Arab Bloggers Meeting: The Unconference

Okay, so in my last post I promised more from there, but the flaky internet connection, the awesomeness of people in Beirut, and my ever changing mood all conspired to make that impossible. I actually hardly opened my laptop during the last two days of the meeting. I’m back to Riyadh but since I promised more, here’s a quick recap of what happened…

On the third day there was two presentations, the first by Mohammed Basheer, and the second by the Drima.

Basheer talked about AljazeeraTalk project, and it was good to learn what they have been up to since the first time I heard of them when I was in Doha back in 2006. However, Basheer had a tough time trying to explain the tangled relationship between the project and Aljazeera news channel. Basheer said the project, despite its name and logo, is not affiliated to Aljazeera, but they receive support from the channel in the form of training to their editors and other means. How does that affect their independence and neutrality? I’m yet to hear a convincing answer to that question. AljazeeraTalk is an interesting project, but they need to answer such tough questions if they want to be taken more seriously.

Later on, Drima talked about SEO and how bloggers, aka “my beebull,” can use its different techniques to increase their influence and extend their reach. Of course there was a debate on how effective such techniques are and if there were simply “tricks to game Google.” Drima admitted that Google is fighting this because they want to keep their search results relevant, but he said it’s a cat and mouse game that we should be playing in order to voice our opinions and make them accessible to more people.

Although most attendees of the meeting were bloggers (it’s the Arab Bloggers Meeting, after all), it was also good to hear from non-bloggers in this event. Gamal Eid, a lawyer and head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, gave a presentation about the legal support for bloggers. He demonstrated some examples of different cases they have worked on, and explained their approach in dealing with cases where bloggers are involved, especially when they get arrested by their governments.

As for the other presentation on the fourth day, it was given by Jacob Applbaum aka Ya3qoub. The talk focused on circumvention tools, which something Jacob knows a great deal about from his work on the Tor Project. It turns out that the Tor Project website is blocked in Saudi Arabia, but hey, you’re not gonna let them win this, are you? You can still use Tor by installing this Firefox extensions. To use the Torbutton extension mentioned here you need to install Tor first. As I said the website is blocked here, but you can still get Tor by sending an email to: gettor@torproject.org.

The fifth day of the meeting also had two presentations. First, Ramsey Tesdell of 7iber.com talked about the new media ecosystem and what they have learned from their experiment in Jordan. It was also good to learn of another promising new media experiment under the same name from Lebanon. Ahmad Gharbiea gave the last the presentation in the event and it focused on Creative Commons and how Arab bloggers should deal with licensing issues.

Keep in mind that these presentations were just part of the five-day event. The bigger part of the event was made up of many, many concurrent workshops on many different things and given by many people. Anyone who has an experience that she would like to share with others was welcome to stand up and say: “hey, my name is X and I would like to talk about this!” The meeting mostly took the barcamp format, which made it really fluid and informal. People were free to choose which workshops to attend, and some of the popular workshops had to be repeated or extended.

At the end of the meeting, the organizers invited those who spoke and gave workshops to stand up and the scene was just so inspiring, refreshing, and amazing: the great majority of people in the room was standing up, which means they didn’t only come here to listen, but also to share their knowledge with others. Usually in conferences, you have a handful of speakers and hundreds of silent attendees. This was not the case here. The Arab Bloggers Meeting was an Uncoference, and a great one at that.

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