When I suggested to friends that they go to WordCampJax 2019, they looked at me, as if I were out of my mind. “Why would I want to do that?” their eyes said.
Perhaps they did not know, precisely, what WordCamp was.
WordCamp is a weekend-long information session and networking opportunity, taking place each weekend, throughout the year, somewhere in the world. In it, people learn about topics related to WordPress, the website content management system. WordPress, the CMS of about a third of all websites worldwide.
Perhaps my friends had bad associations with the word “camp.”
Most adults don’t think of themselves as “campers”—that’s something kids do. And I think the word “camp” triggers memories, and not all of them are good.
But perhaps my friends’ reaction had more to do with a dislike for detail, for what they imagine to be the dreary business. of learning how to manage and maintain a website. When they would much rather be learning the essence of what their site and their business is about. Studying ballet, not buttons, or Yoga, not Yoast.
Perhaps they felt a (yawn!) disdain for procedure, as opposed to substance.
Substance vs. Procedure
In law school, long ago, I was taught the distinction, between substance and procedure.
Substance is the meat of a law–why it was enacted, to prevent what harm, or to foster what positive outcome?
Procedure is the method by which a law works. What boxes need to be ticked, to be compliant? In what way does one file a complaint, or express a grievance?
Occasionally, among the cases we were required to read, substance would trump procedure. Procedural defects were sometimes considered less important, less egregious, than substantive ones. Finicky, particular, procedural errors could be overlooked, or forgiven, if the overall aim or substance of the law was achieved, by doing so.
This attitude toward procedure, considering it fussy, unnecessary and overblown, has spread to the larger culture, I think, and displays itself as a distaste for anything, involving intricate, “minor” details that must be adhered to.
I think this is the reason why newcomers to WordCamp might think going would not be worth their while. Especially if they are not in the business of making or servicing websites.
Most people view having a website, or engaging in internet traffic, as a means to achieve an end, and not as an end, in itself. More as procedure, than substance.
Of course, your business has a website. Of course, you care about SEO, marketing, widening your audience. You have to, these days. But these concerns are not the substance of your business.
So why attend a gathering, if what you consider “substance” is not the substance of the gathering, but what you consider “procedure,” is?
Procedure is all about the “how.”
“How?” is the most common question, that people go to WordCamps to answer:
- How do I set up my website?
- How do I become more successful and better known, for the work I do?
- How do I attract clients or fans with my layout, my images, my words, my reliability, my speed and efficiency?
- How do I get “seen” by Google, who decides, with intricate algorithms, whether or not my website content is worth a look?
- How do I code or design sites and apps that people will love to use?
The Importance of Process
We learned two concepts, back in law school, that further refined the back and forth, of substance and procedure.
You may have heard of “due process.” Process, of course, is at the root of “procedure.”
The Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees due process, before any right or freedom can be taken away from a US citizen. Equal Protection is guaranteed by the same Amendment.
In law school, we learned there were two kinds of Due Process. Substantive and Procedural.
Substantive deals with the content of a law, and Procedural, with the way in which a law is implemented or enforced. Failure to have sufficiently strong due process of either type could result in a law being declared “unconstitutional.”
Even in the Constitution, procedure is acknowledged as a kind of guarantee of fairness and equal treatment. It is a measure, of how equitable a practice is, especially any practice engaged in by government.
I think of equity as fairness across groups, each group possessing varying degrees of strength or weakness: fairness across societal boundaries. We may find it just, to treat different groups differently, if the outcome in the end is fair.
Is a practice fair to all races and ethnicities? Is it fair to those with disabilities, or to those who speak other languages than English, or to the young or the old, to the rich or the poor?[Insert the words “the internet” in the place of “a practice,” and read that paragraph again.]
Procedure can be all that stands between access and exclusion. It is the blindfold in blind justice, ensuring, at least theoretically, that no one is treated any worse or any better, than anyone else.
Determining fair procedures is no less important on the internet, than in real life interactions, in physical space. How we have acted on the internet in the past (ahem, slapdash) has resulted in blatant inequities. How shall we do it now, so as to make things better?
How vs. Why
I have been to just four WordCamps, in two cities, in one state, in the past two years. I am no expert, by anyone’s measure. I am a hobbyist.
But I try to attend to my site with reasonable regularity. I strive to learn how to do new things on it, whenever I have the chance (such as now, using this post to finally try out Gutenberg!)
In pursuit of these objectives, attending WordCamp has been indispensable to me. How much more so, for a person with a real business, and a keen interest in success?
Asking How can make us wonder Why as well.
In profound ways, we, as modern citizens, have, by accident or acquiescence, totally upended the system of interactions between humans on this planet.
How is this changing us, and is that a change for the better? Are we giving up things without realizing it, in the course of acquiring other things we desire? Why have we chosen this route, and what has it–and what will it–cost us?
These are very real, meaningful questions that every website owner, employee and contractor should consider, before recklessly splashing their content across the internet. I would hope that, like the medical profession, we would want to “First, do no harm.”
At WordCampJax, in June 2019, and WordCamp Orlando, in August 2019, I had the opportunity to attend several sessions, on the topic of ethics in the WordPress space. I found them fascinating and enlightening, giving me new vocabulary with which to pose new questions.
In Jacksonville, Christie Chirinos gave the keynote. She allowed us to tag along, as she took us on a tour of her career in the business, and exposed us to the various ethical issues that she was forced to face. She encouraged us all, to make the internet a better place, by thinking through the consequences and implications of our actions.
Later that weekend, David WolfPaw talked about common website practices that we should consider “dark patterns.” These are the internet equivalents of taking advantage of a customer, or defrauding them, or preying upon someone’s mistaken belief.
He discussed opt-in vs. opt-out practices, and why using opt-in language (where a visitor must affirmatively choose to participate or sign up) is considered more ethical, than using opt-out language (where a visitor must make the choice not to participate, or else be included by default). Nowadays, I find I can’t help, but notice such practices everywhere, and it makes me consider, the power we have placed in the hands of relatively few people, who create, encode and design the sites we all use.
Even something as simple as the language on a button can be manipulated, to cause a result, that is the exact opposite of what an unwitting visitor expects. Being plain and upfront, and giving someone a real choice, can be the difference between being perceived (and rightly so!) as a good guy or as a bad guy.
WordCamp Orlando 2019, in August, held an ethics panel which included a Florida state representative and several notable WordPress professionals. It was moderated by attorney Rian Kinney. There were three very memorable discussions.
One dealt with whether it was ethical, for WordPress to require all websites to do automatic updates of WordPress software. Even if this mandate was implemented with the kindest of intentions: that is, to prevent websites from becoming bots of evil. Even if requiring the update might “break” someone’s site. This brought about questions about who has an actual voice in decisions made, that affect all of us. And what responsibility do we each have, as citizens of the internet, to prevent crime and bad behavior in our midst?
Another discussion lamented the lack of technological education in our elected officials (present company in Orlando excepted, of course.) The panel suggested, that it was the duty of those in the WordPress community, to enlighten their elected representatives, and tell them, how various bills might affect their individual livelihoods, and affect the internet as a whole. This discussion seemed to call on the audience, to help counteract the louder, clearer and more accessible voices of vested interests, whose lobbyists seek to persuade politicians, sometimes in direct opposition to the interests of WordPress users.
A final arm of this discussion dealt with privacy, and how Florida had not yet passed a law regulating internet privacy. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous, unfettered, often unconscious barter, of private personal details, for free services, information and entertainment, sounded much like a Faustian deal with the Devil.
Your Turn to Join the Discussion
Of course, there were many other talks at each WordCamp, that satisfied my thirst for Why and To What End. And a great many wonderful talks answered the typical How questions, in thoughtful and creative ways.
Let me assure you that WordCamp is not about dry procedure and dull detail! There is plenty to whet your appetite for novelty, and for wonder. WordCamp is an opportunity to get a front row seat, to see what the Future is bringing, even as it hurtles toward us.
I encourage each of you to attend a WordCamp near you, soon. And while you are there, keep your ears open, for opportunities to understand, not only what we are doing and how we are doing it, but also, what the consequences and implications of those actions are, and how we can all do it better, together, from now on.
Check out WordCampTV to find the replays of these and many other talks in the coming months as they become available!