WordCamp UK: the camaraderie, the controversy

I spent the weekend in Manchester at the annual WordCamp UK, which Puffbox was again proud to have sponsored. It brought together 150 people from all over the country – plus a few from further afield, much further afield in one or two cases. Not everything went well, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

It was immediately noticeable that the attendees were much more serious than in previous years. Year one, in Birmingham was amateur – in the positive sense of the word. There were signs of things getting more serious in Cardiff last year. This time, it was noticeable how many more people had come to talk about code – although having said that, we still had a good number of curious newbies.

It’s always tricky to attempt a summary of a multi-track event like this: you don’t know what was said in the sessions you didn’t attend. But from what I saw, a few topics stood out: custom post types, BuddyPress, and cash.

There’s no doubt that the community is excited by the potential opened up by Custom Post Types – which aren’t actually new in WordPress 3.0, but have now reached a point where they’re properly usable. (Well, almost – I’m using them for a forthcoming project, and have already spotted a few weaknesses.) People were starting to demo some examples, and it’s clear there’s plenty of fun to be had with them.

BuddyPress was causing similar excitement last year, but there’s definitely a bit more perspective being applied now. Although I like what I’ve seen of it, I haven’t yet done anything with it myself: I’ve just found it a bit overwhelming. I picked up a few hints that others have had similar experiences.

Beneath the surface of several sessions was the sometimes tricky issue of cash. Growing numbers of people, myself included of course, are making their livings on top of WordPress – via a combination of custom programming, design and support. I’ve never been one to buy ‘premium themes’, but it seems like the big players in that field are making serious money. And although nobody dared to tackle it head-on, there were many nods towards an argument which kicked off last week in WordPress World about premium themes and licensing terms. (Mark Jaquith’s post sums it all up beautifully.)

And then came The Controversy. The final wrap-up session descended into chaos, leading to a lot of people saying things they hopefully now regret – at least in terms of how they said it.

It boils down to this. A few people around the UK have, apparently, been keen to hold WordCamps of their own; but have felt unable to, due to the existence of a nationally-branded WordCamp UK. To some, this statement came across as an accusation that the UK-level event was deliberately preventing the growth of smaller groups. They saw it as an attempt to force an unsuitable US-style city-based model on the UK. The language got very emotional very quickly. It was genuinely horrific to watch.

Here’s the conclusion I’ve reached. If – and I stress, ‘if’ – the UK can support more than one WordCamp now, then I’d be very happy for that to happen. In which case, it may no longer be appropriate to have a UK-branded event. But the most important thing is that we have at least one such event in this country in the next 12 months – whatever it gets called.