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Originally published Monday, March 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Wikipedia experiences growing pains

The new headquarters of one of the world's most popular Web sites is 3,000 square feet of rented space furnished with desks and chairs bought...

Los Angeles Times

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SAN FRANCISCO — The new headquarters of one of the world's most popular Web sites is 3,000 square feet of rented space furnished with desks and chairs bought on the cheap from eBay and Craigslist.

A sheet of printer paper taped to the door says the office belongs to the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia, the online almanac of anything and everything that users want to chronicle, from Thomas Aquinas to Zorba the Greek.

With about 300 million page views a day, the site by some estimates could be worth many hundreds of millions of dollars if it sold advertising space. It doesn't. Wikipedia's business plan is, basically, to hold out a tin cup whenever it runs low on funds, which is very often.

Time to grow up

When it comes to money, "we are about as unsophisticated as we could possibly be," Executive Director Sue Gardner said as she swept up Styrofoam packing nuts in the office, the foundation's home since it relocated in January from St. Petersburg, Fla. "It's time for us to grow up a little bit."

Growing up can be hard to do.

Wikipedia, the "encyclopedia anyone can edit," is stuck in a weird Internet time warp, part grass-roots labor of love, part runaway success. A global democracy, beloved by high-school-term-paper writers and run largely by volunteers, the site is controlled for now by people who seem to view revenue with suspicion and worry that too much money — maybe even just a little money — would defile and possibly ruin the biggest encyclopedia in the history of the written word.

"Imagine if the other top 10 Web sites in the world, like Yahoo or Google, tried to run their budgets by asking for donations from 14-year-olds," said Chad Horohoe, a 19-year-old college student in Richmond, Va., who was until recently a Wikipedia site administrator, one of the 1,500 or so people authorized to delete pages or block users from making changes to articles. "It isn't sustainable."

Tough to raise funds

Looking at it one way, it's cheap to run Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation's other endeavors, which include an online compendium of quotations and a multilingual dictionary and thesaurus. The annual budget is $4.6 million, more than half of it dedicated to 300 computer servers and other equipment. On the other hand, the foundation has a tough time raising a few million dollars. The last fundraising campaign featured a video of co-founder Jimmy Wales literally wringing his hands in desperation.

The 45,000 or so individuals who contribute annually give an average $33 each, so campaigns, which are conducted online, raise only about one-third of what's needed. For the rest, foundation directors have to hit up outside donors, such as Stephen Luczo of Seagate Technology and U2's Bono.

Recent moneymaking proposals include a Wikipedia television game show, a Wikipedia board game and Wikipedia T-shirts. Gardner said a board game might by OK but that a game show would be problematic, because game shows are competitive and Wikipedia is collaborative.

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How about selling advertising space like most big-time Web sites do? Don't go there unless you want to start a Wikipedian riot. Some members of the foundation's board of trustees and most of the site's editors and contributing writers zealously oppose advertising.

The debate over Wikipedia's future took a tabloid turn earlier this month when gossip sites started buzzing over allegations by former Wikipedian Danny Wool, who recently launched Veripedia, which claims to authenticate Wikipedia articles. Wool posted on his blog claims that co-founder Wales had, among other things, been imprudent with Wikipedia funds, asking the foundation to pay for visits to massage parlors and other non-Wikipedia-related activities.

Wales and the Wikimedia Foundation said he had never misused foundation funds, and Wales posted a statement online saying that he cared deeply about Wikipedia's integrity and would never abuse it. Gardner said in a statement that Wales "has consistently put the Foundation's interests ahead of his own."

In San Francisco, Gardner said she wasn't planning wholesale changes as executive director, and that her first task was to "fix the basics and get the house in order."

Gardner, a petite woman with black hair and a tattoo of a black widow spider on her wrist, joined Wikipedia nine months ago after leaving Canadian Broadcasting, where she oversaw the introduction in 2006 of advertising on the CBC Web site. She said she didn't foresee a time when Wikipedia would go that route, though she added that she should never say never.

The foundation makes some — less than 2 percent of its budget — from ways other than flat out asking for it, Gardner said. For instance, it licenses the Wikipedia logo to companies such as Nokia, which used it to advertise a new phone, and it charges Web sites such as Answers.com for real-time feeds with page updates.

"The most difficult issue for a nonprofit is always how to raise money in ways which are consistent with the mission," Gardner said, "and don't distract too much from the mission-related work."

Decisions, financial and otherwise, are made by the Wikimedia Foundation board, whose seven directors include Wales, a French plant geneticist, a classical bassoonist studying law in Virginia and an Italian computer programmer. Most board members are nominated and elected, via e-mail debate and balloting, by Wikipedia editors and contributors.

As Wikimedia adds features to its pages, such as videos, costs will rise. "Without financial stability and strong planning, the foundation runs the risk of needing to take drastic steps at some point in the next couple years," said Nathan Awrich, a 26-year-old Wikipedia editor from Vermont who supports advertising.

Outsiders find it hard to see how the site can avoid selling ad space.

"They either have to charge people or run ads, or both" said Greg Sterling, an analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, which specializes in consumer behavior online.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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