Armed with pens, laptops and high spirits, some 1,000 guests from 55 different countries arrived in Haifa on Thursday for the 2011 Wikimania conference for Wikipedia contributors and volunteers.
Many respectable cities – including New York, Montreal and Toronto – competed for the privilege to hold the international conference. After quite a few deliberations, the northern Israeli city was chosen to accommodate the many guests from China, Macedonia, Uzbekistan, Bolivia and many other countries, including some which have no diplomatic relations with Israel.
"In the world of free content, the decision to hold the conference in Haifa of all places is like having Israel host the Olympic Games," says Shay Yakir, the outgoing chairperson of Wikimedia Israel, which operates the website.
"We applied to host Wikipedia's 10th anniversary celebrations a year and a half ago, and were surprised to win," he adds.
Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav walked proudly among the young people, who kept on typing on their computers in the hallways.
"The world of Internet is a universe which one can sanctify, hate or worship," he said. "But one thing cannot be ignored: The elderly can lecture till the end of time and cling to the yellowing book pages and the thick encyclopedias, but the young generation is capable of providing answers to tough questions at the speed of light and is exposed to a huge amount of information on broadband, with something that years ago seemed like science fiction."
Throughout the past few years, the Wikipedia website has turned into a modern online encyclopedia in which users write, edit and correct each other's entries. The website currently has some 18 million entries in 270 languages and 400 million readers a month, 1.4 million of them from Israel.
Many of the contributors and volunteers met each other for the first time on Thursday after corresponding with each other and engaging in heated arguments for years through different instant messaging programs and correcting each other's entries on the website.
"I met many new friends here," said Justin, one of the guests from the United States. "We're planning to hang out together, but we're not forgetting about work – because someone has to update the entries while we're all here."
During the three-day conference, the guests are expected to listen to 125 lectures on five different courses they can choose from and take part in workshops discussing different issues related to free content, code review, copyrights and Internet communities.
In order to connect the participants to the host country, all guests will be offered a free tour of Haifa, Akko, the Galilee, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv immediately after the conference and see the world beyond their computer screen.
After the 1,000 guests return to their homes, it will interesting to check the Haifa entry and see if their visit left its mark on them and caused them to add some positive remarks about the city.