By Lucy Crompton-Reid
I didn’t expect to be crying through much of the opening speech for Wikimania 2016, given by Jimmy Wales in the rather muggy, and very busy, Gym Palace of Esino Lario on the morning of Friday 24th June. As he talked of the inspiring life and tragic murder of his friend Jo Cox MP, he urged us to remember that “Wikipedia is a force for knowledge, and knowledge is a force for peace and understanding.” In the context of the political turmoil in the UK over the past week accompanied by a frightening and shameful increase in racist and xenophobic abuse, I am holding onto that sentiment.
I feel very privileged to have attended Wikimania 2016 on behalf of Wikimedia UK, along with a number of other staff and volunteers. Feeling tense after a delayed flight, I felt myself starting to breathe more deeply as I took in the stunning views of Lake Como on route to the beautiful mountainside town of Esino Lario. My spirits lifted even further when I was given a lift by a local to the tranquil village of Ortanella, where I was staying with my colleagues Daria and Karla in a small, rustic house with a garden full of fireflies.
Before I arrived at Wikimania, a number of people had said to me that it would be the conversations and connections made outside of and in between sessions that would prove to be the most useful, and enduring. Whilst to a large extent this was true for me, I also learnt a huge amount about the global movement through the scheduled conference programme. As a relative newcomer to Wikimedia, it was great to hear about projects involving the cultural heritage sector and to learn more about the current use and future potential of Wikidata in this context. The session on the ‘coolest chapter projects’ was particularly inspiring. Initiatives such as Wikipedia for Peace in Austria, AfroCROWD in New York, Wiki Loves Theatre in Serbia, WikiNobel in Norway and the People’s Pictures Project in Israel were a reminder of how the best ideas are often the most simple, and the most effective projects don’t have to have a big budget.
With a strong personal and professional interest in diversity and equalities I made a beeline for sessions on the gender gap, the first of which didn’t actually touch on gender at all but was a fascinating insight into the extent to which cultural identity is key to editor motivation. This was followed by an equally interesting presentation on the gender gap in the global south, with a particular focus on recent activities in India. I also participated in a discussion on Wikimedia and gender, facilitated by Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, in which the only two people in the room who disagreed with the proposition that gender is the biggest or most important gap on Wikimedia to deal with, were men. I’m not sure what this says about the issue but it felt like an interesting observation.
It was particularly useful for me to meet with Katherine Maher and Christophe Henner, the new Executive Director and Chair of the Wikimedia Foundation respectively, who discussed the Foundation’s priorities over the next year and the importance of involving Chapters and other Affiliates in the development of a new ten year strategy for the movement.
At any conference, the social aspects are an important element of forging new friendships that can underpin working relationships, and one of the highlights of Wikimania 2016 was the programme of evening events. Having seen ‘country music’ on Friday’s schedule, I had envisaged an evening of traditional Italian folk music, so was surprised (and admittedly, rather pleased) to find myself line-dancing along to Sweet Home Alabama and other American country music classics. Whilst the rock band on Saturday more than made up for the disappointment at being unable to locate a karaoke machine, and I ended the night dancing alongside staff and volunteers from Wikimedia UK, colleagues from Wikimedia Deutschland and Norway, staff from the Foundation and members of the Funds Dissemination Committee.
I can’t write about Wikimania, however, without reflecting on the UK’s referendum on EU membership, which of course is still dominating our thoughts and the news. Whilst Wikimedia UK is politically neutral, at a personal level I felt devastated by the outcome, and my shock and dismay at Friday morning’s news cast a shadow over the whole weekend. The spirit of exchange, collaboration and connection which permeated the conference and which is fundamental to the Wikimedia movement felt terribly at odds with the prospect of the UK leaving the EU, and abandoning one of the greatest peace projects of our time.