Supporting freedom of information at Wikipedia

There are those who say that without Florence Devouard, Wikipedia - which depends on donations for its existence - would not have survived. Globes spoke to someone who joined Wikipedia "when it was still in diapers" about paying for freedom.

Wikipedia has become one of the Internets leading websites in recent years, and is consistently listed among the top 10 most popular websites in the world. The site represents the power of Internet users, and despite occasional complaints about quality of editing and accuracy of details, it is a popular source of information on the Internet worldwide.

Florence Devouard, though she has been somewhat behind the scenes, is responsible to a large extent for sites success. There are those who say that without her, the site, which depends solely on donations for its existence, would not have survived. Devouard joined the ambitious project, founded by Jimmy Wales, early on, and she will be a guest at the Globes Israel Business Conference 2008.


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As she puts it, she discovered the project when it was still in diapers. It was a small venture, unknown, that worked only in English. I quickly realized that this site, which offered vital and interesting content, cannot be so isolated, and that it is important that Americans realize that in other countries, people may think differently.

In 2004, after she helped to set up the local site in France, she joined the board of trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia, and is responsible for raising the funds which allow it to continue. Devouard served for two years as the chair of the board, between October 2006 and July 2008.

Today she is a consultant in Internet communication strategy.

Globes: What precisely is the Wikimedia Foundation responsible for?

Devouard: "Its a not for profit organization, and its only goal is to support Wikipedia, and widen its accessibility in the world."

In the context of her job, Devouard sought commercial enterprises that agreed to donate funds to the site, in order to maintain its unique model. However, the main funding comes from Internet users, so that the site depends on the goodwill of users to contribute their time and energy to improve the content on the site, as well as on the pockets of users who understand how important the social project is.

How much does it cost to maintain such an ambitious project?

In order to run the project we need $8 million a year. Most of the funds are to finance operations, such as the servers, and the rest goes to the staff.

When Devouard refers to staff, she means a small group of 15 people who are responsible for operating the site, including clerical, bookkeeping, and technology roles. None of the employees, is should be pointed out, receives money for editing the sites content.

"90% of the funds are from donations, whether from companies, large organizations, or from citizens, and once a year we organize a fundraising evening. Thats the business model of the organization.

As befits an internet operation, there is a banner ad on the sites home page which allows users to donate funds, and a running tab of how much has been collected, which currently is slightly more than $3.1 million. Users in Israel can also donate to the venture.

What other sources of income does Wikimedia have?

"We receive money from companies that use the Wikipedia logo. For example, a company that wants to advertise itself and use Wikipedias content which is offered for free, has to pay for the use of the logo. But this is not big money, its a marginal source of income."

In 2006, industry sources estimated that if the site would include advertisements, its market value would be over $500 million.

It's tough to depend on donations, and maybe even impossible over the long term. Is there a chance that one day well see ads on Wikipedia?

"I dont think so - although its not the foundations decision rather, its the communitys. Yet this is a community that has vehemently opposed that idea since the projects inception, so it is not likely that there will be advertising in the future. At the same time, it's impossible to promise that it will never happen."

Along those lines, Wales, who set up the site under the .com domain, decided that the site would not be commercial, so the suffix used around the world for the site is .org.

The threat from Google

The meteoric success of Wikipedia inspires competition, and several months ago Internet giant Google launched a competing venture it called Knol. On the face of it, it should put pressure on Wikipedia backers, as Google manages to establish domination in nearly every area it enters.

But Devouard claims that it is hard to compare the two products. You cant compare it to Wikipedia, since Knol has one editor for every entry, and it doesnt have the collaboration side. Its a good idea and I like it, but theres no room for comparison. All of Wikipedias content is the legacy of the public, and that is its uniqueness."

Do you agree with some peoples claim that Wikipedas model is anarchistic?

"Besides the fact that everyone can edit specific items, all versions are saved on the site, even if youre talking about 1,000 versions, and users can see all the versions. Additionally, it's always possible to know what others are doing on the site, and if someone is doing something not good, it can be changed quickly. We have random examiners along with the core community, part of which spends hours on the project. They know the rules, and check that things are getting done correctly. We havent seen many attempts to deliberately corrupt information on the site, and we rely on the users. "

She also says that the fact that users are required to include the source for every addition to a specific entry, gives a level of credibility to the information on the site, and allows checking whether the source quoted is reliable - or maybe the addition should be removed.

Devouard does admit that in certain communities, such as speakers of a language not widely-spoken, there can be deliberate errors and misleading items can be found. In small communities you can find inaccuracies, and it also exists in small political communities with sharp arguments, and certain entries are influenced by political commentary. In these types of communities there is also not a lot of content, but mainly political content, which from the outset is difficult to edit objectively.

Volunteer work

At a time when user generated content has become a worn cliché, and many social sites realized that they must remunerate the users that donate content and contribute to the sites success, Wikipedia stands out in its distinctness users are not paid for editing or adding content.

Is there a chance that users will get money for their contributions to the site?

It's something that is being considered, but just among small communities, specifically the African community, because very few people have Internet access there, and not many people speak the languages. So, in order to provide the quality and quantity of content at the site, we considered paying students to do that.

There are also companies that pay specific people to worry about and follow up on the firms reputation on Wikipedia, but the money does not come from us. I dont believe that users will get money for this. Many people are ready to join this project and are enthused just by the possibility to contribute and do this for no remuneration. I know that not everyone understands the motivation behind this, but there are enough people who do.

Florence Devouard will speak at this year's Israel Business Conference at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv, to be held on December 14-15.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on December 8, 2008

Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2008

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