Read me first: Wikipedia isn't about human potential, whatever Wales says - 2008-09-25
His pitch (bit.ly/seth9) starts: "Imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge ... To create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language - That's who I am. That's what I am doing. That's my life goal."
But history tells a different story, one extensively entangled with commercial goals and ad-supported websites. An old "Overview" page (bit.ly/seth10) at Wikipedia states: "Originally all of Wikipedia was at the .com address. Bomis, the company owned by Wikipedia patron Jimbo Wales, hoped to make Wikipedia profitable, or at least cover the costs of operation, so it was at least theoretically a commercial operation. At one point, Jimbo was planning on placing unobtrusive advertisements on Wikipedia, but that plan has since been completely abandoned."
In the early days, nobody foresaw how successful Wikipedia would become. The structural turning point seems have been the 2002 departure of Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger (bit.ly/seth11). With costs reduced, Wales wrote: "All plans to put advertising of any kind on the wikipedia is called off for now. We will move forward with plans for a nonprofit foundation ..." (bit.ly/seth12). Basically, it was a small side project which then became popular far beyond imagining - primarily, I believe, as a result of a quirk in Google's search ranking algorithm, a little-discussed factor.