OP-ED: Come on, Wikipedia

Nathaniel Larson, Senior

I use Wikipedia nearly every day. Each time I read an article on the site, I am amazed at how consistently an organization of volunteers can provide accurate, holistic, and balanced views on nearly every topic, all of it ad-free, for anyone to use.

So when the fundraising drive came along a couple years ago, asking urgently for donations equal to the price of “a cup of coffee” so that the site could keep running, I was easily convinced. I immediately set up a very small monthly recurring donation of $1 to show my support (surprisingly, all donation sizes have the same percent processing fee).

I thought it was all settled, but in the time since my first donation I have realized that my donation was–like every other situation in life–more complicated than it originally appeared.

The donation first became more complicated when I heard that Wikipedia was not hovering on the edge of disaster, as their call for donations seems to imply, but rather was sitting on cash reserves in excess of 70 million dollars, or almost double their yearly operating expenses. The call for help to which I responded was more of a call for enhancement of their cash buffer.

Later, I also found out that Wikipedia has begun using funds in ways that go beyond the original mission of the site. In a little over a decade, the nonprofit has expanded its original staff of 3 people and 3 million dollar budget into an organization employing over 250 staff on a budget of over 50 million dollars, which supports an aggressive new lobbying campaign and pays the same portion (6%) towards travel, conferences, and concerts for employees as it does towards the servers that undergird the site itself.

These changes have resulted in what the Washington Post has called, an “ongoing culture clash between Wikimedia and its cyber-libertarian constituents,” leaving some asking, is Wikipedia turning corporate?

Both of these new pieces of information made me feel duped. When they asked for support, was Wikipedia simply lying to pump funding from its readers? Perhaps, I thought to myself, I should cancel my recurring–albeit entirely symbolic–donation and instead protest Wikipedia on the street corner.

Then I read the news this past September 2018. That month, Amazon announced it was donating 1 million dollars to the Wikimedia Foundation, joining an echelon of the largest donors to Wikipedia that include technology behemoths Google and Microsoft.

Some praised Amazon’s pledge, saying that “no company is an island” and that it was about time that Amazon contributed to the organization that provides so many of the answers Alexa gives to people’s random questions.

At the same time, I see this as a concerning instance of what The Atlantic calls fundraising influence, in which “donors who can provide large contributions are likely to have disproportionate influence over policy, protecting their own interests regardless of what’s good for the public.”

When large companies like Amazon become a primary source of income for organizations like Wikipedia, how much influence do they exert? At what point is Wikipedia no longer “independent?” Furthermore, if I stop donating, do I want my donation to simply be replaced by Amazon dollars?

What I glean from my donation debacle is that (1) the world is, alas, more complicated than it seems, and (2) that giving to a cause requires more analysis and understanding than I knew before.

I think that I have a right to feel disillusioned by the Wikimedia fundraising campaign. I also understand that the organization was built on the concept of a digital democracy, and, as they say, fewer than 2 percent of readers contribute.

Perhaps the influence of ordinary Wikipedia users could outweigh the influence of large companies, if we contribute and make our priorities–support for unpaid editors, improved citations, and greater outreach, perhaps–known in coordinated ways. This is more than I want to think about over my $1 donation, but I guess I’ll be aware of it.

For now, despite the fact that Wikipedia, like all great nonprofit organizations, is changing and trying to keep up with the times in ways that sometimes grate against my conscience, I will not cancel my donation.

Even approaching Wikipedia with a healthy dose of academic skepticism, I believe in their mission to make knowledge free, I am impressed by the maximum four-star rating on Charity Navigator (a charity-rating organization I would recommend to anyone looking to contribute to a cause) and–this would send my middle-school teachers into shock–I trust the site.

After all, I just want to support the mission of a site that was built by and for people everywhere.