Scroll the list of the 10 most popular U.S. Web sites, and you'll find the Internet's richest corporate players. Except for No. 7: Wikipedia. And there lies a delicate situation.
With 2-million articles in English alone, the encyclopedia "anyone can edit" stormed the Web's ranks through the work of volunteers and the assistance of donors. But that gives Wikipedia, overseen by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, far less financial clout, and doing almost anything to improve that situation invites scrutiny from the same community that proudly generates the content.
The system "has strengths and weaknesses," says Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's co-founder and "chairman emeritus." "The strength is, we don't do anything randomly, without lots and lots of lots of discussion. The downside is we don't get anything done unless we actually come to a conclusion."
Even the foundation's leaders aren't unified. Florence Devouard, a French plant scientist who chairs the board, said she and other Europeans involved with the project are more skeptical than Americans such as Wales about moneymaking side projects.
The project's financial situation is not exactly dire. Cash contributions jumped to $2.2-million last year, from $1.3-million in the prior year. With big gifts recently, the foundation's budget is $4.6-million this year.
In the past year, the foundation has expanded staff from less than 10 people to roughly 15 and moved to San Francisco from St. Petersburg. It has a new executive director, Sue Gardner, formerly head of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s Web operations. She appears to favor an incremental strategy, stretching the staff to 25 by 2010, with the budget increasing toward $6-million.
Leaders would like to hold "Wikipedia Academies" in developing countries, to encourage new contributors. Wales wants to implement software that makes Wikipedia less daunting. But some Wikipedians want the foundation to spend more.
Nathan Awrich, a Wikipedia contributor from Vermont, advocates limited ads on the site, to pay for technical improvements, better outreach and even a legal-defense fund.
Gardner said she opposes ads unless it came down to a choice between "shutting down the servers and putting ads on the site."