Wikipedia: Yes or No?
April 12, 2005 9:41 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of donating money to Wikipedia, should I?

I'm thinking of donating money to Wikipedia because I think it is a wonderful resource, and one of the most amazing sources of information ever. When I was young, my father spent a LOT of money on a brand new set of the Encyclopedia Britannica for his children to use as they entered high school. They were indeed quite useful, and my Dad was right to purchase them. I feel like Wikipedia can provide that to anyone who can get to the internet. So basically, I'm wondering, does anyone have a reason that I SHOULDN'T contribute to Wikipedia?
posted by McBain to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you want to show appreciation, go ahead. Wikipedia recently made a deal with Yahoo for hosting, and barring hosting costs, I don't think there's much sundry spending. So, correct me if I'm wrong, but unlike earlier, Wikipedia is no longer dependent on charity for sustenance.
posted by Gyan at 10:35 PM on April 12, 2005

There is little reason why one shouldn't give a little bit to Wikipedia. Does that answer your question, or do you want specific points?
posted by Dean Keaton at 11:09 PM on April 12, 2005

I just wanted to make sure that my money was going to a good cause. Basically, I am looking to make sure that someone doesn't have information that the people behind Wikipedia fund blood wars over diamond mines in Africa. I just wanted to check with a broad community what possible objections could be.
posted by McBain at 11:21 PM on April 12, 2005

A lot of misunderstanding surrounds this hosting announcement. Jimmy Wales has posted on a discussion about the announcement that discussions continue with Google and other potential corporate partners. He also told a Yahoo! blog that Wikipedia traffic is doubling every few months. Essentially it had become impossible for Bomis alone to support the enterprise.

That said, the Wikimedia Foundation does continue to have need of financial support -- for one thing, over $15,000 quarterly just for keeping their servers up to date. It's not clear how much of these costs will be allayed by Yahoo!'s offer, which seems to be somewhere between host and co-lo. At the least, there may be some transition costs.

Outside of hosting and bandwidth, to date they have had few other budget items -- not even an accountant, and office expenses under $1000. Maybe with the ability to spend less on hosting they can hire a professional director and perhaps a curator/information architect.
posted by dhartung at 11:30 PM on April 12, 2005

This page on wikipedia itself shows all current contributors and sponsors. It also shows a llist of those who are currently interested in contributing resources.
posted by kev23f at 11:44 PM on April 12, 2005

Before you give money, go and add or edit some content at Wikipedia first. Pay attention to the more controversial articles -- no one doubts that Wikipedia's articles on math are pretty good, but look for articles where answers are less cut-and-dried.

See how they deal with controversial articles, and decide for yourself if the article that's ultimately produced is the result of honest wrestling with difficult issues, or is just a matter of what undergraduate has the most free time on his hands to hector and kvetch until his version becomes the accepted version.

Like any charity, ask yourself what the "top executives" of the charity are getting out of it, realizing that money is far from the only reward.

Pay attention to how the place is run, who decides what, and on what basis. Like any place, what starts as purely idealistic becomes political in the sense that there are power plays and dominance games.

If you stll find what goes on at Wikipedia worthy of your money after having been there a while, then give.
posted by orthogonality at 12:47 AM on April 13, 2005

Side note: When Rainier of Monaco died, I was looking up information on Wikipedia. Surprisingly, Wikipedia was already updated to reflect the change in head-of-state.
posted by Goofyy at 12:51 AM on April 13, 2005

Here's an interesting quote from a long-time Wikipedia editor:
If people think that current policies are unworkable, they should change them, not disregard them. The persistent attitude that procedure and consistency in enforcement of policy are irrelevant, as long as there is a general consensus that the result is right, is what gives rise to the sneering and the threats and everything else that gives Wikipedia the Lord of the Flies feel. At least that's what turned me off Wikipedia. Zocky 22:42, 6 Apr 2005 (UTC)
This same Zocky also wrote this I think balanced critique: Young Jacobins

Another long-time editor wrote:
I was under the impression that in here, a encyclopedia, people were supposed to have freedom of say what they want and subject themselves to opposing votes. Apparently, wikipedia is turning more and more to hypocrisy. That makes me sad. Muriel G 12:07, 15 Jul 2004 (UTC)
And here are the parting comments of some former Wikipedia users:
Abigail-II: left 13 June 2004, blanked talk page and left message on Village Pump, explaining that too many people were deleting material without discussion on talk pages. "I've no interest in working on a system where people break down your work without discussing it on appropriate page."

Amgine: Has ended active involvement in en:Wikipedia due to the Matter of CheeseDreams in which the user was harrassed, stalked, group-reverted, admins abused their privileges - and there was no mention by the arbcom. The system is gamed.

Ark30inf left on October 24 2003 saying "I have found that if you are not here to do battle then nobody will listen to you. Thats not what I am about." He requested de-adminship and the deletion of his user page on 22 February 2004. "I then returned in late 2004 and tried to stick to just editing Arkansas articles to avoid stupid conflicts. Its an area that nobody appeared interested in at all. Then I got jumped on for the way I categorized my articles and all of them reverted before I even was given an opportunity to discuss the way I categorized my articles. I stepped on someone's pet peeve and they didn't feel like waiting to hear what I had to say. It was somehow URGENT to revert all the Arkansas categorization for some reason. Screw it. Thats my LAST attempt at Wikipedia."

Brandon.irwin left on July 23, 2004, saying he felt that the project was fraught too much with errors and inconsistencies.

Corvus13: "Fine. I give up. Delete everything I've ever written. There appears to be some personal thing here where if you're not part of the clique, you're not welcome. Goodbye."

Guanaco: I'm leaving indefinitely. Too many Wikipedians are too prone to moral panic and groupthink to work effectively as a community. I may return tomorrow, next week, a month from now, in a year, or never, but I see little hope of change, so, at least for now, I'm done. Guanaco 01:42, 15 Mar 2005 (UTC)

JHK last edited 4 Nov 2003; parting words: " Every time I come back, it's the same old stuff, the same old tired people trying to push their agenda...Over the past few days (August 2002)...I feel that my integrity has been questioned by a group of people who refuse to provide even the least amount of information about themselves. If it's not any fun, and the dread of finding out what the next day brings is much more evident than any emotional or intellectual reward, I see no reason to spend my time here."

Sjc: left a note at User:Sjc/Goodbye explaining that "While a worthwhile project, [Wikipedia] is now so wrapped and warped by policy and little cliques that it barely qualifies as a wiki in any meaningful sense of the word."

Graham Chapman: "OK, I'm out of here, too many fuckwits and their egos to be bothered with"

BF: You know, People?? I still believe wikipedia is not your "free-for-life" encyclopedia. I know Jimmy Wales got a "brain hemorrhage" when I said something like that a few months ago. What's the point of wikipedia, if not to sell ads or get financial reward, even if hidden from the writers ? Nobody is going to convince me otherwise. There's a hidden agenda at work here. Wiki is not a tax deduction for Bomis, and all of us who DON'T earn a cent spending hundreds of hours a month, will eventually see this is true. That is WHY Larry needs good people around to play his little Tom Sawyer mind game, and let all paint the fence. After the paint dries, it's only history. You will not even get credit, because, as Larry said so often, "It's not your article, it belongs to wikipedia." There's no disclosure on Bomis' part about employees, salaries, or even why a free encyclopedia would be supported by any corporation. An educational institution might do this. So, "The game is a lot bigger than I think you know, and if you think you know then I don't think you know." (DMX) If we're all in it for ego's sake, then "swell-up" heads. You'll be having a nightmare when the whip comes down, and it will !

Here's excerpts from a longer piece by a disgruntled ex-editor:
As former Wikimedia employee Larry Sanger has noted, “[There is] a certain poisonous social [and] political atmosphere in the project.” (1) Former administrator Abe Sokolov explais, “We have a dispute resolution process fetishizing increasingly rigid (and idiosyncratic) community norms and customs without reference to who's writing encyclopedic material and who's not. As a result, far too much power and status is given to people who are... increasingly obsessive of process, disregarding the public credibility of the project. Far too many [administrators] seem to get off on "patrolling" conflicts... that they do not understand. Thus... [one is forced to] spend [too much] time dealing with users [who have] no intention of writing encyclopedic content.” Since the site’s ‘leaders’ have established themselves as an authority, there see little need for discussion – if you try to discuss with them, they will claim that you are trying to “cause trouble”.

. . . .

In the words of Raul654 (Mark Pellegrini), who is one of the Wikipedia’s aristocrats, “I've come to a conclusion...making policy on Wikipedia is hard...because there are people who [disagree]. I have decided that it's better to shoot first and ask questions later ;) Seriously, [I] don't worry about making common sense policy...[I] just do things...and wait for policy to catch up.” Raul is the head of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee....

. . . . can only edit the Wikipedia if you conform to the groupthink espoused by the Wikipedia’s core constituency; those who deviate or espouse fundamental changes ... they are persecuted. The rulers of Wikimedia claim to want volunteers to come provide them with “peer-review”; but, when people actually do suggest changes, they are generally ignored – when they ‘unilaterally’ make those changes, they are confronted by hypocrisy and ego.
The politics of wikipedia aside, here's an excerpt from a criticism by a competitor, a Britannica editor:
The Wikipedia article on [Alexander] Hamilton (as of November 4, 2004) uses the 1755 date without comment. Unfortunately, a couple of references within the body of the article that mention his age in certain years are clearly derived from a source that used the 1757 date, creating an internal inconsistency that the reader has no means to resolve. Two different years are cited for the end of his service as secretary of the Treasury; without resorting to another reference work, you can guess that at least one of them is wrong. The article is rife with typographic errors, styling errors, and errors of grammar and diction. No doubt there are other factual errors as well, but I hardly needed to fact-check the piece to form my opinion. The writing is often awkward, and many sentences that are apparently meant to summarize some aspect of Hamilton's life or work betray the writer's lack of understanding of the subject matter.
Also, you can talk to Wikipedia authors in their IRC channel irc://
posted by orthogonality at 3:08 AM on April 13, 2005

I tend to have the same response as orthogonality: in my (admittedly personal) experience, Wikipedia is just plain wrong far too often. Some folks say that this is easily solved by contributing to the project--but it's more easily solved by looking to other reference sources. What it is right about are internet-only things and super-current news stories; but in those cases it's functioning, effectively, as an aggregator of information you could get through Google.

Again, just my personal experience.
posted by josh at 4:42 AM on April 13, 2005

I've contributed to Wikipedia off-and-on for a couple of years now. In my opinion, those who storm off in a huff about politics and cliques are either a) too thin-skinned to take it when some of their edits are reverted, or b) too egotistical to be willing to work as part of a massive group. Sure, some of the moderators and administrators have big heads. Sure, there's some power-abuse. But I feel like I'm contributing to something amazing every time I edit a worthless one-sentence stub into a useful couple of paragraphs. I feel like there isn't enough centralized freely-available information out there, and Wikipedia is working to remedy that. I look forward to a future where Wikipedia is somehow complete and trustworthy. If you're willing to cast that away because someone thinks you miscategorized your Arkansas articles and then reverts them without discussion, than I feel very sad for you. The point of Wikipedia is that it is free to all to edit. I've had large parts of massive rewrites deleted without discussion. Did I cry foul and demand my user account be removed? No. You can un-revert. You can start the dialogue. You can work to modify policy.

When people who have complaints about the infrastructure (or, worse yet, a single user's actions) run away instead of working to improve it, they put the long-term survival of the project at risk. And to be honest, in the end, it's not about the politics or the infrastructure or the policies. It's about the encyclopedia.

If you have the wherewithall to donate to Wikimedia, I strongly recommend it. As soon as I have the financial means to do so, I plan to. If you don't have the expendable income to use towards meaningful causes (or even if you do), I implore you to contribute to the project that you've used. It's easy, and you can accomplish a lot without having to wade into any politics.
posted by Plutor at 5:10 AM on April 13, 2005

I tend to have the same response as orthogonality: in my (admittedly personal) experience, Wikipedia is just plain wrong far too often. Some folks say that this is easily solved by contributing to the project--but it's more easily solved by looking to other reference sources.

I third this. And it's not about fixing the errors--I can (and do) fix errors in Wikipedia when I know they're errors, on a subject I know something about. It's that the number of errors I've found on topics I do know something about means that there are very likely to be errors in topics I don't know about--but there's no easy way for me to identify the errors, short of rigorously checking the article against other sources, in which case I might as well have gone to those in the first place.

IMO, it's not so much the big mistakes that are a real problem for Wikipedia as the little ones. If a holocaust-denier comes along and completely changes an article on the holocaust to support only his side, that's obvious and quickly fixed, to Wikipedia's credit. It's the little factual errors--like the ones in the Hamilton article which orthogonality's quote refers to--that can sit unchanged in Wikipedia for ages, until someone who both knows it's a mistake, and has the motivation to correct it comes along. Having found and corrected far too many of these myself--sometimes in articles that hadn't been changed in months--I can only imagine how many there are in Wikipedia I wouldn't recognize.

For all that, I actually like Wikipedia quite a bit if I'm looking only to satisfy my curiousity on a subject. For anything beyond that--any information I want to use practically--I'll try to find other sources.

Back to the original question, I'd say you should look at it not solely as "should I donate to Wikipedia?" but rather, "should I donate to Wikipedia or X?" If you didn't donate to Wikipedia, would you donate the money to some other charity? Would they make better use of your money than Wikipedia would?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:38 AM on April 13, 2005

What Plutor said. Those people orthogonality quoted at such length sound like people who got their egos way too invested in what's supposed to be a massive group project.* I don't spend a lot of time at Wikipedia, but I've found the articles generally accurate, and when I've come across inaccuracies I've corrected them with no problem. I even wrote an entire article about a historical figure I thought was underappreciated and nobody deleted or messed with it.

*Let me point out that you could assemble a similar collection of quotes by people fed up with MetaFilter. Nonetheless, we're all still here, aren't we? Everything has pluses and minuses, people who love it and people who hate it and people with more complicated reactions. Life is complicated.
posted by languagehat at 6:45 AM on April 13, 2005

As I dig into this more and more, it gets better and better -- apparently the Wikipedians have their own sort of HUAC or Inquisition: a self-appointed "Office of Investigations", later renamed the "Association of Member Investigations"; again, it's apparently entirely self-appointed:
Wikipedia has problem users, and its problem users all too often go unobserved and undealt with. Sometimes this is because the problem goes unnoticed by the people who can or will deal with the problem. Other times it's because of the prohibitively difficult and stressful nature of bringing cases before the arbcom. Regardless, these problem users often threaten to drive away good contributors. The Office of Investigations exists to look into these cases and, as necessary, aid in providing clear accounts of the cases for the purposes of Requests for Comment, Requests for Mediation, or, in extreme cases, Requests for Arbitration.
Note that bit at the bottom: the "Office of Investigations" is in addition to the three escalating avenues of dispute resolution listed at the end of the block quote above. And the above quote is a "toned-down" version of the original. It apparently started as a self-appointed "District Attorney" to prosecute "heretics" in those three "courts" listed in the bloack quote.

Yes, courts, because Wikipedia has a system of due process -- except when it doesn't. Read on, because this next one is hilarious.

It's a description of a "problem user" that was left by a Wikipedia administrator on the personal "user" page of Wikipedia's founder, "Jimbo" Wales: (I've added some emphasis)
Jimbo, there is a situation brewing, which I am not sure is going to be easily diffused, since it involves many members of the Arbitration Committee.

User:The Recycling Troll, who has been editing since Sept 2004, on two recent editing sessions, apparently reviewed User:RickK's contributions and mades edits to a number of articles which RickK tagged for VfD, cleanup, etc. By all accounts, these edits, while often minor, were beneficial. TRT also voted in a number of VfD discussions opposite the way RickK was voting.

It is debateable whether these actions (along with the username) total up to disruption, according to policy. As such, heated discussions have been going on on the mailing list and on Wikipedia:Administrators' noticeboard/Incidents. There is about a 50/50 split as to whether any sort of block is OK.
So, in other words, a Wikipedia user had the word "troll" in his name, but isn't doing anything often than cleaning up articles and making "incorrect" votes. And because of that, about half the Wikipedia administrators think he's being "disruptive". Yes, "disruptive" according to their policy, just because he's making -- on a wiki -- beneficial edits and he's not voting the way they like. And because he has a "suspicious" user name.

Later that same day, "Jimbo" Wales decides that the Wikipedia administrators who banned the user were mistaken in doing so, but that it's good to ban the user anyway -- and having decided that any due process can be ignored, Wales reminds everyone that Wikipedia takes due process seriously:
So I'm blocking User:The Recycling Troll indefinitely. He's been a very successful troll, he's caused a lot of trouble, and he's most likely a sock puppet anyway.

We need to take due process seriously, but we also need to remember: this is not a democracy, this is not an experiment in anarchy, it's a project to make the world a better place by giving away a free encyclopedia. When the user in question is acting this way, we can cut some serious slack to administrators who are doing the good work of defending us from nonsense. --Jimbo Wales 19:38, 10 Mar 2005 (UTC)
Again, this is a user who did nothing more than make beneficial edits while having a "suspicious" name, but Wales thinks he might be a sockpuppet.

Finally this observation serves to sum things up:
Well obviously if the Wikipedia bureaucracy has become so complex that ordinary people can't work out how to negotiate it, the answer is to add yet another inscrutable new layer of bureacracy. I've been away for a while, and just returned. I hardly recognise the place. Wikipedia is now like a totalitarian nightmare from Kafka. I think we should permanently delete ALL the Wikipedia namespace articles, and see what happens. We could hardly be any worse off than we are now. GrahamN 00:03, 28 Mar 2005 (UTC)
You know, you could always contribute to Oxfam. Or Amnesty International. Or if you want to increase knowledge, to Folding at Home or Project Gutenberg.

(Note: all quoted material is quoted as-is; but emphasis has been added; errors in quoted material have not been corrected.)
posted by orthogonality at 7:27 AM on April 13, 2005

Wow I didn't realize the wikipedia project was generating such a divergence of viewpoint. But I guess I've not used it a great deal. Everyone knows that it's essentially a pre-beta project. That ought to be a caveat that adheres to the information one takes from there. It's a fine resource on the go in webworld but not a reference at this stage for quoting in academic papers.
But I think it is a worthy project. I agree with languagehat in that attitude polling can be skewed everywhichway to suit. I read a long article about the history and structure of the project a while back and was struck by the huge numbers of volunteer people involved. They are striving IMHO for something that's meritorious on many levels. I would not accept dismissing the project out of hand by the criticisms of a small number of disaffecteds. Departure rants are traditionally lacking in perspective and insight.

And with regards the original question here, I think that unless there is evidence of actual corruption and/or mismanagement of the project funds then you could sidestep the ongoing political infights and contribute with a clear and contented conscience.

On preview...I've heard about the eternal insider wranglings at wikipedia before - there was a MeFite a few weeks back who selfposted in an FPP and the transcript of her infighting at wikipedia was linked.........but I don't think anecdotal testimony about individual political problems is sufficient to dismiss the whole project out of hand. Why haven't the 3 trillion other contributors/editors to the project quit by now?
posted by peacay at 7:48 AM on April 13, 2005

I use wikipedia almost daily in my work, and I contribute to it when I feel like I have something worth adding. Because it has been useful to me, I feel like it has earned some support, so I've given it money.

Of course, there are other causes that do more good for humanity, like Medecins sans Frontieres. And of course, wikipedia ain't perfect. Along with the trolls, axe-grinders, and petty authoritarianism are people who are well-intentioned but completely clueless, and take articles off in weird directions, generate arguments, etc. But it is a work in progress, and hey, The Britannica has factual errors as well.

The people who get upset over the recategorization of their articles, etc, need to get out more. It's like getting worked into a lather over Gwen Stefani's misappropriation of Japanese fashion.
posted by adamrice at 8:47 AM on April 13, 2005

Despite all the controversy, I think its a great project. I gave them a 32-port console server in October of last year, to save the $2500 or so it would have cost.
In my dealings with Jimmy, Angela, and other board members and volunteers, I found nothing but professionalism and friendly people who are really dedicated to this project.
posted by mrbill at 9:11 AM on April 13, 2005

I've been a hardcore editor for about nine months now, last ranked #774 in terms of total edits, but generally I write long complete articles from scratch, generally on Medieval history.

Encyclopedias are the fast food of the academic world. It's what you reach for when reading a book and come across a name you never heard of and just want a five minute background. It's not the be-all or end-all. For what it is, it does an excellent job, and it is only getting better. With that said I have seen some articles actually break new ground in research, uncovering and gathering in a single article stuff that exists no where else. I'm also seeing data self-organize in ways that creates fascinating perspectives, such as "lists of .."

Please contribute, if for no other reason you can say 10 years from now you had the vision to be an early supporter of Wikipedia. By that time a new generation of kids will have grown up and graduated college exposed to Wikipedia, it may go in directions none of us yet realize.
posted by stbalbach at 3:54 PM on April 13, 2005

Incidentally, I'm trying to keep a list of MetaFilter Wikipedians. Mail me, leave a note or just edit yourself in.

I think Wikipedia has the same problem that a community like MetaFilter does. Some people are far more invested in it than others; some participate for personal reasons over and above the good of the community. In the long run the Wiki approach to collaborative editing should smooth over any problems, but in the short run, it can be very frustrating. I did a lot of research on one article that had an obvious, grating error and a connected point-of-view problem, but because of set-in-stone attitudes on the left and right around me, I was unable to actually rewrite the article so that it reflected the facts. The extremists on both sides managed to call a truce on an edit wording acceptable to them -- even though it was blatantly unfactual, if you saw my sources. That frustrated me to no end, but I decided to just leave that article behind and concentrate my effort where I could make more headway.

So, it's far from a perfect solution to the problem at hand, but it demonstrates the good enough principle perhaps better than any other site.
posted by dhartung at 9:47 PM on April 13, 2005

« Older The Reading Store?   |   New York TV Show Tapings Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.