|This essay contains the advice or opinions of one or more Wikipedia contributors. Essays are not Wikipedia policies or guidelines. Some essays represent widespread norms; others only represent minority viewpoints.|
I oppose advertisements in Wikipedia for several reasons, outlined below. Some commonly given reasons do not convince me, which I explain in a separate section. Finally, in a third section I give a number of very personal and general arguments against all advertising; this section is independent of the others and the arguments given earlier should stand on their own.
Valid arguments against advertising in Wikipedia
Advertising cheapens the encyclopedia. There are plenty of Wikipedia mirrors out there, all of them carry ads, and all of them smell very cheesy. Juxtaposition of neutral information and non-neutral ads cheapens the encyclopedia. An article about breast cancer loses a tremendous amount of credibility if it carries an ad for a drug-company-sponsored "self-help site" or for some book of the sort "How Yoga Cures Cancer: A Personal Experience". As another example, it is hard to imagine any ad that would be acceptable on the Holocaust article.
Advertising reduces Wikipedians' loyalty to the site. Partly because of the cheapening effect mentioned above, and partly because they don't want to contribute to advertisers' profits, many Wikipedians will lose loyalty to Wikipedia, maybe stop working altogether. New people are less likely to start. A site which exists solely because of the goodwill of its users simply cannot afford to gamble away this very goodwill.
Advertising distracts our readers. We are here for one reason and one reason alone: to serve our readers. The readers do not come to us for ads; they want encyclopedic information, and quick. Advertising distracts, competes for their attention, annoys, makes them uncomfortable. "The free encyclopedia" -- that also means: free of distractions. It means: we don't sell your eyeballs.
Advertising violates the privacy of Wikipedia's readers. Google with its tracking cookies already knows what you search for on
google.com. Once Wikipedia subscribes to Adsense, Google will also know which Wikipedia pages you read. Google may claim never to do evil, but they can be bought out, they can be hacked into, they can be served with legal papers, even in civil suits. (This argument really applies to almost all forms of advertising on the internet, not just to Adsense.)
Money considered dangerous. A small and lean Wikimedia Foundation living on donations alone has worked exceptionally well for several years now. Reviewing the Foundation's financial statement, I find that they have plenty of cash on hand. Internet traffic to the Wikipedia site has been essentially flat since January 2007. Nothing is broken, nothing needs to be fixed. Proponents of advertising schemes dream of hundreds of millions of dollars that the Foundation could spend annually on worthy projects. What kind of ugly politics will that create, what kind of infighting, what kind of lawsuits? Will people still fix bugs in Mediawiki for free if they know that the Foundation has 108 dollars in the bank? The Foundation has absolutely no track record of dispensing large amounts of money in an effective way, and that's also not what it was set up to do. A foundation that depends on small donation has to listen to its customers, the readers; a foundation that depends on advertising has other customers in mind.
Advertising fundamentally changes the focus. Right now, the encyclopedia is our product, and the readers are our customers, to whom the product is given for free. With advertising, the situation changes fundamentally: the readers become our product, the advertisers become our customers, and the product is sold to the customers. This is unhealthy.
Donation matching is advertising. A company that negotiates a deal of the form "we will match every donation on that day and you will put our name and logo on the top of every page on your site" is not donating; it is purchasing prominent goodwill publicity on a top-12 website. This is brand advertising and needs to be rejected. If they truly want to match donations, they are more than welcome to do so, and we will certainly mention it somewhere, just like all other large donors are recognized. But they don't get to negotiate the time and manner of this recognition.
Advertising increases prices for everybody. Advertising increases demand, and therefore increases prices, by elementary economics. Only those people who like Wikipedia and benefit from it should pay for it; forcing other people to pay is immoral.
Bait and switch. Wikipedia would hardly be where it is today had it accepted ads from day one. Many contributors wouldn't have contributed, and many donors wouldn't have donated. (If you go through the donation comments, you repeatedly find comments of the type "Keep Wikipedia free of ads!") Turning to ads now is a classic bait and switch tactic. Even though adding ads to Wikipedia would be completely legal, many contributors and donors would feel cheated.
Weak arguments against advertising in Wikipedia
Advertising will give advertisers power over content, either explicitly or implicitly. I don't see how that could happen. Most proposals have Wikipedia subscribe to Google's Adsense program, and there the advertiser has no control over the actual placement of the ads. They pay Google and Google pays us, so the advertiser simply has no way to exert pressure on us. Indeed, our current system of sponsorship is much more vulnerable to (self)-censorship: obviously you want to keep large donors happy, and so when it comes to removing critical information from his article, you are consciously or unconsciously biased. Furthermore, much more dangerous than this self-censorship is the advent of astroturfing, companies paying third parties to keep their Wikipedia articles clean. When considering commercial pressures on Wikipedia's neutrality, advertising is a tiny concern compared to the real issues, which are indeed quite frightening.
- Update (28 June 2012): The argument isn't quite as weak as I made it out to be. Google Adsense has put considerable content pressure on other user-written websites before () and employs an extremely one-sided contract ().
Personal arguments against all advertising
Advertising, in essence, is pollution of the noosphere. It consists of half-truths, omissions, irrelevant associations, misrepresentations or outright lies, designed to make the target do something they otherwise would not have done. It is the very antithesis of verifiable and neutral information, of the fostering, nourishing and organizing the noosphere that we have chosen as our task.
Advertising distorts the healthy capitalist market place, where the best product is supposed to win in a Darwinian manner. Not the best product wins anymore, nowadays it's the best advertised product. Not engineering but marketing decides the fate of a product. Marketing however cannot influence how efficient and suitable a given product performs its task. It's perverse.
Advertising's single underlying message is BUY MORE STUFF AND YOU'LL BE HAPPY!! We all know that this statement is false on its face, yet advertisers keep hammering it into our brains, into our subconsciouses, where our true decisions are made. This leads to a tremendous waste of resources as people keep buying useless crap, and it leads to unhappiness since the racing dogs can never reach the rabbit held in front of them.
Advertising is often insulting: to sell a car, they don't tell me its mileage, its price or its safety ratings; instead they play some nice music, show a happy family traveling through a pristine landscape, and tell me that I can get $2,000 cash back if I decide to buy soon. They scream in my face: "You idiot! You will buy this car even though we haven't told you anything relevant about it! What a stupid fuck you are! Now get your ass over to the dealership."
Lastly, advertising frequently attempts to create irrelevant associations of the product with some desirable good, often sex. That in itself is offensive, as it cheapens sex, but it gets worse: since the advertiser needs to appeal to the largest possible audience, she uses stereotypes: the women have to be young, thin and blond. With the ubiquitous advertising nowadays, these stereotypes are constantly being reinforced and can never change.
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