Wikipedia is a free on-line encyclopedia which is compiled and maintained by some of the people who use it regularly. It has been estimated that on any given day 15% of all internet users visit the website. Anyone can write new articles or edit existing material. The encyclopedia has over 5 million entries. So how is it financed?
If you visit the Wikipedia website at the moment you will be greeted by the following message:
DEAR READERS, We’ll get right to it: This week we ask you to help Wikipedia. To protect our independence, we’ll never run ads. We’re sustained by donations averaging about £10. Only a tiny portion of our readers give. If everyone reading this right now gave £2, our fundraiser would be done within an hour. That’s right, the price of a cup of coffee is all we need. We’re non-profit with costs of a top website: servers, staff and programs. We believe everyone should have access to free knowledge, without restriction or limitation. If Wiki We believe everyone should have access to free knowledge, without restriction or limitation. If Wikipedia is useful to you, please take one minute to keep our work going another year. Thank you.pedia is useful to you, please take one minute to keep our work going another year. Thank you.
Wikipedia Foundation, the not-for-profit company that manages the Wikipedia website, has been running these donation drives for a number of years. The 2014/15 financial year was their most successful to date as 4 million donations were made by people from all over the world. A total of $75 million was raised compared with $15 million in 2009/10. Although the average contribution was $15.20 in 2014/15, some people contributed over $250,000!
Many of you studying economics might find these figures surprising as Wikipedia would appear to have some of the characteristics associated with public goods. On the one hand, the material is perfectly non-rival. If someone decides to read an entry on Wikipedia it does not prevent other users from being able to read the same article. The article does not get used up or depleted in the act of being read. On the other hand, however, it is possible to exclude non-payers from gaining access to the material. For example in June 2010, the Times and Sunday Times introduced a subscription service for access to on-line versions of the newspapers. The New York Times recently announced that it had one million digital subscribers. However given its non-rivalrous nature, material could be shared between payers and non-payers. Groups of people could even get together and share one subscription.
The statement provided by Wikipedia clearly expresses the importance it attaches to free access. Given that it is non-rivalrous in consumption and free of charge to all users, does economic theory predict that people will (i) make voluntary monetary donations (ii) contribute and edit the on-line entries?
If all users are driven by narrowly self-interested preferences and act in a rational manner, then they will not pay and no donations will be made. People will choose to free ride as they can read exactly the same material whether they have paid for it or not.
Given the results of the fund-raising drive are so at odds with this prediction, it suggests that a significant number of Wikipedia users have either altruistic preferences and/or respond to social norms.
If a rational self-interested person receives no monetary payment for writing or editing an entry would they ever contribute to the website? Given the effort involved it would seem highly unlikely. However the Wikipedia website claims that over 125,000 people contribute regularly. They are referred to as ‘Wikipedians’.
One possible explanation for this behaviour is that some individuals gain utility/pleasure from other people reading and finding their entries both useful and interesting. This utility might increase with the number of potential readers. Therefore keeping access free is a motivating factor for a number of contributors as it maximises the potential readership of their entries. However, the number of contributors fell by a one third between 2007 and 2014.
An interesting question is whether the quantity and quality of contributions would increase if Wikipedia implemented a subscription service which generated enough revenue to enable contributors to be paid but also significantly reduced the number of users.
An alternative way of generating revenue would be to allow advertisements on the website while keeping access free of charge. This option has been resisted so far.
The Wikipedia fundraising banner sad but untrue Wikipediocracy, The Masked Maggot and friends (11/12/2014)
Newsonomics:10 numbers on the New York times 1 million digital-subscriber milestone Nieman. Ken Doctor (6/8/2015)
The trouble with “Free Riding” Freedom to tinker, Timothy B. Lee (24/8/2008)
The future of Wikipedia: Wikipeaks? The Economist (1/3/2014)
Fundraising report 2014-2015 Wikimedia foundation (26/10/2015)
- How do economists classify goods or services that have a low degree of rivalry but where it is relatively easy to exclude non-payers? Give some real world examples to illustrate your answer.
- How do economists classify goods and services that have a high degree of rivalry but where it is relatively difficult to exclude non-payers? Give some real world example to illustrate your answer.
- Explain why an economically rational individual might still make a donation towards the running of the Wikipedia website.
- Why do you think the number of contibutors has fallen?
- People often complain that Wikipedia entrees are badly written and contain numerous mistakes. To what extent do you think that paying contributors would help to overcome this problem?
- What are the possible advantages/disadvantages of financing Wikipedia by using advertising revenue?
Much of the east coast of England is subject to tidal flooding. One such area is the coastline around the Wash, the huge bay between Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Most of the vulnerable shorelines are protected by sea defences, usually in the form of concrete walls or earth embankments, traditionally paid for by the government. But part of the Norfolk shoreline is protected by shingle banks, which require annual maintenance.
Full government funding for maintaining these banks ended in 2013. According to new government rules, only projects that provide at least £8 of benefits for each £1 spent would qualify for such funding to continue. The area under question on the Norfolk cost of the Wash does not qualify.
Between 2013 and 2015 the work on the shingle banks is being paid for by the local council charging levies. After that, the plan is for a partnership-funding approach, where the government will make a (small) contribution as long as the bulk of the funding comes from the local community. This will involve setting up a ‘community interest company’, which will seek voluntary contributions from local residents, landowners and businesses.
Sea defences are a public good, in that it is difficult to exclude people benefiting who choose not to pay. In other words, there is a ‘free rider’ problem. However, in the case of the Wash shoreline in question, one borough councillor, Brian Long, argues that it might be possible to maintain the flood defences to protect those who do contribute while ignoring those who do not.
Not surprisingly, many residents and businesses argue that the government ought to fund the defences and, if it does have to be financed locally, then everyone should be required to pay their fair share.
Holding back the sea BBC Radio 4, David Shukman (19/11/14)
What is the price of holding back the sea? BBC News, David Shukman (19/11/14)
Firms will have to pay towards cost of sea defences between Heacham and Wolferton in West Norfolk EDP24, Chris Bishop (1/8/14)
Businesses between Snettisham and Hunstanton will have to pay for flood defences. EDP24, Chris Bishop (19/11/14)
Wash and west Norfolk sea defence repairs now under way BBC News (13/12/13)
Managing our coastline Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, Environment Agency
- What are the two main features of a public good? Are sea defences a pure public good?
- Is there a moral hazard if people choose to live in a coastal area that would be subject to flooding without sea defences?
- Who is the ‘public’ in the case of sea defences? Is it the whole country, or the local authority or just all those being protected by the defences?
- What are the problems with relying on voluntary contributions to fund, or partly fund, sea defences? How could the free-rider problem be minimised in such a funding model?
- Discuss the possible interpretations of ‘equity’ when funding sea defences.
- If ‘flood defences could be built or maintained to protect those who do contribute while ignoring those who do not’, does this mean that such defences are not a public good?
- Find out how sea defences are funded in The Netherlands. Should such a funding model be adopted in the UK?
Every summer a number of air shows take place in the UK, such as those at Farnborough, Cosford and the Royal International Air Tattoo. Some of these events prove to be extremely popular and successful. For example, over 50,000 people attended the event at Cosford on Sunday 9th June to watch a five-and-a-half-hour flying display, including the Red Arrows, a Vulcan bomber and a RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, which featured Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster aircrafts.
The event was so popular that some people who had paid £25 for a ticket failed to make it to the show ground because they were stuck in a 9 mile traffic jam! The popularity of these events does raise an interesting economic question. Why do so many people pay to attend when it is possible to watch much of the air show from outside the showground? If people can enjoy the benefits of watching an event whether or not they have paid then we might expect the majority of them not to pay.
Air shows seem to have some of the characteristics of a public good: i.e. to some extent the consumption benefits are both non-rival and non-excludable. By non-rival it is meant that one person’s use or consumption of the good does not decrease the quantity available for somebody else to use or consume. If one person watches the Red Arrows fly by, it does not decrease the ability of others to watch them. Contrast this with a product that has the characteristic of being ‘rival’ such as a hamburger. If someone eats a hamburger, it reduces the amount that is available for others to enjoy. The good is ‘used up’ during consumption. Other people cannot eat the same hamburger!!! Many sporting and music events share this characteristic of non-rivalry. For example if somebody is watching a band playing live at Glastonbury it does not stop somebody else from enjoying the benefits of watching the band. The performance of the band is not ‘used up’ like the hamburger when a person watches the show.
The major difference between Glastonbury and an air show is that the event organisers at Glastonbury can prevent people who have not paid for a ticket from enjoying the show. The event is excludable, as fans have to enter the show arena in order to see the bands. However, as one contributor to an internet discussion site commented:
Air show organisers are at a particular disadvantage compared to other show organisers because the key elements of their show can be seen for miles.
Another contributor added that:
Unfortunately being an air show by its very nature it’s very public – the planes are in the air for everyone to see for free for miles around.
In other words, air shows have the characteristic of being non-excludable, as people can benefit regardless of whether they have paid or not.
These public good properties seem to be causing problems for an air show in Welshpool that appears to have an issue with a number of non-payers watching the event. The organisers recently stated that:
We can’t stop people watching from the hillsides, but perhaps we can make them understand that they need to come to the show and pay.
The previous year the organisers had sent people out with buckets to collect voluntary donations from those sitting on the hillside. However they found that:
People were not for giving much at all and it was noticeable how much copper was in the buckets we’d used and there were hardly any notes.
One solution being proposed in order to generate more revenue is to increase the entry fee, which is currently £5, in order to compensate for those who are not paying.
Bob Jones Memorial Air Show urges people to buy tick BBC News (9/6/13)
How to make an airshow pay PistonHeads, (9/6/13)
Free or should you pay Talk Photography, (9/6/13)
An organisers view Airshow, (9/6/13)
Cosford Air Show pledge over traffic chaos Shropshire Star, (10/6/13)
RAF Cosford Air Show – Home RAF Cosford Air Show, (12/6/13).
- What practical problems does a show such as Glastonbury face in trying to make the event excludable?
- In the blog it explains how one person watching a band live does not have a negative impact on the pleasure other people will derive from watching the same band: i.e. it is non-rival. Is this always true? Can you think of any circumstances when watching a live band might become a rival good?
- What term do economists use for goods that are non-rival but are excludable? Think of at least three examples.
- What ideas might the organisers of an air show adopt to encourage people to pay and enter the show ground area?
- Can you think of any strategies that might be used to increase the number and size of the voluntary donations made by those who watch the airshow for free from a hill-side?
- What are the organisers assuming about the price elasticity of demand for the air show at its current price if they claim that increasing prices will lead to an increase in revenue?