Thoughts & Ideas

WordPress…the Gateway Drug for Community in the Tech Universe

WordCamp Portland, known on Twitter as #wcpdx, was held at WebTrends in Portland, OR on September 19-20.  I attended the first day, and while it was supposed to be about WordPress, the immensely popular blogging software, it was ultimately about something else.  Community.

It could easily be said that WordPress is the gateway drug that paves the way for community to happen in the tech universe.  The attendees spanned from real estate moguls, to moms, weirdos, techies, nerds, geeks, freaks, commentators, students and business owners.  A million interests in the room, a cross-section of real life.  The person next to me could probably care less about film, art, literature and business practices, but they cared about WordPress and that opened the door for conversations to happen, people to get to know one another, passionate debates to get witnesses feeling awkward (thinking about the Unconference on using WordPress as a CMS), and the chance to break out of the everyday loops that we all find ourselves in.  We were an eager audience.

Now, I could easily recap the day, comment on how much beer and public speaking don’t really mix well together, but that would be boring.  Instead, I will share two responses to insights that were given throughout the day.

Big Media vs. Independent Podcasters

During the talk on podcasting by Strange Love Live, Dr. Normal and Cami Kaos commented on big media’s inevitable entry into podcasting and the impending draw away from independent content towards the polish of the networks.  While they mentioned that quality and entertaining content will always win the day, whether it is from big media or the independent podcast-producer, that got me thinking about another industry that big media tried to take over by aping the independent producers, the world of film.  But as much as the Hollywood Independent film tries to connect with the world, it is the unique viewpoint of the independent producer that outshines the shine that is spit upon us by those pretending to be just like you and me.  So, it all comes down to this.

To all of the independent podcasters out there, big media wants to be like you.

As much as we want to have huge budgets, unlimited distribution, big-name stars to promote our work, Hollywood and Big Media want to be us.  They want to escape from their lives as much we want to abandon our own.  And we should all take comfort in that fact, and do exactly what we want to do.  The internet has morphed into a medium of communication that anyone can use for distribution.  It is leveling an out-of-balance playing field, and it only takes hard work to get your point of view out there for the world to read, see, and experience.

Developing (and maintaining) a Volunteer Community

During the talk on developing and maintaining the WordPress Codex, I was struck by something that I hadn’t really thought about.  WordPress is a volunteer community made up of individuals who are contributing, developing and sustaining this platform, not because they are getting paid, but because they believe in it.

Of course, it is not a perfect community.  There is a need for more volunteers, but this got me thinking about not just developing a volunteer community, but also maintaining the community.  How in the world do you do that?

1.) Contribution

Looking at the many volunteer communities that I have been a part of:  church groups and non-profit organizations, they have the same problem as the WordPress community.  There is a huge group of people to draw from and only a small number that step up and contribute.  Community starts and ends with contribution.  But how do you get people to contribute?  Make it easy!  It shouldn’t be difficult for people to volunteer.

If you are a volunteer community, they should see on your home page and all of your marketing materials how they can contribute.  Lorelle VanFossen, one of the speakers on the topic of the WordPress Codex, mentioned that anyone with any skill level can contribute.  Help is needed in HTML, CSS, PHP, WordPress, design, development, even editing posts.  All critical areas to the WordPress community.  But she was also able to speak to the fact that WordPress is trying to make it easier for everyone to contribute.

2.) Passionate Discussion

With community comes individual ego.  There are multiple skill levels involved, many talents, levels of self-esteem, and when someone is hurt by another, emotion flairs up.  People get hurt, take shots at one another, and ultimately leave.  Now, there is nothing wrong with passion and emotion, but leaving it unchecked and unmoderated is dangerous, not only to the community, but the organization that is currently benefiting from the community.  The only way to truly deal with emotion is to address the elephant in the room.  Make sure everyone is heard, keep each other in check (accountability), have passionate discussions, and then remind one another why you are doing what you are doing.  Remind people what the goal is, the dream, the vision.

Now, I know this sounds rather utopian, but frankly, I have been a part of too many communities that could have been so much greater if the elephant in the room was addressed and talked about, so I can honestly say that it starts there, but most definitely doesn’t end there.

3.)  Guilting People into Participation

Do you find that guilt gets more people participating in community?  It might work a few times, but really, you shouldn’t have this be your primary mode of recruitment.  In fact, please don’t do this.  It only pisses people off and makes them leave community.  Instead, get to know them, and draw out their passions.  Enable them to contribute.  Have passionate discussions with them.  Recruitment starts with getting to know someone other than yourself.  And that is something that we all need to hear.

WordPress is about community, and communicating the passions of the people that make up the community.  We are not the Borg, we are not to assimilate each other into the collective thought.  We can all learn from each other, and that is really what I learned from WordCamp Portland.

Now, shall we talk about beer and public speaking?