(This is the second installment in a series of updates from the WikiHistories summer research fellows, who will be studying the history of different non-English Wikipedia editing communities and publishing their findings over the course of the summer.)
I am writing this post from a nice, cool part of Armenia called Ijevan, where I’ve come to escape from the unbearable heat of the capital city, Yerevan.
For the last week 40 degrees Celsius was the temperature in the city where over 1/3 of the population of the country lives and all the major developments in social life take place. I ran away from the city buzz for a few days to enjoy the cool air and breathtaking nature, which makes fieldwork fun and helps me get a fresh perspective on thoughts and ideas.
But to explore the Armenian Wikipedia community you need to spend time in Yerevan. This is where I met some of the Wikipedians during my first week in Armenia: Aleksey, Maro, Rob and Mher are Wiki activists and contributors. We found a nice open-air cafe for the meeting: Armenian Wikipedia does not have any office, Wikimedia headquarters, or any other physical space. They are just a small community of people who contribute to Wikipedia in their local language and try to promote the movement in their country. Passion for Wikipedia is something they all share, but the community is quite diverse – from high school students to mid-age professionals, architects, historians, web-developers, etc…
About 14.000 articles, a few dozen or hundred contributors and only 6 admins: these are the general figures about the Armenian Wikipedia that can be traced back to the founding of the project in 2005. Armenians write about their interests, idols, hobbies, but more intensively they share information about their country, history and culture. As some of Wikipedians mentioned, they would welcome more articles on science and innovation.
The first wiki-meetup in Armenia took place in 2009, when the most active members met to put faces to
usernames, to talk and to share their concerns. The last official meeting was Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary, which they celebrated with a symbolic cake.
Xelgen is one of the small number of admins and active contributors. He is active in promoting not only Armenian Wikipedia but the Armenian language on the internet in general. He believes that paper is no longer the main medium for language; it’s digital technologies, and the language we use on the iPad, computer, and cell phone largely affects the way we think.
Xelgen (Aleksey Chalabyan in real life), thinks that having Wikipedia in Armenian is important to store knowledge in the local language and to give everyone in Armenia access to that knowledge.
Taking into consideration overall internet usage figures, the Armenian-speaking audience is very limited (in Armenia about 37% of the population uses Internet), so many people prefer sharing English or Russian content to reach a wider audience. The main reason is that the vast majority of Armenians also speak Russian or English. Despite operating in Armenia, many blogs and corporate websites do not have an Armenian-language version. Moreover, there are lots of Armenians who have been living abroad for generations, many of whom don’t know Armenian very well.
Using Armenian on the Internet means facing certain technical issues, as well: Armenian still can’t be used on many mobile phones and there is no one unified Armenian keyboard: with 39 letters and tons of punctuation marks, Armenians need to agree to some compromises…
Aleksey and his friends are concerned with these tendencies and they feel that promoting Armenian Wikipedia will help people to feel more comfortable reading and writing in their local language on the Internet. They meet with NGOs, visit universities and schools to encourage young people to join them.
During our meeting Xelgen, Chaojoker, Rob and Beko were discussing the translation of words such as “fellowship” versus “scholarship,” “state” versus “region” versus “province” to find the right Armenian words for certain articles: none of them is a linguist, but getting the translation right is a priority for them all.
The dominance of English on the Internet is a major issue for many nations, even for big ones. For small nations like Armenia, it is a matter of national identity, and they take the language issue very seriously. Armenians, who are very proud of their rich and unique language and 1600-year-old alphabet, consider Armenization of the Internet a key mission, and developing Armenian Wikipedia is a big part of this battle. Wikipedians are optimistic: they say that the number of articles has almost doubled during the last year, although they put stress on quality rather than quantity. Over the summer they also hope that many students will use their holidays to spend more time adding and editing articles on Armenian Wikipedia.
MSc Digital Anthropology (UCL), journalist