One very useful thing I’ve come to understand about attending a WordCamp is the need to specialize, to find my niche. This is something that’s been emphasized time and time again at WordCamp sessions.
Taking that excellent advice is a part of the reason that, when I go to a WordCamp, I attend very few talks, as very few of them apply to me. Of course, I’ve also learned that there is more to a WordCamp than just attending talks. The last WordCamp I went to, WordCamp DFW, I only went to one talk besides the keynote — an incredible speech by iTheme’s Corey Miller. I had a great time hanging out with other WordPress professionals and helping new users at the Happiness Bar.
As WordPress grows, it will only become more and more difficult for WordCamps to cater to every attendee. The more niches that organizers have to please, the less content there is for each of those niches. This is why more niche WordPress conferences are popping up outside of the WordCamp umbrella — like Pressnomics, Prestige Conference, and the upcoming LoopConf, just to name a few. In addition, product-family conferences are starting to occur as well. At the Pods Foundation, where I work, we just held our first PodsCamp, and the first WooCommerce Conference is coming up in November.
PodsCamp was a full day of WordCamp-style presentations, focused specifically on using Pods — the free WordPress development framework — and its add-on plugins. That’s about as niche as it gets. I’m not suggesting that there should be a WordCamp centered on a specific product family, even if it’s totally free — both in terms of cost and flexibility — like PodsCamp. But, what about less niche, but still aimed at specific type of WordPress user or use?
Although, earlier this year, WordCamp Vancouver held a special “Developer Edition,” for the most part WordPress conventions with niche focuses have been independent productions outside of the WordCamp umbrella. Not being an official WordCamp means that these conferences aren’t bound by the rules for WordCamps.
These rules, among others, provide the structure by which WordPress has evolved. The fact that not all plugins or themes can be distributed on WordPress.org is a good thing. It has led to a variety of alternative venues for distributing WordPress code, which in turn made a lot of people good money and helped WordPress expand (of course, an argument can be made that the lack of standards on some of these sites has caused serious damage to our ecosystem). Not being an official WordCamp means that these conferences aren’t bound by the rules for WordCamps, which perhaps is a good thing.
Taking WordPress Conferences to the Next Level
I recently spoke with Ryan Sullivan, one of the organizers of LoopConf, regarding his goals for the conference, and his thoughts on WordCamps. (As a side note, he also published a blog post last week about how LoopConf came to be.) This helped me understand the issue that this conference was looking to address, which helped me more broadly understand what these types of conferences offer that WordCamps don’t.
Ryan stressed the importance of WordCamps, and stated that he doesn’t want to see conferences like LoopConf replace WordCamps. He said,
There’s something to be said for the “grass roots” or homegrown feel of a WordCamp, and I’d hate to see that go away.
I personally couldn’t agree more.
That said, one of the problems that LoopConf is looking to address is presenters having to ask themselves “I wish I had a better idea of who was in the audience.”
I’ve been on both sides of this as an attendee of WordCamp sessions. I’ve attended talks where everything went way over my head, and talks where the speaker only covered the basics of a concept when I was looking for an expert to teach me something new.
It’s hard to blame the presenters in those talks, as there were plenty of people in the room who knew nothing about the topic, and were looking for a basic introduction. If the presenter had met my needs, those people would have been left feeling like everything was going over their heads.
That’s part of what is exciting to me about the idea of a conference like LoopConf. It’s a niche event for advanced developers. I’m sure there will be some presentations there that will go over my head, but that’s okay. Because of the specialized crowd, none of the presenters will have to worry about what Ryan says is a common issue for WordCamp presenters: not being able to know their audience well enough to frame their presentations properly.
LoopConf, unlike a WordCamp, isn’t for everyone. That’s its strength. Part of what makes a WordCamp a WordCamp is that they have something for everyone, and therefore draw attendees and speakers from the surrounding area. Having WordCamps all over the world makes them accessible to more people. But given the limited audiences for more niche conferences, they have to be able to draw a national and even international audience. That means offering something extra special, like premium destinations and top notch speakers.
Ryan told me that they never considered trying to make LoopConf a WordCamp because they wanted to make it more of a full experience. He said it came down to “having the budget we need to be on a “next level” event, and having the freedom to plan an event without wondering if we’re crossing any lines.”
The fact that this conference is so niche and unique, including its location, a 5 star hotel in Vegas, is why this conference will be able to attract top notch attendees and speakers. Its first round of confirmed speakers — including Andrew Nacin, Helen Hou-Sandi and Syed Balkhi — will also cause a big draw.
Next Level WordCamps?
WordCamps were envisioned as annual events for the local community and as an easy entry point for new users and developers to break into the WordPress space. While this remains true, WordCamps also serve as a place for community members to come together and build relationships, and, of course, market their products and services.
One of the advantages of not being a WordCamp is that, LoopConference for example, can pay for their speaker’s hotel rooms, offsetting one of the main costs of travel. This is something that I wish WordCamps would do. I live in small town without its own WordCamp. The first WordCamp to accept me as a speaker was WordCamp Milwaukee, which was great. The $26 a night airbnb I stayed in was not. For PodsCamp, since it was not a WordCamp, we were able to spend money raised from sponsorships on hotel rooms for the team.
This restriction is what caused a developer-centered French WordCamp to move out from under the WordCamp umbrella. If WordCamps are going to become more niche, the ability to compensate speakers, at least for their travel expenses, is going to be an essential part of drawing in the right speakers. The advantage will be that it will make it easier for developers, business owners, and others — including those who don’t work for a company — to travel to WordCamps.
Without something like this, niche WordCamps risk leading to less inclusivity. The fact that WordCamps are incredibly inexpensive, and widely geographically distributed, is what makes them such an important tool for growing and expanding our community.
What Do You Think?
This is an evolving issue that our community will, at some point, have to address. I believe that WordCamp rules are restrictive for a good reason. Whether or not they need to be changed to make more niche WordCamps both possible and successful is going to require careful consideration.
So let me ask you this: do you think it’s time for these types of changes or does it make more sense to keep niche WordCamps outside of the WordCamp umbrella? Let us know in the comments below!
Josh Pollock started learning WordPress development when he was supposed to be working on his masters thesis, which ended up being about open source solutions for sustainable design and was presented in a WordPress site. You can learn more about him at JoshPress.net or follow him on twitter @Josh412