Putting More Community in WCSF

Back in December, I proposed that instead of trying to recreate the 2012 community summit event, we try something different, and combine it with the official annual conference, WordCamp San Francisco (WCSF), for a variety of reasons (rather than restate those reasons now, I suggest re-reading that post). For the most part, people seemed to like the idea (as seen in comments), but there were a few people who did not like the idea, citing various concerns, so I tabled the discussion rather than start a big debate right before the holidays. Un-tabling!

The community summit in 2012 was an experiment on my part as to what an annual event could look like that centered on discussions rather than lectures (which fill the annual WCSF program). There were a lot of positive aspects to the event, in line with what was expected. However, there were some negative effects as well:

  • It was not intended to split the community into having to choose which annual event they attended, but that was an unexpected —and undesirable — outcome.
  • The invite-only-based-on-somewhat-subjective-factors and private nature of the event, while kind of awesome for those who were there and necessary given some of the contentious problems in the community at that time, was non-open and alienating to those who weren’t invited, the antithesis of the WordPress project’s stated values.  ← This one’s really, really important.
  • Quite a number of people who normally went to WCSF did not go after going to the summit due to the need to limit the number of trips they took.

To that end, I’m proposing that instead of organizing another retreat-based, invite-only event at a separate time/place than the annual conference, we expand the annual conference to be more than just lectures. As I handed the WCSF planning mantle off to Andrea Middleton in 2012, I’ve been talking with her and Matt Mullenweg about how we could improve the WCSF event to incorporate some of the good things from the 2012 summit to make WCSF a true annual community event. Here’s the proposal:

  • Instead of doing a full contributor day at the Automattic office as we have in the past, do a contributor series in the downstairs room at Mission Bay on the 2nd programmed day (Sunday) while blogger-centric content is on stage upstairs (with a break for all to see Matt do SOTW).
  • Add an open source project community conversations day in addition to the lecture-driven days. Have a separate registration like with previous contributor days and use advance communication to make it clear this is aimed at professionals/contributors rather than casual users, but don’t use an application process with rejections. This could be either before or after the programmed days, though am leaning toward after.

With these two changes, WCSF would be the same amount of time it has been for years — 3 days — but would have more interactivity built into those days for people involved with the project than we’ve had in the past.

In addition, I would have us set up an extra 2 days for contributor teams to work together and talk about their goals, and to talk to other teams. Needless to say, this would be optional, but anyone deemed necessary to the team should be able to attend regardless of finances via the scholarship program. This brings us to 5 days. Both Andrea and Matt were amenable to this plan for WCSF this year — knowing that whatever we do this year we will learn from and iterate on in the future — so I’d like to address the concerns raised by Siobhan and others.

  • A week is too long, people will burn out. Yep, it’s a long time! We’re talking about 5 days, not 7, but even so, it is more than a weekend (though people just interested in the csummit-style conversations, not the contributor team working days, would still be at only 3 days like always). That said, I surveyed 2 dozen other open source project and industry conferences, and 5 days was actually pretty average. Events like OSCON and SXSW lasting 5 days is an overwhelming week, to be sure, but in this case, since our formats would be shaken up every day or two, and the contributor days are basically chill co-working time, I think it will be manageable. When we used to do core team meetups, those were always a week. Coming to a 2-3 day event for people flying from very far away is also exhausting, so either way there’ll be some people who are less comfortable based on length of event. For the record, I get overwhelmed at events myself. I try to fake it, but ask Matt the number of times I’ve texted him from an event citing anxiety, or been caught reading a book on kindle for iphone in an afterparty corner. I’m not exempt from the burnout concern, and take it seriously. Also, people can always retreat away from the events as needed to take care of themselves (as long as it’s to take care of themselves, and not just because they’re hung over. 🙂 )
  • People coming in early will feel left out. Based on feedback, the idea would most likely be to do the unconference and contrib days after the regular Mission Bay event. No one would be turned away for the unconference, so that “not welcome” thing would not be an issue. For the contributor team days, by then we’d be getting to midweek, so it would be unlikely for a lot of extra people to still be hanging around town, but in any case, we can let each team decide who should be there for that.
  • San Francisco is expensive. Yes, it truly is. The cost of SF lodging is high, but when compared to flights + airport transfers for two separate events, in most cases it’s a wash. In any case, most of the people concerned have employers foot the bill or would be eligible for a travel scholarship. The travel scholarships worked really well at the summit, and while yes, Tybee was cheap and I got us some great discounts there, we have the money to cover SF travel for those who need it.
  • We can’t discuss issues with WordCamps/WCSF if it’s at WCSF because Andrea is the organizer. I think we can all be grownups, and I know that Andrea is always up for suggestions to make the program better.
  • Using Automattic’s space is a conflict of interest. I don’t know if we’d even stick with that space for everything (renting a place with multiple rooms might be better), but I disagree with this idea. The Automattic space is used for open events all the time, and again, we’re all grownups. If we do use the space I personally guarantee that freedom of speech re Automattic would be there, no one needs to censor themselves. The people that censor themselves about that stuff do it wherever Matt is (it even happened at the summit, frankly), the room is not the real issue.
  • Time Zone not EU-traveler friendly. Would I love it if the annual conference moved each year so the burden could be better distributed? Yes, and this could be a step toward that goal if it goes well. In the meantime, skewing US isn’t about ethnocentrism, it’s about numbers (majority) of contributors and businesses based in in the western hemisphere, and the 1-trip-vs-2-trips thing.
  • USA is not visa-friendly for some countries. This is definitely true. I’m ready to start working now with people who were rejected in the past, as well as with the consulate to try and get a couple of key people here. But there will undoubtedly still be a couple who don’t make it for one reason or another. This sucks, and we’d work as hard as we could to get people here who should be. Moving the annual conference in the future to a new place each year (a la Drupalcon) would address this if we can make it happen in the future, but so does having other big events like WC Europe, which wound up functioning last year as kind of a counterpart to the SF event.
  • Ignores the things team reps cited as summit must-haves at the post-wcsf dinner last year. Yep, some of them. I was one of the people who thought those things were must-haves, too (like a cozy location that enables random conversations, a size limit, etc), but when I sat down to think about the goals of the summit (and the overall project) and what was necessary vs what was enjoyable, I had a hard time justifying  the tradeoffs. Anyone can organize an offsite retreat for an invite-only group, but unless it is just for a specific level of contributors, I don’t think it’s appropriate for the project to do so because otherwise the criteria for inclusion would necessarily be at least somewhat subjective.

At the very least, I think it is worth trying it this way; if it feels like there’s a still a big hole after the event, we can revisit. That said, this is what I think is right for the project, and where I think the energy should be focused right now re annual events. If someone else believes an invite-only retreat-style event is necessary for the project’s success, I wouldn’t stand in the way of someone else taking that on and pitching their ideas to Matt.

We can discuss this proposal in the team chat today.

#community-summit, #contributor-meetup, #events-2, #wcsf, #wcsf2014