain about my failure to reply to an earlier missive and to clarify what’s at stake. “At every turn, we have been pressured to compromise our values, but to be honest: We’ve had enough.” (These words are bold in the original.) Wales then issues what seems like an ultimatum:

People always ask us, why not just run ads to make revenue? Or capture and sell reader data? Or make everyone pay to read?

The growing endowment of Wikimedia, the charitable foundation that hosts Wikipedia, attests to the effectiveness of these appeals.

But Wales’s ultimatum threatens what makes Wikipedia distinctive. Even tasteful advertising could be a proof of concept that might turn Wikipedia into just another tech business using its vast store of data to pursue profit.

There are ways to expand Wikipedia’s reach that instead double down on what makes it distinctive in today’s for-profit digital media landscape. Wikipedia celebrates the selfless attitude of Wikipedians “boldly making changes when they find something that can be added or improved.” Rather that asking for money to expand its reach, Wikipedia could further empower the mindset that writes and improves entries on the Egyptian Canopic jar and the movie career of the B-movie actor John Agar and become even more helpful to everyone on the planet.

Could ads turn Wikipedians into Facebook content moderators?

One thing that is clear is the great value of Wikipedia. Wikipedia — the largest and most-read reference work in history — serves as an epistemic commons, a form of shared knowledge open to everyone. Elon Musk recently proposed that Twitter could function as a “common digital town square”, but it’s hard to see how such a common space is viable without the shared knowledge offered by Wikipedia.

Imagine Wikipedia were to run ads. There is discussion about how to run ads in ways that don’t conflict with its core business of informing the world. But the mere existence of ads creates incentives that did not previously exist — which is to say, they threaten what it means to be a Wikipedian.

Suppose something like Google Ads were used to sell tasteful advertising on the fascinating entry for “Canopic jar”. I suspect that this page would not be among the most expensive to place advertising on. As soon as I place my ad, I have an incentive to drive traffic there. I find myself thinking: What click-baiting alterations can I make to “Canopic Jar”? Doubtless Wikipedians — of whom “123,547 have made at least one edit during the last month” — would notice the unexpected spike in traffic to this Egyptology page and promptly reverse my changes. I might be banned from making further edits.

But if I’m maximising traffic to an advertiser’s site, then even a short delay between my tweaking “Canopic Jar” and its correction could be lucrative. I will be looking to obscure my identity and pasting the rejected content into “Charon (Moon)”. I’m not saying that Wikipedia couldn’t efficiently hunt down my adjustments, nor that they couldn’t make it more difficult for me. But the job of keeping up is a game of whack-a-mole likely to change what it means to be a Wikipedian.

Wikipedia celebrates the selflessness of Wikipedians. When asked “Why contribute?”:

71% of the editors contribute because they like the idea of volunteering to share knowledge … 69% believe that information should be freely available … 63% pointed out that contributing is fun … Only 7% edit Wikipedia for professional reasons.

If Wales chooses to place ads, he gives selfless Wikipedians another job. They won’t be altering what they consider to be earnestly made factual errors or improving cumbersome exposition. Wikipedians will now find themselves charged with identifying and purging a new category of commercially motivated distortions of the most read reference work in history.

Preserving the veracity of partially commercialised Wikipedia could turn Wikipedians into a new species of Facebook content moderator, 15,000 of whom protect Facebook/Meta’s advertising business by keeping the site free of pornography and fake news. If Wikimedia is to be taken seriously as an advertising business, it will need to turn some Wikipedians who now contribute for the love of knowledge into poorly paid content moderators.

Ask for help, not money

We should view these suggestions about how to partially commercialise Wikipedia as potentially derailing this brave experiment in human collaboration. The fact that Wales feels able to make them tells us something about the tech ethos in which a charismatic founder is empowered to take a disproportionate share of credit for what is really a collective effort. A more optimistic response would be to listen less to Wales and give greater power to Wikipedians.

Rather than emailing bolded pleas for money, Wales could ask for help. Wikipedians with expertise in Egyptology freely enhance the content of “Canopic Jar”. Much of the knowledge that Wikipedia needs to expand its reach is technical. It commands a market value that knowledge about ancient Egyptian burial practices currently does not. It would be a test of the ideal of Wikipedia to see if people with these marketable technical skills could prove that they are as inspired by the ideal of free knowledge for all as other Wikipedians.

Rather than bolded appeals and ultimatums, Wales might instead work on wording a request for help from those with the skills it needs to make the epistemic commons a reality for more people. The fact that this expertise has high market value doesn’t prevent it from being freely given to “a project that’s helpful to everyone on the planet”.

Nicholas Agar is Professor of Ethics at the University of Waikato in Aotearoa New Zealand, and the author of How to be Human in the Digital Economy. His book “Dialogues on Human Enhancement” is forthcoming with Routledge.

Originally published on ABC, 14 November 2022.