A few weekends ago I attended WordCamp Las Vegas. I had a great time, made new friends, learned some new things, and managed to keep my gambling losses to $50. In this article, I’d like to share a little bit about WordCamp Las Vegas — especially some of the unique things I’d like to see more of at other WordCamps.
After the event, I spoke with organizer Russell Aaron about what motivated him to deviate from the traditional WordCamp format. WordCamp Las Vegas didn’t follow the traditional track styles most WordCamps adhere to, and, unlike most WordCamps, it also ended with an open-forum discussion.
Russ told me he “wanted the WordCamp to be about more than themes vs plugins.” He wanted it to be about people feeling like they could attend any talk, learn everything, and feel like equals with all attendees.
The “no tracks” format was inspired by attending music festivals. Russ told me he’s seen Metallica, Taylor Swift, and Dave Matthews Band on the same stage at festivals — festivals with no “rock stage” or “jazz stage” inspired him to have no “developer room” or “beginner room.”
This style of scheduling worked well. As did the open forum at the end. Russ credits Co-founder of Sidekick Ben Fox’s keynote talk on Saturday morning for setting the tone of the WordCamp. I couldn’t agree more. Ben’s talk was inspiring: He talked about how communities form, and how the way they’re fostered cultivates the right state of mind for an event like WordCamp Las Vegas.
Ben’s talk challenged WordCamp attendees to see community as something we create, not something that’s given to us. Russ told me that without starting from there “people would not have been as engaged and able to feel like equals.”
I gave an advanced talk on the WordPress REST API in the “WordPress Rush” room, following a talk on SEO basics. There was a big turnover in the room of people leaving to go to the other room for a non-developer talk, and others coming in. The need to change rooms helped keep people moving around, which was Russ’s intention, as he knows that sitting still for too long isn’t good for mood or energy levels.
In addition, while some people at my talk acknowledged it was too advanced for them, they all seemed willing to go with it. The spirit of learning seemed to be strong at this WordCamp — the way all WordCamps should be.
Starting With Community
Ben’s talk was framed by the story of his grandfather, who was born a Jew in Poland and grew up during Word War II. Ben talked about how his grandfather escaped thanks to the kindness of a Polish family, and was able to get the training he needed to emigrate to the United States due to the help of another man from his village that he connected with in England after the war. We also learned about how his business, a bagel bakery in Toronto, was built on the relationships he nurtured.
Ben discussed practical lessons he learned from his grandfather to help us nurture our relationships and, borrowing a value he learned in the boy scouts, leave WordPress better than we found it.
One of the most important things Ben stressed was the power of analog relationships. It’s easy to forget the importance of face-to-face communication when we’re all constantly connecting over social media. Ben challenged us to go out of our way to make a new friend — not a lead or a business connection, but a friend — at the event.
WordPress, the thing that brought us all together for the weekend, brings people together online. We make new and interesting tools for connecting people through it. But nothing, as Ben reminds us, beats a face-to-face conversation.
When I go to WordCamps, I don’t go to a lot of talks. Instead, I tend to favor the “hallway track.” Meeting new people, seeing what they are working on, and inviting them to challenge my assumptions are a huge part of the value in WordCamps.
Online we tend to be very focused on WordPress problems and WordPress solutions. Face-to-face conversations drift from that composition in a good way.
Building On An Understanding
Russ told me that Ben’s talk had a root in a conversation about trying to build a better WordPress community and counteract some of the negativity we have seen in it this past year.
They wanted to help people find a way to understand how hard people work to build some of the plugins or features that get criticized. Ben is someone who has worked to not only build our community, but help explain what community, and more specifically the WordPress community, is.
After two days of talks held without tracks, attendees were successfully challenged to check out different sessions than they normally would. Similarly, although I was skeptical about the idea, I was blown away by how well the concluding open-forum discussion went.
Russ did an excellent job of emceeing the event, and, I think if other WordCamps are going to emulate this, they need to ensure they have someone with experience working a room. Russ also credits the layout of the room for the success of the event — because it had an open-floor plan and wasn’t auditorium style, it made it easy to get the microphone to anyone.
Having spent the weekend without “beginner” or “advanced” labels helped make everyone comfortable sharing and explaining.
Voicing Concerns As Equals
At the forum, a lot of people talked about troubles with compatibility and updates. These are very real concerns that plugin and theme developers, as well as hosting companies need to hear.
Two of the events sponsors, GoDaddy and WP Engine, had representatives in the room and it gave them an opportunity to discuss the tools that a managed WordPress host provides and connect people directly with those who can help. As Russ told me, this was “a chance for those companies to give back and show that their support goes deeper than a support ticket.”
WordCamp sponsors literally make these events possible, but sponsors that send team members provide extra value to attendees.
There were also frustrations voiced about changes in core that have affected some sites and Jetpack’s requirement of connecting to WordPress.com and what data tracking that may involve. While there was no one from the core team or Jetpack in the room, many people helped shed light on concerns that are often overblown.
There was discussion around getting more involved in WordPress and following along with core development so that changes to core don’t come as a surprise to users, since they shouldn’t due to the open nature of the process. In addition, we discussed how to use Jetpack without a WordPress.com connection, and why the concerns about that connection, in most cases, when addressed rationally don’t make much sense.
Iterating On A Proven Model
This year, WordCamp Las Vegas deviated a bit from the traditional format of a WordCamp, and it was a huge success. I go to a lot of WordCamps and love seeing what makes each one unique. Other WordCamps can learn from WordCamp Las Vegas and should also be inspired to try new things.
WordCamps are an essential part of nurturing our community. Everything about WordCamp Las Vegas was focused on bringing people into the community, nurturing those relationships, and more. It all paid off in the open forum, and that effect should have positive returns for the community for years to come.