When the clock ticked over into the 21st century, the web was just a toddler. It was walking, but it wasn’t ready to write research papers…until Wikipedia arrived.
The site exploded in 2001, going from 600 articles in January to 3,900 by May. As of this writing, the Wikipedia: Size Comparisons page says the service is home to 5,336,928 articles in English—a number that is in constant flux. In total, there are over 40 million pages in 293 languages.
Wikipedia is a phenomenon that helps casual web surfers and students alike. It’s had its share of controversy but raises millions of dollars to keep the servers running (by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, which also operates services like Wiktionary and Wikimedia Commons).
That’s not to say Wikipedia doesn’t have issues ahead. As BoingBoing notes, certain entries face deletion due to what it calls “bureaucratic calcification” and an impending extinction event. And its pages, useful as they may be, are ugly.
Still, Wikipedia is not going anywhere; half a billion people use it every month, and more and more of them are doing so from mobile devices. Hopefully that will draw a new generation of editors to the site. Until then, there are ways to fix Wikipedia’s woes. Read on for a few suggestions.
Let’s start with what I think of as the Wikipedia KISS: Keep it Simple, Stupid. A little-known feature called Simple English Wikipedia shows a simplified version of an article—in reality, an entirely different article on the same topic, but written for the layman.
They actually exist as a separate Wikipedia (much like other languages do). You can access it at simple.wikipedia.org, but when you find a difficult-to-parse page on Wikipedia, the better trick is to look at the URL and replace the “en” between slashes with the word “simple.” If a corresponding page exists on the Simple English version, you get it instantly. Try it with topics like Archaeology or Quantum mechanics. (The same trick works with any supported language; just replace the EN with the 2-letter code.)
Aesthetically, Wikipedia needs the most help. Its pages are designed to convey information in the most academic way, but it’s not always pleasing to the eye. (That said, Wikipedia works on almost any Web browser, so keep that in mind.) Arguably, the best tool to fix that scholarly ugliness is the service Wikiwand. Install the extensions it offers for Chrome, Firefox, or Safari and you’ll always default to the improved Wikiwand look whenever you search for or link to a Wikipedia page. It’s all the same data, just presented in a more eye-pleasing manner. You can even customize the colors, fonts, and layout. The quick preview option lets you hover over article links and see what you may get next before you click.
Wikiwand offers an app for iOS, and you can get an early invite for the still-to-be-released Android version. The Simple English trick also works when you look at articles through Wikiwand. Or just select Simple English in the Language drop-down menu. You will see the occasional ad amidst the articles, but Wikiwand donates 30 percent of what it makes to the Wikimedia Foundation.
There are other browser extensions that improve the look of Wikipedia:
- EAnswer.com has a similar setup as Wikiwand, using a Chrome extension to redirect you to its version of the pages.
- Readable Wikipedia for Chrome does a simple job, adjusting fonts and column sizes using sliders you control.
- Black Menu for Chrome puts exactly that—a stylish black menu—on the right column of pages from various Wikimedia sites, to make it easier to access those sites as needed. You don’t know you’re missing Wikispecies until you see that button.
What Wikipedia access when you don’t have internet? The Xowa open-source wiki application for Windows, Linux, macOS, and Android will let you download the entirety of Wikipedia in any language you pick, or other Wikimedia sites like Wiktionary, Wikiquote, and more, all to your hard drive. Make sure it’s a big drive; just the text of the full English Wikipedia will take up 30GB. It’s a more than double that—80GB—with the images. But put it on a flash drive and you can take it anywhere. Put it on your Android device and it’s a veritable Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Or, you know, connect those devices to the web.)
Want some fun ways to get access to interesting things on Wikipedia? Enjoy the schadenfreude that comes with reading [Citation Needed], a Tumblr blog that promises “The Best of Wikipedia’s Worst Writing”; the title is a riff on the famous line you’ll find in any Wikipedia article where editors decry opinion creep.
If you’re interested in some nuts-and-bolts, behind-the-scenes Wikipedia info, subscribe to the Weeklypedia, a newsletter listing the most edited articles and most active discussions on the site every week. And The Wiki Game is a game that lets you try to connect Wikipedia articles by clicking on the links therein to see how long it takes to get from article A to article B.
For a bit of humor that doesn’t really have much to do with Wikipedia directly, go to Uncyclopedia, which is to Wikipedia what The Onion is to news. Then visit the Twitter account of TL;DR Wikipedia, a source of condensed articles reduced to their pithy best.
House of Cards. pic.twitter.com/AuecZSVWu2
— tldrwikipedia (@tldrwikipedia) March 4, 2016
There is a parade of apps that make Wikipedia access on a mobile device a breeze, starting with Wikipedia’s own app for iOS, Android, and Windows. An update to the iOS app last year simplified the navigation and improved the search, plus provided an “Explore feed” for people to get personalized content that always updates.
Other free options for mobile downloads include the aforementioned Wikiwand, plus Wikipanion, Articles, and Wikiamo, all for iOS. If you want to take Wikipedia entirely offline on mobile, Kiwix—made by the Swiss chapter of Wikimedia—is on iOS and Android. There are Android-only Kiwix versions for the Wikivoyage travel guide and Medical Wikipedia as well. And Endless is a unique iOS-only app that will bring you a random Wikipedia article whenever you open it.
If you eschew apps for mobile browser, then bookmark the mobile version of Wikipedia at en.m.wikipedia.org. It looks pretty great on a desktop, too.