Maybe Wikipedia is simply not built for change

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 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.

Apr 12th, 2014

Now Discuss:


  1. Steven Walling Apr 13th, 14

    The screenshot of the “rejected redesign” that you derived from Fast.Co’s piece is actually just a screenshot of our current mobile site. That gives you an idea of how accurate the piece was.

    Regarding any relation to Wikipedia Illustrated… I would recommend that, if you ever wanted to relate well to the Wikipedia community, that you not use negative generalizations like “furious deletionist editors”.

    Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. If you were smart, you might have realized that an encyclopedia in the Internet age has a strong visual bias towards photographic or videographic representations of things. Taking an illustrative approach driven by the visual arts was not ever likely to fit well with a culture built around trying to achieve the most neutral description of things possible. But rather than examining your own premise and biases, and how that might impact your ability to get your illustrations to stick in Wikipedia, you instead decided to fall back on a lame generalization.

    • mushon Apr 13th, 14

      Thanks Steven,
      Your clarifications are important, that image was indeed wrongly presented in as a part of the rejected design. I did not question it and I never recognized it as Wikipedia’s mobile site because that site is not active as Wikipedia’s default tablet version and is only available through a special link:

      I took that image off the post to avoid further misunderstanding. I did keep the rest of the post intact however to maintain the context of your response and since I still don’t know just how wrong that report was. Is it completely made up? Has the redesign of Wikipedia went smoothly and was the community respectful and welcoming the change? Is the font change just the tip of the iceberg or was it the only thing approved by the community? I understand you’re a product manager in the Wikimedia foundation, so I am sure you can provide more context on the story.

      Wikipedia Illustrated is a sincere attempt to challenge Wikipedia’s assumptions about knowledge construction and image making. The same assumptions you are stating as unquestionable facts in your comment. The project has been met with initial interest and support by the Wikipedia Foundation, but that has quickly changed by some editors to hostile and arrogant dismissal and to systematic deletion of any contribution. These deletions have not been accompanied by descriptive reasoning in the talk pages and did feel quite furious and exclusionary as if saying: “Get off my lawn! And don’t dare challenge my way of thinking! Here, click, you’re dead.”

      We are not coming from within the Wikipedia community, and the norms and infrastructure that the community developed makes sure we and what we have to offer will never make it in. We love Wikipedia and are concerned about its future. Unfortunately the walls it has built around itself to protect from outsiders have become a cage. This is very sad for both the Wikipedia project and culture as a whole.

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