Rising costs, the COVID-19 pandemic, and now a software disaster: Wikimania, the annual main conference of the international Wikimedia movement, is in deep trouble. How could that happen, and what conference do we actually need?
If you own a dog, you will surely have walked it with a smartphone in your hand at some time. But as part of an online meeting, together with other dog owners? In 2022, the most important conference of Wikipedians made it possible.
Wikimania 2022 was supposed to be a very special festival: fewer presentations than last year, more group contributions and workshops, and only three tracks so that attendees would not be spread out over too many programmed events, resulting in larger audiences per events.
Additionally: watch outdoor games, talk about a selected dish from a specific country, dance and sing! Visitors would feel that they are spending fun time together.
When I saw the software for the first time, Pheedloop, I was excited. A neat and tidy user interface with many features including quite some customization: for the visually impaired, for people suffering from attention dysfunctions, for everybody. With a high chance that your language of choice would be available. Options for managing your personal schedule. Notifications, chat opportunities, mobile versions for Android and iOS...what could possibly go wrong?
It turned out that the software was not that perfect. For example, on the smartphone app, used with a tablet, scrolling did not always work; so I could only select a language from the upper half of the list (mais oui!). But the most important software failure was the video streaming. Especially on the first and second days, many programme items would not start, or started late, or the speaker could not hear anything, or they were cancelled altogether.
I still don't know whether Pheedloop was supposed to be the streaming platform itself, or whether it was only a platform to embed streaming/videos from YouTube, Zoom or Jitsi. You had to deal with two frames, the Pheedloop frame and the YouTube/Zoom/Jitsu frame. Links and embedding often didn't function properly. Sometimes clicking here and there worked, sometimes not. And usually, you had to operate several windows. The chat function on YouTube was deactivated; commenting was possible only via Pheedloop. Notes? Open a browser, use Etherpad!
A well-known Wikimania veteran from the US put it this way: he'd never before attended a Wikimania that was such a disaster.
According to the Pheedloop counter, there were only about 300–450 attendees online at any time. A typical programme item saw 15–40 attendees. Maybe many visitors were frustrated by the technology, but there were other issues as well. For example, although the chat function for group chats worked really well, only very few people came to the group chats.
Reducing the number of programme items obviously did not make more participants visit the conference. And ...
...then there was not much left to attract you to Wikimania 2022.
Few speakers means that few people drag their friends and fans to the conference. Not much hoopla on social media. According to the discussions at the Kurier magazine on the German Wikipedia, many Wikipedians glanced over the programme, picked a handful of items and only logged in at the given time of an event. Or they decided to watch the video later on YouTube.
And indeed, some of the programme items turned out to be a less than perfect experience. Some contributors had announced a workshop but actually delivered simply a one-directional presentation. Quite a few speakers read out a text. It was also remarkable how many contributions were labelled ideal for newcomers, although they were very unsuitable for beginners – for example, complicated discussions about UCoC enforcement. One 'workshop' (in reality just a presentation) was even labelled as ideal for newcomers and as a master class as well.
It is a huge challenge to organize a good online meeting. Ever since the first Star Trek movie in 1979 we have known that it is not very entertaining to watch grumpy people in confined spaces who are looking at screens.
Before organizing such an online event again, we as a movement should answer some questions.
What platform or combination of platforms serves our needs best? I understand why Pheedloop was selected, but even if it had worked better, I think we could improve the experience, especially for visitors using a smartphone. Streaming and chat should be possible on the same platform, for example.
What kind of programme items can attract many attendees and make them stay a little bit longer thereafter? Think of a shopping mall, where huge, so-called magnet stores lure the potential customers into the building and then also make them visit other, smaller shops. An online conference can benefit from a flashy kick-off event, maybe with a comedian who explains the software and the programme in an enjoyable way. Keynote speakers and similar attractive programme items should be scheduled in a way that visitors may want to stay longer (i.e. at the beginning of the day rather than at the end).
What kind of programme serves which types of target groups? An international online meeting should concentrate on topics that are relevant to a larger group of people from different parts of the world. So, a programme item should not be too closely related to one country or culture, or be too specific thematically. For example, I am looking forward to a presentation (plus question time) that informs non-Wikidatans of how Wikidata has progressed the previous 365 days. Other Wikidata-related contributions are generally better reserved for a dedicated Wikidata meeting.
Is Wikimania primarily a meeting for the movement, or a meeting for newcomers and partners of the movement? In my humble and personal opinion, it can work for either purpose, but maybe not for both simultaneously. Make up your mind and then create a meeting that is perfect for the target group selected. All other people are welcome, of course, but have to understand the chosen nature of the conference.
And yes, I take it personally when a contributor calls a presentation ideal for newcomers that is clearly not.