Wikipedia, an arguably reliable source for preliminary information and research that professors abhor and students secretly love, appears to be in a funding crisis on the surface. The site, established in 2001, has grown to become one of the largest sources of information today which disseminates knowledge to millions of readers across the globe. It's also how several science projects got made, many examinations passed, films "watched" and books "read".
Wikipedia's appeal is such that, according to SimilarWeb, it had 5.2 billion visits in July 2020 and was the eighth most popular site in the world.
For most of us, Wikipedia is the first stop when learning about a novel concept as it offers a plethora of links to further explore. And we've become so habituated to having access to an endless sea of free knowledge that it's difficult to imagine a life without the website. Earlier this month, many users were left to wonder if the future of the website is in jeopardy and in turn if they'll be able to access the website in the near future.
If you have visited the website in the past month, you may have noticed a red and white banner appearing across the top of every Wikipedia page requesting for donations to keep the site up and running. The sudden message was a bit of a shock to users and its doomsday-Esque tone created an impression that Wikipedia was on the brink of closing operations. The message read:
“We ask you, humbly: don’t scroll away,” the heading reads, continuing into, “We depend on donations from exceptional readers, but fewer than 2% give. If you donate just 150, or whatever you can…Wikipedia could keep thriving. Thank you.”
Many readers may have donated to the organization moved by the urgency and emotional appeal of the request. But does Wikipedia actually require our donations urgently?
Wikipedia responds to questions around the donation request
According to Wikipedia's founders, the website's mission is to ensure the democratization of knowledge where everyone can share and access it. And since it is a non-profit organization, it requires public funding and corporate donations to keep the site running.
“Wikipedia is unlike other free sites that have had to change their business model over the years to ensure their survival by selling ads, instead it has become one of the few successful free knowledge sites left on the Internet, in large part because it’s supported by readers around the world,” a spokesperson for Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia’s parent organization, told The Indian Express.
Pats Pena, Director of Payment and Operations for Wikimedia Foundation, responded to readers' questions about the fundraising campaign in India in a recent blog post.
“Reader donations are critical to supporting Wikipedia’s global presence,” Pena wrote. “To meet the needs of readers in India and around the world, we operate an international technology infrastructure comparable to the world’s largest commercial websites.”
How does Wikipedia function?
Wikipedia comes under the various organizations funded by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. On Wikipedia's website, you might have observed that you can also contribute knowledge to a Wikipedia page, making it collectively sourced. To maintain structure and credibility on their website, Wikipedia employs a network of unpaid volunteers, editors, and engineers.
Pats Pena mentions how donations help in the same, "We also use donations to reinforce volunteer efforts in ensuring information on Wikipedia is neutral, accurate, and well-sourced, working with volunteer contributors to build tools that protect against vandalism and help identify unsourced information," reads her blog post.
Owing to its non-profit status, Wikipedia does not carry advertisements on its pages and largely banks on donations made by millions of its dedicated readers across the world. A major chunk of the charitable organization's funding also arrives from corporate contributors. For instance, last year, the multinational E-commerce giant donated $1 million dollars to the Wikimedia Foundation. “The Alexa team shares a similar vision with Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation: To make it easier to share knowledge globally,” Amazon had then said in a statement.
Apart from generous donations, a tiny amount of the website's total revenue is generated from its branded merchandise such as T-shirts, pencils, notebooks, and pins embossed with Wikipedia's logo.
How does Wikipedia use its funds?
According to a detailed report shared by Wikimedia Foundation in 2019, about 49% of its annual financial gains was spent as direct support to the website; 32% was used for training, tools, events, and partnerships for its network of volunteers; 13% was spent to recruit and pay its staff members, and the remaining 12% was used for its various fundraising initiatives.
It is only through this crowd-funding that Wikipedia is able to run its servers, maintain the site, and ensure its smooth functioning along with protecting user data. Moreover, by the virtue of not being owned by a specific company, Wikipedia's independence and autonomy are maintained.
Pena also reiterates that donations help in ensuring people can access information in their preferred language. "Most major websites support an average of 50-100 languages — Wikipedia supports roughly 300 languages, a number that grows every year." she writes in her blog post.
The website runs by a team of around 250 employees and over 250,000 global volunteers every month. It has only been two decades since this revolutionary website began and it's already amassed over 50 million articles in nearly 300 languages.
Pena concludes her blog post on a humbling note, urging people to support the free knowledge movement.
"For those who can support us, your donations will help continue to sustain the systems that make Wikipedia possible, and ensure the free knowledge movement can grow and thrive. We know not everyone can afford to support this work — which is exactly why Wikipedia exists. Our mission is to make sure free knowledge is available to the world, for everyone, everywhere," the post reads.
Users respond to Wikipedia's request
Twitter had a lot to say about Wikipedia's Fundraising campaign in India - some users trolled Wikipedia, others were supportive of the campaign and still, others felt that the campaign was baseless.
Even though certain users commended Wikipedia for advocating free information, there were some users who found Wikipedia's request suspicious and questioned if Wikipedia truly required the donations. A long thread by the user Rick claimed that while the website sustains itself on donations, it wasn't in desperate need of funds.
The user claimed that the said donations are going to be used to fund the already high salaries of Wikipedia employees, with their median salary being $96,500 compared to the meager salaries of most people in India.
"I'm sorry, but students contributing to pay executive salaries doesn't sit right with me," he says in the thread.
He claimed that the message was framed in a manipulative manner to guilt Indian users into donating money without much deliberation.
"To be clear, I don't think funding such projects is unnecessary. I'm sure these people are doing great work in their fields. Guilt-tripping people from poor countries like India into paying for them is, however, very dishonest in my view," he says.
Why are some BJP supporters advocating against donating to Wikipedia?
Amidst, the general trolling of Wikipedia's 'awkward' request for money on Twitter, a social media campaign led by prominent right-wing personalities accusing Wikipedia of being ‘anti-Hindu’, began trending a few days after the website asked its Indian readers for donations.
Several prominent personalities including columnist Shefali Vaidya, BJP leader Nupur Sharma and author Rajiv Malhotra asked people to avoid donating to Wikipedia on the basis that it spreads biased information through "anti-Hindu" editors as reported by the Print.
Several Twitter users claimed that the Wikipedia page about the recent Northeast Delhi riots that occurred in February had biased language which described the riots as “chiefly Hindu mobs attacking Muslims”.
Another case of alleged bias was of the website's page on the slogan 'Jai Shree Ram' which many Twitter users took offense to as it described the slogan as the BJP’s “war cry”, “for perpetrating communal atrocities against people of other faiths”.
As these instances were being shared on Twitter, the campaign gained traction among many right-wing users who then protested against Wikipedia and urged people to not donate to their fundraiser.
Former Rajasthan Cricket Association secretary Sanjay Dixit and Hindutva activist Dr. David Frawley, a Padma Bhushan recipient, also joined the campaign and discouraged people from supporting the website.
In retaliation, many Twitter users emerged in support of Wikipedia saying that an abundance of information on the website is taken for granted and deserves more recognition.
Trolls also incessantly mocked author Rajiv Malhotra for claiming that he had been criticizing the website since the 1990s as Wikipedia was launched only in 2001.
The now controversial donation drive is most certainly not the first one by the charitable website. Fundraising campaigns have been carried out almost every year.
Criticism on Wikipedia's fundraising campaign
Last year as well, around the month of August, Wikipedia had sent out an emotional appeal to its Indian users asking them for donations.
"Wikipedia is hosted by a not-for-profit organization. We don't have ads. We don't have shareholders. We have donors, and we exist solely because of donations from our readers, like you," the message read.
Even in the US, Wikipedia had carried out a massive fundraising campaign in 2012 that had attracted criticism from journalists claiming that a million-dollar company like Wikipedia doesn't 'urgently' require funding. Wikipedia, according to them, has projected that they're in dire need for money and risk going dark or shutting down but that is far from reality.
A report by the Register presents how a lot of Wikipedia's project spending and grants are questionable. For instance, the Wikimedia Foundation UK admitted to spending £1,335 on business cards calling it "a failure to make the most effective procurement choices". The Wikipedia UK Foundation also found itself in a controversy when it was revealed that it approved projects that personally benefitted board members, raising doubts on its charitable website status.
There are certain projects that fall in line with their values such as the project to make editing participation easier. In 2012, the number of editors had seen a decline since 2007 and the gender ration was heavily tipped towards men so the website developed a visual editing kit making it easier for users to edit rather than learning the arcane technical Wiki syntax.
However, some of the other funding does raise eyebrows and questions. Wikimedia Germany approved an €18,000 allocation called "Festivalsommer 2013" to send Wikimedians to pop concerts in Germany as "accredited photographers". The budget included travel to and from the gigs for amateur photographers.
A larger allocation of €81,000 was set to Wikimedians to photograph politicians and a grant of €81,720 to pay a researcher to study editing. All of this luxurious spending stands in stark contrast to the unpaid volunteer ethos. Wikipedia constantly points out that it is essentially run by thousands of volunteers and while they get minimal compensation for their efforts, Wikimedia employees enjoy opulent lifestyles with the company offering them cooking classes, massages, and gym memberships.
Before you donate, it is helpful to know the whole picture but eventually, it all comes down to your capacity to donate money. If you have the financial leeway to support Wikipedia, by all means, do so. However, if you're short on funds, don't feel pressured by the 'urgent situation' or feel guilty every time to scroll past the message. Wikipedia is most likely not going to shut down, it's still got millions in its pocket.