Wikipedia has recently updated its design but you wouldn’t be able to tell anything has actually changed. With minor changes to the typography and a tiny and practically meaningless change in image size, the recent changes seem more like a placebo than an actual commitment to change. While other major sites on the web go through multiple dramatic redesigns to address changes in user culture and web technology, Wikipedia has been slow to adapt.
Apparently it could have been different, but according to Fast.co the Wikipedia community rejected the changes suggested by Wikipedia’s in house design team. Fast Company’s Fast Design blog wrote:
Too many cooks are apt to spoil the soup, and Wikipedia is the ultimate ruled-by-committee entity. Every word typed within the network can be scrutinized or edited by anyone–literally 500 million monthly users worldwide. That check-and-balance system is the very premise on which Wikipedia can operate as a gargantuan, objective source of the world’s information, and yet, as the design team shared its creative process behind a more beautiful Wikipedia, right down to some of the earliest pencil sketches, the response ultimately manifested into a mob mentality that’s keeping Wikipedia’s design in the 1990s.
I guess we should not be surprised then that almost all of the new illustrations contributed via the Wikipedia Illustrated project have quickly found themselves washed down the ash heap of history by furious deletionist editors. There is no doubt the project attempts to raise a debate about visual culture in Wikipedia, but it seems like this is a debate that the online encyclopedia’s conservative editors prefer to suppress.
Occasionally we did try to have these conversations with deletionist editors in the talk pages. This was the least offensive response we received:
You don’t seem to understand the concept of an encyclopaedia, nor the concept of an encyclopaedic illustration. An encyclopaedia, by definition, is descriptive and provides (or should aspire to provide) a description of facts, not the writer’s opinions or impressions. The current pictures in 2012 Houla massacre or in Glorious First of June (to pick out two random examples from today’s first page) are descriptive, and provide direct information relevant to the article. Your artwork is not descriptive (since an actual ash heap of history does not exist) and is merely a so-called “artist’s impression”. These can be acceptable on Wikipedia if the artist or author is notable enough, in which case the illustration throws some light on reactions to the issues discussed in the article by contemporaries or other people of note. But not just any random artist impression – this is still an encyclopaedia and not a platform for self-promotion! Similarly, an (hypothetical) article by George Orwell discussing the Ash Heap of History would be appropriate here under “Bibliography” or “Footnotes”; an (hypothetical) blog entry on the same subject written yesterday by me would not. Aviad2001
It seems like as it is reaching a position of power Wikipedia goes against everything it was celebrated for in its early days. Wikipedians’ progressive speak of reimagining what an encyclopedia might be and challenging old models of public knowledge construction gave way to a conservative speak attempting to have already decided what an encyclopedia is and what it is not. As if Wikipedia already “got it right” and now it only needs to preserve itself as-is. As if the dwindling numbers of editors are simply because the mission was accomplished and the vision fulfilled as now every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. As if there is no room to question how history and knowledge is constructed, because it is constructed according to Wikipedia’s guidelines and that’s the way it should be. As if there’s no room to challenge Wikipedia’s built-in gender biases, because Wikipedia’s predominantly white male editors can talk about wanting to raise the embarrassing 15% female editors number, but wouldn’t dare change the way these biases are structured into the site’s interface and culture. As if there is no room to question Wikipedia’s form of knowledge documentation, preferring text over images, because text is easier to collaborate on, because it raises less copyright challenges and simply because the written word is just what Wikipedia’s guidelines were originally written for. The historical role of image making in knowledge construction throughout all of human history, and much before text is swept under Wikipedia’s rug just because it is less convenient to tackle through the collaborative model that Wikipedia already “perfected” and is resisting to change.
We were hoping to bring this discussion into Wikipedia, and even after being edited out, to engage the deletionist culture even in the talk pages. But it seems these very talk pages have been segregated specifically to contain conversations and to let contributors “blow off steam” rather than be truly open to critiquing the very nature and infrastructure of the discourse. It’s been a while since we last contributed a new illustration to Wikipedia and we’re not sure when will we do that again.
We used to celebrate Wikipedia’s audacity at the face of historical biases towards “dead white men‘s” control of history and knowledge. But the conservatism of the “alive white men” in Wikipedia resisting change and clinging to their technocratic superior power is even more frustrating.
Dead white men can’t change, Wikipedians could but won’t.