Imagine what you could do if financial sense was a secondary consideration of the adventures and ambitions you pursued, if the principal factor was knowledge, growth, creative production, or quality of the experience. Liberated like a child.
Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook in 2004. It has over 1.4 billion active users and generated $12.5 billion in revenues in 2014. Zuckerberg’s net worth is estimated at $36 billion.
Jimmy Wales led the launch of Wikipedia in 2001. It hosts 35 million articles in 288 languages. It has had over 18 billion page views and receives 500 million unique visitors each month. Wikipedia generated just $40 million in donations (through the Wikimedia Foundation) in 2013 and Wales’s net worth is estimated at $1 million.
Which of these 2 internet services will survive a half century and who, if either, will be a household name 100 years beyond that? One service provides a virtual community hall for photo updates of our cute kids doing silly stuff, snapshots from our travels and misadventures, videos of puppies and kittens doing even sillier stuff, exciting games like Farmville and SongPop, and advertisements. The other provides an encyclopedia of seemingly endless information appended and corrected every second of every day for every imaginable user regardless of age, location, interest, or spoken language. A 12 year old sitting at home in Manila seeking a summary of Napoleon’s exile to Elba written in Tagalog? They have that and without the publicity. They also don’t have videos and games.
Facebook and Wikipedia are successful ventures because they provide value to their users at no direct cost. One of them also provides real value for advertisers by selling data on everything you like, link, and suggest and a map of your network of friends. The other service has no idea whom the vast majority of its users are and that distinction goes a long way in explaining the contrast in revenues.
I am an open user of one, a closeted voyeur of the other. My fickle teens are not loyal to any online service – Facebook, Wikipedia, or otherwise – and I look to them for direction on internet trends. Even email is from the bygone era of typewriters and fax machines for my kids and Facebook has been pushed aside by Instagram and Snapchat. Will they return to Facebook as they get older? I don’t know; what would be the driver? Will they use Wikipedia more often as they get older? Yes they will. It’s utility as a knowledge source for their school essays and work-related research is unmatched, not to mention the rabbit hole of reading it offers for the merely curious like me.
Is a venture’s profitability the primary determinant of its value? Does the Facebook platform provide more utility to its users than Wikipedia? This is an interesting debate perfectly suited for a late afternoon rosé, … I could suggest a few from Provence (says the incorrigible corrupter).
We seem to be guided from a young age to consider all of activities through the lens of financial gain or loss. For our commercial endeavors it’s the measure of demand as reflected in cash paying customers (or advertisers in this new era). Even our personal considerations are run through the mill of financial sensibilities. I could move here or do that, study this or learn that craft, but it’s just crazy to consider it, you know? I mean that just makes no financial sense at all!
This takes primacy over our actions and limits our imagination, our potential. Imagine what you could do if financial sense was a secondary consideration of the adventures and ambitions you pursued, if the principal factor was knowledge, growth, creative production, or quality of the experience. It can be liberating to imagine, dangerous even.
We can be happy that Wales decided from Day 1 his creation would be best managed as a nonprofit. He could have been a billionaire by now, yacht hopping with Jay Z in Cannes or challenging Zuckerberg for the title of biggest charitable donor in Silicon Valley. (It turns out that the Zuckerbergs are giving munificently for this distinction.) But our Wikipedia browsing would be distracted with blinking ads and our surfing stats filling up the servers of the world’s great purveyors of useless stuff. Here’s to you Jimbo, un verre de rosé vous attend!
Bill Magill Aix-en-Provence