Drinking one’s own Kool-Aid

Kool-AidMr. Calacanis is at it again, attempting to monetize the world of user-created media. I don’t, like some, think that a recent influx of cash somehow means the automatic death of the read/write web. All new media go through a period of maturation that often includes colonization by profit-seeking organizations and individuals. But in this post Calacanis seems to me to be so completely tone-deaf, so myopic…

To summarize, Wales has vowed (it seems) to keep Wikipedia completely ad-free. Not necessary–not the only way to do a project–but I think its a good stance both ethically and practically. I know that I wouldn’t feel as good about contributing to a site that was generating $100 million in ad revenues. I frankly think that there is a good chance this would poison the well of good intentions and happy thoughts that seems to make Wikipedia work. Whether the non-commercial aspect of Wikipedia is part of that magical concoction of ingredients that makes it work is open to debate, but I think Calacanis’s claim that Wales is somehow irresponsible for not commercializing the site is crass and closedminded. While it seems a childish refrain, if he thinks he can do it better as a commercial site, he should start his own site, and monetize that.

Perhaps what is most striking is Calacanis’s third note:

Note3: In my mind it is unconscionable to not monetize the Wikipedia when a leaderboard would do NOTHING to take away from the project. Let’s do it people! Even if it’s not with AOL, give the inventory to John Battelle or Google to sell–every day that goes by we lose a million bucks that could change the world.

Advertising and other forms of content have always had an uneasy relationship. There is a reason people don’t expect, for example, Vogue to be an unbiased judge of just about anything. Naturally, major newspapers are also driven by advertising, but this has evolved over a long period of time and, frankly, still compromises the integrity of these organizations to a certain degree.

The point behind advertising is to persuade consumers to behave in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise behave. The expense is justified by the profit they can draw from these changes in behaviors. That’s why companies might be willing to buy (the idea that they would be “donating” is disingenuous) ad space on a site that has drawn attention as a credible source of information. The only currency Wikipedia has is its credibility, and frankly this is not as shored up as it might be. Accepting advertising might well produce a significant short-term profit, but it would be at the expense of the goose laying the eggs.

Sure, you can find ways to clearly differentiate between paid and unpaid content, but given that wikis remain a new idea to many visitors, and there are not yet the clear conventions that allow viewers to make judgments, it would be immensely unwise for Wikipedia to squander what credibility it has gained on a quick short-term sellout. Since I have no reason to ascribe alterior motives to Calacanis, I can only believe that he has bought into the myths that undergird the process of “monetization.” Doesn’t he know that successful drug dealers never sample the product?

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12 Comments

  1. Posted 10/29/2006 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Back when I was rather deeply involved in environmental work, I used to regularly hear advocates of resource extraction (logging, mining, damming, etc.) say that the resources were just going to waste if they were protected, as if the economic value of those resources was significantly more valuable than the intrinsic value of those resources left standing, in the ground or flowing free. In truth, studies were done that showed that leaving trees standing can actually have a larger economic benefit to a community though recreation dollars than the dollars brought in through resource extraction would be.

    I think there is definitely a parallel here: Wikipedia has an intrinsic value as a non-monetized site. We don’t have to make money off of everything just because we can. And perhaps there’s a correlary to the second part of the example above: perhaps there is a way in which keeping Wikipedia un-monetized would actually be more financially beneficial to the Wikipedia community. I don’t quite know how that would be, but I’m guessing there’s a parallel there somewhere.

  2. Posted 10/29/2006 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Sounds like we all agree that Wikipedia’s success depends largely on its credibility. But let’s not pretend Wikipedia is looked at as some bastion of truth. It’s not.

    Anytime someone I know quotes a factoid from Wikipedia, they offer a disclaimer that it might not be true. It’s just what they heard on Wikipedia.

    If Wikipedia sold ads, perhaps it could put that revenue to work and shore up its ever weakening strength. All those volunteers editing the site should be pretty annoyed to know their work is being treated as second-class information because Wikipedia can’t afford to invest in protecting their credibility.

  3. ahoving
    Posted 10/29/2006 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Forget credibility, there is no credibility anymore, on the Web or anywhere else — but especially not on the Web. Probably never was. And that Chinese Wall between ad and edit? A fiction, just like reportorial objectivity. So where does that leave us, or what does that leave us with? Useful information. Sponsored links within content would be useful to me. If I’m reading any kind of review or a recipe using leeks, no reason there couldn’t be a Google ad fed directly into the story (maybe set off in a different color to cue). Ads are useful information. Back in college, my roommate and I shared a subscription to The New Yorker. One day, a thicker than usual issue arrived and I started tearing out the ad pages to make it lighter to carry. My roommate stopped me, saying “Hey, don’t do taht! The ads are part of it!” Go figure.

  4. alex
    Posted 10/29/2006 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Hoving: I daresay you are an anomoly. Most people would be bothered as hell by sponsored contextual links. And Whether or not credibility exists (I would argue that is largely a matter of definition), “reputation,” or “branding” if you like, still does. A big part of Wikipedia’s success is exactly that you may go there without having to worry about spam/ads. You have to worry about other things that might affect the content, but they’ve managed–unlike much of the web–to be poisoned by the ads.

    I’m not anti-advertising; I’m about to turn my google ads back on to offset my hosting expenses. But I have little doubt that in so-doing, I am making my content less valuable–trading attention for dollars.

  5. Posted 10/29/2006 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Friends:

    To paraphrase an observation by Bertrand Russell, people who tend to dislike or to fear anarchist principles also believe that the primary value in the human world is the accumulation of objects–$$$$$ specifically.

    If a substantively alternative social order ever does arrive, “it is only likely to prove beneficent if non-economic goods are valued and consciously pursued.”

    David Peterson
    Chicago

  6. Posted 10/29/2006 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    Re: “Ads are useful information.”

    With all due respect, I’m not sure I’ve ever disagreed so strongly with a statement in my life.

  7. Posted 10/30/2006 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    I also don’t see any needs to “monetize” wikipedia.
    Wouldn’t this bring the preferencial treatment then?
    I think if this happens, we are more likely going to see a new non-monetized wikipedia.
    Do we really have to make money on everything? When are we going to be satisfied and do things for free?

  8. ahoving
    Posted 10/30/2006 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Prof H.: I’ve been called worse than “an anomoly” (sp?) — I’ve even been called “a lawyer” [see NYT]. But seriously, even you admit you are about to add ads, and so we’ll just tune ’em out if they’re not useful — but hey, what if they are!

    Eddie: Every print pub I ever worked for determined the size of an issue by doubling the number of ad pages. On the days we had great stories, we hoped we had enough ads to support/run them. When I worked on the edit side, I looked down on the ad sales folks. That was a luxury, and dishonest. As I found out later when I tried it, what they did (making people part with big bucks), was HARD to do. As for ads-as-info: which runs first, the ad for the Danglers show or the writeup?

    Cheers!

  9. alex
    Posted 10/30/2006 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    An anomoly is an anomaly / molybium alloy–very rare indeed.

  10. alex
    Posted 10/30/2006 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    And while I am not anti-ads–some ads are double-plus-good–I think the “they don’t have any effect” argument is internally flawed. Either they don’t have an effect–in which case why are you paying for them?–or they do–in which case you have to wonder how it will affect the understanding of the material that sits right beside them or within them.

    I think it’s really important that you clearly distinguish ad from editorial content, but even when every effort is made to do so, they still bleed over. They bleed in both directions, by the way: that’s why newspapers pull airline ads from pages with stories on air crashes.

    I think a lot of people are pretty sanguine about ads on their website. But I also think that most people who contribute to Wikipedia are not the Average Joe, and might very well see this as a “bad thing” ™. And, as I’ve suggested, I would tend to agree with them.

  11. ahoving
    Posted 10/31/2006 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Oh, I completely agree about Wiki-P …especially since all the folks who contributed all that
    user-generated content did so under the assumption that there were no ads. But face it, fellas:
    our culture (our world) is saturated with ads, and you can’t stop the tide.

  12. ahoving
    Posted 10/31/2006 at 10:09 am | Permalink

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