As one writer recently observed about Wikipedia, when it began it was “the dumbest idea in history.” (“The Great Upwelling,” by Kevin Kelly, Wired, October, 2018, pg. 43.) The reason? The service was free. How can an enterprise make money when there’s no fee? I wondered myself as I gobbled up reams of information. Then, one day I landed on a page with a request from Wikipedia for a voluntary donation. The ad suggested no specific amount, but said the organization needed help. I didn’t hesitate. I owed the company more than my gratitude.
A year later, a second email arrived. “You were kind enough to support Wikipedia last year. Would you consider doing so again?” Of course I would. And I did. I still need Wikipedia more than Wikipedia needed me. Do reference librarians exist anymore?
What I like about the organization’s appeal is its simplicity — direct and without hype. Not, “We’re doomed If we don’t raise $50,000 is the next 24 hours.” I get the doom message a lot, not just from politicians but from charitable causes. I’m grateful Wikipedia asked for a handout without scaring me to death. To be honest, I’ve grown suspicious of pleas where the hands on the crisis clock perpetually stand at one-minute-to-midnight.
The human brain isn’t designed to live in crisis mode. Once we’ve escaped the sabre tooth tiger, we need to decompress. Politicians, charities and activists should remember this fact of biology. Overstimulated brains shut down. The public snaps shut its wallet. The media, too, would be wise to spend more time informing rather than scaring us. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is a dangerous gambit. What people want is accurate reporting.