WikiConference gathers enthusiasts of free knowledge

Published: Thursday October 04, 2012

Conference participants at Marriott Yerevan.

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The Armenian Wikipedia

Yerevan - The first Yerevan WIkiConference was held in Yerevan on September 8-9.

What follows is a report of an Armenian Wikipedian who currently resides in Los Angeles, CA and goes by the handle ‘teak':

It started as a celebration, a celebration of the efforts of the volunteer editors contributing to Wikipedia, who dedicate their time and knowledge to enriching and improving the worldwide free encyclopedia. As Susanna Mkrtchyan, the head of the organizing committee pointed out in her opening remarks, the Wiki Conference was first and foremost about these enthusiasts of free knowledge, as none of the topics to be discussed would make slightest sense without their dedicated contributions.

Although the Armenian language edition of the indispensable online encyclopedia that Wikipedia has become is relatively obscure in size and depth, the proud bunch of Armenian speakers who edit it were in a truly festive mood, as were the guests and supporters. And even Prime-minister's cancellation of his welcome speech due to a visit of a high-ranking foreign delegation (as well as Deputy Minister of Education's cancellation of his), could not deter the plans of the organizers to make the WikiConference held in Yerevan, the first in the region, a roaring success.

Most of the attendants at the conference, as expected, were from Armenia, but guests from the neighbouring Georgia were also present, as well as invited representatives from the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization behind Wikipedia and its sister projects. Ting Chen, a member of the Board of Trustees of Wikimedia Foundation and a former chairman of the board gave the first talk, in which he presented the history and highlights of the projects of the Foundation, the most well know of which is Wikipedia. A lively Q&A followed the talk, and the conference was chugging ahead at full speed.

A series of informative and well-prepared talks filled the sessions of the conference, each accompanied by questions and comments from the attentive participants. An especial hit with the audience was the talk of Lusine Grigoryan, who presented her research of the Armenian wiki-community and its history as a fellow of the WikiStories project during the summer of 2011. The talk was followed by an open discussion session about the history of the Armenian Wikipedia and the ways in which its community worked. Long-time members of the community jumped into the discussion, answering questions of the audience, and sharing their views on future developments of the project.

A somewhat scandalous situation arose, when the English interpreter interrupted the discussion after critical remarks about the initial development of the Armenian Wikipedia, lead by a user nicknamed Lilith. She calmly introduced herself as the user Lilith, the first member of the Armenian Wikipedia, and explained her rationale for the actions being criticized. The calm discussion that followed this interruption perfectly showcased the collaborative spirit of wiki-communities, within which adherents to the universal goal of shared free knowledge honour the contributions of the community members, and are also open to discuss and criticize each others' edits. But more than anything else, the piquant situation brought out laughs, and raised the general camaraderie among the participants of the conference.

Another invited speaker, Bence Damokos, who chairs the Affiliation Committee of the Wikimedia Foundation, talked about the experiences of different Wikimedia chapters. As of the current plans of the Armenian wiki community is the creation of a a foundation chapter in Armenia, this talk was quite useful in both understanding the role played by the chapters, and the means of establishing a successful local organization representing the wiki-community. One of the ideas of his talk was organizing wiknicks, or wiki-picnics, as both community building activities, and organized outings for photographing notable sights in order to enrich relevant wiki articles. This idea was later picked up by another speaker, Ken Komendaryan, who called on everyone to participate in such outings, which can strengthen the virtual community via common leisure activities.

The final session of the first day was dedicated to questions of relevance of the Armenian edition of Wikipedia, both as a source of knowledge and a reflection, as well as a stimulating agent for the development of the modern Armenian language. Some experiences of using the free online encyclopedia in secondary schools in Armenia were also shared and discussed. At the end of the first day the participants were visibly tired, but still continued discussions in small groups here and there in the Tigran Mets Hall of Mariot Armenia, which hosted the conference. The participation at the conference and the resilience of those present were a pleasant surprise, and showed that there is an undeniable interest in free content creation in Armenian.

The second day of the conference brought more talks, just as interesting and captivating as the day before. One of the first day's speakers, Ting Chen, gave another talk on the second day, this time about the benefits of editing Wikipedia. He explained how contributing to wiki projects can greatly improve one's personal skills, such as writing, translating and debating, and at the same time allow the contributors to share the rich cultural heritage of the Armenian people with the world. To illustrate how simple it is to contribute to Wikipedia, Mr. Chen played a video of a woman baking lavash, which he took with his phone in a Yerevan restaurant a couple of days earlier. The video was meant to show how exactly lavash is made, and as such was a useful addition to the "Lavash" article of the English Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavash).

In another talk during the second day, Vahagn Poghosyan of Instigate raised the question of inclusion of texts in classical orthography, and proposed an automatic conversion tool between classical and reformed orthography that can be used in Armenian wiki-projects. The software tool, which is currently in its final stages of development, will allow users to read and contribute to the Armenian Wikipedia and its sister projects in the orthography of their choice, and hopefully facilitate the collaboration between diasporan and Armeania-based contributors to free Armenian content creation.

Just as it started, the conference ended in celebration, too. This time it was a celebration of Armenian culture, represented by its national dances. Members of the Karin Folk Dance Ensemble taught the participants some of the dance moves in their repertoire of Armenian folk dances and invited everyone to join them in a circle dance.

Although it was the first Wikiconference in Armenia, at the end it felt as a meeting in which we all regularly participate. And hopefully the success of this first conference of its kind will inspire all interested to come together as an at least an annual tradition. And maybe, just maybe... one day this Yerevan Wikiconference will carry the name Wikimania - the annual international conference for worldwide wiki users.

For the official English language page for the conference link to
http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/WikiConference_Yerevan_2012.

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