WordCamps are, by definition, local events. At least that’s what I tell organisers every time I run a WordCamp orientation.
It’s true – WordCamps are designed to be local events that bring together and celebrate the local WordPress community. That is why we encourage a minimum of 80% of speakers being from the same city as the event, and we don’t include money in the budget for paying the travelling costs of visiting speakers.
There are many opinions about this within the community, some of which conflict with the guidelines set down for WordCamps. With that in mind, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on it all from the perspective of a long-time WordCamp organiser who used to be critical of many of those guidelines but now works on the WordCamp Central team.
Your definition of ‘local’ will likely differ depending on your life experience and where you live, so for the purposes of this post (and to explain my thoughts more clearly), I am defining ‘local’ as being from within or nearby the same city where the event is being hosted. That is largely how it is defined in the WordCamp guidelines, although some flexibility is allowed across different cases.
What this means in practice for WordCamps is that all organisers and the vast majority of speakers must be from the city in which the event takes place. It also means that WordCamps take place in and represent individual cities, not entire countries or regions.
I’m excluding regional camps like WordCamp Europe, US and Nordic from this discussion, as those have different expectations to ‘regular’ WordCamps in terms of locality.
The Importance of Local
There are a number of reasons why WordCamps are defined as local events, all of which are important to maintaining the elements that make WordCamps such unique events in the broader tech industry.
WordCamps are always part of a local community
The WordPress community is a global and largely online collection of people working towards a common goal. The only times that the community comes together in person are at meetup events and WordCamps that are organised within active meetup groups.
This is significant because it means that WordCamps are not one-off events – they are simply the largest event of the year for a local meetup group. The implication of this is that if WordCamps are not organised by local individuals, include local volunteers, and feature local speakers then they aren’t really a part of the local meetup group at all. Shipping organisers or speakers in from elsewhere only serves to remove the event from the local community and make it a put-on event that just happens to take place in the same city. Without an actively engaged community around a WordCamp, the event will never survive past its first year, if it even gets that far.
WordCamps do not exist in isolation
There are currently over 130 (and counting!) WordCamps around the world every year. This means that people in the majority of areas where there is some interest in meeting as a community will have access to a WordCamp nearby. Where there isn’t a nearby camp, more WordPress communities and WordCamps are starting up frequently, not to mention the WordCamp Incubator Program that has seen great success in actively igniting WordPress communities in underrepresented areas.
With this global spread of the WordCamp program, access to a local (or relatively local) camp is becoming increasingly easy for most people. This is significant because, as mentioned above, WordCamps are always part of a local community, and attending an event like this with a community that you are already connected to is far more rewarding, enjoyable and worthwhile. I would go so far as to say that attending a camp that is not local to you is so much less beneficial (both personally and professionally), that in many cases it’s almost not worth the time and expense to attend.
Communities only grow from within
Given that WordCamps are part of a local community, the only way the WordCamp and the community can grow is if local individuals are involved in making it happen. If a WordCamp features a bunch of speakers who have travelled in for the event then it is actively stifling the possibility of local community members from stepping up to speak themselves – both by offering them less speaking slots, and also by increasing the pressure on them to match up to the perceived standard of the international speakers that have flown in for the event.
The only way a community can grow is if the organisers give their members the chance to be involved as speakers, organisers, and volunteers in a way that doesn’t put unnecessary added pressure on them. Encouraging this growth is something that I would hope is at the forefront of the minds of all community organisers.
Local is more affordable
I think it’s pretty obvious that making sure all organisers, speakers, and suppliers are local is an easy way to save money when planning any kind of event. The reason this is so important for a WordCamp however, is that WordCamps are designed to be cost-effective events that are inexpensive to attend.
If a WordCamp pays for an organiser or speaker to travel to the event, then that adds a significant cost to the budget all for the sake of a single individual. I have yet to encounter a case where that kind of expense has proved to be truly worth the money.
A Few Common Myths
Having had discussions about this topic before, I know many of the things that people bring up at this point so I’ll address a few of those here. I’m calling these ‘myths’ even though I know some of them are fairly widely believed, but having been involved with more WordCamps than most people (by virtue of my work on the WordCamp Central team) I’m confident in using that label.
The country is too small for more than one WordCamp
As common as this idea is, it doesn’t have any basis in the WordCamp guidelines at all. The general opinion with this myth is that when a country is very small, having a WordCamp in more than one city each year would dilute the community and people would only choose to attend one of them. Organisers also feel they would end up with fewer sponsorships and have the same people speaking at each camp.
These fears aren’t necessarily entirely unrealistic, but it’s a strong case of never knowing until you’ve tried it for yourself. There are a few countries where they have successfully switched from a single country WordCamp to camps based in each city (England, The Netherlands, and Finland being some great examples of this) and for the most part, all of their fears were unfounded.
My general feeling on this is that I would far rather see three WordCamps in a small country, each with 50 attendees, instead of a single WordCamp with 150 (or even more) people attending. That would create far more value for attendees, encourage a greater number of local speakers, and get more people involved in WordPress than would otherwise be possible. It also serves to decentralise the community leadership so it isn’t just a few people controlling all the WordPress activities in the country – a benefit that should not be taken lightly.
International speakers increase talk quality
It’s fairly clear that someone being from another country doesn’t inherently make them a better speaker, so the real myth that people believe here is one of two things: Either they believe that a speaker from overseas has some kind of special knowledge that no one in their local community has, or they don’t believe that there are enough quality speakers amongst the members of their local community to fill up a WordCamp speaker roster.
The first is easy to refute – all knowledge is available for anyone to learn, no matter what country you live in – and the second is a matter of organisers taking a leap of faith. When I first started organising WordCamp Cape Town I actively sought speakers (both locally and internationally) to speak at our event, but it was only a few years in when I gave the local community the chance to apply to speak where things really took off, both in terms of talk quality and community growth. Open speaker applications (which thankfully is the norm for WordCamps) are an absolute must.
International speakers increase diversity
One of the goals of the WordCamp program is to increase the diversity of speakers, organisers, and by extension, attendees at all WordCamp events. One of the ways in which some organisers have tried to solve this is by bringing in speakers from other countries. Their belief is that their local community does not have enough women, people of colour, or whatever their target demographic for diversity may be. I can say this with confidence as an organiser who used to think that way too, in South Africa of all places!
This is a particularly pervasive and, I feel, quite dangerous mindset for WordCamp organisers as the end result is the same set of speakers end up travelling to multiple camps giving similar (or even identical) talks and getting burned out. This may increase the diversity of the individual camp, but the overall program suffers and the local community doesn’t see any growth in that area at all.
A better option than shipping in speakers for this reason, is to actively seek local speakers from the demographics that are being targeted (as we did in Cape Town to great positive effect), or to run the diversity outreach speaker training course that has been put together for this exact purpose. Sure, it’s a bit of extra work, but ultimately it results in a more equipped, diverse, capable, and involved community that does not rely on a prescribed group of ‘experts’ for their knowledge.
So, after all that, what do you think about the local aspect of WordCamps? Has any of this helped to make the reasoning behind the WordCamp guidelines more clear? Do you disagree with anything I’ve written? Let me know your thoughts!