09 December 2011

First let’s start with an image from the awesome XKCD:

You can find the original post here and I encourage you to actually visit the site. I haven’t hot linked the image because I don’t want to eat into the author’s bandwidth but obviously I take no credit for the image itself.

This cartoon made me laugh which is always nice but it does have a very serious undertone. I can’t speak for anyone else but when I have a topic I want to know more about or I want to do a bit more digging on something I heard about in a lecture, Wikipedia is my first port of call. Seeing as when I google for most topics, Wikipedia tends to pop up first, I strongly doubt I’m the only one who does this.

I’d actually planned to write something completely different but somehow I ended up writing this. It’s really about values and how we see money rather than Wikipedia specifically, so do bear that in mind when you read through this :).

Update: Here is the post I meant to write! :)

Like many awesome web resources, Wikipedia is free. Unlikely most of them, Wikipedia does not show adverts. The reason they give is because they want to maintain impartiality. Personally I wouldn’t mind adverts on the page, but then as a community edited resource, I’m sure there’d be all sorts of tampering to affect what ads are shown and so forth so I have to agree with their decision.

Now, I know there are entire sites dedicated to reasons why Wikipedia is evil, why it shouldn’t be donated to and a host of other issues. However I want to leave that to one side for a moment. For the sake of argument, let us pretend that Wikipedia and the team that runs it are all perfect beings and everything is exactly the way people dream it to be. Trust me, this simplification makes it much easier to make my point ;)

Wikipedia costs a tonne of cash to run and few people (relatively speaking of course) donate to the project. Whatever you think of the various controversies that have cropped up over the years, the pages and content are still there, and people continue to use it. It’s a massive site that requires an expensive infrastructure. Even though the content is mostly maintained by volunteers, servers, bandwidth, power, air conditioning etc are expensive and with the best will in the world, these things are not free.

This ties in to another topic on how people perceive money and their behaviour when spending it, but for now I’m curious as to why people would not donate to Wikipedia. For example, how much time and effort does Wikipedia save the average person? How quickly can we now learn new things or double check our understanding? Is it perfect? No, but is that the point?

So why then don’t people donate? I completely accept that some people are not in a position to do so, and I have no problem with that - but why do people who can easily afford such a contribution not doing so?

Then I started to think about a subscription model. What if Wikipedia wasn’t free? What if you had to pay say $15US a month for a subscription and then you could get at all of the content? Would you pay $15 to access such a resource? I would and I bet a lot of others would. But because it’s free, suddenly donating $10 seems like a big deal. Why is that? Why do people believe at least subconsciously that things have less value because someone chooses to give them away?

Why do we only value things when they have a direct cost?  What does that say for our key values as individuals? I’m not sure of the answer to that question but I am sure that it is nothing good…

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