Chris Hardie considers Friends, Elders, the Matt Factor, and the traits of a resilient community.
I first meet J as she’s staffing a table at a WordCamp. We talk about what brought us there, what we did before being involved in the WordPress community, what we hope to get from the day. There’s a problem she’s working through and I mention someone who has been through something similar, in case it helps. She tells me about a resource I hadn’t heard of, and I’m excited to check it out.
Over the years that follow, J and I remain WordPress friends. At various times we encounter each other at events, in elevators, at receptions, across hallways, during meals, in Slack. The conversation picks back up where it left off. “How’d that thing go?” “You did an awesome job navigating that conflict!” “How’s your new team at work?” “Congrats on that cool thing you launched!” Being a part of the WordPress community gives J and me an anchor point, a foundation, and we build on it from there.
There are many WordPress friends. I may not encounter them for months or years, and the connections may not always be as wide or deep as other friendships, but they have a special place in my heart. I smile when I notice them, online or in person. I celebrate their successes. I cherish our shared experience of building something together.
We have to talk more about the role of elders in our community. Definitely not elder as in “old entitled men” but elder as in “someone with life experience and wisdom who can be looked to for guidance as the community evolves.” We are old enough as a community to have elders, whether we see them as such or not.
As communities go through transitions and face challenges, it’s often the elders who ground us and guide us. Not by wielding their power to keep order or fighting for the status quo, but by helping us weave the stories of our origins and past into our dreams for the future. This can happen in code, in community conversations, in documentation, or anywhere else.
Elders can help us build relationships and connections across different parts of the community, promoting mutual respect and welcoming newcomers. Elders can pass down knowledge, teaching, and modeling cultural traditions and beliefs. Elders can deal with discrimination and oppression, using their standing to call out problematic behavior. Elders can help build sustainable infrastructure, making sure there are tools and services in place for the challenges we will face. Elders can help protect our identity while also helping us to adapt and evolve.
How do WordPress community elders see themselves and their role? If they aren’t being celebrated for committing the latest hotness to an upcoming release or giving an exciting WordCamp talk, do we let them just fade into the background? If they branch out into other interests beyond WordPress, do we still find ways to harness their experiences and wisdom? Do we take care of them as they take care of us?
Do our elders even know they are elders? Are you a WordPress community elder?
Small enough that you can make a difference Big enough that you can grow Comfortable enough that you feel supported Challenging enough that you stay flexible Filled with people who want the best for you Intentional places and spaces for celebrating Just enough certainty to create a sense of purpose Just enough uncertainty to keep us humble Norms, ground rules and accountability Patience and respect built on safety and care Creative, kind and loving acts at the heart When people get a taste, they wonder Who created this, and how can I be a part of it?
I was a WordPress user and developer for 10 years before I knew who Matt Mullenweg is. I’d bet that most WordPress users still don’t know who he is. And yet conversations about what Matt wants, what Matt thinks, what Matt is going to do sometimes play an outsized role in our community. People can worry when they think a thing they love or depend on is too much in the hands of forces they don’t know or understand. Nobody wants a broken heart.
For a time I ended up working for Matt, reporting to Matt. I discovered that he has a superpower: he can see around corners and beyond horizons in ways that few other people can. I’d suspect time travel is involved if I didn’t know better. Sometimes he has trouble bringing the rest of us along, like trying to show a 19th-century carpenter the schematics for a space station. Other times, I think it’s just too many hearts and hopes and dreams for one person to carry gently. But on the whole, Matt is responsible for leading us to some amazing milestones.
When things go well, Matt usually credits people in the community. When things aren’t going well, Matt usually gets or takes the blame. When we challenge him thoughtfully, he usually welcomes the growth and learning that goes with it. But Matt knows that WordPress and the WordPress community are bigger than him. I think he’s happy to be a part of building a thing that will outlive him, and probably all of us. He’s made it his life’s work. We can honor and celebrate that legacy without reservation.
As a community, we can also build for a future that does not depend on any one person. We can make sure there’s a plan for maintaining our “commons.” There are other superpowers out there; I bet you have at least one to contribute. If we do it right, a shared vision for our community’s future will come from everyone who loves or benefits from WordPress in some way.
When intentional communities form in the real world, their members think about the characteristics that will make their community resilient, sustainable, and able to thrive. These characteristics might include:
- Human scale
- Control, influence, trust
- Shared purpose
- Welcoming and supportive
- Clear decision-making processes
- Knowledge sharing
- Respect and pride
- Good communication
We can’t always choose our fellow community members and software that powers a huge chunk of the web is hard to make small and local again. But what can we learn from intentional communities? When you examine the physical places and spaces in your world that feel most welcoming, thriving, and sustainable, what do you notice?
Do we want to create community experiences that are not so small as to preclude diversity, space, and freedom, but small enough to be accessible and not overwhelming? How can we make the daily experience of being in the WordPress community more personal, meaningful, and accessible?
If real-world communities have a distinct center, defined boundaries, smaller sub-centers of activity, and open areas flowing all around, what does that look like for the WordPress community? How can we make sure our community spaces evolve to support interactive and supportive social structures?
As pandemics and climate crises and polarization and uncertainty circle around us, what would it mean to feel grounded and safe in a resilient WordPress community?
Adapted in part from Chapter 4 of Norwood and Smith’s “Rebuilding Community in America” (1995).
Even with its wonderful diversity and global reach, I don’t think we’ve even begun to explore the WordPress community niches that exist out there.
You could probably have a gathering for Canadian WordPress developers under 40 who specialize in funeral home websites and get a solid showing.
There could be an entire weekly newsletter devoted to tips for pet adoption and rescue organizations who use WordPress to help animals find their forever homes, and someone would still suggest it needs to come out daily.
The trials and tribulations of the Restaurants On WordPress scene are waiting to be chopped apart, lightly sauteed and served up with a side of Food Blogger Business Models.
There are WordPress sub-communities and sub-cultures and niches and nooks and crannies that would take a lifetime to begin uncovering and exploring. There are so many stories to tell, and so many of them are nothing like our own. If we are to appreciate the beauty of the WordPress community as a whole, we have to seek them out.
Beware anyone who tells you that they fully understand the WordPress community, or that they have their finger on the pulse of all things WordPress. Some of us have made more stops than others, but we are all travelers in a wonderful vastness that has no end.