And the meek shall inherit the Earth

I’m in Gdansk this weekend for Wikimania, an annual conference for all things wiki, but particularly for those who spend a good chunk of their lives editing Wikipedia. I’ve been to lots of international meetups for different digital communities – iCommons, FOSDEM, 26c3 – but this was my first time at a Wikimania. The thing that struck me early on and has more or less remained for the duration of the three-day conference was the advanced state of meekness. I’ve only met one Bastard Operator from Hell the entire weekend (and even he was fairly sweet). Most people have been shy, kind and intensely dedicated to what they are doing, whether they’re the bootstrap group for one of the smaller-language Wikipedias (like Tajik Wikipedia, which has around 9,000 articles), or the last barrier between the Wikipedia and the libel courts, working on policing Biographies of Living People (or BLPs as they’re referred to among the in-crowd) for English language Wikipedia. On the first day, I found myself scribbling a facsimile of Wikipedia’s planet/jigsaw puzzle logo in the front of my notebook, with the caption “And the meek shall inherit the earth”.

Continuing with the cod anthropology…On the first night there was a fantastic concert put on for conference attendees by the Gdansk Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra. The programme had all the serendipity of a Wikipedia article, in that it had a fairly populist starting point, in the form of some choice selections of the work of Władysław Szpilman (whose wartime experiences formed the basis of Oscar winning film The Pianist) but quickly went off in lesser-known and more interesting directions, featuring a piece by Witold Lutosławski, whose avant-garde work Szpilman championed, and Joanna Bruzdowicz, whose piece on the programme was a direct response to one of Szpilman’s that we’d also heard.

The evening was a major deal. The concert was intended to mark the 10th anniversary of Szpilman’s death and both his widow and son were among the audience. Bruzdowicz had written her piece specifically for the concert, and gave a little speech about it before it premiered. So it was with increasing mortification that I watched the Wikipedian’s apply their cultural nuance. People clapped between movements in the symphony – okay, so that’s just a snobby objection, but it gets worse. Geeks with big important-looking cameras (you know the sort) jumped out of their seats in the middle of performances and skulked around the orchestra taking photos. And perhaps worst of all, more than a dozen people exercised the law of two feet.

Such behaviour makes perfect sense in a geeky conference, but for an orchestral performance, it’s practically sinful. Between fearing for the morale of the musicians forced to play in such an environment, it got me thinking about just how different these two groups of people were. On the one hand, without total central control, and right-first-time professional expertise, the orchestra couldn’t have put on the magnificent show they did (and their performance was magnificent, despite the distractions provided by the audience). But without relinquishing these very disciplines, the Wikipedia community could never have achieved what they have.

In the end, I think the audience won the orchestra over with their tremendous enthusiasm for what they had just heard, which solicited two standing ovations and an encore. The conductor spoke directly to the audience, expressing his, and the orchestra’s, gratitude for Wikipedia, and pretty much articulating my own reflections that tonight the concert hall held not one but two groups of extremely talented individuals, with a lot to offer one another. It was love all round.

There’s much more to write about Wikimania 2010, not least the beauty of Gdansk, which has all the stunning architectural features you’d expect from a Hanseatic league port and then some, and which left me kicking myself that I didn’t bring my own over-spec’ed camera (enjoy this photo from Michael Cavén instead).

Gdansk, by Michael Cavén's

But that will have to wait, because I’m off to catch the World Cup Final…

2 responses to “And the meek shall inherit the Earth

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