On the Ugliness of Wikipedia

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Mostly, the site's homeliness is a feature rather than a bug. Still: It might be time for a makeover.

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Here is an empirical truth about Wikipedia: Aesthetically, it is remarkably unattractive. The gridded layout! The disregard for mind-calming images! The vaguely Geocities-esque environment! Whether it's ironic or fitting, it is undeniable: The Sum of All Human Knowledge, when actually summed up, is pretty ugly.

And: no offense intended. Because, on the one hand, the site's homeliness is a feature rather than a bug. "Wikipedia has always been kind of a homely, awkward, handcrafted-looking site," says Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation. And that homeliness, she notes, "is part of its awkward charm." Wikipedia's just-rolled-out-of-bed-looking interface sends a clear message to users, Gardner said, in a panel at today's Wikimania conference. And that message is, basically, that the site has better things to do than obsess about its appearance. Wikipedia "is clearly not designed -- at all -- by marketing people," Gardner notes. "It is clearly not trying to sell you something." Which means that Wikipedia's frank, unpretentious interface serves as a subtle reassurance: The site is not trying to monetize you.

And that's a good thing, Gardner says -- and, more to the point, it's something that should be preserved. Wikipedia is not, and has no interest in being, Facebook.

And yet. There's one thing Wikipedia could learn from Facebook, which is less about attractiveness and more about user-friendliness. Facebook -- and Twitter, and Tumblr, and similar sites -- have built followings in part because of their exceedingly simple interfaces. They are intuitive and, thus, inviting. Everything about their design says, "Come on, guys. Participate. It's easy." 

Wikipedia, so far, has been pretty much the opposite of that. "The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit" might more properly be nicknamed "the free encyclopedia that any geek can edit." The editing interface, sure, is friendly to the site's super-users, Gardner notes -- users who tend to skew tech-y and who, regardless, tend to be so committed to Wikipedia's mission that they're willing to do a lot to contribute to it. The interface is much less accommodating, however, to users who aren't as technophilic and mission-driven. 

So the real ugliness of the site, Gardner notes, isn't cosmetic. It's that Wikipedia has "a built-in bias against design and user-friendliness."

This is particularly problematic because one of the the Wikimedia Foundation's broad strategic goals is to expand its base of editors -- and, by extension, to diversify its offering of content. "Our top goal is to increase the number of people who edit," Gardner says. And an uninviting editorial interface is a direct impediment to that aim. So, 18 months ago, Wikimedia introduced an experimental visual editor -- an interface that would bring a more WYSIWYG assumption to editing Wikipedia. That editor is still very much in experimental mode, Gardner notes. And "we don't think that the visual editor, in and of itself, is going to solve the challenge" of broadening Wikipedia's editor base, she adds. If Wikipedia wants to make itself more attractive to users, it's going to take more than a single new interface. 

Still, though: It's a start. It could be that a superficial makeover is just the thing Wikipedia needs to begin growing in a more meaningful way.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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