#4 – Dan Maby on the Importance of the WordPress Community

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#4 – Dan Maby on the Importance of the WordPress Community
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About this episode.

On the podcast today we have Dan Maby.

Dan has been a user of WordPress for many years. As an agency owner he’s used it to build client websites, but, as is so often the case, he came for the software and got caught up in the community.

Starting out by attending some local WordPress meetups, he engaged with his fellow WordPressers and enjoying the events he was attending. Attendance turned into organising and over time Dan became the lead of four WordPress Meetups spread all over the UK.

Meetups led to an interest in WordCamps, where he again stepped up to take on leadership roles at WordCamp London.

In the podcast today we talk about the importance of the WordPress community, not just to him as an individual, but to the future of the project as a whole. After all, it’s software created by people, and the health of that community will have a direct impact upon the contributions they make.

We recorded this podcast at a time unlike any other. In person events have had to stop; the WordCamps and Meetups have all gone virtual. Perhaps there’s light at the end of that tunnel, but it’s a perfect time to look back and see how the community has adapted to these new circumstances.

We get into whether hybrid WordPress events should be the new norm, what lessons the community can learn from the past year, and what Dan and his colleagues have done to stay connected and part of a vibrant community. They’ve built a platform to enable events and plan on releasing it as a WordPress plugin soon.

We also discuss an event which Dan has been a key player in organising – WordFest Live, a 24-hour online event with a focus upon learning and positive mental health. 

It’s a lovely episode with a member of the community who has been giving back for many, many years.

Useful links.

WordFest Live

Big Orange Heart

WordPress Meetups

WordCamp Central

Transcript

Nathan Wrigley: [00:00:00] Welcome to the fourth edition of the Jukebox Podcast from WP Tavern. My name is Nathan Wrigley. Jukebox is a podcast for the WordPress community. Each month, we bring you someone who is part of that community to give you an insight into a topic or person who you might not be familiar with. If you enjoy the podcast, you can subscribe to future episodes by going to wptavern dot com forward slash feed forward slash podcast.

If you’ve got any feedback about the podcast, which could be a suggestion of a potential guest or a subject, then head over to wptavern dot com forward slash contact forward slash jukebox. There’s a contact form there for you to complete, and we’d certainly welcome your input. Thanks in advance. If you reach out.

Okay, so on the podcast today, we have Dan Maby. Dan has been a user of WordPress for many years. As an agency owner, he’s used it to build client websites, but as is often the case, he came for the software and got caught up in the community. Starting out by attending some local WordPress meetups, he engaged with his fellow WordPressers and enjoyed the events he was attending. Attendance turned into organizing, and over time, Dan became the lead for four WordPress meetups spread all over the UK. Meetups led to an interest in WordCamps, where he again stepped up to take on leadership roles at WordCamp London. In the podcast today, we talk about the importance of the WordPress community, not just to him as an individual, but to the future of the project as a whole. After all it’s software created by people, and the health of that community will have a direct impact upon the contributions they make. We recorded this podcast at a time unlike any other. In-person events have had to stop the; WordCamps and meet-ups have all gone virtual. Perhaps there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a perfect time to look back and see how the community has adapted to these new circumstances.

We get into whether hybrid WordPress events should be the new norm. What lessons the community can learn from the past year, and what Dan and his colleagues have done to stay connected and part of a vibrant community. They’ve built a platform to enable events and plan on releasing it as a WordPress plugin soon.

We also discuss an event which Dan has been a key player in organizing, WordFest Live. It’s a 24 hour online event with a focus upon learning and positive mental health. It’s a lovely episode with a member of the community who has been giving back for many, many years.

If any of the points raised here, resonate with you, be sure to head over and find the post at wptavern dot com forward slash podcast, and leave a comment there.

And so without further delay, I bring you Dan Maby.

Am joined on the podcast today by Dan Maby. Hello, Dan.

Dan Maby: [00:03:46] Good. Speak to you.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:03:46] Yeah, it’s really nice to have you on the podcast today. Dan and I have a long history of chatting with each other, so this may end up being quite informal at times, but nevertheless, we’re going to talk today about the WordPress community and events in general.

To paint some context into that, I wonder Dan, if you wouldn’t mind spending just a couple of moments, introducing yourself and perhaps explain your history. Not just with WordPress, the software, but also your history with WordPress as a community.

Dan Maby: [00:04:17] Yeah, absolutely. I guess my journey started 15 years ago with WordPress. Funnily enough, we had obviously the 18th birthday quite recently of WordPress, and I was looking back at my history, trying to figure out what had been doing with it. And I realized that I’d started with version 1.5, which at the time was really quite a major introduction. Lots of features in that 1.5 update that we still recognize today in the platform. And it’s been, an interesting journey with WordPress and the community. One that I’ve absolutely loved over that 15 year journey. But really the journey for me with the community started, I think it was around 2012. I was looking for a way to connect with people that were working with and were interested using WordPress. I was working in London at the time in the UK, looked at a meetup. I came across, there was a WordPress meetup that was being run by Keith Devon at the time, the WordPress London meetup. So I went, I headed over to the meetup, came from my day job at the time, which means I was suited and booted. Wandered into this, a room with a bunch of WordPress developers and users. And felt entirely out of place in that in that first meeting. I was the only person there in a suit. Everybody else was nice and casual, but the welcome that I received in that meetup was second to none. It was really an incredible experience, a first experience of the, the wider WordPress community.

And it was actually at that event that Keith had asked if anybody was looking to get involved and support in the delivery of the event and that having been there literally for my first time, stuck my hand up, and that’s really where it all started. And very quickly moved into a situation where Keith decided to step away from the event to focus on other things, focus on his agency, et cetera. I’ve been running the event ever since. And the WordPress London meetup has been a key aspect to everything that I’ve been doing within the community. It’s been a real pleasure to be able to be a custodian of a that event.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:06:16] You have a lot more strings to your bow than just the WordPress London meetup. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about some of the other things that you’re, well, were involved in? We’ll get onto that a little bit later, about the way that things have had to cease, but tell us apart from the WordPress London meetup, tell us about the other things that you were doing on a monthly basis.

Dan Maby: [00:06:37] Sure, so, for me the community was really the important bit, the people within the community. I really grew to develop a, a passion for the people that we were connecting with. And from that point from the running of the WPLDN event, I realized that actually there were other areas that were lacking in meetups across the UK. There were plenty of people running, plenty of meetups, and I was really enjoying being part of that kind of organizers community, if you like a meetup organizers community. But as I said, I noticed that there were areas that were lacking events, even in my local area, as well as further a field, I actually got to the point where I was organizing and leading four meetups a month across the UK, which saw me traveling quite substantial miles on a monthly basis, just to enable these communities to grow and develop.

And it was a real pleasure to be able to work with local communities. I always encouraged community members within the local area to come on board as co-hosts and enable them to take the lead and to sow the seed and then move on and help that community thrive. And it was going fantastically well. You know we had, as I say, we have four meetups running across the UK, and then suddenly, obviously we’re thrown into the situation where we couldn’t physically come together in person.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:07:56] Before we move on to that, perhaps we could paint a little picture about the importance of WordPress in your life, because it strikes me that many people, they may use WordPress as a piece of software. And that’s the end of it. They have really no understanding that there is a community which can support you in your WordPress knowledge, but also it can be much more than that. And I think it’s fair to say that in your case, many of the people that you’ve met through WordPress have become actual friends who you actually socialize with. Enjoy their company and stray into non WordPress things as well. So I’m just wondering if you could tell us how it has helped you, but perhaps get into the stuff that’s not to do with WordPress. Have you met people that you’ve really jelled with and found camaraderie with.

Dan Maby: [00:08:41] I think this is the the beauty of the WordPress community. It’s so much more than just the technology. I found it to be quite a unique community as well, in that the way people are open, the way people will communicate and discuss and talk about topics, which, by all rights where we attended an event together, we’re essentially often competing with one another. I run an agency which focuses on design and development services, and I will go and speak with many other people that also run agencies. And essentially we are competitors, but that level of competition doesn’t really surface too much in the WordPress community. It’s predominantly a community that’s very supportive and people are very open to discussing issues. Myself, I was seeking out connection, I wanted to be around like-minded individuals because I was in a situation where I was very isolated. I was looking for people to connect with that had an understanding of what I was experiencing. And that’s really what the community has been about for me. It has been about this idea of having similar experiences, having, understanding of the challenges that we can face if we’re working alone. And my company has run with distributed team members, so I don’t have a central office with a team that all works together. We work in our home offices. You miss out on that ability to be able to have those conversations that you would have, potentially in-person. That for me was where I was seeking out the community, and as I did that, I realized that this community really was very open to discussing many issues and very open to sharing experiences and knowledge, which was unique for me at the time. And as you say, that’s then led on to building of relationships and those relationships have gone further afield outside your outside of specifically WordPress related. Very happily, I’ve got some wonderful friends across the community now, and they are friends and the people that I will hopefully have the pleasure of knowing for the rest of my life. Nathan, I count you in amongst that I can remember a conversation you and I had in a car park post a meetup many years ago and, it’s been wonderful to watch the journey that you as an individual have gone on through your experiences of WordPress and podcasting, et cetera, and the many branches and tendrils that we have within the community. It’s a very rich experience. I would say being part of the WordPress community.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:11:04] Yeah, I would completely agree. And for those people who perhaps listening to this podcast, obviously this audio will go on in perpetuity, it may be that they’re listening to this and the world has become more normal. Shall we say? Perhaps we’re allowed to meet up in person again. If that were the case, what would be your best advice for digging into that community? What would your best search be? What would be the best way to go about finding where your local events are taking place?

Dan Maby: [00:11:32] First off is look for meetups. There are thousands of meetups across the globe that are run by local communities, and I really would encourage anybody if you haven’t previously. Take a look head over to you know, there are various sites, whether it’s meetup dot com, Eventbrite, et cetera, all those kinds of events websites. Do a search for your local area for WordPress meetup event. Sign yourself up and head over. My personal experience and something that I’ve spoken about many times historically is simply getting involved in these events. We have this wonderful ecosystem of WordCamps across the WordPress space. And these WordCamps are, you’re basically taking a meetup onto a grander scale, again, encouraging local communities to try and run those WordCamps and larger events, but that can sometimes feel quite daunting, just simply turning up to an event. So if you can get yourself embedded in some way, and volunteering is by far and away, the simplest and best way to do that. Every single one of these meetups and WordCamps are run by teams of volunteers. So signing up as a volunteer, simply putting your hand up and saying, yes, I’ll get involved in some way. It gives you a purpose within the event. So you’re not simply having to be there and trying to figure out where you fit within it. You’re there and you have a role. And this was certainly my experience of getting into the WordCamps space. I’ve volunteered. I can remember experience at WordCamp Europe, or I was doing some meeting and greeting as people were arriving, and it just opened up so many interesting and wonderful conversations with people that I still have very interesting, wonderful conversations with today. And it’s just that embedding yourself in it and enabling yourself to be part of that community. First step I’d say, check meetup, look for an event. Sign yourself up, head over there. And if there’s any way that you can get involved, do. Most meetup organizers are so grateful for anybody putting their hand up and say, yeah, look, I’ll get involved or stepping forward and saying look, do you need any help with this at all? And that help can vary in so many ways. As a meetup organizer, there’s an awful lot often goes on behind the scenes that maybe attendees aren’t always aware of that really go into delivering these events.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:13:45] What is the difference between a meetup and a WordCamp? Probably, if you’ve attended, either of those you’ll know the difference, but if you’re new to this whole WordPress community thing, it might be good to paint a bit of clear blue sky between those two different things.

Dan Maby: [00:14:01] So if I use London as an example. Our WordPress London meetup, when we were in person delivering these events, we were seeing the, of an average of a hundred people in attendance every month. So this would run every once a month in our local environment. So the focus for both WordCamps and meetups really are about encouraging local organizers to run them. So our meetup, we feature between two and three speakers on a night. It’s usually around two, two and a half hours long. And then post that within, have a bit of a social gathering. Where we continue doing a bit of networking, et cetera. The meetup is a really a trimmed down version, should we say? Or that’s probably negative, a negative way of putting it to be honest. The WordCamp is an enlarged version of meetup. Probably the best way of putting it and WordCamps are essentially that. We’re taking the concept of a meetup, but on a much, much grander scale. And they don’t have to be enormous. I’ve attended some you know, a hundred attendee WordCamps and they’ve been absolutely spectacular, really personal. And I really enjoy the kind of smaller hundred, hundred and fifty attendee WordCamps, but equally we also have some much, much larger ones. So again, if I look at WordCamp London, the last event we ran we had around 650, I believe was 650 attendees at that event. If we then look at the regional WordCamps. So the likes of WordCamp US, WordCamp Europe or WordCamp Asia. Yeah, WordCamp Europe. I believe there’s three and a half thousand attendees at the last event, the last in-person event. So they’re often spread across multiple days as well, but not always often there’s a, a single day WordCamp as well, but the one telling difference between a WordCamp and a meetup is the WordCamps often have what we call a contributor day associated with them as well, which is a day focused entirely on contributing to WordPress in some way, shape or form. And there are so many ways to contribute. We’re not just simply talking about writing code and contributing in that way. There’s documentation, there’s marketing, there’s the multi-lingual there’s many ways to get involved. So I really, again, would encourage anybody that’s thinking about attending a WordCamp, once we are back to a situation where we are safe to be able to return to in-person events. And obviously some of the virtual events I really would encourage joining the, contributor day in any way that you can.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:16:15] So with all of these events going on, obviously we’ve got a thriving piece of software, which is turning out to be widely used over 40% of the web. We have the statistic now using WordPress. So the software is one side, but obviously we’ve also, as you’ve just painted a picture that we’ve got this thriving community as well. An awful lot of the project perhaps was going on, at these community events, a lot of things were being organized, so contributor days, possibly different teams meeting up at various times at these events. And then sometime last year, the world paused and is still in a state of pause. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on whether the project as a whole has been stifled. I know that we’ve gone online and we’ll come onto that in a moment, but I’m just wondering if you’ve got any thoughts about the impact that the world pausing and not being able to meet up in person. If the project itself has been stymied by that.

Dan Maby: [00:17:14] I think this is a really interesting discussion. I can sit on both sides of the fence here. I think there is definitely an element of fatigue within the community at this stage. And I think that fatigue is being born out of the fact that potentially we are not having those in-person connections, the wonderful conversations that can be born out of the hallway track, you know it’s spectacular, what can happen, and by hallway track, you’re simply wandering around the event itself and not necessarily being in a session, but there’s, the people are mingling around and the conversations that can be born out of those chance meetings, really are spectacular. Many times I’ve run into individuals in the hallway, or we’ve just started the conversation and then somebody else has jumped in, somebody else has jumped in and before we know it, there’s, there’s a really interesting round table conversation going on about the future of the project. Because as an open-source project, we all have the potential to influence them the potential to participate in the project in some way, shape or form. I think in this virtual environment that we’re currently in, on a personal level, I believe that we’ve lost some of that. We’ve lost that ability in many ways. And it’s created this fatigue where we’re not necessarily having the opportunity to have those discussions and those new ideas, those new thoughts, or those alternative ways of looking at a problem. I think the project has possibly suffered for that, in some respects, I think is partly why WordPress as the software has been so successful is because of WordPress the community has had that really strong in-person connection and that really strong coming together as a community. Having said that equally, there are many benefits to the concept of the virtual environment that we’re in. But yes. I certainly think there are some challenges that we have come up against and we’ve tried to work towards resolving to some degree as a community in this virtual environment.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:19:07] We’re in a strange dichotomy in that we were probably better prepared than almost any industry to move everything online at the drop of a hat, because the WordPress community is online. We understand how to put websites together and turn those websites into virtual events and all of that kind of stuff. Conversely, and perhaps somewhat unexpectedly. We were also a community, that needed to be offline in order to push the project forward. And so in some sense, we were not prepared for that. Two sides of one coin, very well prepared from the technological point of view. But perhaps we didn’t really understand that these in-person events, the interactions, the little coincidental meetings that might’ve happened, that pushed things forward. The fact that the contributor days, they were a great way of pushing the project forward. All of these little things that required us to be in-person well, they just evaporated and we weren’t really prepared for that and that’s kinda my take on it. It feels like from the tech point of view, everything’s a-okay. We can manage that side really well, but the unexpected consequences from the community going away have become slightly more obvious. And I feel it’s not really in any way, catastrophic, it’s just little paper cuts. Things haven’t perhaps worked as fluidly, perhaps interactions haven’t been made, perhaps people have become fatigued, logging onto their computer and so on. And of course, there’s the fact that there’s a great deal of excitement around turning up to one of these events and whether that’s a meetup and you just show up for the evening or you go somewhere further afield. You might need to get in the car or get on a train or get on a plane and you may have booked a hotel and your almost seeing it as a little bit of a vacation, something a little bit outside of the normal experience, all of that side has gone. And so there’s less be excited about. And perhaps as you described it fatigue, I’m describing it more as a lack of excitement, perhaps that has had a bit of an impact.

Dan Maby: [00:21:10] I think you’re absolutely right. There’s an excitement when you’re coming together in personnel, there’s excitement. You don’t always know what to expect. You don’t always know what’s going to come in those conversations. You may have a good idea, but the ability to come together in person and really thrive off that energy of one another, it really can be quite special, but equally there are many people that don’t thrive off of that there are many people that really struggle with the idea of being in large groups of people, there’s absolutely pros and cons to all of this. And it’s something that we were in our events, in the in-person events, we were trying to be aware of, be mindful of that experience for people. Some people, as I say will thrive off that environment of being around lots of people, but those that need their own space sometimes. The idea of delivering quiet rooms at in-person events is really important because some people do just need that time away from the crowd to be able to re-energize themselves, by being by themselves. This idea of enabling all walks of life, all the variations of people that build up our community to be able to participate. And I think this is really where we’ve got a huge positive in the virtual environment at the moment we’ve brought down so many barriers. For a far greater, far more diverse mix of individuals, whether we’re talking about speakers or attendees, we’ve got some wonderful opportunities right now in the virtual environment. We’re not having to consider visas. We’re not having to consider travel expenses. The limitation that we’re running on right now in terms of attendance of an event is the bandwidth to be able to connect to that event. We were looking at the positive side of this. There are some really good things I think we need to be very mindful of as we move forward. As we move into, as we start to move into a situation where we, if we’re in a safe environment, to be able to return to the in-person events, we also need to be mindful of how do we continue to encourage that very open and very inclusive model that the virtual environment has created.
Nathan Wrigley: [00:23:16] Do you see in the future, and we’ll talk more in a moment about specifically what it is that you and your events have done to move online over the last year or so, but just for now, do you see in the future then a model where, let’s say that we all go back and the world returns to how it was in 2018. Everybody’s allowed to get on planes and trains and everybody can move freely once more. Do you think that we have reached a point where hybrid events and by that I mean, many people will come and be present in the room, but also perhaps we need to provide the internet access so the people from further afield who don’t wish to attend, or perhaps they’re literally on the other side of the world and they only want to see two or three of the variety of sessions that are on offer that week. It’s really not worth them getting on a plane for that, but they could log in and watch them online. So do you feel that there’s a hybrid or will we just consign the online events to the realms of history?

Dan Maby: [00:24:12] So I’m very hopeful that as a community, we will adopt the hybrid model. However, having said that, I also appreciate that we need to also figure out what this hybrid model looks like. As a meetup organizer, again, the WordPress London meets up. We were taking quite a considerable amounts of kit into the event to deliver the events. And by kit I’m talking about cameras, microphones, tripods, sound equipment, all sorts of stuff, which isn’t that common in the meetup space. And as a meet-up organizer, you don’t need to be thinking about, or how do I get low cameras, et cetera. But what it meant for us is we were pre pandemic we were already in an environment where we were live streaming the sessions. We were accepting questions coming in from the virtual audience that were consuming the content live whilst the in-person community were also consuming that content. That put us in a very strong model as we move forward, which I can get into in a moment. But the issue that I see is, are we going to try and force the experience where we’ve got the in-person and the virtual, combined together at the same time, are we actually going to create a situation where we create the worst of both worlds? So the in-person deteriorates because there’s a need for more equipment, there’s a need for more organizing and there’s need for just a very different experience where you’ve got a lot more things needing to happen from an organizer’s perspective. And then have you then got the virtual side, is their experience going to deteriorate because the organizers are having to focus on the in person. It’s an awful lot to deliver, as an organizer: an event. But to then take that event and say now I need to do at the same time, a hybrid of in-person and live, particularly on the meetup side, I think it’s something we’re going to have to be very careful of and figure out how do we do that? Are we better to have, I don’t know, for example, an in-person event and a virtual event, twice a month. Again, I’m not advocating for this for every single meetup because I appreciate every meetup is run by volunteers. It’s about the capacity for those organizers. I think when we start to look at WordCamps, it gets a little more interesting because obviously WordCamps do have a slightly larger team often, and there is often some funding supported through sponsorship, et cetera, to enable that. But again, we’ve got to look at how do we make sure that the experience is optimal for both the in-person and the virtual. And I’m not sure I have the, certainly I don’t have the answers to that at this stage, but it’s certainly something we’ve been having a lot of discussion around internally. And the platform that we’ve developed for our virtual events at the moment is something that we’re looking to roll into our hybrid model. But again, that we don’t have the answers at this stage.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:26:57] I’m also conscious that perhaps if everything becomes available online, it may persuade people who are almost going to attend live to not attend live. It may dwindle the audience that turn up to the live event, if you know what I mean, which would be a kind of an unexpected consequence, but those people who were flip-flopping and maybe I’ll go, maybe I won’t, oh, I’ll just watch it on the screen, which is fine. But obviously you don’t want to get to the point where the in-person event is attended by just a couple of people, because everybody else is just tuning in online because the sort of sense and the purpose of that event and the camaraderie, all the good stuff that you want to happen, in-person disappears.

Dan Maby: [00:27:38] So this was something that we discussed, a number of times pre pandemic, when we made the decision to start live streaming, the WPLDN events, and we have that exact concern and it’s a genuine concern. Are you going to deteriorate the experience by somebody has the option to just simply watch it online? It never happened. Our numbers, stayed consistent and we saw a numbers of in-person stay consistent and we saw our numbers online, grow and grow. And that really demonstrates to us that people want that in person connection, as you just said, there’s so much more to the event than simply consuming the the section that’s being delivered. So it is those conversations are happening in hallway tracks. It’s the, all the other elements to the event that you often can’t gain from a virtual environment.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:28:24] Okay. So let’s move the conversation a little bit. It was staying on more or less the exact same topic, but I’m curious to know what it is technically that you have done since March last year in the UK, March was the moment where everything ground to a halt, and we were unable to see each other. So I just wondered if you could run us through what challenges you faced, how you’ve overcome them. And I know that you spent a lot of time trying to build a platform and shape a platform, to make this work in your situation. Perhaps explaining that might encourage other people who would like to take their events online, to reach out to you and see if you can lend them a hand.

Dan Maby: [00:29:00] Sure. Absolutely. Just to give a bit of context before I get into this, the WPLDN events, along with several other events that we deliver, now come under the umbrella of Big Orange Heart, which is a registered nonprofit with a mission to support, promote positive mental health within remote working communities. So a big focus for us is about continuing ways to help reduce social isolation and the delivery of events do that. Now the reason I’m saying that is because there’s a team of volunteers within Big Orange Heart, that have donated time into helping us deliver them. So what I wouldn’t want to portray is yeah I’m sitting here on my own and it built this platform that enabled the community to continue to do its thing. It’s taken a small village of people to continue to do this. And I appreciate not every meetup has that ability to be able to tap into that. But what we did, we actually back, as I said, previously, we were already live streaming. So we had a pretty good idea of, the, kind of the technical aspects of live streaming content and very fortunate, we’ve got a fantastic team on WPLDN, specifically Leo Mindel, Paul Smart and Diane Wallace and myself come together. Leo comes in with some fantastic technical knowledge to help support the live streaming side of it. And we took the decision back in February, so prior to the government making any announcement here in the UK, we took the decision that was going to be our last event until we had more information in relation to the pandemic. Little did we know that would obviously continue on as it is right now, but we took what we were doing in terms of our live streaming; so we did our final in-person event in February. We jumped straight into trying to do a virtual event in our next event in March. So we delivered one event a month through WPLDN. The first thing we did in March was jumped straight into Zoom and said, yep, let’s get everybody in. Within minutes, we recognize that Zoom was entirely the wrong platform for us to deliver an event on. It’s a great platform, for the purpose of meetings one-to-one or one to many meetings, but it really isn’t a good platform for any kind of event. Because if in an event you want the ability for people to freely move around. And we’ve seen many events that have used Zoom, used multiple Zoom rooms to enable the attendees to jump into different conversations. The problem with that is you don’t know what you’re jumping into. We often refer to it as Zoom roulette because you’ll be jumping into a Zoom call and you don’t know who’s in that Zoom call. You don’t know what you’re jumping into, and it adds a huge cognitive load to the attendees of an event, because not only are they having to figure out where the different Zoom links are, they’re also then having to figure out once they’ve got in who it is that they’re communicating with in that conversation, which it just simply didn’t work for us. So we very quickly started to work on a solution that would enable us to have that ability to have freedom of movement within a virtual environment. Now, this led us on to looking, we’re huge open-source advocates. And we wanted to continue to deliver, we wanted to build something that would tie in and fit with that ethos of the open source projects that we support. So we quickly discovered Jitsi as source video conferencing solution. Ran into many challenges along the way, in terms of building out the platform. But what we ultimately ended up with was a platform that enabled us to use our existing registration process. So all of our attendees are on meetup. So we wanted for people to be able to obviously log in with their meetup credentials. So register for an event on meetup, if they’ve registered, be able to then access the event online. So we built a WordPress site, built a custom app that wrapped around a Jitsi instance, which then enabled us to have this concept of tables within the platform. So attendees would register for the event, jump in. We would be able to stream content into that platform as well as then have this idea of tables where people could freely move around and see exactly who’s on what table before they were jumping in. We delivered that I believe that was around May time of that year. So two months following the decision to go to virtual and we continue to iterate and evolve that platform from that point on, which has been, it’s been a phenomenal experience, the development of this solution. I just wanted to give a shout out to Louis Cowles, who has been doing an incredible job. Taking what I had originally put together, which was this app wrapped around Jitsi and he has turned it into something far more spectacular, which we are now, almost at the stage of being able to deliver as a WordPress plugin. So if anybody has attended any of the Big Orange Heart events or any of the events, the Big Orange Heart supports, have experienced the platform, which includes WordFest. The whole platform that we have developed there will soon be available as a WordPress plugin as well, which we’re really excited about.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:33:56] I have to say from my part, it is now feeling incredibly mature and the fact that it will soon be a WordPress plugin is remarkable. Will that be something that anybody can access and therefore use at their own meetups? Presumably there’s some sort of burden of setting up things outside of WordPress. Maybe there’s other containers with the Jitsi software that needs to be done, or does it all get rolled into just the plugin and you’re good to go.

Dan Maby: [00:34:22] So there’s still work that we’re working through, how to enable that within the community. Really, what we’re trying to do here is build something that is enabling communities to have the experience that we’ve had with WPLDN, and also, we’re not just simply talking in this current particular space where we’ve got the, just virtual again, referring back to the hybrid model. As a platform would work particularly well for the hybrid model, but yes, there are definitely additional technical elements to it, which we will obviously be looking at how we can mitigate that technical challenge that comes with it. There are hosted versions of Jitsi, which you can simply plug into it as it is right now. So again, we’ll be able to share more information as we move forward with that. We’re really, it’s about enabling the community to be able to continue to have that very broad reach. Even as we, as we move back into the in-person.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:35:11] You being you, you weren’t content to rest on your laurels and carry on just doing the WPLDN event. You’ve obviously got this platform and you decided at some point last year, that you wanted to manage and organize an event which spanned the entire globe. And so WordFest was born. I don’t know if WordFest was born, basically out of the fact the world was on pause or whether you’d have plans for this prior to that. But perhaps you could spend a few minutes just outlining what WordFest is and by good coincidence, there is actually a WordFest, if you’re listening to this podcast episode, soon after it was released, there is actually a WordFest event coming up really soon. So perhaps tell us why you started it and then get onto what’s going on in the next few weeks.

Dan Maby: [00:35:59] Sure. So as a charity, we always intended to have some form of larger in-person event. Events have been something that’s had a real passion for a very long time. The ethos of bringing people together, helping reduce social isolation of lone workers is something that really fits well with everything that we’re doing in terms of Big Orange Heart. So we wanted to enable people to come together. That had always been on the cards from the very early stages of Big Orange Heart. Of course, when we got thrown into this situation with the pandemic, as I say, we moved into the virtual environment for our monthly events, that platform that I’ve been discussing, we actually opened up to other communities. So we’ve enabled other communities to be able to run their events through our platform, without any charge to them. We just simply wants to be able to create a solution for those communities to continue to come together when they couldn’t deliver them in person. What that actually meant was that we, in the first 12 months that we were delivering events through our live dot Big Orange Heart dot org site, we’d had over 12,000 attendees come through that platform, which has meant that we’d obviously had a huge amount of feedback and we’d been able to iterate very quickly across that solution to get to a point where we actually decided that we want to deliver a larger scale event. It’s always been on the cards. Why not do that as a virtual conference or virtual festival? That’s really where the concept of WordFest was born. And I want to, again, when we give a huge shout out to Brian Richards, particularly of WordSesh. WordSesh has been around, you know, as a virtual WordPress focused virtual event for many years, I can remember way back in the early days of the first WordSesh, the first few WordSesh’s, which were 24 hour events and had a lot of fun attending those. And I remember attending my first one and actually attending for the full 24 hours. So this wasn’t something that was new in our space. We were very aware that there was a desire for it, but we wanted to wrap together the two elements of what we do. Our hearts really are in WordPress, but our focus is really around wellbeing and mental health, positive mental health. So this concept of WordFest was about bringing those elements together. So if you attend WordFest, you will find content that focuses on both WordPress and our individual wellbeing as remote workers. It really was about this concept of a global celebration of our community. We talked about different ways of delivering it. We talked about do we do over multiple days because we appreciate time zones, how do we, how do we factor in a way of enabling anybody that wants to attend to be able to attend? But we didn’t want to just say here’s a set time on this day, here’s six hours that would deliver it or, over a period of days, we’ll do, it was a real challenge. So we, we kept coming back to this 24 hour concept because it would end up, if somebody wants to attend over that one day, there was some point in the day that hopefully they would be able to join us. And it has mushroomed. It’s grown and grown. We set out to deliver the first one back in January, this year, 2021, we set a target of 2000 attendees to the event we had just over two and a half thousand attend. So it was, we completely smashed all our expectations in terms of people attending the event. But also we completely smashed our expectations in terms of the number of sessions that we were delivering. We initially set out a wanting to deliver 24 sessions over the 24 hours. That turned into 36 sessions actually ended up being 48 sessions through the first event. I’m really happy. I’m not sure it’s the right word, but I’m really happy to say that this time around we’ve actually got 66 sessions that are going to be delivered in the 24 hours. It’s been a phenomenal experience, delivering this as again, as a wonderful team of volunteers, sitting behind this people like Michelle, Cate, Hauwa, Paul, just wonderful people that are really enabling us to be able to continue to grow this event into a much larger scale event than it ever was initially. So the next WordFest live is taking place on the 23rd of July. So we’ll be featuring 66 sessions over a 24 hour period. And it is, I think one of the most wonderful things I took away from the last WordFest was, as an organizer, having organized many in-person events, there’s always a connection with your co-organizers. Certainly if you’re running a larger event, such as a WordCamp, for example, you build up this rapport and you build up this relationship that on the day of delivering the event often it’s, it’s, it’s tiring. There are, yeah, there are moments of challenges, but there are just wonderful moments as well. But you experience all of those things together as a team. What I took away from WordFest live, which was a genuine surprise to me was we managed to create that same experience. We managed to create that same shared experience as we were delivering the event. I’ll never forget sitting here, I think I was in about hour 36 of because I’d been up some time before the event and I was sitting there and just the silence that was actually happening as a bunch of organizers, we all knew how, what we were experiencing in that moment. And it was just a real special time. We use various tools to deliver it. And one of the key secret ingredients for us as organizers was Discord. So having an open audio Discord channel for us to be able to just simply be able to speak to one another as we needed in that moment, it worked incredibly well for us.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:41:40] So the event, just tell us one last time. What are the dates and where do we go if we wish to sign up and perhaps importantly, tell us how much does it cost?

Dan Maby: [00:41:53] I’m laughing because it costs you absolutely nothing. WordFest Live is a free event, the next event is taking place on the 23rd of July where we’ll be starting at midnight UTC. So time zones are always fun in an event like this. So we base it around UTC. So midnight UTC on the 23rd of July running for 24 hours. So that’s the Friday 23rd. You can join us at any point over that 24 hour period, we will be running across six continents. Our time zone starts off in the Australia, Australian time zones. We’ll move on to Asia, Africa, Europe, south America, and ending up in North America. And then we’ve got Antarctica. You can chill out in our community tent all day long. So over that period, we would love to see you join us. As I say, registration is entirely free. There is an optional $10 donation that you can make when registering, all funds go directly into Big Orange Heart, which was the say is a registered nonprofit. There is also an option there to sign up as a micro sponsor. Should you choose to. Micro sponsorship is charged at $250. And for that, we will obviously get some exposure of your company. And it’s really a more a reflection of what it actually costs for us to put this together, in terms of the attendees tickets.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:43:13] This podcast episode, you could probably sum it up with one word and that word would probably be community. If I was to show up to WordFest live and I had ambitions to socialize with other people. That kind of thing is possible? It’s not just about show up to the event, watch the speakers and then wait for the next speaker to start. You’ve provided opportunities to socialize. So maybe as a final thing, just explain how that works. What’s the provision for meeting up with other people and breaking out into different groups and so on.

Dan Maby: [00:43:42] So this was as equally important as finding fantastic speakers. We also needed to make sure that the ability for people to be able to connect, the community, to be able to come together has been a focus for us. So this is where the custom solution that we’ve been developing comes into play. So if you are attending WordFest, you can obviously consume, we’ve got two tracks running over the 24 hour period. So at any point you have a choice of at least two sessions to choose from. I say at least because there’s also some evergreen content that will be available for you to consume through the events as well. And then you can head over to our community tent which we are nicknaming Antarctica this time round, where you can connect with the sponsors. So you will see all the sponsors tables, you can jump in and have conversations, discuss with them for whatever reason you need to to connect with the sponsors, highly encourage you to do that. But in the same space, you can also spin up your own community table. And this is, we try to liken it to a sponsors hall at an in-person event. You might wander into the sponsors hall. You’ll have conversations with the sponsors, but equally you might have conversations with your peers, friends, colleagues, in and around the community. So we’ve really tried to, as best we can in the virtual environment, replicates that hallway track experience where you’re not bound to specific calls, you’re not bound to specific tables. You have freedom of movement within that platform to connect with those that you want to connect with. Equally, you also have your own profile within the platform and your own profile then has your own meeting room. So should you want to break out and have you a slightly more private conversation discussion away from the community tent, then again, you have that facility. So it’s really about trying to enable people to come together and have the conversations that are so important.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:45:29] Thank you so much, Dan, for putting an event like this on, I know that as you’ve said, it’s not just you, there’s a great large community of people in the background as well. So thank you to them equally and during the last 18 months or so, thanks for being there and making sure that the communities can keep meeting and you’ve endeavored to to keep all of that going. And I fear that unless it was for people like you who’ve really gone the extra mile, perhaps things wouldn’t be quite so bright going forward. From the bottom of my heart. Thank you very much, Dan, for coming on the podcast and for everything that you do.

Dan Maby: [00:46:01] Oh I’m deeply appreciate. I thank you. Thank you very much, and likewise. Thank you for all that you do across the community. I appreciate it. I’ll see, you spent a lot of time chatting with people like me sharing some wonderful stories.

Nathan Wrigley: [00:46:11] Thank you so much.


4

4 responses to “#4 – Dan Maby on the Importance of the WordPress Community”

  1. Thank you for the opportunity to discuss our community and the wider event space around it. I’m really interested in hearing others thoughts on the shape of events as we move forward?

  2. Disclosure: I have volunteered for most of the beginning years at WordCamp Toronto. Not every year. I also missed 2 WCTO events due to events in my personal life. I have never spoken at any WordCamp event. Not because I want to, I don’t know why I don’t apply.

    PLEASE NOTE THAT MY COMMENTS BELOW APPLY TO MOST WORDCAMPS AND NOT THE REGIONALS (WCUS, WCEU, WCASIA, ETC…)
    Here are my thoughts: I got interested in WordCamps because of the local community event.

    That local community part is sort of missing.

    I think it should be local community organizing the WordCamps. Let’s take WordCamp Toronto…it should be members of the WordPress Toronto Community (people who live in Toronto), not someone from let’s say Vancouver (west end of Canada) or Miami or etc…

    Same for speaking.

    There are some people who are “professional” speaker and go from WordCamp to WordCamp to other technology events.

    We should be supporting local talent.

    I remember two people (married to each other) came from the east end of Canada and their session was WP Multisite. I attended their session when they came here years ago. I enjoyed it. Couldn’t organizers find local talent in the Toronto area that can talk to WPMS?

    However…what defines local? At the Toronto border with let’s say Mississauga? What about Hamilton (70 or so km west of Toronto)?

    One of the former WCTO organizers (he did a WCTO once I think), he moved to Montreal and helped at least one WC Montreal. Should he be one of the organizers at WCTO? I don’t think so. Montreal is in next door province. 5+ driving hours away.

    That local element is missing in so much of WCTO. I am using WCTO as an example. I attended other WordCamps across North America over the years. Even some online since the pandemic (even in different languages – which I understood).

    I don’t like the fact that organizers decide on the sessions and speakers. There should be more transparent and to make sure they are not just giving their friends the publicity to speak.

    There is an event in Toronto called PodCamp Toronto. I spoke there many times. Other years I attended without speaking. Never volunteered.

    In PCTO…I submit the session I want to do. Just like WordCamps…Organizers for the most part approve. Then attendees will bookmark/favourite the sessions they want to see. For the most part, the most bookmarked/favourited session will be on the final official schedule.

    I think WordCamps should be like that. People who want to speak…submit a proposal, attendees choose what the sessions they want to see in the final official schedule. The most popular ones get on the final official schedule.
    Of course if 200 people submit “How to install WordPress 101” proposals that at some point the organizers should say…no more, sorry.

    I feel unwelcomed in many parts. Not open to other ideas at many events in the WordPress Community.

    The local meetup group is all about “let’s fix your site” for the past year or two. Somebody switched from having a speaker or two to the “let’s fix your site” type meetings.

    There was so much drama years ago in WordCamp Toronto. I gave up on volunteering. I don’t want to deal with that drama.

    I remember in another WordCamp, one of the organizers…that was not from anywhere that City, organized for a few years but that year he/she forcefully got the WordCamp in an inconvenient location. But didn’t even attend that year.

    There should be fresh blood every few years organizing for WordCamps and Monthly meetup events.

    I have not attended the “let’s fix your site” events and will not do it.

    Session topics for WordCamps and meetup groups should be based on what the local community wants.

    Over the past few years I have seen in WCTO more US based speakers and when I went to the US ones (never WCUS), Canadian speakers and from Europe.

    I have nothing against people attending or speaking at any WordCamp but I think preference to local speaker.

    All the drama and politics of WordCamps should go away. I remember one attendee wore a MAGA hat and organizers were pissed.
    If you respectfully disagree with organizers…good luck being on the final schedule.

    This is how I feel about the WordPress Community and how I wish it would change for the better.

  3. Wow…. thanks for this. I absolutely love your podcasts and it’s content however I was more interested in this because it’s about WordPress community and it’s importance. There are many persons that don’t appreciate the community because they don’t know it’s relevance. Thanks for highlighting it in your podcast.

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