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Pretty sure this article could have been called "Wikipedia's Costs Growing Unsustainably" instead of the clickbait headline.

But overall this oped is misplaced. Running the leanest possible operation shouldn't be Wikipedia's focus at this stage in its lifecycle, it's improving the quality of its content.

Back in 2005 Wikipedia had 438k articles and the focus was expanding the reach of its content to cover all topics; today the article count is 5.4 million it's quality that matters more. You can't improve quality just based on crowd-sourcing alone (see: Yelp, Reddit, etc), and the bigger it's gotten the more of a target it's become by disinformation activists.

This attitude on budgets over value strikes me as a classic engineer's POV. The OP is nostalgic about a time when the site was run by a single guy in his basement, but could 1 guy handle the assault of an army of political zealots or Russian hackers? DDoS attacks? Fundraising? Wikipedia is arguably one of the most coveted truth sources the world over, protecting and improving its content is more important than an optimal cost-to-profit ratio.

If the OP has specifics, by all means, share them, but this kind of generalized fearmongering about budgets isn't spectacularly useful, IMHO.

> Pretty sure this article could have been called "Wikipedia's Costs Growing Unsustainably" instead of the clickbait headline.

That's not what I got at all. And that's why the article is interesting.

Wikipedia's funding is what's growing unsustainably. It's higher funding that's pushing the costs higher. And that's what makes it interesting (and only a little click-baity.)

It seems, having taken people's money for a charity, you have a moral obligation to spend the money on the charity, whether it needs it or not. And as a manager of said charity, it's very easy to believe (or to convince yourself) it needs the money. Or otherwise why were we making plaintive pleas for money?

(And that happens in a world of good intentions. When fundraisers become cynical, you end up with the US political outrage machine, which operates simply to raise money rather than to effect political change....)


From the OP: "After we burn through our reserves, it seems likely that the next step for the WMF will be going into debt to support continued runaway spending, followed by bankruptcy."

If it was just about wasting donations, they'd never go into debt. It's costs, and specifically costs-to-income ratio he seems perturbed about.

From the table in the OP, reserves have gone up every year.

The point isn't that the donations are wasted, its that in spending them, you create an organism that needs to be fed.

In most non-profit organizations, costs never go down. Once a budget is set for programs, staffing, etc, they don't just go away and in fact, they often continue to grow without bound. See any government budget ever for evidence.

So if donations don't continue to grow to match or at least keep pace, they could start running a deficit to eat away those reserves in no time. And once a non-profit organization starts running at a deficit, some contributors will question their contributions and they may shrink accordingly.

Those reserves could disappear in just a few years.. unless there's a change, two years should show the direction and another couple years, the course will be set one way or another.

> In most non-profit organizations, costs never go down.

And your evidence for this is...?

I've worked in the nonprofit space for 10 years and leaders, like for-profit companies, cut costs when they're facing a deficit.

If costs go up at WMF they'll either raise revenue or cut somewhere, like virtually any other mature business.

> like virtually any other mature business

That's the problem. A non=profit is not a "mature business" because it's not a business at all. In fact, in most non-profits any effort to "run it like a business" will be met with opposition. Once again, for evidence look at any government agency, budget, etc.

But even if it was a "mature business" the idea that any organization knows when and how to cut costs after its past its prime is dubious at best. For evidence, look at any company bankruptcy. Their costs outpaced their revenue and they didn't react fast enough or in the right ways.

And that's assuming there were "right ways" to react.

It's a Non Profit Corporation - it is a business, but a business who's job is not to return value to shareholders, but to server the public good.

As far as cutting costs and institutional maturity: sure, your all look at any company bankruptcy. You can also look at the millions and millions of non-bankrupt companies, and realize that you're overgeneralizing.

Once again, I'm talking about the time after a company starts to lose.. and the time it takes them to "correct" if there is a "correct" path.

Or as the top commenter put it "the institutional imperative" - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14287430 - as described by Warren Buffet.

>but a business who's job is not to return value to shareholders, but to server the public good.

Is this some kind of Freudian slip?

No, it was a typo.

> And once a non-profit organization starts running at a deficit, some contributors will question their contributions and they may shrink accordingly.

That's backwards though. It's not unusual for a non-profit to run a deficit. A donor will question a non-profit that's running a surplus - why am I giving you money you don't need.

How many people that give to charities look at their balance sheets before hand?

Most don't as long as everyone is getting paid, the galas and events continue, and outward appearances are fine.

Once invoices or paychecks are delayed, people stop and question why the leadership is "making so much money" and the ROI on galas and events. And once a few donors see the deficits, the questions get harder and money slows down.. making the next round of invoices a little harder.

Apparently not in the case of WMF.

> If it was just about wasting donations, they'd never go into debt.

But there's no debt. The whole argument is pure conjecture based on imagination. Using it as if it were a fact that proves something makes little sense.

The author imagines that the funding will not grow forever. That's almost a certainty, as the article describes carefully.

While it's a good warning to WMF, it's not currently a problem. With longevity, they are in for some large endowments. I think those giving a certain amount (?) should have a vote on various directions of the org, like shareholders but, for the common good that supports their mission statements, instead of shareholder value.

Edit: Punctuation.

> While it's a good warning to WMF, it's not currently a problem.

I believe the author's thesis is that by the time "it's not currently a problem" is no longer an argument that makes sense, it will also no longer be possible to effectively correct the WMF's course in a way that will solve it.

I'm not sure I have any idea how to effectively determine if the author is correct about that, but certainly I don't think "it's not currently a problem" actually contradicts anything he's saying.

Ecxept for the correction that it is the authors unsupported assertion, not any actually argued thesis, I think you summarized it nicely.

Funding will not grow forever, neither would expense. There's no danger it would consume whole world's GDP and would require us to acquire an intergalactic loan from Arcturian Galactic Bank. https://www.xkcd.com/605/

> If it was just about wasting money people give you, you'd never go into debt.

The point is that costs will continue to rise (or not fall) after the funding inevitably falls (or fails to rise enough)

He's expected a future where the growth in fundraising declines, but the costs they have committed to are unable to decline at the same rate.

Thank you for this rebuttal. Wikipedia is no longer the small platform it was. It's international, has to expand to developing markets, has multiple sister projects like Wikidata, and tools like VisualEditor that require developers. Sure you can probably rein in costs if you don't believe in any sort of expansion, software improvement, or outreach programs. Lastly, a lot of the claims in the op-ed are simply unfounded like the statement that the Foundation isn't transparent enough, that it's developers are idiots, or that Wikipedia isn't sustainable with its reserves. This just seems like him being overzealous with his consulting experience "rescuing engineering projects that have gone seriously wrong", just as every week a designer will "fix Wikipedia's design".

> could have been called "Wikipedia's Costs Growing Unsustainably"

The table in the article suggests it's growing sustainably, as assets are increasing and revenues exceed expenses. The whole unsustainability hypothesis seems to be based on one metaphor "if it's growing, then it's cancer, ergo it is deadly, ergo it has to be stopped".

I think this undersells the article.

The 1,250x cost growth seems like the heart of the article - it's a claim that the growth is disproportionate to, and unmotivated by, actual value. Since WMF is funded as a charity, not a business, the revenues are 'sustainable' based on what people want to give. So if revenues exceed expenses, that says people like WMF and will give when asked. It doesn't say anything about whether the expenditures are justified.

I'm not sure I accept the thesis of the article, but I think it deserves deeper consideration. The bankruptcy line seems overwrought, but there's no intrinsic reason that high (charitable) revenues prove high expenditures justified.

> it's a claim that the growth is disproportionate to, and unmotivated by, actual value

This claim is largely unsubstantiated, as "number of pages in Wikipedia" is not a good measure of value of the whole project, especially when you take it naively as the only parameter that must numerically match expense figures in linear proportionality. I think such measure is nonsensical.

> It doesn't say anything about whether the expenditures are justified.

How you define "justified" then? There's an extensive process for financing and planning projects. The article author seems to either be completely unfamiliar with this process, or ignore it altogether, focusing only on one measure, which is number of pages. I do not see this as a good argument. Of course, the concern "do we adequately spend the money" is valid - but this concern is known, and constantly on the radar, without alarmist articles. The contribution of this particular article seems to be null - the valid concerns it raises are already known and accounted for, and the new ones are not valid.

I agree with the thrust of your comment, but the bit about "clickbait" is misplaced.

Is is clearly a poetic metaphor - no-one clicking on the article seriously believed that Wikipedia has a literal biological cancer (the "cancer" metaphor is hardly a new one, if any criticism can be made here it would be that it is almost verging on cliche). Indeed the entire article is structured around this metaphor - the title is hardly false advertising.

I disagree strongly with this new obsession that every article title and headline must be written as pure "Man Bites Dog" factual summary, particularly for opinion pieces like this. Surely there is room for some attempt at poetic flair.

(A hypothetical example of a real "clickbait" style headline for this article might be "Google Will Buy Wikipedia").

> A hypothetical example of a real "clickbait" style headline for this article [...]

You forgot the obligatory "this" in the title. Better would be: This Is Why Google Will Buy Wikipedia

Were you aware that the vast majority of both the WMF board of directors and the WMF top management have close ties to Google? Or that a large chunk of those millions that the WMF has been spending went to creating a secret search engine? https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/wikipedias-secret...

Please note that https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Guy_Macon/Wikipedia_has_C... is the origiginal essay, and the version in the Signpost has been modified at the request of the Signpost editors.

I agree with your post. The OP is a bit fearmongering, however there is some general issues that are definitely true of Wikipedia, but because it seems to be doing well overall (in terms of traffic and ubiquity), nothing will change even if "it has cancer." If what the OP describes as "cancer" is how the top 5 website in the world operates and stays there, then so be it I say.

The thing is that there doesn't really seem to be any REAL alternatives challenging Wikipedia in an honest, high effort way. As a wiki/knowledge fan myself, I've gone to different sites with different takes such as Quora (which is fantastic, can't really say it's a real competitor though), Genius.com (which is comparable only in a very narrow sense for songs/texts and nothing else), and Everipedia (which is the closest thing to a real competitor with all Wikipedia content imported, but is tiny in comparison to the last 2 sites above - Alexa 6k US vs Alexa top 100 for the other 2).

I would say out of everything I've found Everipedia comes closest in a valiant effort and I frequently contribute to it here and there, but at the same time, Wikipedia is just too dominant to see any real necessity to change how it is doing anything, whether that is for good or for bad. And my personal opinion is that maybe that is how it should stay too, given the size and scale that Wikipedia operates and its general continued success across most of its fronts. One thing is for sure: the world is definitely better with Wikipedia continuing onward even if "it has cancer."

I use to manage the IT needs of a cartography lab in a uni. one day i was curious to how much web traffic we got off the old website so I checked the IIS logs and saw we were getting over 200k hits a year. i was like what the?

so I enabled google analytics to see where they were coming from. the source was one of our sub pages on redlining was the 5th external link listed in wikipedia on that topic.

This. It is worth it for people to figure out how to preserve truth and verifiability. Perhaps community guidelines is the state of the art, but how can software help prevent it from being gamed?

IMHO if Wikipedia loses that, it costs dearly not just to Wikipedia but to society.

I agree this is misplaced. There are so many things Wikipedia can try to fix now, and so many things they could invest in for the future. Wikidata for example. Lots of these things will fail and appear to be a waste of money of course, but that's called R&D. Growing businesses usually borrow money after all while Wikipedia is firmly in credit.

So long as there's a contingency plan for donations falling, whereby all the nonessential stuff can be dropped if necessary, there's no need to worry.

tldr; prepare for the worst, expect the best.

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