Jimmy Wales Needs Your Help

Robertolyra, Creative Commons license

Much of the Internet's attention the last two months has focused on stopping the various copyright bills being entertained in Congress, but at the same time, Wikipedia has been quietly running its annual fundraising campaign. With awkward banner ads featuring Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Wikimedia Foundation staffers, and volunteers, the campaign aims to cover Wikimedia's operating budget of $25 million. If working to halt bills like the Stop Online Piracy Act is a defensive move, Wikipedia's fundraising campaign is an offense. Just ten years old, Wikipedia has become a go-to repository of the world's knowledge, pulling in nearly half a billion unique visitors a month—enough to make it one of the top six websites in the world. Its success is improbable. "The problem with Wikipedia," a Wikipedia contributor named Gareth Owen writes, "is that it only works in practice. In theory, it's a total disaster."

Part of the theory is, of course, that you can create a volunteer-driven digital encyclopedia and that it will be good. But another part is that you can sustain it without commercialization. The first five sites in the global top six—Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo!, and Baidu—are all for-profit. The Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit, and Wikipedia rejects advertising and sponsorships. "Commerce is fine," says Wales in his appeal. "Advertising is not evil. But it doesn't belong here. Not in Wikipedia." Instead we get the banner ads with founder Jimmy Wales, intended to prevent what Wikimedia calls "Jimmy fatigue." The goal is to tap into something that we talk a lot about in politics: the power of small donors.

With 3.8 million entries in English alone, Wikipedia isn't perfect. There's no formal, professional fact-checking system. (A Wikipedia entry famously and erroneously accused journalist John Seigenthaler of being a suspect in President John F. Kennedy's assassination.) Too few women contribute, and critics say too much power is given to a small group of anonymous, sometimes bullying, users. Larry Sanger, who was involved in the founding of Wikipedia, has condemned the Wikipedia community as "intransigent, insular, and unlikely to leave its adolescent-boy comfort zone." The volunteer editor base is contracting—while there were some 90,000 editors in June of this year, Wikipedia says it's on track to attract just 79,000 by July of next year.

But these failings serve to underscore how important the Wikipedia campaign is. As the Internet evolves, the online encyclopedia is solidifying its role as purveyor of the world's information. Google or Bing nearly anything—your college, the breed of your dog, a political ideology—and a Wikipedia article appears among the top results. Wikipedia's failings are the Internet's failings—and thus a problem for all of us.

One major way Wikipedia is hoping to expand its user base, particularly outside the U.S., is on mobile devices. "Wikipedia needs to reinvent itself to suit the way people use the Internet from their phones, in addition to supporting desktop and laptop usage," reads Wikimedia's annual plan. That's no mere preference—it's essential. Cell phones are quickly becoming the way that much of the world engages with the Internet, particularly in rural, poor places. Wikipedia has been redesigned to be accessible with low-bandwidth connections, but the major limitation is that Wikipedia's mobile interface doesn't allow for editing. They're working on that.

Wikipedia's expansion most likely will not have a big impact for people in the U.S., where the encyclopedia is widely used. Its expansion plans focus on developing countries like Brazil and India—and if all goes well, in the Middle East. One recent "personal appeal" banner featured Dr. Sengai Podhuvan, a Wikipedia editor in India. "I wrote my PhD on the topic of indigenous games in the Indian State of Tamil Nadu," writes Podhuvan. "Maybe you will never look up one of my articles. But it pleases me that thousands do." There's a good chance that you won't: Most of Podhuvan's edits are in Tamil. But that language is spoken by 75 million people (a fact gleaned from Wikipedia, which directed me through a footnote to an edited linguistics reference book, a transaction that took all of about five seconds).

Wikipedia is also revamping its editing interface, which currently requires users to know the obscure wiki markup language that powers the service. "There is plenty of evidence that wiki-markup is a substantial barrier that prevents many people from contributing to Wikipedia" wrote Howie Fung, a senior product manager at Wikimedia, in a blog post last week. In beta at the moment is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get visual editor that makes editing Wikipedia as easy as writing a blog post. Efforts are also in the works to make the site editable in languages with non-Roman alphabets.

Moreover, there's a project in the works to improve "UploadWizard," a user interface that makes it easy to contribute images, videos, and documents to Wikimedia Commons, a collection of freely usable material. There are some 12 million files in there now. But the quality could be better, and in an effort to help us understand the difference between what's copyrighted and what's free to distribute, Wikipedia has created a cartoon licensing tutorial that is being translated into a variety of languages. As of this week, there's the new article feedback tool, the gateway drug, perhaps, to the Wikipedia editing experience. "We found through our analysis that while direct quality assessment is a very tricky matter (a rating of the Justin Bieber page says as much about the rater’s opinion of Bieber as it does about the quality of the article)," wrote Fung, "the use of ratings as a form of low-barrier participation showed promise."

Critics have argued that shaking the digital tin cup is beneath Wikipedia. During last year's fundraising campaign, a group called WikiExperts (which, should be noted, sells businesses help in compiling their own Wikipedia entries) decried the use of banners featuring Wales' face. "Wouldn't it make more sense to show tasteful ads of advertisers like Rolex and Audi?" they asked.

No, argues Brandon Harris, a Wikimedia programmer who appears in one of the more remarked-upon banner ads (Gawker described him as "a vegan Hells' Angel giving an icy stare."). The problems are at least two-fold, Harris noted. For one thing, modern web ads track users, a violation of Wikipedia's privacy policy. Secondly, the companies use this information to serve up targeted advertising. Running finely tuned ads on Wikipedia entries, Harris writes, would run counter to Wikipedia's tightly held "Neutral Point of View " policy. Harris doesn't mention it, but there's another problematic component to web advertising that argues against it: Are Rolex and Audi really going want to pay to serve up ads in India? (Never mind on entries about the indigenous games of Tamil Nadu.)

As much as "censorship" has become the rallying cry against the Stop Online Piracy Act and related bills, the debate is also much about ownership. Who owns the Internet? Groups like the Motion Picture Association and the Recording Industry of America want control, as do companies like Google and Facebook. For all our talk about the social web, what we're very often sharing on for-profit social platforms amounts to nothing more than narcissistic rumination. It's "sharing" as exposure rather than contribution. Wikipedia, on the other hand, hearkens back to the early days of the web, when sharing was often simply about creating something of use and giving it to the world—the World Wide Web, as its creators phrased it, was intended to be "a pool of human knowledge, which would allow collaborators in remote sites to share their ideas and all aspects of a common project."

Ask lobbyists and they'll tell you, making a contribution can create a feeling of ownership. The truth is, Wikipedia will likely be fine whether or not you choose to hand over your ten bucks. There are big, institutional funders who are willing to step up. Google has given $2 million, for example, and the Stanton Foundation $3.6 million. But that makes Wikipedia one more thing owned by the few. That said, small donations to Wikipedia come in different forms. You can keep your money and kick in an edit or two.