One of the things I heard at WordCamp Utah was that it’s not what you learn at WordCamp as much as the research and stuff you learn once you get home and start trying all this stuff out. In that sense, I don’t think I actually left WordCamp at approximately 5:30 Saturday evening a few weeks ago. Or, at least, WordCamp hasn’t left me.
This being my first WordCamp, I had to come to a few realizations that weren’t altogether surprising, but they were necessary. One important one was that there’s two types of information you get from WordCamp: there’s the stuff you learn in the sessions you go to, and there’s everything else, including fragments of conversations, bits of code peeked at over someone’s shoulder, and rubbing elbows with someone who just happens to have an awesome event registration plugin. Learning isn’t confined to a classroom, and WordCamp isn’t just about the seminars. In Matt‘s town hall session, he said
If I could design the perfect introduction to WordPress…it would be a WordCamp.
I don’t think he was talking just about what happened inside the lecture halls.
The first half of my day was spent at the Geek Genius Bar. Those of us who had volunteered for the Genius Bar were asked to come a few minutes before registration officially opened. I made it — barely — only to find that I had no idea where to go. I found my way to the Skaggs Biology Building easily enough (Google Maps being my friend), but once I got my badge, t-shirt, and obligatory swag (some of which was identical to the swag I had just received with my WordPress t-shirt and officially-signed certificate of being one of the three most important people in WordPress about a week before), there wasn’t any place already established for us geniuses to meet. In fact, after passing the big guy with the purple hair and the 9Seeds shirt, I asked a couple of attendees if they were “geniuses” only to be greeted by resounding “uh, no!”‘s, to which I had to explain that I was (though I didn’t feel like it at the time), and as such, had no idea what I was supposed to be doing or where I was supposed to be. Only later did I learn that said purple haired geek was Todd Huish from 9Seeds — who would be spending the bulk of the day manning the Genius Bar whether anyone else was joining him or not — as he started moving some chairs and a table that would serve as the Genius Bar.
There was no signage for anything — one of the things overlooked during planning that Joseph Scott — who organized the shindig — hadn’t gotten to — so I took it upon myself to print out some of my own from my analog tablet: a small notebook. I spent much of that first half of the day hanging out with Todd and Seth Shoultes (who makes Event Espresso). And, of course, one of the first questions we fielded made us all doubt our collective genius-hood, it being a complex programming challenge that didn’t really have anything in particular to do with WordPress other than that the person involved (who was a spokesman for “a friend”) wanted to use WordPress for this site. That was, thankfully, the most difficult and least WordPress-related question we had to take (at least while I was sitting there). Which leads me to another revelation I had: I know an awful lot about WordPress Mu/Multisite. During the course of my tenure at the Genius Bar, I also met Josh Strebel of Page.ly. I checked Page.ly out when @WordCampUtah retweeted that they’d be there, and they’re doing something really cool. WordPress-specific, managed hosting, so you don’t need to worry about how your site is running, you just need to have it.
Before lunch, Matt Mullenweg did his thing, and for WordCamp Utah, his thing was a town hall forum wherin he answered questions that led to topics ranging from the GPL to Kanye West’s Twitter account to the machinations of GooVerizonigle. I was happy that it wasn’t just his keynote at the SF WordCamp in May (which can be seen on WordPress.tv and partially inspired me to attend WordCamp in the first place), but I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t something more substantial. I love Matt’s talks, I’ve listened to a few and follow his blog. Of course, that means I have a pretty good idea of what he’s going to say about any particular topic, so I ultimately decided that it was better this way.
Lunch. So, also on the Utah WordCamp site, Joseph announced that BlueHost was footing the bill for lunch and that it was going to be from Sugarhouse Barbecue. Great, says the vegetarian, looks like I need to bring my own lunch. While I wasn’t overly annoyed at the choice of entrees — I’ve been veggie long enough not to assume that people will take it into consideration and find alternative sources of nutrition, or at least things resembling nutrition — I was annoyed when it got closer to lunch hour and I had more than one “oh come on, you know you’re just here for the free barbecue” comment tossed at me. Um. Actually. No. And while I wasn’t overly surprised that there wasn’t, at least, a fish option (heaven forbid a veggie-burger), I couldn’t help but be the least bit disappointed with my lunch of potato salad and cole slaw. At least it was good potato salad. And a cookie. A really big cookie. And, despite the fact that I’d sworn off soda earlier in the week, someone managed to dig out the last Coke from the cooler, so all in all, it could have been worse. And anyway, the best part of lunch wasn’t the food.
I hung out with Todd, who’s an extremely cool guy, and we talked about Thai food and pizza and probably other stuff, too, although the food stuff seems to stand out most in my memory for some reason (possibly subconsciously wishing it was that food on my styrofoam plate, rather than what I had). Later, while waiting for the Will it Blend? session, I started eavesdropping, then deliberately cut into a discussion and show-and-tell of the new WordPress feature to 3.0, custom post types. Custom post types sounded like a cool idea, but I had no idea how to actually use it. I got to see how John Hawkins (also of 9Seeds) was using it for the WordCamp Las Vegas site, and it’s astoundingly cool. Not just cool, but useful. The first thing that comes to mind is the ability to design an e-commerce site strictly by using custom post types — no plugins, special themes, or extra software required. Boo yah. Throughout the day (and before even going to WordCamp Utah), I heard various mentions of “child themes” which was a concept I sort of filed away for later. If you’ve seen my tweets on @ArcanePalette recently, you’ll know that it’s now my new most favoritest thing about the new WordPress, and we’re planning on doing a lot in the child theme department in the coming months.
The answer to the question Will it Blend? was, well, no, actually. WordPress defeated the blender. Sort of. “WordPress” was being represented by a USB thumb drive of WP code and a coffee mug with the WordPress logo. The audience insisted that the mug go right-side-up and that was the undoing of the blending, since it got stuck and was unable to get caught by the blade. Tom Dickson eventually made an executive veto and flipped the mug, which was duly turned into porcelain dust. But before all that we got to hear about the no-budget viral marketing campaign of Will it Blend? Basically, BlendTec was this company (K-Tec, originally) that had awesome products, and assumed if you had an awesome product, so come the sales. Obviously no one in their company was a marketing guy. So they started this Will it Blend? campaign of throwing stuff into their blender and a few million views later, online sales (for a really freaking expensive blender, mind you) are up 700%. It was kind of fascinating, and I probably wouldn’t have gone if it weren’t for the fact that it was pretty much assumed that everyone was going to be in the room.
Immediately following that was John Hawkins’ plugin development session (which you can actually see here, although it’s from Portland). Another one I wasn’t planning on going to, but since I had just watched him blow my mind with custom post types, I figured I’d drop in. I haven’t ventured into plugin development. I’m a visual guy, not a code guy (although increasingly I’m getting more and more dirty with code). So building plugins wasn’t something I thought I’d really have any reason to do. That was extinguished when he opened with how he got into plugin development. See, he likes to change his theme all the freaking time, and the annoying thing about that is that if you have a lot of custom code, that means having redo all that stuff all over again. (At this point my ears perk up — this sounds very familiar.) You can get around that by building plugins that handle all that extra functionality. You know, the rest of the session, it almost didn’t matter (I mean, sure, I got to see how easy it is, and all you need is the header information and there are a couple really cool development environments that aren’t Dreamweaver that you can use — sorry, I’m still hooked on Dreamweaver) because that first 5 minutes was really all I needed. That and a couple of links that I duly took home and looked up, building 5 separate plugins to handle the custom code and added stuff that I throw into this site. (Note: expect this space to change its appearance on a more regular basis — like every time we release a new Museum Theme.)
Following that was the BuddyPress session, which I was planning on attending. However, I got less out of this than I had hoped because it was really more about why you should use BuddyPress than stuff you could do within it (although I did learn about a BuddyPress plugin that I’m planning on adding to Museum Themes to automatically sign people who buy a theme up for the Support Forum, rather than making them have to join the group first). The last sessions of the day were one on theme development, and Josh Strebel’s presentation on Collaboration over Competition. I stuck around for Josh’s presentation partially out of laziness (it was in the same room, after all), partially because the Event Espresso guys were there, partially because I already know an awful lot about theme development. Now, as John pointed out earlier in the day, you always learn something, and you might think a geeky developer-type like him would be beyond picking up new information in a session about ‘the loop’, but if you thought that you’d be wrong. Still, I stuck around because I was kind of sort of trying to get on Josh’s good side (I not-so-secretly wanted to see if we could get Museum Themes offered alongside StudioPress, WooThemes and Press75).
I have a few things to say about his presentation. Now the main point of the presentation I get, and I’m right there. Just because we’re competing in the same market doesn’t mean we have to be head-to-head — it doesn’t mean we can’t still work together on the same projects or help each other out. He uses the example of the 10,000+ plugins in the official WordPress plugin repository. More than 10,000 plugins! And while Matt uses this as evidence of a great, thriving community, Josh points out that he found
5 separate plugins 111 plugins all for the new Twitter tweet button. Couldn’t those 5 111(!!) people work together and build 1 really cool tweet button plugin, rather than 5 111(!!) kind of crappy (and a few possibly mediocre) ones? That’s the gyst, and here’s my beef: in a perfect world, where all things are equal, and all coders, designers and hackers are equal, sure, we can spread the load, we can all work together to build one really amazing platform for…something. But competition breeds innovation. Competition breeds originality. So there’s 5 tweet buttons or 15 premium theme developers, sure we could work together and have 1 tweet button, 1 premium theme, but in that game, the one with the loudest voice rules. It eliminates the possibility for something really interesting and innovative. In fact, it’s kind of the polar opposite of our mission with Museum Themes. See, the thing about the premium WordPress theme market is they’re all trying to be the best thing for you. Every single one of you (or, alternately, all twelve of you if we’re talking about the people who actually read this blog). We don’t care what everybody wants, in fact, we reject what everybody wants. We design based on what we want, with the assumption that there’s gotta be people out there with similar tastes, similar values, and similar styles. In short, we design for individuals rather than masses. So there, I said it. And you know what? I am collaborating. Right now. I added a fix to some bugs I found in Event Espresso Lite (aka Advanced Event Registration), and I’m working with the Event Espresso peeps to build some event registration-based themes along the lines of a real ticketing site (see: 24tix.com, ArtTix, SmithsTix.com, find your local equivalents).
And that brings us to the final point of WordCamp — possibly the most important one. It’s not about any of the shit that happens at WordCamp. It’s about people. It’s about ideas. It’s about what you do when you leave WordCamp. (I think I said that one already.) And it’s weird and also pretty cool to have people on Twitter that I follow now that I actually know in real life. It’s a lot cooler than, say, being the guy who told Matt where the bathroom was (yeah, that was me, too).