You Can’t Control What You Don’t Control

Over the past year, I’ve slowly but surely become a WordPress fanatic. My wardrobe now consists primarily of WordPress SWAG t-shirts, and my new business venture is built specifically to amplify WordPress.

I’ve attended 3 WordCamps this summer – San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles (I would’ve attended OC but my lazy ass forgot to buy a ticket). I follow most of the WP core contributor team on Twitter, have met many of the Automattic team members over the past few months, and even had Matt himself punish me with a not-Irish car bomb shot in San Diego. I also attend the bi-weekly WP events here in Orange County at the OC WordPress group meetups, and enjoy the opportunity to learn and share what I’ve learned with fellow WP geeks.

Attendees at WordCamp San Diego

Today I caught a tweet in my stream that caught my attention (predominantly because I think the world of Jane and perk up any time she posts something to Twitter):

Jane WellsJane Wells – @janeforshort
DevPress, WPCandy, and Why I’m Now 80% Blonde: Part the First http://t.co/NM6JPCCc

At first I figured this would be a funny post – perhaps she’d lost a bet to someone and was forced to bleach her hair. The other side of the link, however, was hardly a cheerful post. Rather, she unfolded her side of a story I hadn’t even heard about until today. But once I got the grasp of what was going on, I felt compelled to share my perspective. Though I have no association or affiliation with anyone involved, as a “WP fanboy” and member of the community, I think I’m at least part of the target “community” that could potentially be affected by the discussion – so I might as well get in my $0.02 while it might be heard.

First and foremost, I struggle to write this post because it’s quite obvious that Jane herself has some personal medical issues that she needs to attend to that should be the focus of her attention. WordPress, WordCamp, the foundation, the community, etc. doesn’t matter one bit compared to your well being and personal health. After watching the incredible outpouring of support for Ptah Dunbar I’ve witnessed first-hand that this community is much stronger than just a bunch of geeks who all use the same piece of software. But to the point that I want to write, (Please forgive me if this analogy seems callous in any way; it’s not intended) the reality is that you can’t control what you don’t control.

This entire disagreement is falsely premised on the simple fact that Automattic, WordPress, WordCamp, Jane Wells, Matt Mullenweg, core developers, the foundation, et al cannot control who does what in relation to WordCamps outside of WordCamp. You cannot tell a non-sponsor what they can’t do in relation to WordCamp, any more than I can tell a guy on a street corner that I live around the block so could he please move.

The WordCamp guildelines are an exceptional resource. The experience at the (inaugural) WordCamp San Diego was very much like the one that I had at WCLA the year before, and very much like the one I enjoyed in San Francisco the next month. Distributing the “WordCamp” ethos to local hosts is a fantastic way to “open source” the best techniques.

But let’s be honest – WordPress is more than just a fan community. This is a multi-million dollar business environment. Tens of millions of dollars are spread annually throughout WordPress endeavors – from Automattic (which now employs over 60 people and arguably powers 20-30 million websites powering probably 5-7% of all web traffic), to theme developers, to plugin developers, to bloggers and affiliate marketers, to major media outlets, and thousands of people & professions in-between. It’d be silly to pretend like WordCamp organizers do so out of the graciousness of their hearts. WordPress ain’t a charity. WordCamp hosts & their sponsors are in the business of WordPress. By affiliating themselves with an event a sponsor can demonstrate their commitment to the community. In turn, more WordCamps mean more exposure for more people to work with and on the platform. It’s an amazingly powerful positive-feedback loop that has helped WP become the definitive CMS platform.

Meeting Matt at WCSD It gets tricky because Automattic is a successful and thriving for-profit business. For profit. But the WordPress trademark, WordCamp, and many other things are under the purview of the non-profit WordPress Foundation. And from what I can understand, the WP Foundation is staffed by employees of Automattic. And many WordCamps now rely on The WordPress Foundation for support:

Now that the WordPress Foundation is a legal entity, dedicated to promoting WordPress and educational programs (like WordCamps), organizers can take advantage of this and have the Foundation be the financial entity. [WordCamp Central]

This is a fantastic resource – but it also means that WordCamps cannot turn a profit (from my understanding – please correct me if I’m wrong) and that WordCamp Central (under the authority of the WordPress Foundation) has the ability to “de-authorize” a WordCamp. This is especially true if the WP Foundation is running the finances of an event. I’m not suggesting that this has happened, but the potential is there. So when Jane suggests that an activity might be against a WordCamp policy (guideline, rule, highly-encouraged suggestion, etc), people take note rapidly.

DevPress (namely Justin Tadlock – one of the most insightful and supportive WP community members) was looking for a way to support and promote their business venture. Rather than dishing out hundreds or thousands of dollars to make a physical presence at WordCamp, they opted to give away their product to people who attended the event. The net effect (in theory) doesn’t undermine the event sponsors. In fact – it amplifies the value of the investment in a sponsorship, because people will now be more inclined to attend a WordCamp in order to not only receive the great value they receive at the conference – but also $5-whole-dollars! worth of DevPress goodness.

Regardless of the personalities involved, or the personally-charged comments that seem to have primarily emerged from Ryan Imel’s post on WP Candy about the feud, I’m not sure Jane can make Justin do a damned thing. Her premise is flawed from the onset – with one sticky exception – can the WordPress Foundation exert their control on the WordCamp trademark to prohibit DevPress from using it in their promotion? I don’t know enough about trademark law to say one way or another on that; but that’s really the only thing that is actually in question. But the WordPress Foundation (and/or Jane, Matt, or anyone else involved) can no more tell a non-sponsor what they can or cannot do than I can.

More to the point – I think it’s kind of ironic that a company & organization founded on giving away software has an issue with people riding the coattails of the success of the WordCamp platform. The entire WordPress community is a product of riding the coattails of successful “free & open” software. If fifty companies gave away perks to attendees of WordCamps – it only amplifies the value of the WordCamp. It only encourages attendance and participation. It only furthers the success of the entire platform and community. It actually improves the value of an on-site high-profile “true” sponsorship because more people will be interested in attending. WordPress needs plugins and themes (premium or free) to be better than the basic core product, and plugins and themes rely on WordPress to run. WordCamp seems to have been designed around the same concept – the core WordCamp experience is uniform and built on a familiar platform, but each ‘Camp has it’s own take on things. Let’s let a thousand experiments run freely and take the best results and incorporate them in to the next iteration.

In business, I wish I had control of lots of things that I don’t… I wish I could force competitors to stop innovating. I wish I could force employees to work harder for less pay. I wish I could force customers to pull out their credit card and swipe. But you can’t control what you don’t control. WordCamp Central (the WordPress Foundation and/or Jane and anyone else on the WordCamp Central team) can control lots of things. They can provide best practices sponsorship insight. They can help build a centralized “WordCamp sponsors” page / system / service to amplify the value of official sponsors. They can help WordCamp organizers build exceptional events that provide value to everyone involved.

I’m confident that this small rift in the community will yield a better WordCamp experience down the road. Open source software (much like an open source ‘Camp event) requires things to get messy before the really awesome innovation occurs. As Matt wrote in Usage is Like Oxygen for Ideas:

You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there.

So, it’s out there. Let’s go through this iteration and use this fight as a launching point for making even more amazing WordCamps in 2012.

2 thoughts on “You Can’t Control What You Don’t Control”

  1. I’ve mostly tried to stay away from commenting on the stories out there, especially those that don’t show all the facts of the situation or try to spin the facts in their favor. But, I felt compelled to commend you on actually understanding the problem DevPress had from the beginning. There’s much more to the story after the onset that no one knows about, but you hit the nail on the head with your post.

    1. Thanks Justin. There is so much passion and enthusiasm for WordPress and the WordCamp experience – it’s almost inevitable that at some point something flares up. But I’m sure with a little time and some perspective cool heads on all sides will prevail and the WordCamp experience will be better for it. Between you and Jane I’d be hard pressed to imagine 2 people more supportive of the WordPress community. Thanks again for stopping by and adding your thoughts.

      Cheers, Dave

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