How much does free cost?

So I’m looking up “cosmic microwave background” on Wikipedia the other day (it came up in a book I’m reading) and at the top of the page there’s a banner ad with a personal appeal from Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder. Normally I wouldn’t give this a second thought, but it shows his face, and the guy has such a sympathetic, compassionate look that I can’t help but click through. Turns out he is asking for donations to “protect and sustain Wikipedia”. “Together, we can keep it free of charge and free of advertising.”

So many thoughts are going through my head; the first one is, ‘They want me to pay for Wikipedia?’ And next, ‘what, the…?’ ‘Has this always been here?’ ‘If they are trying to keep it free of charge, why are they asking me to donate?’ And finally, since I work for an ad agency I’m wondering, ‘should I support any type of effort that negates the value of advertising?’ After all, my paychecks depend on ads.

On the other hand, I very much appreciate websites that haven’t succumbed to crass commercialism, or even elegant commercialism. The whole idea of free in this digital environment is kind of a slippery slope. I’m reminded of a keynote address I heard from Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine. He was speaking about a book he wrote called, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, the premise of which says that in an online market, the most effective price is no price at all. He further asserts that the under-30 generation is of the mindset that information (especially information you get online) is free — not “should be”, but simply “is” free. That’s how they think. His theory is not without controversy, but it does make some good arguments.

And this brings us full circle. How can Wikipedia be free if you donate money to the cause? Does the fact that it’s a donation mean that “technically” it’s free? Is it just a matter of semantics? And I still haven’t decided if I should donate or not. Those “Bags fly free” ads from Southwest Airlines are pretty funny. It wouldn’t bother me at all to see those on the Wikipedia page. But maybe that’s just me.


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