Wikipedia and ads

When I first started editing Wikipedia a couple years ago, one of the first suggestions I made was brilliant. It was “why not have ads?” (it was a cleverer proposal of how I thought they could fit into the site, but, nonetheless…). It took me a few months but I became a firm believer in not having advertisements on Wikipedia. (The other thing that convinced me is that every advertisement/subscriber/click4freeipod model ever invented had been suggested like 4 times, mostly by newbies like myself).

This is why I am relieved to hear that the Times’ story suggesting Wikipedia might soon consider using ads was, built around a somewhat incidental comment.

Anyways, I have a couple main problems with ads on Wikipedia, one sort of idealistic, and one practical (man, I always do that!)

First off, idealistically, ads go against at least 2 of Wikipedia’s 5 pillars (which is sort of the Constitution of Wikipedia). The most obvious pillar it contradicts is the neutral point of view (NPOV). Wikipedia can’t be preaching to use NPOV and then direct its users to sites that pay for that service. Also, it violates the fact that Wikipedia is an Encyclopedia. To have advertisements for third parties in an encyclopedia creates a sort of “primary source leak” (i totally made that phrase up, thats why it sounds weird). Encyclopedia’s are essentially tertiary sources, and maybe secondary sources. While Wikipedia selectively links to various primary sources, to link to websites that are advertised would sort of encourage the belief that Wikipedia somehow condones said websites. This is essentially turning the advertising piece of Wikipeida (which, presumably would be located on the encyclopedia itself, to be of any use), into a primary source. I think I was confusing, but think about a paid advertisement for Coke in Encyclopedia Britainnica. See? No? Uh, recall the Absolut Vodka ads in your favorite magazine, that is not drawing from other sources in any way. Now you see.

Now, less idealistically. When there are ads on an article, there inevitably will be people (good people, not only evil people) who want those ads to be clicked, so Wikipedia can make money. But then this means many editors will draw bias (concious or subconcious) from Wikipedia in the way they write their articles. Granted, bias exists in a ton of Wikipedia articles, but it needs to be removed, not exacerbated. Bias coming straight from the encyclopedia is a bad thing, considering all the other sources of bias already out there.

Oh yeah, another ideal thing, Wikipedia is free. They shouldn’t have “include this banner/text to help sell our product/service” permissions anywhere, because that is not free enough. Use with permission is one thing, use requiring advocacy of a product or service is another.

There is also a slipperly slope argument, but thats always such an annoying argument, and I don’t think its worth saying. Mine are better.


1 Comment »

  1. Andy Said,

    January 6, 2006 @ 12:56

    Another reason that I just thought of: because of Wikipedia’s liberal license (the GNU FDL), other websites are free to republish Wikipedia content in whatever form they like. For example, combines Wikipedia content with a few different sources and puts it alongside ads. (Example: Sealand article on

    Luckily, so far none of these “forks” of Wikipedia has tried to compete with Wikipedia by building its own user base or evolving its own content, so user effort remains unified. Putting ads on Wikipedia might blur the line between Wikipedia and sites that syndicate its content; it also might encourage a group of disgruntled Wikipedians to take the existing Wikipedia content and continue to develop it elsewhere, perhaps on a new ad-free website.

    This possibility of a major fork of Wikipedia is admittedly very remote right now. But it might become more of a concern in the future as Wikipedia becomes more influential and people begin tugging it in different directions.

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