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This is a guest post from Rae Morey, the founder of The Repository, one of our favorite weekly WordPress newsletters.
Cameron Jones raised eyebrows across the Australian WordPress community—but mostly amongst organisers—when earlier this month he tweeted:
“It’s been really quite painful seeing all the people posting about being at WordCamp Europe just recently. Because the Australian WordPress community is practically dead.”
Clicking through the meetup groups he links to, “practically dead” seems to be a fair assessment. At least, in the capital cities.
Melbourne’s had one in-person meetup in the past two years and organisers haven’t hosted any virtual events. Perth organisers moved their meetups online in April 2020, gave up due to low attendance, tried to host a couple of in-person events in 2021, and then gave up again. Adelaide hasn’t had a WordPress meetup, virtual or otherwise, since March 2020.
Sydney has fared better with weekly virtual WPQuickies, which Brisbane folks have been encouraged to attend. Brisbane organisers tried to kickstart their own online meetups but gave up. They also tried to restart in-person meetups last year but they were mostly cancelled due to lockdowns.
In Hobart, there have been weekly WordPress and Coffee meetups, but more often than not it’s just the organiser on her own in a cafe with her laptop.
Yes, depressing. But there’s a whole lot more to it, according to organisers, who say there have been multiple factors at play, all enabled by the pandemic, that have not only made it difficult to organise events but have made kickstarting in-person meetups feel like a Sisyphean effort.
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So who’s Cameron Jones?
Cameron Jones is a WordPress engineer at web development studio Pixel Palace and founder of Mongoose Marketplace. Originally from Queensland, he helped organise the Brisbane and Ipswich meetups in 2017-18 and WordCamp Brisbane in 2017.
“I didn’t know that there were meetups until WordCamp Brisbane in 2015. That was my introduction to the WordPress community. And I was like, ‘Oh man, this is amazing. I need to get more of this.’”
He says the last time he attended a meetup was in March this year when he presented at the Ipswich WordPress meetup. The group hasn’t held any events since.
You might be thinking: it’s easy to complain, why doesn’t Cameron get off his butt and help organise a meetup himself?
Well, like many Australians who can work from home, he moved to a regional town during the pandemic. He now lives in Victor Harbor, a 90-minute drive from Adelaide. He has reached out to WordPress Adelaide’s lone organiser on Slack, like many others, but hasn’t had a response. Cameron says he’d help out but he plays a lot of sports now and with weeknight training sessions, he can’t commit to organising WordPress meetups again.
Before Covid, the WordPress scene in Australia was thriving…
By all accounts, the Australian WordPress community was doing great in 2019. Sydney and Brisbane had just hosted WordCamps, Perth was about to host its first-ever WordCamp, and meetup groups were regularly getting together in the capital cities and in many regional centres.
Meetups in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth were averaging 30-50 people, with 60-80 people at the most well-attended events in Sydney and Brisbane.
Surprisingly, Brisbane was home to the most active community (3,286 members, according to Meetup.com), with smaller satellite groups meeting in Ipswich, Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast, Toowoomba and Cairns.
Long-time Brisbane organiser Ricky Blacker, a senior sales engineer at WP Engine, says numbers usually depended on who was speaking (“If we put ‘SEO’ in the event title, we used to get a lot more people than if we put ‘how to develop a plugin’ or that sort of thing.”).
He remembers rooftop barbecues and beers in West End when Ephox (the company behind TinyMCE) sponsored the Brisbane meetup. In recent years, the group has enjoyed a larger space at River City Labs, a startup incubator in Fortitude Valley where WP Engine opened its Australian headquarters.
On the other side of the country, Perth organiser Jo Minney says she had been trialling a new format to get more people to attend meetups — a presentation followed by networking and pizza, another presentation, and a Q&A with an expert panel — and it was successful.
With the community growing in Perth, Jo was excited to see what a WordCamp could do to further bolster the local WordPress scene. Scheduled for March 2020, you can guess what happened next.
“It really was devastating after putting so much time into organising a WordCamp for Perth,” says Jo.
… But community organisers were burnt out
Community organisers in Australia were struggling, long before Covid.
Wil Brown, a WordPress developer and educator who runs WilBrown.com, took over organising the Sydney WordPress group in 2013 after moving to Australia from the UK. He helped organise WordCamp Sydney in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2019. Under his leadership, the Sydney meetups went virtual during the pandemic.
“WordPress has been good to me. It has sustained my business so I want to give back to the community,” says Wil, who also started WordPress meetup groups in his native Edinburgh and Dublin in 2008.
He says a core group of four people, including himself, organised events in Sydney pre-Covid. But as the pandemic took hold, the pandemic became a convenient excuse for organisers — not just in Sydney, but across Australia — to step back and reevaluate the time they were putting into community organising for WordPress.
“Covid really just decimated everything,” says Wil. “There was a lot of burnout. Obviously, we can’t force people to step up and organise. We can try and encourage new people to get involved in the community but it’s difficult, not everyone wants to do it.”
It’s been a similar situation for Ricky and Jo, both of whom were happy to take a break from organising and haven’t yet attempted to restart events in their respective cities.
“Meetup organisers get burned out because every month you have to organise speakers, organise the venue, you’ve got to get there early, you’ve got to set up, you’re the last one to leave,” says Ricky.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘oh, it’s only a couple of hours a month, how hard it can it be?’ But it’s not two hours. I’ve seen people who thought that last two months and then they’re gone. They don’t want to do it anymore because it’s too hard.”
Covid restrictions and the world’s most locked-down city
While cities across Australia went into some form of lockdown in March 2020, each state had a different experience of Covid. In Melbourne, the population endured six lockdowns during which people could only leave their homes for two hours a day to exercise, buy groceries, or visit a doctor. By the time the last one ended in October 2021, people had been confined to their homes for a total of 262 days.
Suffice to say, Melburnians are still recovering from the experience and getting together in person comes with a lot of baggage.
Dee Teal, a senior project manager at Human Made and a long-timer Melbourne organiser, says a few attempts at virtual meetups were proposed but “a lot of us were all Zoomed out.”
“For my part, Covid has had a deep effect on people after repeated lock downs; planning new events is a different mindset to get back into after long periods of caution. I’m still hesitant on this front regardless that restrictions have eased,” says Dee.
As Ricky explains, re-starting in-person events isn’t simply a case of picking where organisers left off in 2019.
“Before Covid, I had to think about who’s going to help me organise and where’s it going to be? Now, we have to think about changing rules and regulations to hold events in person,” he says.
“Because there are Australian rules, Brisbane rules, and also WordPress community rules.”
WFH, Zoom fatigue, and the convenience of not having to leave the house
Monthly in-person meetups resumed in Sydney in February, but Wil says the old community he spent years fostering was virtually gone and he’s been rebuilding the community from scratch.
“We’ve been trying to encourage people to come back and there are a few familiar faces. But most people dispersed, the whole community has just ground to zero, basically,” Wil says.
“I don’t know why. I know some people have transitioned away from being a WordPress developer or designer just because of Covid, because they couldn’t get any clients, couldn’t get out and about, couldn’t do stuff, and it was too difficult to maintain and they’ve gone into another job.
“So yeah, as far as the community goes, it’s a pretty new community.”
He says while the WPQuickies have been great as far as keeping community events going, they’ve also had disadvantages.
“We were getting some people from the regions tuning in every week, every month. They found it easier than training in for two hours, coming to the meetups, and then training back,” he says. “They could sit there, they could have their meal in their house, and watch and interact.”
“It’s not the same as coming to an in-person meetup, obviously, but it’s more convenient. I think that convenience has kind of stifled in-person events.
“What I’ve been trying to say to people is meetups are not about me standing up, or somebody standing up, and talking about something for 20 minutes. They’re about the networking. They’re about meeting other people, creating business connections, that sort of stuff.”
Cameron couldn’t agree more.
“Online events are a very different experience to, meeting in person. You know, you miss out on the sponsor paid for food! But you also miss out on the opportunity to have one-on-one conversations,” he says. “As a developer, I didn’t learn terribly much from going to meetups, but I got a lot out of building relationships with other people.”
Traditionally—in Australia at least—meetups have attracted people who are new to WordPress and/or in the early stages of running their own business. For some organisers, like Dee, as their career progresses, their enthusiasm for community organising wanes.
“Personally, I’ve found it challenging to stay motivated, partly because a lot of the demand for meetups comes from users and developers and I’ve felt at times that my interest is at a different layer in terms of leadership, project management, and remote culture, and actually less specifically about WordPress itself,” she says.
“This means what motivates me is less applicable to new and intermediate users and more specific to agencies, and large enterprise using WordPress. I’m hopeful to see other events springing up in that area in the near future.”
“Maybe there’s been a reduction in enthusiasm for sharing knowledge in this area too,” she says.
Moving forward: WordCamp Australia in 2023?
One thing’s for sure: the WordPress community would be dead, buried and cremated (to borrow a term from one of our less popular former prime ministers) if it wasn’t for the dedication of volunteers like Wil, Jo, Ricky, Dee and many others whose enthusiasm and persistence in keeping the WordPress spirit alive in Australia.
Just this week, Melbourne organisers posted details of the first in-person meetup to happen since March 2020, which will be held next week. Baby steps.
There’s also a WordCamp Australia in the works. Wil’s also Vice President of Linux Australia, the peak body for open source communities in Australia. He says the group is looking at doing something “a little bit different next year that’s super secret sauce at the moment,” which would provide a vehicle for potentially running a WordCamp Australia.
Wil says he was prompted to start conversations around getting a WordCamp up after recently sharing a survey with Australian WordPress organisers and users to gauge interest in a WordCamp. He says of the 200+ responses, 86% answered “yes” to attending a WordCamp if one were organised.
“It would probably be in one of the big cities and Brisbane’s coming out tops,” he says.
So it seems after a rough couple of years, the WordPress scene in Australia is slowly coming back to life. But it’s going to involve a lot of work and community organisers could really use your help.