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Posted at 1:56 PM ET, 12/17/2010

What is Wikipedia worth?

By Ezra Klein

I donated a bit of money to Wikipedia this year, and I just got another appeal to donate a bit more. It's penned -- at least in theory -- by Jimmy Wales, the site's founder, and it makes a good case for the project:

Wikipedia is something special. It is like a library or a public park. It is like a temple for the mind. It is a place we can all go to think, to learn, to share our knowledge with others. It is a unique human project, the first of its kind in history. It is a humanitarian project to bring a free encyclopedia to every single person on the planet.[...]

I don't get paid a cent for my work at Wikipedia, and neither do our thousands of other volunteer authors and editors. When I founded Wikipedia, I could have made it into a for-profit company with advertising, but I decided to do something different.

Commerce is fine. Advertising is not evil. But it doesn't belong here. Not in Wikipedia.

If you were going to try and value Wikipedia, how would you do it? And when I say "value," I don't mean in terms of the potential revenue stream if you added advertisements and sponsored entries. Wales analogizes Wikipedia to a public good, which I think is correct. So what's it worth to the public?

I don't know the answer, but I suspect the number is rather huge. I get much more daily value out of Wikipedia than pretty much any other intellectual or reference product I can think of, and it's much less replaceable. If the New York Times folded tomorrow, I'd read more Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. (Of course, if Tthe Washington Post folded tomorrow, I'd be in more trouble.)

At any rate, this is a long way of thinking that it's easy to just assume Wikipedia is around and will stay around and will keep becoming better and more useful, but its continued health does require a revenue stream, and I'm pretty sure that most of its users are paying a lot less than its actually worth to them. So if you can spare it, you might think of throwing them a couple bucks. They've got enough users that if everyone gave a dollar, the project would be secure basically forever.

By Ezra Klein  | December 17, 2010; 1:56 PM ET
 
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Comments

My money is with Conservapedia. They don't kow-tow to liberal lies like smog and the theory of relativity.

Posted by: willows1 | December 17, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

A crude way to value it would be what Encyclopedia Britannica used to be worth, since it has effectively replaced that. (I know, I know, it's not the same, articles not validated or reviewed). This link says that EB had plummeted to $135M in 1996.
http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/faculty/greenstein/images/htm/Research/Cases/EncyclopaediaBritannica.pdf

But I'd argue that the real value will come from goods and services made by people who used wikipedia who previously would not have been able to afford what it provides. It is a huge (huge) accelerator of work.

How does it compare, in value delivered, to the Carnegie library system? And what did that cost?

I gave before and will give a bit more. In this holiday season, consider throwing them a few bucks on behalf of those who cannot.

Posted by: BHeffernan1 | December 17, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

I think the solution is obvious. Congress should simply pass a law that raises taxes on rich people (defined as anyone with a job) to fund Wikipedia, and mandate that everyone use Wikipedia or face fines if they don't.

Wikipedia is much better than those dastardly for-profit purveyors of information. Why can't we all recognize this is for the collective good and just give up our freedom of how to find information?

As Bill Maher wisely opined, sometimes people are too stupid to know what's best for them so you just have to force them to do it. Right, smarter-than-everyone-else progressives?

Posted by: dbw1 | December 17, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Sounds like a job for the Lindahl Equilibrium! courtesy of wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindahl_equilibrium

Posted by: bdballard | December 17, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

Nono, dbw1 … The solution is obvious. Congress should simply pass a law that extends tax cuts for the rich (defined as the 1% that now controls 42% of all financial wealth) which helped usher in the economic dream that was the Bush years. Then, when all that wealth trickles down to the poor people, then they’d be required to buy LexisNexis or Encyclopedia Britannica? (if that doesn't work, maybe just subsidies that cost as much as the tax cuts but will be infinitely more controversial)

Private purveyors of information are much better than that dastardly, public option Wikipedia. Why can't we all recognize that this is for the collective good and just give up on those cheaper and better socialist solutions?

As Bill Maher wisely opined, sometimes people are too stupid to understand that they've won conservative policy-battles because they're too insanely wrapped up in Republican talking points.

Posted by: Chris_ | December 17, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

"Sounds like a job for the Lindahl Equilibrium!"
*************************************************

No one expects the "Lindahl Equilibrium!"...

Posted by: JkR- | December 17, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

I saw that plea for donations the other day when I was, yes, looking something up on Wikipedia (information on two obscure towns in Saxony). You've convinced me to do so. I, too, use it frequently (and hopefully fairly wisely). It's just the quickest damned way to find out things like when the Treaty of Ghent was signed (December 24, 1814) or where Sibelius was born (the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland). This kind of stuff used to take me hours and trips to the library to confirm. And the Encyclopedia Britannica had no information on, say, an obscure contemporary filmmaker from Thailand: Wikipedia does. Scholars are very generous in donating their often excellent information. The more obscure the subject, the better the information usually.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | December 17, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

It is impossible to evaluate Wikipedia as a source without learning something about the internal dynamics of the community which produces it. Allow me to propose, as a shortcut to gaining such an understanding, the following set of instructional videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G89xbV-0Fzg&feature=&p=7166AB44EE382BB8&index=0&playnext=1

Posted by: macwhirr | December 17, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

Oh, Ezra. Thank you for showing us exactly how a Wikipedia supporter plies his craft.

You call Jimmy Wales the site's "founder", but had you done some research, you'd know that the idea for Wikipedia, the name for Wikipedia, and the first announcement of Wikipedia's existence came from Larry Sanger, not Jimmy Wales.

Then, you donated money to a wasteful organization that earned only one star (out of four) in organization efficiency from Charity Navigator. Not such a thrifty investment.

Then, you say you work for "Tthe Washington Post" (sic).

And finally, you suggest that users are "paying a lot less than its (sic) actually worth".

Let's hope your economic and domestic policy smarts are a shade better than your ability to spot a con game and your typographical skills.

Posted by: thekohser | December 17, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse

Wikipedia has far more information and is much more comprehensive than Encyclopedia Britannica ever was. What most people never realize is that Wikipedia is actually best in its more technical content. Most people don't read those articles, but the people who do are generally qualified to add content in those areas.

Posted by: zosima | December 18, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

That's true, zosima. I hadn't thought of that; I use Wikipedia for mathematics (which is what I do) even more than the leading websites, and some of my fellow students, and professors, edit for all sorts of technical issues. It's rarely wrong, even when it's a bit disorganized.

That said, I hope the problem is self-correcting: Wikipedia is so famous that were it really in trouble (not able to afford serverspace without ads) we should hear about it, and as soon as everyone knew it they could all donate that dollar.

I'd like to hear Ezra's opinion or others on what could happen if many people donated a lot to Wikipedia at once, and then stopped, as opposed to if many people gave a few dollars every year. Predicting the future of the Internet is hard.

Posted by: elizabethsqg | December 19, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

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