Matt Mullenweg organized the first WordCamp ten years ago, in 2006. At that time, camps of all sorts were sweeping through the web dev community as a way to connect with others, share knowledge, and build community.
Camps vs. Conferences
What sets a camp apart from a more traditional conference? Camps are un-conferences: informal, attendee-run affairs. Speakers aren’t selected ahead of time, talks aren’t polished, everyone who attends can expect to participate in some way, whether that’s presenting a short talk or demo, volunteering, or voting for the speakers. Camps are kept simple – they’re organized quickly and easily and speakers are selected the morning of.
Because they’re short on amenities and simple to plan, camps are often free or affordably priced and speakers and organizers aren’t paid. But the ad hoc nature of the events and the resulting camaraderie among the participants means that almost everyone walks away with a wealth of new knowledge, new friends, and new ideas. Lots of newbie speakers get their first chance at presenting at a camp. Impromptu after parties are held at nearby bars and restaurants as the attendees unwind from the day’s activities.
The modern-day WordCamp
Compare the spirit and format of a camp with a typical WordCamp in 2016, and you’ll find a lot more similarities with a traditional conference than with a camp. Professional and polished speakers are selected weeks or months in advance. Attendees have little to no say in the speakers and topics selected. WordCamps have custom-designed name badges, awesome t-shirts, gorgeous web sites, fun swag, catered meals, and after parties with open bars or drink tickets included. The talks are recorded and sometimes even live-streamed. WordCamps are held in nice venues with an area set aside for sponsors to set up booths or tables.
In short – everything you’d expect to find at a traditional conference.
The only big difference between a WordCamp and a traditional conference these days is the price tag. The WordPress Foundation ensures that all WordCamps max out their pricing at $20 per day. Let me say that again. The most you’ll pay to attend a WordCamp is twenty dollars per day.
Which means that for forty dollars or less, you can attend a full 2-day conference complete with professional-level presentations, catered lunch (and maybe even breakfast), an after party with free drinks – and on top of that you’ll walk away with all the usual conference swag – t-shirts, stickers, cups and mugs, pens, notebooks, stress balls, bags, and assorted other goodies.
Who pays for WordCamp?
It quite obviously costs a lot more than $40/person to put on a conference, and you might assume that it’s the sponsors who pick up the rest of the tab. And you’re partly right. WordCamps absolutely wouldn’t happen without the support of the sponsors who foot the bill for everything from the venue to the catering to the after party.
But there’s also a big chunk of the cost being paid by another group that WordCamps couldn’t happen without – the organizers and the speakers.
I don’t know that we often think about it this way, but organizers and speakers pay out of their own pockets to support WordCamps. Organizers donate huge chunks of time and talent to pulling off a WordCamp, and that time and talent comes at a cost, especially for those who work for themselves or aren’t otherwise reimbursed by an employer for their efforts.
I’ve been the lead organizer for two WordCamps and on the organizing team for a third. We started six months ahead each time and while the time commitment is small at first – a few hours a week – it builds. And builds. Until the last couple of weeks before, there’s no time for doing anything not directly related to the upcoming WordCamp.
Speakers also shoulder a good amount of the cost of a WordCamp. On average it takes one hour to prepare every minute of a talk on stage. At most WordCamps presentations run 30-40 minutes long, so a speaker is looking at 30-40 hours to prepare their talk – an entire week’s work. If the WordCamp is in a city other than the one you live in, a speaker also has to cover their own travel costs – flights, trains, car rentals, hotels, taxis, etc.
I spent a good amount of 2013 traveling around to different WordCamps to present. My average travel cost was right around $1,000 per camp, and that doesn’t include the time I spent preparing my talk, the time spent traveling, or the opportunity cost of spending a few days in another city at the event.
What’s the big deal?
As long as there are organizers willing to donate hours and hours of time to putting together a conference and speakers willing to donate their time and cover their own travel, why does it matter if WordCamps are truly camps or traditional conferences offered at camp prices? A few things to consider:
Who’s providing value?
You likely attend WordCamp for one of two main reasons: to absorb all the great talks or to participate in the hallway track. If it’s the former, it’s the speakers who are providing the content and the value through their carefully prepared talks. If it’s the latter, it’s the organizers who are bringing together the people you want to connect with and providing the space to do so.
Is it fair that the people bringing the most value to the event are the ones paying the most to put it on?
Who gets left out?
Because of the high cost of participating in a WordCamp as a speaker or an organizer, people who can’t afford to pay that cost are left out. If you’re lucky enough to be employed at a job where your employer is willing to cover your costs or at least some of your costs, you can afford to participate more. But others are stuck covering 100% of that cost themselves and it can quickly grow unaffordable.
The other hidden costs
The pressure to put on a first-class WordCamp is strong. Speakers and attendees travel from other cities, states, and even countries to attend and you don’t want to let them down. Attendees have their expectations set for awesome t-shirts, delicious food, fun perks, exceptional swag, great speakers, an amazing after party – and on one hand it’s really fun to show people a good time and surprise them with stuff like lunch delivered by a guy in a banana costume.
On the other, it’s super stressful to have to pull together an event on par with a professional conference on a strictly volunteer basis.
The value of travel
WordCamps are intended to be local events featuring mostly local speakers. The guideline for a WordCamp is that 80% of the speakers should be local. But even that guideline seems to acknowledge that there’s inherent value in having in at least some speakers from other cities, both for the WordCamp and for the speaker. I don’t think that the WordPress community would have grown as strong and as large as it has if we were all staying in our own hometowns all the time.
Travel is a great way to see how others are solving the same problems you have, share new ideas, and pollinate new brains with knowledge. If there were no value in bringing people together who otherwise wouldn’t meet because of geography, we wouldn’t have WordCamp US or WordCamp Europe.
Nonprofit doesn’t mean nobody gets paid
The WordPress Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and that seems to be the main reason that organizers aren’t paid any compensation for their efforts. But as someone who works regularly with nonprofits, I can tell you that plenty of people are paid for their work for nonprofits.
I think we tend to believe that paying nobody levels the playing field and makes it possible for anyone to step up. But that completely ignores the fact that it costs to step up – it’s not free to organize or speak. And that some people are much better situated to cover those costs than others. And I think we’ve seen the consequences of that – we see the same small group traveling to speak at WordCamp after WordCamp while everyone else is left out of that opportunity.
When you’re doing something that provides value for others at a considerable investment of your own time, it’s reasonable to be paid, because your time isn’t a renewable resource.
I wasn’t at all prepared for the way the first WordCamp I organized took over my life and time – as a consequence I was flat broke for three months afterward and even struggled to get my rent paid.
How do we define ‘better’?
Does paying speakers and organizers make WordCamp better? I think that really depends on how we define better. We seem to already have some truly top-tier talent speaking and organizing, so there’s not much chance that paying speakers or organizers will result in higher-quality events.
But helping out organizers by lessening the financial burden can help to prevent burnout and gives a chance to the people who want to participate but simply can’t afford to. Helping to cover the travel cost for speakers at other camps means those who are self-employed or whose employers don’t help them cover costs get just as much chance to travel as those who are lucky enough to have their costs covered by their employers.
And those chances help bring more diversity to the speakers and organizers and help to make WordCamps more sustainable over time.
How do we fix it?
I see two possible ways we can go.
First, we could continue down the path we’re on where organizers of WordCamps are under pressure to out-do each other and themselves and make each WordCamp bigger, better, and more amazing than the last one and speakers are expected to be top-notch, well-prepared, professional, and polished. But we can’t keep chugging along down this path while shoveling more and more burden on organizers and speakers without offering some kind of compensation to help offset the costs. It’s unfair, it leads to burn-out, it limits the people who can meaningfully participate, and it hands over ridiculous amounts of value to attendees for $20 a day. If that’s the kind of event we want to put on, then attendees need to be prepared to pay more of the cost.
Or we can take a completely different path and make WordCamps truly the camps they were intended to be. Relieve the pressure and shed the expectations. Let the attendees pick the speakers and topics the morning of, brownbag our lunches, forgo the t-shirts and swag, and pick up our own bar tab at the after party. Create events where the attendees are buzzing with ideas and excitement instead of complaining about the chicken salad or the t-shirts that ran out. Make it less expensive to organize or speak so that more people can participate. Open doors to the people who’ve never spoken before and let them blow our minds. Expect every attendee to contribute in some way so that we’re all producers rather than consumers of the events. Democratize organizing and speaking the same way that WordPress democratizes publishing.
I vote for a return to true camps. How about you?