Trolls and open-source editing: the Wikimedia Conference 2015 in Tartu

An unlimited number of monkeys typing on an unlimited number of keyboards will eventually re-write the works of Shakespeare, goes the infinite monkey theorem. An untested original corollary to this theorem, newly created by the author of this piece: if a large number of people make a large number of edits to a large number of articles on Wikipedia, the world will be closer to objective truth.

Or so it’s proposed, after witnessing the true believers of Wikimedia gather in the far reaches of Estonia this fall. At the conference, which took place in the university town Tartu, the scene is tense.

Every person in the room has a laptop open, and notes are being taken in on Etherpad, an open-source platform, with links to follow-up material. Participants are reminded regularly that it is everyone’s responsibility to document what’s happening in the room, which is a small-scale echo of the Wikimedia mission itself. Wikipedians from 28 different countries sprawl on couches and hunch over their computers in vaguely uncomfortable chairs, typing furiously, as presenters rotate in a flurry of power cord adaptors.

This is the Central and Eastern European conference for Wikimedia, the umbrella organisation covering Wikipedia, Wiktionary and a host of other, lesser-known educational sites and tools. The lazy student’s indispensable crutch, the Wikipedia encyclopaedia provides definitions and information on millions of topics, in more than 280 different languages. MIT Technology magazine described the website as being run by “[a] leaderless collection of volunteers, who generally work under pseudonyms and habitually bicker with each other” – and although bald-faced arguments don’t break out here, the description seems apt. The Wiki movement is massive, with the English-language Wikipedia site alone counting 26,234,967 registered editors. There are now so many conferences, events and projects that contributors span the whole circle of life; there are several parent-child editing teams and last year, an editor passed away during the Wikimedia conference in Berlin.

The Wikimedian goal is a grand one. Information wants to be free, and Wikimedia is breaking the locks. This is particularly relevant for parts of the world previously under authoritarian governments, and this CEE meeting is the fourth of its kind, with past conferences held in Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine. The Wikimedia Estonia team seems a little nervous about the challenge of hosting, frantically re-arranging tables and hanging the router out the window for better coverage. (They plan for both regular and back-up wifi, and end up needing both.)

Rumour has it that the idea of Estonia hosting came about after a late night and a round of drinks at the last meeting, and it’s time for them to lie in the bed they’ve made. The point of these meetings are to stimulate growth for all Wikimedia projects of this region and aid in cooperation and understanding of individual projects. People are here to talk about what they’re doing in their own countries and share solutions; everything from bots that find dead links to “country of the month” contests are open game here. Estonia, as it happens, is a stand-out, and the team has plenty to share.

Wikimedia Eesti is a registered Estonian non-profit, founded in July of 2010. Trainers, an executive director and other staff in Tartu, both paid and unpaid, run their projects, which span from digitalizing Estonian literature to a cutting-edge project on Wikipedia in universities. The executive director, Kaarel Vaidla, spends his time outside Wikipedia on his farm and training guide dogs; during one memorable evening of this conference, he appears in full Estonian folk dress to play the accordion and coach fellow Wikipedians on traditional dance, assisted by shots of Polish vodka.

Unlike Vaidla’s outfit, the projects the Estonian team does are far from traditional. Since 2010, students at the University of Tartu can receive credit for contributing to Wikipedia, through structured courses in the Science and Technology and Mathematics and Computer Science Faculties, and these student articles have been viewed over 1.7 million times since their creation. Ivo Kruusamägi from Wikipedia Estonia is open about the goal of trying to use the collaboration as a way to preserve the Estonian language; with only around a million speakers, every opportunity counts. Wikipedia Estonia sees this as a win-win situation, advancing the Estonian language and open information together. The crowd listens attentively as Kruusamägi outlines the partnership with the educational institutions, then brainstorms applicability for their own countries.

It’s not all sunshine and roses in the cooperation and collaboration world, though. The topic of vandals and trolls comes up in nearly every session at the CEE meeting. Making non-constructive edits, even unintentionally, is vandalism; doing it on purpose to provoke others is trolling, and both of these are rife in every country of the world, it seems. “Biting the newbies,” or harshly censoring new contributors who don’t understand how Wikipedia operates, is also a problem. (The English-language Wikipedia behaviour guideline specifically forbids calling newbies disparaging names such as “sockpuppet” or “meatpuppet” and advises gentle correction by editors instead.)

The tone of the CEE conference face-to-face, however, remains friendly. Calls of “Citation needed!” jokingly heckle any presenter who brags, but since nearly every presenter is also a participant, turnabout is fair play. Topics like the gender gap and implicit bias are addressed directly, and even the uneasy relationship between the US Wiki Foundation, the 800-pound gorilla of the Wikimedia world, and the communities in the other countries is discussed.

The fresh air and open views of Voore are the perfect backdrop, and for once, the Estonian weather cooperates. On the day, when the participants and presenters alike pack up to return to Tartu and their flights home, the Wikimedians are ready to resume their incremental edits to information domination. Estonia has once again been able to leverage its innovation and set an example in the world’s largest information source, and the traditional costumes can be put away until next year.


Cover: Tartu skyline (photo by Gen Vagula). Wikimedia CEE Meeting 2015 took place on 11-13 September near Tartu, Estonia.

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