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Lessons from a Network of Volunteers
Mina Nagy Michel Takla and Sami Mustafa Mubarak from
were interviewed via conference call. They are based in Qatar. However, Taghreedat is a regional initiative across 10 Arab countries and Canada. It is a network of Arabic speakers interested in creating user-generated content in Arabic online.
The movement began on Twitter, where volunteers tweeted about specialized topics, via the
account. The volunteers would write a series of tweets, and Takla and Mubarak would then
compile them on Storify
. The initiative started with one woman who wanted to tweet in Arabic. Takla and Mubarak took off with her idea and began to grow their network of volunteers.
Until recently, the network comprised of 80 ambassadors who are volunteers from various walks of life, including medical doctors, engineers, students, PhDs, professors and media analysts, among others. "They found us," said Takla. "They wanted a chance to produce their content in a way that’s not related to their work. You’ll have a doctor who writes about social norms, a writer who writes about robotics... We found that this content is of value, so we set guidelines of how people should write and follow. Things like:
How long the twitter chain should be
Should be serious, authentic information.
We are getting finer content each day.... Some of these topics have never been discussed in Arabic." His partner in leading this initiative, Mubarak, adds: "They are competing with each other."
Recommendation #4: Create a fun environment that feeds off of the satisfaction of contribution and a healthy competition to create content on Wikipedia Arabic. This can be via online forums, or potentially in-person events, with symbolic prizes.
Taghreedat's current project is the Arabization of Twitter content. They have moved from creating simple Twitter chains, to community creation and archiving. Their first step was to build the community. They sent out
a call for volunteers on their website
. In 10 days, they got over 1,000 Arabic-speaking volunteers (now up to around 3,000). They divide their volunteers into 4 main categories that they believe are essential for any translation or content creation project:
Technical people: know how to translate technical issues into Arabic, not necessarily literally but bringing across the meaning
Linguistic people: who actually proof what is translated into Arabic, proof grammar with knowledge of the complexity of the Arabic language and also produce language translation guidelines, grammar guides, etc.
Media people: to bring attention to this topic, publicize it and tell people about it (to recruit more and draw necessary support and funding)
Translators: trilingual people, who understand the topics and know how to translate
"They all work together for same goal," explained Mubarak, "But we need them all together. If we just rely on bilingual people to translate, it will be weak in Arabic. If we rely on linguistics, it won't be good either, because they don’t know English well. We are getting a lot of people, linguistic, techies, media people, professionals, people in universities… And some of these people have more than one skill. They are a very good group."
Recommendation #5: Understand the various elements needed to build an effective Wikipedia Arabic volunteer community, with separate (but complementing) roles for different volunteers, applying this 4-tiered model (or other equivalents).
"We are getting 100+ volunteers each day," said Takla. "It’s becoming bigger than what we launched- bigger than just a Qatar community. The members of the initiative are Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Canada... Volunteers are from these countries and others: Lebanon, Libya, Algeria, USA, Morocco..."
Their network is totally volunteered-based. It has two tracks. One track is the writing track on Twitter and archiving the tweets. The other track is starting the Arabization project. They also have offline events. In mid-October of this year, they held the largest "Tweet-up" ever organized in the region, with over 400 participants from 3 countries.
"It is not just a social event," explained Mubarak. "We wanted to go against that, because there were others in Qatar that were just social events. We wanted to have a benefit. We got a speaker to discuss Arabic content. There is an awareness side: what are the forms of Arabic content, visiual, written audio, and at the same time, tell people how to create Arabic content.
And the second side, other than awareness, is creating the content." Takla added, "We are trying to get different kinds of speakers, anyone who is in the industry of creating Arabic content. In doing the events, a side goal is to meet and mingle, but the main goal is a discussion, not a social event."
Recommendation #6: Support such events on the ground, including Wikimedia personnel presence, physically as co-organizers and/or guest speakers. Instead of "Tweet-ups," there can be "Wiki-ups."
"We will have to do workshops with the community who want to create Arabic content," said Takla. "All our volunteers are capable of creating some Arabic content. We want to find some mechanism to get content out of these people… It’s a large number and it’s growing. It will be audio, video, written, websites…"
One of their partners is Qatar University. They gave them the venue for workshops, along with access to over 8000 students. Another workshop they held was with a regional social media trainer (on how to use Twitter). The whole workshop focused on how to get content online, organize online identity, become better at finding content online and getting information. Taghreedat's partner ogranizations help in ways that benefit the initiative and the community itself:
Qatar University gave them venues, students, spaces to advertise in the university.
Bloomsbury, a publishing firm based in Qatar University
, publish about them on a weekly basis in a local campus journal, and local paper, according to Takla. He added that the publishers are also thinking of creating a magazine or e-book featuring all the Arabic content being created.
Al-Jazeera is their media partner. The TV network covers the Tweet-ups. The last event was covered in full and live by
, an online offshoot of the TV station. The coverage was then also
placed on YouTube
, an organization that gives online access to people with disabilities, gives the network specialized support. "Some members of our volunteers are disabled, are blind," said Mubarak. "They create twitter chains even though they are blind. You would be surprised, you would not tell the difference between them and those that are not disabled."
The Qatar Youth Center provides youth volunteers as man power to help organize events
Bridging the Gap
"What we are currently looking at is coming out of stereotype that we are only twitter based," said Takla. "We want to take on Arabization projects."
"The reason why we’re interested in Wikipedia is because we want to take wider, regional scale projects in Arabization," added Mubarak.
Takla and Mubarak are the two people running this project, along with their partners and volunteers. They do not work for profit. Even Takla and Mubarak are volunteers, who have different day jobs. At the end of the day, what they vehemently declare is that they lack funding. Their partners give support, such as venues, AV equipment and manpower. However, they are not given any real funding to build and sustain their network.
"It’s not just about forming community, but it has a lot of work," said Takla. "That’s why we moved out of just a Twitter account, because we see a lot of potential for it. That can be an establishment."
"There is a big gap between people who produce content, and those who consume it,"
said Mubarak. "
And there is no one bridging the gap."
"These 1000+ people now [which have grown to 3,000 since the interview] are very motivated. We are thinking of them as a database, having these 1000 people involved in multiple projects. The Twitter project will be finished, and so we want to move forward.
Wikipedia has the same purpose as us. We have the manpower.
We cannot afford to end our Twitter project, and be done. Wikipedia is a chance for us to maintain our community work and keep working," said Takla and Mubarak interchangeably. They spoke passionately about moving forward with Wikipedia:
"There is a big initiative in Saudi Arabia to revise Wikipedia. The problem is that this is owned by Saudi Arabic and is not regional," explained Mubarak. "Here, people really care about their countries. If they see it as a Saudi thing or Qatari thing, they will not sign up if they are from other countries. Qataris signed with Wikimedia to translate… so they are creating competition."
"When we think about it, we don’t think about it is a country competition," said Takla, "But as a regional thing for everyone to be a part of it.
The selling point for Wikimedia is that it’s something totally regional, not owned by one country.
In order for us to involve to the community, we need to think about how to make them fell different, significant, make them feel they are a part of something," he added. "We are the first ever Twitter Translation project [in Arabic]- the first account to do this. So, our volunteers felt they are pioneering something in the region. So though they do not get back something [material], the incentive is that they are doing something great for the Arabic project. We want something to be a mother organization for different types of projects in the Arabic scene, not tagged to a country or governmentt. We are trying to build something solid that people feel they are a part of it, OK being a part of it.
We need a tool or way to combine all these users. A place to go where they can log in, like a control panel that starts them off to translation, content production. Creating an online tool that can manage a lot of people requires a lot of money, buying a domain, hosting…" stressed Takla. He then gave a list of steps that need to be taken:
First, a strong base online.
Second, training and workshops of a regional nature. "People here don’t do webinairs," he explained. "That’s not the way they think. You have to meet people, talk to them. They have to have a reason to come. It has to be something bigger, official. The reason people volunteered for Twitter, is that we contacted someone from Twitter [who supported us].
People need to believe that Wikipedia is backing it up
, part of it, official and credible. We need to think of different countries to do these workshops in. They need to be planned properly. We need to work with local communities."
Recommendation #7: Tap into existing enthusiasm and networks of volunteers online. Taghreedat is one example. (Other similar initiatives exist as well. Further research must be done to find these networks of eager and willing volunteers. For example, two organizations in Lebanon,
organize-- and want to organize more-- Arabic content creation online, with Wikipedia as a recognized platform). This may require support, both moral and physical, which can be as varied as training, helping with events or providing funding to assist with database building, technical network issues, meetings etc. Some form of funding and material support may be required to move content creation on Wikipedia Arabic forward (not for individual volunteers, but for the support of these networks, building awareness and constructing working online communities of volunteers, based at non-profit organizations for example).
"We need an Arabic e-content community, that is a brand name in itself, that has chapters in many countries, and has an international/regional feel," Mubarak said. "The [information] gap is very prominent. In English content, you don’t see the gap, but in the Arab world, people are still getting info off paper, and ministries are still paper-based." He then repeated:
"There is a big gap between people who are trying to create the content and get it. The gap is a big problem for the Arab region, and not just in the arab region, but also for many Arabs who migrate in the west… They end up giving content in English. It’s a waste. If they know about such an initiative, they would participate," he asserted.
"We are getting bigger each day," Takla emphasized: "What we need now is funding."
Lessons from a Wikipedia Volunteer
Lessons from a Twitter Translator Volunteer
This research was done by Michelle Chahine, a second-year
student in the Masters in International Affairs program, specializing in International Media, Advocacy and Communication. Email her at
This is a page under
Tapping into Existing Volunteer Networks
a sub-topic of
Wikimedia in the Arab World
Incorporating Wikipedia Editing Into University Curricula
Blogging Culture in the Region and Engaging Bloggers
Women and Wikipedia
The Use of Video
Lessons Learned from Facebook Arabic
help on how to format text
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