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.

Arab Bloggers, Unite! (or don’t!)

The first Arab Bloggers Meeting last year in Beirut was really good, and the second one which is taking place this week has been going great. Last year’s event, held in Zico House, was small and cozy, and I was afraid that since there will be much more people this time around that we would lose that coziness. Luckily, this is not the case. The atmosphere is pretty informal, and the good thing in this year’s meeting is the large number of practical workshops aiming to teach bloggers some practical skills that they can use to improve their blogging experience.

More than 75 participants from 18 countries kicked off the meeting on Tuesday. The first day included two main presentations: online campaigning on Arab blogs; and a critical look at the “Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere” report.

The online campaigning presentation was given by Egyptian bloggers Noha Atef and Eman Abdul-Rahman. The latter is the leader of We’re All Laila campaign. It was interesting to learn how the idea of this campaign developed from a chat filled with frustration between Eman and a friend. “Then I thought: what if all women spoke out about their issues at the same time?” Some of you probably remember that my blog featured a contribution at the campaign in 2008 written by a friend of mine. Noha, on the other hand, talked about the basics of online campaigning, best practices and do’s and don’ts.

Razan Ghazzawi gave a critical look at the report issued by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. Razan had some problems with the language and context of the report, which she found unfairly biased. Although I think Razan has made some good points, I believe that most of her critique seemed to focus on minutiae that seemed irrelevant in the larger context of the report, which is based on data mining and aims to draw a map from that data without attempting much to draw any radical conclusions. The report was about trends and links, not political analysis.

On the second day, Manal Hasan of manalaa.net fame spoke about Arab Techies: how the idea came about, what they are doing in the present, and what they plan for the future. The project that interested me the most in their work was an initiative to develop open source Arabic fonts. One of my biggest annoyances with the Arabic content on the web is the limited number of fonts available for use which results eventually in badly designed websites.

Later on, Anas Tawileh of Meedan.net spoke about their experience so far in building a platform for translating web content to Arabic. The approach of Meedan, which uses IBM technologies, employs a machine translation aided by human translation provided by a network of volunteers. I have used their service here on Saudi Jeans a couple of times over the past few weeks and they do a very good job.

We are in the middle of the third day and everybody is enjoying it. More from here later…