A wholly virtual Wikimania: a personal experience

Dydimus Zengenene

As I hopped into a room, I found myself next to Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. He was waiting for a meeting but he too was wondering if he was in the correct room. “Am I in the correct room?” he asked through a chat. Without attempting to say a word, I hopped to another corner where five people were seated around a table. ‘This is rude,’ said a lady’s voice signaling that it was meant to be a private meeting. Maybe I was in a wrong floor altogether?  By clicking a button suddenly, I was three floors up, by a place which would normally be a high table in a conference room, but it was not. One person was at a corner table. Intending to strike a conversation with them, I hopped over there, and boom, the person disappeared and I was alone in the room. Before I knew it, there was someone at the center of the room. This time with a familiar name so I was compelled to strike a conversation. To avoid re-experiencing ‘the vanishing’, I had to type a text. ‘Hi, can I talk to you?’ I typed. ‘Oh sure’, she responded and was already at my table. This summarizes my hipping and hopping in a virtual Wikimedia which I attended from 13-17 August 2021. It was a huge conference which was wholly virtual with an experience I wouldn’t dare imagine in a physical space. The speed of movement, the ease of gatecrashing, the ease of uttering a rebuke coupled with the difficulty of starting a normal conversation.

Wikimania is one of the key international annual conferences organized by Wikipedia Foundation to bring together Wikipedians of all shapes and style to share lessons, experiences and celebrate the open knowledge movement. This was the first of its kind where every person participated through their virtual incantations of avatars. It was a new experience for many during the week but a manifestation of new reality which institutions and communities have been pushed to face quicker than expected. A change of the environment, the human experience and in the relevant practices in the virtual space is and will be a topic for research for a long time.

I took this opportunity to organize an unconference to discuss part of my research topic, the participation of Wikipedians. I wanted to learn from them how they form relationships among themselves and whether they develop personal feelings towards one another (love, hate, respect etc.) and how that comes to be. It was a fascinating discussion which helped me to understand the life of Wikipedians. Yes, they are born and not made. However, it’s not the discussion that is the hallmark of this article, but the experience of conferencing in a virtual space. It was difficult to bring participants together despite having worked a crafty, fancy and inviting event title. I concluded that people could not just feature and stay for as long as I wanted. A Wikipedian friend had used her trust among fellow Wikipedians to market my event. I had also made random sent text exchanges with a few participants asking them to attend. A lot more came in the midst of the debate but could not stay a minute mainly because there was no time to explain where the discussion was before they left. It was blips after blips as people joined and left. If I were to count the number of participants, I would reach 30 but the number of those who stayed from the beginning to the end and participated where less than 10. They were actually those that I had chatted with one on one and those that my friend had invited. The rest arrived and left before they could tell what the debate was about. I wondered why that could have been the case. Maybe it is the ease with which one features and vanishes without the cost of having to find a place, sit down and perhaps take a notebook out before they realize that the event may be boring for them. Maybe it is the difficulty of connecting to a conversation once one joins late. Perhaps it’s just the absence of other physical gestures that facilitators use to make participants feel welcome and comfortable. What I realized is the significant role played by a conversation prior to the event in the retention of participants. There is a lot to ask and learn as we explore the virtual environment and I hope more research beyond POEM will respond accordingly.


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Concepts, strategies and media infrastructures for envisioning socially inclusive potential futures of European Societies through culture.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 764859.