Developers, users, and WordCamp tracks

Event organizers shouldn’t try to categorize and separate attendees. It might even be impossible — at the very least it’s really hard.

It’s pretty common for WordCamps to have multiple tracks, and when it happens it’s almost always split by types of people — developers and users, and sometimes designers. I won’t go through the many, many examples, but there are more than enough just recently to make the point, like: this, this, this, and this. To a lesser extent, the same thing is common at WordPress meetups. I think this strategy is misguided. Conferences’ and meetups’ greatest values to me are the chances to learn something. Describing tracks by who you are (a proxy for what you already know) instead of what you want to learn misses those values.

I’ve recently started co-organizing the San Francisco WordPress meetup, which is a pretty big and diverse group. Big and diverse is great, but part of the territory is that no matter what you do, someone will tell you that you should have done something else. Try a technical-focused presentation and you’ll hear, “It was too hard to follow for non-programmers”. Try a publisher-focused presentation and you’ll hear, “This doesn’t relate to my freelance web development business”. That’s not meant to be a knock on attendees, because those are both completely reasonable responses.  As an interested WordCamp attendee and new meetup organizer, these things have been on my mind a lot.

Even if segmenting an audience by its characteristics made sense, it probably doesn’t work. Audiences cannot be so clearly compartmentalized. Does a “Developer” and a “User” track imply that developers aren’t users? I hope not. Developer is a vague term; at what point does a power user that opens up functions.php or starts a child theme become a developer? How many blog posts does a developer have to write before they qualify as a user? Neither developer nor designer nor user is a mutually exclusive characteristic; what’s the point in segmenting people by population when they often won’t fit into your segments?

An event organizer is an entertainer. They put together a program that they think will give their audience the greatest value, which probably means a combination of education, networking, and fun. The whole concept of an event is about the audience, and its of little benefit to the audience to divide itself based on who they are. I don’t think anyone goes to events to meet people who are just like them. I hope people go to learn something and meet people who are interesting and informative — even moreso, I hope WordCamps and meetups aim to inform and interest attendees by introducing them to new people and ideas. The tracks should be organized in a way that makes finding interesting, informative content as easy as possible. For me, that means organizing sessions by what the content will be, not who the audience should be. If I’m a blogger that wants to learn how to write plugins, should I go to the developer track? For that matter, am I even allowed to go to the developer track? It’s not entirely clear from the name, and while I know anyone who wants to attend any session is welcome, we shouldn’t assume everyone does. Nor should we assume everyone will want to attend sessions just because other people like them are there.

The more granular you make the audience distinctions, the less useful they become. If there are five tracks and I fit into four of them, my choice of what to attend is really a choice of which part of myself I…I don’t even know. Is it which part I like the most? Which part I want to improve the most? Which part I feel the most confident in? There is very little context when asked to self-categorize like this. On the other hand, if the choice is which type of content I’m most interested in, there’s a lot more context for prioritizing my options and less opportunity to fear expected or allowed.

The naive reaction to this is to try to reduce the complaints by (dis)satisfying everyone equally — one common approach is alternating the focus of each meetup between however many groups you’re trying to cater to. The more-likely-to-succeed approach is to optimize happiness by communicating your goals to your audience. Maybe that’s to be focused on raising the technical bar, or developing a crop of great writers, or making everyone a multi-talented WordPress user (see, “user” is a vague term, too). Any of those are fine goals as long as everyone has the same expectations. What won’t work, especially in a city as big as San Francisco, is to be everything to everyone by making enough granularly-focused tracks to hit all the requirements.

My ideal event would focus on being as valuable as possible to its audience by doing two things.

  1. Communicate your goals clearly. Let me decide if your goals match mine, but don’t try to force it.
  2. Give me the information I need to get the most out of your event. Start with what I can learn and where. Let me figure out who I want to spend the time with, whether it’s people like me or not.

I met with one of the other organizers of the San Francisco WordPress meetup last week and we talked about this challenge. We both agreed that it was nigh on impossible to give everybody what they want, but the solutions are a bit scary. We certainly don’t want to alienate a large portion of our audience to focus on something that turns out not to work. But we agreed that straddling the fence wasn’t a viable solution. We have some things we’re going to experiment with, but nothing certain.

In the meantime I’m going to keep thinking about how to make events more useful for audiences. You have a bunch of people who share a common interest and came to the same place (physical or not) to talk about the same topics — I just can’t believe that separating them on specs is the best first step.

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