Over the weekend, an article on WPCandy has drawn quite a bit of interest (and some strong emotions) as it notes that a DevPress giveaway promotion for WordCamps is in violation of the WordCamp guidelines established in the last year or so. As I read through the article and dozens of comments, it seems there are several related issues that are getting jumbled together to bring out the best and worst of folks. Rather than pile on over there, I’d like to break things up a bit and share my thoughts on each issue.
I was the founding organizer of WordCamp Portland (in 2008). I also led the event in 2009. I stepped back a bit and was in charge of speakers and program for our 2010 event. For WordCamp Portland 2011, I’m again in charge of speakers and program as well as assisting lead organizer Andrea Middleton with other tasks and issues as they come up. I’ve spoken at several other WordCamps and have helped out a few other WordCamp organizers with their events.
The thoughts below are purely mine and don’t represent those of any other entity.
Rules or Not? Indy or Not?
One issue of contention is whether or not WordCamps are independent events or whether they represent a centralized organization or project. Many of those who see WordCamps as indepdendent events question whether there should be any rules or guidelines surrounding the event. A few years ago when the number of WordCamp events could be counted on fingers and toes, each event was on its own for everything, with the only support/guidance from Automattic coming in the form of some publicity and a bag of swag to be given away to attendees. Fast forward a few years and there are now guidelines, a centralized ticketing system, and the ability for the WordPress Foundation to act as the financial agent for WordCamp events. These last two items relieve local organizers of two major logistical challenges for events.
While WordCamp events started out as entirely independent local ventures, my own anectdotal evidence indicates that to those outside of the WordCamp circle, WordCamps are viewed as coordinated events organized by a central entity. At a one-day WordCamp Seattle event this spring, I had three separate conversations where someone assumed I worked for Automattic when I indicated that I was a WordCamp Portland organizer. If the perception is that WordCamp events are organized and/or sanctioned by Automattic or the WordPress Foundation, it’s understandable that some guidelines should be in place so that rogue organizers don’t reflect poorly on WordPress. I have no issue with the fact that there are guidelines for WordCamps. As noted by @wptavern: “I guess it’s pretty simple folks. If you call your event WordCamp, you play by their rules. If not, call it something other than WordCamp.”
Giveaways, In-Kind Sponsorships, and the Rule in Question
The specific issue which set off the discussion is that the folks at DevPress made an offer to WordCamp organizers that WordCamp attendees could receive free DevPress accounts. This apparently violates the A Note on Giveaways section of the WordCamp guidelines. Reproduced here:
You will undoubtedly be approached by companies wanting to offer you a few things to either use in attendee raffles or distribute to all the attendees as a free giveaway. A few copies of a book about WordPress, a piece of software related to blogging, a free business card offer, you name it. What they are asking for is free advertising. Raffles usually make attendees antsy, because handing out prizes takes time that could be spent on content or at an afterparty, and few people are rewarded for everyone sitting around while this is done. Reserve giveaways for actual sponsors, and make sure your distribution process does not take time away from the reason people are coming.
To understand what I suspect is the logic behind this rule, let’s look at the reality that WordCamps cost money. Expenses for the venue, A/V equipment, food, insurance, and wifi will be several thousand dollars for a WordCamp with a couple hundred attendees. Cash sponsorships are obviously awesome. In-kind sponsorships which help with the needs of the event are equally awesome. If a company would like to donate A/V equipment, or food, printing services, or another such item, that donation will directly help the event and offset the amount of cash needed. Things get a little tricky when a company wants to donate something which is nice but doesn’t offset any of the need for raising money. An example from a past WordCamp Portland was a restaurant that donated a couple gift certificates as giveaways. It was a nice gesture, and I’m sure whomever won the gift certificates in the giveaway was happy, but it did nothing to help cover the costs of the event. As noted above, “handing out prizes takes time that could be spent on content”. Sure it only takes a minute for a giveaway, but multiply that times a dozen giveaways a couple times a day and you could’ve had another session of content.
The spirit of the rule seems to be such that attendees aren’t distracted by companies that want promotion without helping directly support the event.
A Few Thoughts on Muffins
In the comments at WPCandy, Andrea made a note that a donation of vegan muffins would directly support the event and it seems that vegan muffins have become the lightning rod for criticism. While the idea of vegan muffins might seem absurd in Texas, New York, or other locations, last year at WordCamp Portland over 30% of our attendees identified as vegetarian and/or vegan. If we’re providing food, we can’t ignore a third of our audience, and a donation that helps feed those people is a valuable donation.
The DevPress Situation Specifically
Let’s get back to the tangible situation at hand: DevPress offered memberships (a $5 value) to attendees of WordCamps. They didn’t ask for in-kind sponsorship credit, weren’t offering a limited number of memberships (that would’ve taken up attendees’ time as a raffle), and didn’t require that the memberships be promoted during the event. A DevPress membership is on-topic and of value to WordCamp attendees.
I’m failing to see how this is a big problem. This doesn’t seem to be the type of scenario for which the rule is in place. I don’t understand how this is different than Sticker Giant donating stickers to a WordCamp, a situation that has happened multiple times including just last month at the mega-WordCamp in San Francisco.
I disagree with this particular decision regarding DevPress, but I won’t let that deter my enthusiasm for WordPress and WordCamps.
Wrapping Things Up and Moving Forward
Given the thousand or so preceding words…
- The perceived notion of WordCamps as centralized or coordinated events indicates that Automattic and/or the WordPress Foundation seems within its rights to establish some rules or guidelines.
- The guidelines are fuzzy. Again, clearer communication from WordCamp Central would be helpful. I don’t understand why StickerGiant is cool but DevPress is not.
- Perhaps there could be clearer communication with the community on the reasoning behind said guidelines. Much like the open nature of the WordPress software, an open nature to WordCamps seems like a good thing.
- Chill out, everyone. This isn’t personal and there’s no reason to attack individuals.
WordPress has an outstanding community surrounding outstanding software. Hundreds of WordCamp events have reached tens of thousands of attendees. In any such community there are bound to be differences of opinion, and we’ll get stronger by discussing these differences in a reasonable fashion. After discussion we will favor Decisions, not Options, and decision will sometimes lead to disagreement.
Disagreement is okay.
Update 9/16/2011: Be sure to read Jane Wells’ take on things.