(This is the eighth installment in a series of updates from the WikiHistories summer research fellows, who will be studying the virtual community history of different Wikipedia editing communities.)
Almost 15.000 articles since 2003 and just a few dozen active contributors: how to change the situation?
Well, looks like 2011 can be a year of change for Վիքիփեդիա- the Armenian Wikipedia, as the community, supporting organizations and even the state have started taking Wikipedia seriously.
For the first time on April 3 of this year, a 1-day Wikipedia hackathon was organized for Wikipedians and their friends to come together in one place and translate Wikipedia policies and guidelines. About 50 people gathered and 17 guidelines were translated during the day. Even though many of those 50 people did not edit another article afterwards, it was an important step for the development of the Վիքիփեդիա: this in fact was the first event organized by a few interested parties such as educational – humanitarian foundations, software developing firms, IT NGOs and of course, the Wikimedia community.
It all started after Richard Stallman’s visit to Armenia. The Web2.0 activist shared his enthusiasm about open, interactive and collaborative online platforms and suggested, “Why not have another look at Wikipedia?”.
Armine, who works for the educational NGO “Instigate” says that Stallman’s enthusiasm was contagious and, soon after his visit, she and her colleagues registered on Wikipedia, tried and loved it. They thought this was something particularly useful for kids and students and they announced the start of the “Wikipedia: School and University- Armenia” project that now unifies 6 organizations and groups, including the Wikipedia community.
Apart from the hackathon, the initiators of the project visited a few schools: not all of the school headmasters greeted them with enthusiasm, but some were really open to innovations. However, it was Spring, the end of the school year, and both teachers and pupils were too busy to try something new.
15-year-old Mariam is the head of the student council at the Anania Shirakatsi National Lycee. She is eager to take the first steps as soon as the schools open in September. She has asked some of the active Wikipedians to teach the students the basics of editing and the main principles of the Armenian Wiki community. She says that every student in the Lycee writes over 10 essays during the school year that can be suitable for the online encyclopedia. Besides, she thinks that Wiki platform can be a good place for developing and editing the articles in collaboration with classmates and teachers.
“What can be more attractive for children than the feeling that their work will be available and useful for millions of people. This will also make them more responsible and motivated”,- says Armine. She believes that the sense of collaboration is ideal for classrooms and hopes that more schools will adopt the tool.
The idea has been proposed to the Ministry of Education as well. The reaction was positive, but so far it hasn’t gone any further.
Separate from the School and University project, another Wikipedian - SusikMkr (Susanna Mkrtchyan), has started a process for establishing a Wikimedia Chapter in Armenia. “The community will not grow without a proper organization”, she says.
Susanna works at the Science Management Department of the National Science Academy Computing Institute of Armenia. Discovering Armenian Wikipedia, she was astonished to find the right tool for promoting science and knowledge but disappointed with the current situation. She registered as a Wikipedia contributor last December. Since then she has been reading the policies and studying the experience of other countries trying to find ways for developing Wikipedia. In August she took part in the WikiMania 2011 conference in Haifa and gave a presentation about the situation in Armenia, with suggestions on how to change it. Now she says she is in touch with the Wikimedia Foundation and has their full support to realize her plan, i. e. to increase the number of contributors and articles, and establish a chapter for coordinating the job.
This Saturday she invited the active Wikipedians for a talk and discussion of her ideas. She says she already has the support of the Science Academy: they will provide a room and most likely some computers for the workshop and training. Also, the Academy is happy to help with the content.
“We have lots of great minds, scientists who are retired and do not know how to keep themselves busy. We also have high rates of unemployment in the country, so there are a lot of people who have the knowledge but don’t know how to share it. They do not know about Wikipedia. We need to inform and train people”, Susanna insists.
She is also up for more practical approaches: schools should incorporate Wikipedia in the curriculum, universities should take responsibility for enriching the encyclopedia with X number of articles per month, including policy translations. Also, there might be competitions for Wikipedia articles to encourage children to start contributing.
The veteran-Wikipedians, however, are a bit sceptical about these plans. Being guards of Wikipedia traditions and rules, they strongly believe in “good faith”, “openness”, voluntarism” of Wikipedia. If there is any chance that anyone will be paid or forced to contribute to Wikipedia, the community will resist.
Susanna promises not to break the rules and to discuss every step with the community and the Foundation, but one thing is clear for her: she needs to do something about the situation. For her Wikipedia is not just a tool but a philosophy that can be used in all spheres of cultural, social and academic life. 10 years after the creation of Wikipedia, Armenians want to give it another try and really make use of it.
MSc Digital Anthropology (UCL), journalist