Competing Interests: WordCamp SF and the WordPress Foundation

WordCamp SF
Photo used under Creative Commons and taken by Niall Kennedy.

Six years ago, the first WordCamp ever was held in SF and it became the launching point for many local regions and cities to continue the conversation, learning and educating around WordPress. It was always meant to be a hyper-local thing. Actually, as a correction, it was never meant to be a thing at all. It was meant to be a get-together of SF WordPress people.

But surprise, it caught the attention of WP developers, users and designers worldwide (including myself), and we came in by storm!

The following year, the decision was made that, due to such high demand in SF, and to try to encourage WordPress user groups in other cities, WordCamps should be distributed and locally organized. That kicked off a slew of WordCamps that (seemingly) doubles every year. I organized WordCamp Mid-Atlantic (the roots for WordCamp Baltimore and WordCamp DC today) back in 2009 and 2010.

Personally, I’ve been at or spoken at dozens of WordCamps (Mark your calendars… if you’re in Las Vegas on October 6, I’ll be speaking there too). To name a few, I’ve been to WordCamps in SF, San Diego, Las Vegas, Raleigh, Baltimore, Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and New York to name a few. I’ve been to San Francisco every year except one, and that was due to another travel conflict.

I’ve been an organizer, speaker, sponsor and attendee.

In other words, I am no rookie and I am in good standing in the community!

The WordPress Foundation

A few years ago, after some financial mis-management for a large WordCamp, the WordPress Foundation was setup. The Foundation was designed to promote the use of WordPress, protect trademarks of WordPress and related WordPress trademarks, including WordCamp. As part of this responsibility, the Foundation has issued rules around WordCamps via WordCamp Central. Today, I could not run WordCamp Mid-Atlantic the way I did before as the rules are quite rigid. On the other hand, I would also not have taken a nearly $3k personal loss on Mid-Atlantic in 2010, so the rules, in my opinion, aren’t all bad.

A sampling of these rules include that any WordPress-based commercial sponsors who distribute code must distribute 100% GPLv2 compliant software and having organizers approved. Also, all sponsorship money goes through the Foundation at this point.

WordCamp SF

Which leads me to a problem I feel the need to weigh in on. WordCamp San Francisco is no WordCamp. It is a conference in every rightful way of the word, as it should be. And it should be renamed as the WordPress Conference or something other that WordCamp. WordCamp SF is commanding massive sponsorship levels, of which one sponsor is gladly paying a whopping $30,000 for “California Street” level sponsorship.

Other sponsorship levels are at $10k, $7500, $5k and $2k.

This is against an unstated, yet enforced, Foundation policy surrounding limits for sponsorships. These rules were put in effect to encourage big companies, like Dreamhost who is in for $30k at WCSF, to spread the wealth among a variety of WordCamps instead of just one. The idea is that if, say Microsoft, was well-connected to an organizer of one WordCamp, the Foundation has mechanisms in place to move funds around to other less-connected, but still necessary, WordCamps. It also ensures that WordCamps don’t put their eggs in one basket and then have a major sponsor flake and leave them holding the bag. Fine, I can get behind that rule.

WordCamps also have rules about content. It used to be that every WordCamp had some session on using social media. While that is perhaps important to WordPress users, it’s not WordPress! So sessions need to be WordPress related. I totally get that and have no gripe with that provision. For the first WordCamp Mid-Atlantic, I invited Anil Dash to keynote, knowing that at the time, Anil was an SVP and Founder of a WordPress competitor. But it was open source and I felt that the competition only made us as a WordPress community stronger. I expected push-back from inviting Anil, and if the rules were in place then… he may not have been able to Keynote.

We know WordCamp SF is Matt’s baby and he chooses content, not based on whether if it’s WordPress-related, but whether it’s inspired him. At least that was true until last year when Jane Wells organized.

We also know food, photography and Jay Z inspire Matt, but I don’t think Rachael Ray would be a speaker at WordCamp SF… though perhaps I wouldn’t be surprised if she did end up speaking there. I digress.

Matt Mullenweg, who is both the President of Automattic, the commercial arm of WordPress, and the President of the WordPress Foundation responded to my request for comment by admitting that some content in the past has drifted from WordPress but that he still stands by them. “None of those speakers normally speak at WordCamps, but we’re able to attract them and orient them to contributing something interesting to the WordPress community because of WCSF’s location and prominence.”

I suppose, again, Rachael Ray could speak and discuss the merits of using WordPress for a food blog.

Related, ticket prices are kept artificially low, but sponsorship levels are extremely high. It feels wrong.

The Foundation does suggest lower ticket prices (around $20 is typical), but one wonders why WordCamp San Francisco could not charge a reasonably low rate of $200 for an attendee ticket, given that people would still come from all over the world to attend. This would also lower sponsor levels and cause less controversy. DrupalCon is charging $400-$450. RailsConf is approximately $800. Why does the official WordPress conference have to sell at $20 when sponsorship levels feel inappropriate?


The Foundation Risks Major Implications from Non-Enforcement

When the Foundation was established, it’s stated goals were inspired by the Mozilla Foundation, as much of the philosophy of open-source development and products in the WordPress world are. It’s important to point out that, from a governance standpoint, the Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Corporation, though closely tied, are governed by different people with similar but differently stated goals.

If Mozilla Corp goes outside the bounds of protected auspices, you better believe that is going to have something to say about it. The reason is simple… if you don’t enforce your own policies with your closest ally, friend and organization made from the same DNA, you leave yourself open to risk later on. Otherwise, you have a conflict of interest which is both legally and publicly difficult to reconcile.

Trey Roberts, a well-decorated Intellectual Property attorney of Roberts & Roberts in Austin, TX, commented to me that, “Though there is no ‘discrimination’ in a legal sense, since an organization has the right to choose what aspects of their licensing contract to enforce, if a pattern of suspended enforcement occurs, there is a risk of legal repercussions.”

Of course, some organizers see a level of subjectiveness in Foundation rules. Tony Perez, one of the organizers of WordCamp San Diego, lamented, “Often case when a request would be made, the response would be,’we would prefer not.’ When the question was asked, ‘well why not?’ the response was not very clear or decisive, so the decision felt as if it was in limbo. At the same time, you almost felt bad going against the recommendation, so it starts to become easier not to ask, than to ask.”

Opportunity exists though. “I can say though that it’s a necessary evil, but perhaps its time to think outside the box on the approach,” says Perez.

I love WordPress

I write this post not to bash WordCamp, the WordPress Foundation or any individual involved. In fact, I love WordPress. My professional career is Proudly Powered by WordPress. I want the Foundation to succeed as an organization charged with the governance of the software and events around it – and it is making strides to become a respected, independent governing organization. But conflicts of interest (or perceived COIs) do not provide a healthy community atmosphere and it causes bad blood among other WordCamp organizers. It, in fact, keeps potential organizers from wanting to jump in the mix. Or former organizers (like myself) from wanting to participate.

One former organizer, Amanda Blum, who has been a frequent critic of the Foundation tells me she won’t organize another WordCamp but she “still actively advises other camps [sic]” and “all I hear is complaints”. She goes on to express a concern about “the vast chasm between what the Foundation thinks Camps [sic] purpose is, and what the attendee interprets.”

Policies of the WordCamp Foundation around WordCamps are heavy-handed, in my opinion. There should be education (and there is some) around how WordCamps should be organized. Perhaps the rules that require WC money to be funnelled through the Foundation are merited (I actually do agree with this for non-profit reasons). However, where possible, it strikes me as necessary (and in fact, opportune) for local organizers to be able to blaze their own path and put their own local stamp on their own local WordCamp in almost every case. When it comes to sponsorship level, a WordCamp in NYC is likely going to cost more on orders of magnitude than a WordCamp in Omaha. One size shouldn’t fit all and the discretion should be left, with guidance from the Foundation, at the local level.

Mullenweg states, “The guidelines on Central encourage lower per-company sponsorship levels to encourage more sponsors per WC, decrease reliance on a single sponsor (we’ve had them flake out before), and have a level where even smaller firms can participate. It also hasn’t appeared to be a hindrance to larger city WordCamps, with NYC and Boston both raising 20k and putting on great events.”

Jane Wells, who helped to draft the original rules, tells me that the Foundation does try to not take a one size fits all approach to WordCamp’s and that they try to assist local WordCamps with financial assistance for venues, etc when needed. It does seem there is a perception among many organizers like Perez that this is not the case. One area where better communication between the Foundation and organizers may occur is at a new community blog that just went up.

With the spirit that this article is written with, I hope the Foundation, Automattic and the community take this as constructively confrontational. I do not wish to throw anyone under the bus, but change needs to happen for the integrity of the community. I cannot and will not be attending WordCamp SF this year or in the future, as long as these grievances continue year after year. I, however, will be at WordCamp Las Vegas and possibly Baltimore in the months to come, and I hope to see you there.

Corrections: Inserted a reference to WordCamp Central that serves as a central organization point for WordCamps. Also, updated the date for WordCamp Las Vegas to Oct 6, 2012. Corrected some content flow (paragraphs inserted in the wrong place) and noted that Matt did not choose content in 2011.

15 Replies to “Competing Interests: WordCamp SF and the WordPress Foundation”

  1. My first quote is taken out of context — there have been over 150 presentations at WCSF over the years, and I identified about 8 that were non-traditional WordCamp speakers including Richard Stallman, John Lilly, Scott Berkun, Tim Ferriss, Steve Souders… that was the context for saying “None of those speakers normally speak at WordCamps, but we’re able to attract them and orient them to contributing something interesting to the WordPress community because of WCSF’s location and prominence.” The vast majority of the program at WCSF looks like other WordCamps, and I think is entirely normal in that regard.

    Also FWIW I think it’d be fine to have Anil Dash speak at a WordCamp under the guidelines on WordCamp Central.

    I’m happy to continue to target the lowest ticket prices possible as long as sponsors keep subsidizing the rest for dozens of WordCamps around the world — the low price means people that couldn’t normally attend a WordCamp are given one of the best educational opportunities (and deals!) around, which is very much in line with the WordPress mission to democratize publishing.

    Your note about sponsorships and higher ticket prices at other events is fundamentally flawed, for example the sponsor levels at Denver Drupal are $45,000, $25,000, $12,500, $7,500, and $4,000.

    Finally, I’m happy to try to resolve any fixable complaints people have about WCSF or any issues they’ve had organizing WordCamps, but I can’t if I don’t know about them, so I encourage people to get in touch directly. By user metrics, like attendance, WordCamps are doing better than ever, so I’d like to fix anything that isn’t working or might have been overlooked as the WordCamp program continues its tremendous growth.

    1. It’s not out of context. It just didn’t include your list of speakers. I don’t think I misrepresented anything you said which was basically, we’ve has a bunch of folks who we can bring to WCSF and have and allowed them to approach WordPress from their own direction. Which is true. Richard Stahlman (i.e. crazy guy) was one of those. But that doesn’t change the quote or the context (or lack thereof) of it. :)

  2. and for the record, this is the full script of my comments to Aaron:

    Aaron: Would you organize a WordCamp again under current rules?

    Me: No. Infact, I’ve made that point pretty publicly. I won’t even get involved in camps, whether I’m in charge or not. I still pretty actively advise other camps since I get asked a lot, and all I hear is complaints about dealing w the leadership.

    While I understand the origin of many rules, and understand the restrictions that 501c3 status gives, and enjoy the protection the Foundation offers, the rules were too much, too quick, in many cases unnecessary, and created in complete absence of the meritocracy that defines WordPress. My concern is that their main failing is a vast chasm between what the Foundation thinks Camps purpose is, and what the attendee interprets. The Foundation vastly undervalues the networking and social aspect of camps and their role in creating community, when most attendees would pin that as their 1 or 2 reason for attending. But I would like to note that I understand there was a wild west to the camp landscape and guidelines and assistance was needed-went too far.
    I also prefaced this conversation by saying:
    though i’m normally a loud critic of WC stuff, things are actively changing. since your goal is to make camps better and give organizers more stake, eliminate hypocrisy, etc… don’t write a slashpiece right now. not trying to be objective, trying to keep my eye on the bigger picture and acknowledge that they’re finally trying. no need to rub salt in.

    I do believe with the community summit coming up, and Matt’s remarks in many places that things ARE changing. What I hope happens is more of a meritocracy and more acknowledgement of the individual communities. I’d prefer my comments be taken in context.

    1. Thank you Amanda — your comments in context definitely paint a fuller picture, and I appreciate you being open-minded about the feedback process and the upcoming summit making things better.

      1. When will the Summit invitees be announced? Because my name is on the list, and I’d like the chance to be present. Not sure if I’ll be able to, but I’d like the opportunity.

      2. The meritocracy only works if you’re willing to put in the work, which I am. Part of that work is accepting that you have to allow things to change and give them space to do so.

        I’m surprised you seem a bit blindsided by the criticism of WCSF and camps, generally, since it is a consistent topic of conversation over the past year or so. That said, I don’t for a moment believe you want to do anything to hurt the community and am relatively sure that once aware of the issues, you’ll do what’s necessary to open this process. You have a lot of terribly smart and committed people at your disposal to help with such an endeavor.

          1. I didn’t explain that point well. What I mean is that WordPress takes a different approach from say, Apple. Apple decides what it thinks is best for its constituents, and just forces it. They basically say, “whether or not you like it, this is what’s best, you just don’t know it yet”. Its obnoxious but often works.

            WordPress has never taken that route for a variety of reasons. They’ve very carefully considered what people want via polling and data collection, and because the very product they offer is built by the community. The way camp rules were handed down felt very much like an edict.. something Apple would do, out of character for WordPress. Now that Matt is aware of the issues, my assumption is he won’t jeopardize the community by taking action to correct this.

  3. I can vouch for Matt being responsive — in past organization of WordCamp Dallas, he was quite reachable via email, and from what I hear from others he remains so. I’d encourage people who thinks he doesn’t listen to go the same route.

    As has been said on similar posts on other blogs about the same subject, nothing prevents you from going it alone and defining a WordPress-related event that’s *not* called WordCamp. There are benefits and drawbacks to it, but it’s not as if WordCamp is the only formula one might use (ex: WordUp, OpenCamp, etc.).

    Would it be safe to say the biggest (recent) complaint about the Foundation is that its sponsorship restrictions for non-SF locations don’t take into account the local market (New York being far more expensive than Dallas, for example)? Because in my mind, it’s OK for WCSF to not follow that practice as long as cities like NYC get some relief in how they hustle for big sponsors.

  4. Nice post, I was wondering what you were up to when you asked for some input, don’t think mine were taking out of context, with exception to this:

    “It does seem there is a perception among many organizers like Perez that this is not the case. ”

    I learned a tremendous amount about what and how things work at WCC after my last post. One of those things is how and where funds go, more importantly how they have been used to support other camps and in some instances used to pick up the slack where camps fall short.

    WCC does deserve kudos for their efforts. It’s not easy to do your job effectively without allowing distractions such as this post and those that I have written tug at your emotions. It’s hard, but separate emotions and focus on the constructive nature of the comments, if possible.

    A specific areas I would highlight can be summarized into 5 areas:

    First – ambiguity around guidance and roles – who is doing what and under what hat? Foundation? WCC? Individual? When you wear many hats, you must clearly delineate the hat you are wearing, as each carries different implications and perceptions. You can say perceptions don’t matter, but they obviously do when you look at what every one is saying.

    Second – better and open communication – This will help mitigate the first point as well as many others. Things like the introduction of the Summit bringing in other WordPress communities under one roof is a phenomenal idea. Things like today’s release of the event P2: is another great idea.

    Third – decisiveness – its one thing I learned in the Marine Corps in the combat zone, although not as dire here, its still an important point. Whether right or wrong, make a decision, explain it and move on. If guidance is given, make sure it can be rationally backed. It won’t appeal to everyone, it never will, but most reasonable people will accept and appreciate a well though-out solution.

    Fourth – staff- Andrea is one person. Jane is one person. Andrea I believe is the single person managing all WordCamps. Jane has much greater responsibilities that extend beyond WCC, like helping the project. Help is needed, I think the community will definitely contribute where possible, but part-time work is only so good. It might be worth investing energy into extending the existing team to better handle the global nature of WordCamps. Regional chairs perhaps, maybe 1 per continent to help distribute and establish better guidance.

    Fifth – learning – We can’t stop. Listen and continue to adapt as we have been doing. This is hard when you’re constantly focused on tactical moves, stepping back is imperative, but when you’re wearing many hats and falling under many entities, that is hard.

    You can’t democratize the platform without democratizing the community. The platform enabled the community, the community is extending the platform. They’re inevitably intertwined.

  5. I’m glad the point was brought up by another commenter – the only thing that the WordPress Foundation is standing up for is the protection of the “WordCamp” name. It’s their intellectual property. There’s absolutely nothing keeping others from building a WP focused event that just doesn’t call itself a “WordCamp”. BlogWorld (now NMX) is a fine example of a “blogging” conference that is platform agnostic, and caters to a generally non-technical set. It fills another side of the industry that many WordCamper’s also participate in.

    I don’t necessarily agree with everything that the Foundation has done (I wrote an article a while ago about my concerns here: ), and my company – which builds a premium plugin outside of the GPL – has been barred from sponsoring WordCamps. I don’t necessarily agree with these policies, but I also realize that we are free to create an alternative / competing product and assume the risks and rewards in kind.

    In the end, I think the sponsorship opportunities for WordCamp SF are priced right if people pay it – which they do. I’ve always thought that WordCamp tickets should cost more – if for no other reason than to encourage a more professional-grade attendee base. But, it’s their show, and I’m looking forward to seeing many of my WP industry friends in SF in a couple of weeks. That’s really what it’s about – the camaraderie amongst colleagues.

  6. Would it be safe to say the biggest (recent) complaint about the Foundation is that its sponsorship restrictions for non-SF locations don’t take into account the local market (New York being far more expensive than Dallas, for example)? Because in my mind, it’s OK for WCSF to not follow that practice as long as cities like NYC get some relief in how they hustle for big sponsors.

Comments are closed.