Promised the moon, settled for the stars
- Wikimania 2014 was held last week in the Barbican Centre in London. Below, the Signpost's former "Technology report" writer Harry Burt (User:Jarry1250) shares his thoughts on a bustling conference.
The pre-Wikimania Hackathon proved popular, with developers flooding the fourth floor for its introductory session.
As has become traditional, Wikimania proper was preceded by a two-and-a-half day hackathon, with entry at slight additional cost. While there had been concerns from hackathon organisers about what percentage of those registered would actually attend, it was clear from the word "go" that it would be alright on the night: the introductory session on Wednesday morning was packed, and numbers remained high throughout Thursday and into Friday. For attendees it was an opportunity to get in some 'hacking'—any coding of an interesting nature, including work on tools, gadgets, MediaWiki and its extensions—meet other developers, and enjoy the comfortable (if slightly unusual) surroundings of the Barbican's tropical conservatory and garden room. On a warm summer's day, it felt like a greenhouse—not least because, in a very real sense, it was.
Nevertheless, the social atmosphere was Wikimania at its best: light, enthusiastic and welcoming to those more unfamiliar with the movement and its goals, here including an impressive assortment of journalists. Staff proved approachable, mixing freely with volunteers—indeed, the sessions served as a reminder that Wikimedians are peculiarly lucky in that regard. Such positivity even crept into sessions as potentially fraught as that led by the Foundation's Fabrice Florin, a presentation and chat about the development direction of the controversial Media Viewer extension. Although there were minor quibbles, like the sprawling Barbican making it difficult to move from registration (floor: -1) to venue (floor: 4), or the deployment of sandwiches at lunch ("originally supposed to be lasagne", Ed noted critically) and nothing at dinner, it was an uncomplicated unconference executed well. Even the WiFi held up, as it did throughout the conference—more or less.
Opening session and keynotes
Conference Organiser Ed Saperia opened Wikimania proper with a brief discussion of its main themes and their inspirations.
The opening session of Wikimania, held alongside a welcome drinks reception on the Thursday evening, could roughly be divided into two halves. The first consisted of four speakers (Ed Saperia, Wikimedia UK Chief Executive Jon Davies, Jimmy Wales and Lila Tretikov) enlisted to give short welcome speeches. Apart from an off-the-cuff remark from Wales that he wished the press would talk "less about the monkey" and more about the substantive issues raised in his pre-Wikimania press conference, the burden of getting the packed auditorium to tear themselves away from their phones/tablets/buzzword bingo cards fell to Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International and sole keynote speaker of the Thursday evening session. Though many of Shetty's remarks fell on sympathetic ears, it was his allusions to certain problems of scaling—the forced creation of staff headquarters in developing nations; the difficulties of running a global institution alongside local chapters—which stood out and it was a shame that Shetty did not share more of his considerable experience during the keynote itself.
Shetty was arguably the most prominent of the non-Wikimedia names on the list of featured speakers—surprising, perhaps, for a conference that had won the bidding process promising speakers including Clay Shirky, Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig and even Stephen Fry (see related Signpost coverage). Nevertheless, the speakers eventually organised proved sufficient to regularly fill and continuously entertain the cavernous Barbican Hall. The final lineup thus included Danny O'Brien (along with Wales, one of the two survivors of the original London bid), Jack Andraka, and, able to draw on the UK's well developed civil society infrastructure, representatives of the thinktank Demos, Code Club and Young Rewired State among others: an admirable and effective lineup, if not quite the "VIP speakers (academics, politicians, media, entertainment)" originally described by Jimmy Wales in July 2012. In a Wikimania first, all of the featured speakers' presentations were reliably streamed live and recordings rapidly made available online, a real boon considering Wikimedia's global appeal and the months-long delays from previous Wikimanias.
Wikimania 2014's eight tracks offered access to speakers on a wide variety of subjects—here, author and associate professor of journalism Andrew Lih
discusses the difficulties of getting more video onto Wikimedia wikis.
In total, Wikimania 2014 claimed some 200 sessions over 8 simultaneous tracks, replete with the inevitable scheduling and organisational headaches. The organisers will be pleased with the variety they achieved: notable themes including open access, open data, technology, GLAM and diversity were all well-represented, while smaller topics (the legal aspects of Wikipedia, for example) seemed neatly stitched into accessible 90 minute blocks. The Barbican's cavernous layout and the comfort of its designed-for-purpose auditoria thus conspired to make these blocks, rather than individual sessions, the primary unit of time management—to the benefit of some of the more niche interest talks on the programme. Each talk seemed ably staffed by the conference's apparently vast team of volunteers, both technically and in terms of sticking to their timetables. The blocks were then in turn punctuated by coffee breaks, lunch, and on some days (but confusingly not all) dinner. Although hackathon attendees quickly got used to the "packed lunch" format, it was the dinners that particularly stood out, including bitesize burgers, skewers and sea-bream tacos (to name a few), served in reasonable quantity but alas with the purity of queuing to which many native Britons (the author included) are accustomed.
Aided by the high overall attendance (an estimated 2000, making London the largest Wikimania to date) all the sessions seemed to receive good levels of participation; there were not enough chairs, for example, to incorporate everyone attending an event on copyright, not usually a floor filler. Saperia added that hundreds of those tickets had been sold in the final days before the start of Wikimania proper—a reminder that it was not just hardcore Wikimedians in attendance. For those unable to attend a talk that they would have liked to—and with eights tracks, that included many attendees—slides and numerous recordings are now available. The quality of the talks varied, but around a high mean; early evidence suggests numerous standout sessions (the author would recommend Brandon Harris' unique performance style, though his two talks were of very different kinds). Unsurprisingly many attendees also turned to Twitter to add their comments to those of a hyperactive Wikimania social media team, with an estimated 21,000 tweets using the #wikimania or #wikimania2014 hashtags over the course of the three day conference.
The Wikimania 2014 group photograph, taken immediately before the closing speeches
After a brief video in support of the students of Sinenjongo High School in their WMF-supported campaign to get Wikipedia Zero more widely adopted in the Global South, Jimmy Wales once more took to the stage to give his "state of the wiki" remark. Most pertinent of these was his comment that too often what is intended as a minimum bar serves to define the normal and thus to hive off as supererogatory many of the virtues for which Wikimedia ought to strive: not just mere civility, Wales suggested, but "kindness, generosity, forgiveness, compassion", a "morally ambitious" programme he said, but an achievable one. He also noted YouGov research that indicated the British public trusts Wikipedia more than both the tabloid and quality press.
Wales' annual Wikimedian of the Year award went this year to Ihor Kostenko, a prominent Ukrainian Wikipedian and journalist tragically killed in the civil unrest that engulfed the capital Kiev earlier this year (see Signpost special report: "Diary of a protester—Wikimedian perishes in Ukrainian unrest"). It was a poignant and appropriate choice, although in a hat-tip to potential future controversy over the awarding of the honour, Wales promised to ensure a more "democratic" process was in place ahead of Wikimania 2015. After presenting some of the hosting chapter (Wikimedia UK)'s annual awards of their behalf, attention turned more fully to next year's event, with a brief introductory video shown by the Mexico City team. Of its slogans, "our venue: Vasconcelos library" and "gay friendly" received the most enthusiastic support among the thousand-strong audience.
The Wikimania closing party contained its fair share of free drinks, loud music—and decidedly questionable dancing.
The speeches (including brief remarks by WMF Chair Jan-Bart de Vreede) were followed by the Wikimania closing party, an event backed by reasonable but not excessive amounts of free alcohol, and a selection of musical accompaniments in a variety of styles. Indeed, such entertainment was provided on each evening of the conference, interspersed with comedy performances on a technology theme. The latter especially was a brave choice, and the organisers will be forgiven if the jokes fell a little flat, or the dancefloor was a little empty. Patrons were also able to take advantage of the hackathon rooms—left open well into the night—or escape outside where attractive fountains punctuated the cold brutalist structure of the Barbican estate. The more adventurous tried the City of London's wallet-busting public houses, if only for novelty value.
Epilogue: looking back
For some, the impact of Wikimania will be direct: a bustling community village featured an array of chapters eager to sign up new members, as well as a variety of non-WMF projects looking for exposure. For most, however, the effect is more subtle, subsisting in a set of renewed relationships, vague recollections and hearsay. It is difficult to see how Wikimania 2014 could have failed to impress the casual onlooker, with its sheer scale an obvious statement of intent. Of course, such a statement must also be paid for, and the debate over the financing of Wikimania, which necessarily took a backseat role for the duration of the conference, may yet cloud what should be enjoyable memories of an enjoyable Wikimania.
The same is true of the announcement, on the final day of the conference, that the WMF would be using technical measures to override local administrators on the German Wikipedia: as one European chapter member remarked, "at least it will give us something to talk about [at the closing party]". Such worries aside, it was an impressive conference that promised the moon but had to settle for the stars.
Alternatively, in true British understatement, it was "not too bad, actually".