Is Wikipedia really in danger?

Update 2 @ 1:24 Feb. 11:

More info on the exact nature of Ms. Devouard’s comments at Laurent Haug’s blog — he’s one of the founders of Lift (a hat tip to Scoble for the link). Sounds like the three months is a bit of an exaggeration, but at the same time, Wikipedia still appears to be a little short of cash. A good overview from Bruno Giussani here.

Update @ 5:32 Feb. 10:

Seth Finkelstein says a hard look at Wikipedia’s numbers suggests that the comments by Ms. Devouard are an exaggeration. And my friend Rob Hyndman brings up an interesting point: What ever happened to all the talk about Google providing free hosting and bandwidth to Wikipedia? That idea came up at one point in 2005 and the two seemed close to a deal, but then nothing happened.

Original post:

Florence Devouard, chairwoman of the Wikimedia Foundation, caused a bit of a stir at the recent Lift conference in Geneva by suggesting that Wikipedia is running out of money and could “disappear” — a comment I first saw at Nick Carr’s blog (nice of Nick not to dance on Wikipedia’s grave, considering he said last year that the enterprise was effectively dead). The original report came on a blog written by Philippe Mottaz, a Swiss multimedia producer and journalist. According to his report, Ms. Devouard told the conference:

“Wikipedia has the financial resources to run its servers for about three to four months. If we do not find additional funding, it is not impossible that Wikipedia might disappear.”

wikipedia logo.jpgThere is also a similar report from Bruno Giussani, an author and the European director of the TED conferences. Meanwhile, a Wikimedia staff member named Sandy Ordonez has posted a comment on Nick’s post saying “Ms. Devouard’s comment was taken out of context” and that “Wikipedia will not be closing any time soon. Ms. Devouard was simply referring to the ongoing, pressing needs for funds that Wikipedia, like most nonprofit organizations, face.”

That seems like a bit of a stretch to me — it’s hard to imagine in what other context you could use the word “disappear.” But perhaps Ms. Devouard was simply using her platform at Lift to raise awareness that Wikipedia needs donations to continue. According to Mr. Giussani, Wikipedia now has 350 servers and requires at least $5-million U.S. just to keep the service alive, let alone grow. A recent fundraising drive raised $1-million.

A couple of things spring to mind — the first being: Couldn’t Chad Hurley or Steve Chen, who are now multimillionaires, or Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs or one of a dozen other billionaire geeks cough up a measly $1-million or $2-million to keep the lights on at Wikipedia? And the second is whether this might revive interest in Jason Calacanis’s idea of running small ads on the site, which he said at one point was worth as much as $5-billion (he has more on the ad idea here).

Oh yes, and one other thing: Why doesn’t Wikipedia do a deal with Amazon to use its S3 virtual hosting to handle the site’s data demands? Don McAskill, CEO of SmugMug, says doing that has saved the photo-sharing site about $500,000 a year, and they’re only using it for part of their site.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.