Picking up the pieces and moving forward, part 4

(Due to technical and other issues, I was not able to get this posted on Friday afternoon as I had hoped. Here it is now, after some editing to reflect the current state of affairs.)

In part 3, you got to read what wound up being basically an indictment of Meetup, which I probably should have shortened a bit now that I look again. But, I digress.

I had originally split this post into five parts. I’m going to condense the last two into one, leaving four. So this will actually include my final commentary for the time being.

I have about another week to cover, from approximately March 6 to the present. Which makes it easy, because nothing of consequence happens between the 6th and 10th.

The late evening of the 11th/early morning of the 12th, I submitted my application to be WordCamp Houston lead organizer for 2013. Since that’s the logical next step, I figured I needed to know if it’s a go or not sooner rather than later. The evening of the 12th, We had our second meetup in recent memory, this time at Caroline Collective thanks to new organizer David Lee. David, along with previously-mentioned Claudia Franco, are the whole reason we’re actually having WordPress meetups in Houston again.

Yesterday, Friday, 2013 March 15, the ides of March, one of the “organizers” of the original, dead, 400+ member group (i.e. either Christopher Smith or Chris Valdez) did what I’d expect any chicken who can’t stand being held accountable to do. He decided to remove me from the (currently inactive) 400+ member Houston WordPress Meetup group and prohibit me from rejoining. This crosses all sorts of lines. I’m not even going to go into the details of just how stupid of a move this is from a PR standpoint–then again, it’s likely Monica Danna (who, I might add, used to have a company called co.lab which uncerimoniously co.lapsed not that long ago) taught them most of their PR skills, so the colossal fail here isn’t all that surprising.

Today, Christopher Smith finally posts an announcement to the group. I’m not going to repost it here, but suffice it to say it is a gross misrepresentation of the truth. I’m only going to say the following (and parts of this are repeats of things I have said elsewhere):

  1. None of the alleged “out of bounds” discussion would have happened if there had been some attempt at communication with the community over the past several months.
  2. If one’s safety is so easily threatened by simple attempts at contact, at the very least, one should not hold themselves out as a community leader in any capacity.
  3. Documented lies are still lies. Perjury and filing false police reports are both against the law. I would expect someone with relatives in law enforcement to know this.
  4. Habitual lying is no way to lead a community. None of this dog and pony show changes that it is in the best interest of the community for Christopher Smith and Chris Valdez to resign and let someone else lead.
  5. The excuse of “protecting privacy” to hide the truth about what one did is reprehensible, unethical, conduct unbecoming of community leaders, un-Texan, and un-Houstonian.
  6. This is retaliation for my assertion of my legal First Amendment rights. In other words, censorship. Until and unless proven otherwise in a court of law I have the legal right to talk about those who hold themselves out as limited public figures, which would include community leaders and thus include Monica Danna, Christopher Smith, and Chris Valdez.

For what little good it will do, I have asked for this to be reversed. At a later date I may republish what I have of the deleted threads (which, incidentally, comprised most of the discussion group activity over an entire month.) In the meantime, as a temporary measure, I’ve joined the new group on meetup.com. I don’t expect this to last longer than a few months; I don’t think meetup.com is the best way forward anymore, and it is my hope to have a realistic alternative to meetup.com available at least to WordPress-oriented groups by the end of the year.

Anyway… Coincidentally, the same day, I also heard back that I’m “not a good fit” “not the right fit”¬†for WordCamp organizer. To say the least, I disagree with this. [Edit 2013-05-07: Oops. I mis-remembered the quote in between getting the email and making the post.]

In closing, there are quite a few things to learn from WordCamp Houston 2010 for those thinking about running a similar event in the future. There are about four things really stand out.

First, communication is important. If you are unwilling or unable to keep the community “in the loop” with updates, then being an organizer of an event like a WordCamp probably isn’t for you. I never should have had to get Andrea Middleton or anyone from Automattic or the WordPress Foundation involved, and I would not have were the lines of communication with the community kept open and utilized while the award of the scholarship from 2010 was still pending. (Andrea did a great job handling the investigation started by my inquiry. However, I feel she never should have needed to be involved to begin with.)

Second, if you speak, especially as event organizer, you should assume it is being broadcast and/or recorded. Remember what you said, especially when referring to proceeds. Some shady salespeople (particularly car and furniture salespeople) do a little ruse. They mark the sales price up so it can be marked down again, giving the illusion of a big discount. Of course, for a total paid out, one would want to manipulate the numbers in the opposite order; this may well have been what our community “leaders” were trying to do.

Third, before taking on a position that requires, by its nature, interaction with potentially anyone in the community, think it over. If your comfort zone is such that you feel you cannot interact directly with certain members of the community, or that you find yourself reaching for the block button even when logged in to the event/community Twitter account or Facebook page, it’s likely the public relations and social media aspects of organizing a WordCamp are not for you. If you are a public relations professional, act like one; acting in a volunteer capacity is not an excuse to throw professionalism (i.e. pride in one’s work) out the window and it’s quite possible for one to be professionally judged by one’s actions as a volunteer. (It can be for better as well as for worse; see Alan Rosen, recently elected Harris County Precinct 1 Constable, for an example of the former.)

Fourth, organizers of an event such as a WordCamp are responsible for the monetary proceeds of the event until such time as the proceeds are disbursed to the charitable organization or purpose for which they were designated, and it is also in their best interests as well as that of the WordCamp and WordPress brands to not communicate for an extended period while the money is still outstanding. If you and everyone on your team lack the time to see the award of a scholarship through to the end, then maybe this is not how your WordCamp’s proceeds should be distributed. A simple donation to a non-profit organization is probably a better choice in this case.

Finally, just a couple of more items about how I feel. I am happy the scholarship has finally been awarded. If proceeds from our future WordCamps in Houston go towards a scholarship like the one in 2010, I don’t ever want to see it take this long for the money to be awarded again. Not in Houston, not anywhere.

I want honest, trustworthy, transparent, reasonable, and law-abiding people in charge of our Houston WordPress community and its events, such as future WordCamps and the Meetup group. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask, and I would like to think this is the majority viewpoint in the community.

Originally I had a whole paragraph here formally asking Christopher Smith and Chris Valdez to resign. I still don’t think it’s appropriate either of them continue to enjoy the visiblity, in light of the circumstances. Most importantly, to preserve the high standard of ethics among creative companies in the Houston area, I recommend NOT doing business with either Design Bigger or Primer Grey, their respective companies, in hopes they will both go bankrupt. Contact me if you need alternatives.

Lest we forget, this is Matt Mullenweg’s hometown. For those reasons I find it especially outrageous that our WordPress community scene, or lack thereof, is what it is. And I now know I’m not the only one. I’ve probably said things that other people in the community just wish they could. I have no idea yet what it’s cost me.

Looking forward, I believe Houston deserves better in 2013. I’ve said it before, but it needed to be said again. And on that note, it is my endeavor to help deliver a better WordCamp Houston in 2013 in whatever capacity I can. I will admit I don’t need to be lead organizer to help, but I could sure benefit from the visibility. I should note that recently some events transpired in my life which could have resulted in my leaving the Houston area for several months to a couple of years, or possibly even for good. However, I found a way to remain here in Houston (at least the area if not Houston proper), and my anticipated future contributions to WordCamp Houston 2013 and the Houston WordPress community did factor into my decision to stay.

Comments are open. My usual comment policy is in place.

Picking up the pieces and moving forward, part 3

Part two concluded with my last attempts to reach out to the Houston WordPress Meetup organizers.

It was bad enough that not only my emails, but those from other people trying to get the meetup going again, were ignored. To make matters worse, the staff at Meetup.com are no help:

Hello Shawn,

I’m really sorry to hear you and your fellow group Members are going through this. Unfortunately, because Organizers pay dues to run their Meetup Groups, they are essentially the owners of their Meetup Groups. We’re really not able to take any action on an account unless we hear directly from the Organizer of the Meetup Group.

It’s a difficult situation, but I do hope you’ll consider starting your own group. You sound like the kind of passionate, determined person we like to see become Organizers. I’m not sure if it will help, but I’d be happy to create a 50% off coupon for you to use to get started.

If that sounds like something you’d like to do, please let us know.

Translation: “We own meetup.com, we are the real owners and we can do something about this, but we are choosing not to and instead call the organizers, including ‘zombie organizers’, the real owners of the site. We don’t care about the 400+ pawns–I mean members–that are in your dead Meetup group, only the $19 your absentee organizer is giving us. But we’ll happily take your money, because that pads our bottom line, and that’s what we really care about.” (If this seems crazy to you, I’m sorry, but this is how I read it.)

Needless to say, I’m not taking up Meetup.com on their “generous” offer. $9.50 is more than I want to give this excuse for a company. (Unfortunately, I can’t stop other well-intentioned people from doing so… more on that in part 4.)

The idle group looks bad on not just Houston’s WordPress community, but the Meetup brand, and possibly the WordPress brand as well. This can’t be the first time this has happened. Of course it’s not. This smells, looks, and waddles like a canned response.

Think about this for a bit: If just 100 organizers keep their groups open, but inactive, that’s $22,800 per year extra for the owners of Meetup.com. And I’m pretty sure at any one time there are probably many more such “zombie groups” out there. Add it up and annualize it, and in all likelihood there’s an obscene amount of profit being made off of absentee organizers–I wouldn’t be surprised if it reaches into seven figures. (For those not good at math, it takes only 4,386 zombie organizers to reach $1 million annually.)

So I’m going to ask all my readers out there: if you have ever been an organizer on Meetup.com, please make sure you are not paying for a “zombie group.” Do the right thing, and ask someone else if they are willing to take it over. Or, better yet, start migrating it away from Meetup.com entirely. There’s no reason to pay for a “zombie group” and contributing to a for-profit company for nothing. If you really have an extra $19 per month you won’t miss, I’ll happily recommend a list of charities that could make better use of it. Just paying the monthly dues is actually one of the worst things you can do for whoever is left in the Meetup group, especially if they still care about organizing meetups for the group’s topic.

If you’re currently an active Meetup.com organizer, I think it’s time to start looking at alternatives. They are out there, I haven’t researched them thoroughly so I’m not making any specific recommendations at this time (if enough readers ask, I might do a post on the alternatives I find).

If you’re on Meetup.com as just a user, you can consider doing what I did: winding down your participation on the site completely. The good news is when you leave a Meetup group, you can send a message to the organizer saying why you are leaving. Use this opportunity to ask for an alternative way to keep up with the group. The bad news is, Meetup stupidly assumes since you left a group, you want to sign up for more of them, so you have to keep going back to your home page to leave each group in turn. To whatever user interface designer at Meetup did this, shame on you. It should not be that big of a pain in the ass to leave several groups in a row, and send the same message to each organizer (the latter problem, fortunately, is solved with copy and paste).

If we can get enough organizers to leave Meetup.com, eventually they will figure it out. The only way to talk to a company which does not otherwise care, is through their bottom line. Honestly, right now I flat out don’t give a damn if Meetup goes bankrupt. People have been saying Meetup is on the decline for years, including Matt Mullenweg himself back in 2005.

More troubling, perhaps, are the non-profit organizations, specifically including NetSquared and the WordPress Foundation, pumping money into Meetup.com. I don’t have exact numbers, and I’m not even willing to make a more exact guess, but it does not take a genius to realize it’s probably a good bit more than $19/month. There’s no easy way to say this, but I really think any non-profit organization of any reasonable size has no business serving up revenue to a for-profit company who clearly cares less about the people than about its income stream. This goes double in the case of the WordPress Foundation, given that Meetup is at least as bad (and in many ways, actually much worse) than buying a proprietary software package and running it on a web server. WordPress (either as a single- or multi-user install) with the proper plugins should be able to do most things that can be done on Meetup.com, at least as of the last time I looked into this some months ago.

Coming up in part 4, the events which have transpired in the last few weeks, including those who felt slighted by the neglect of the existing Meetup group re-organizing and re-booting the Houston WordPress Community.

Picking up the pieces and moving forward, part 2

Part one of this series covered mostly the remaining happenings with WordCamp Houston 2010. This post will focus on what has happened–and more importantly, what has not happened until very recently–with the Houston WordPress Meetup, which is perhaps the more important part of the community at this point.

In the following quote, Monica Danna refers to a call for organizers for the Houston WordPress Meetup group posted “last year” (verbatim quote, emphasis added by me):

This group, as many Meetup groups, is mean to be a group effort. The organizers who have stepped up over the past few years have done a great job, when their time allows. We are all here to learn and share, and many of us are also involved in other activities, including full-time day jobs :-) We put a call out last year for anyone interested in serving as an organizer.

If anyone is interested in organizing a meetup, any member can do this.

We all share a love for WordPress and for Houston. Look forward to seeing new meetups in 2013.

Thanks,

Monica

(Note that “last year” in Ms. Danna’s post is 2012, since that was posted in 2013 January.)

My first search for this supposed call for organizers focused on the Twitter feed, the Facebook page, and the Meetup discussion boards, from 2011 December on (I added an extra month just to give her some benefit of the doubt). I asked in a followup post, where this supposed call for organizers was made. Another user, “Network Geek” told me a week later it was in an email, but it may have been further back in 2011. As of this post, I have yet to find it. I have conducted an exhaustive search, even going back to before Christopher Smith took over the group, well into early 2011.

I would still like to be proven wrong, but at this point all signs visible from my point of view, point to Ms. Danna having lied yet again. I have to make a note here: If this was sent out via an e-mail, and I was omitted from the distribution list (intentionally or not), then from my point of view, there was no e-mail sent.

Note that it is technically true that any member can organize a meetup. However, only organizers have the power to make such a meetup “official” and they can choose not to do so. I could not announce, for example, the meetup on Tuesday, 2013 March 12, and none of the other 400+ “pawn level” (non-organizer) members could either. (Not even Ms. Danna could announce it, she’d have to ask Chris Valdez to do so!)

Which leads into my next point. This discussion thread regarding organizers for the Meetup group only even came into being because several of us were frustrated at the inaction of Christopher Smith and Chris Valdez as Meetup group organizers. As an example of this, a spam post sat up there for most of a week, and may have even been deleted by Meetup’s own spam filters eventually, not by either of the organizers. Now, had I been the organzier of the Meetup group, it would have most likely been gone within a day (either by my hand, or that of one of my trusted assistant organizers).

I had made several attempts to reach out to the organizers. The new leadership had already begun using the discussion boards of the old group, and announced “unofficial” meetups. I got to attend one such meetup on February 12, at the Looscan branch of the Houston Public Library. (I had suggested this venue because I knew of it, but knew the limited hours migt be a problem. As it turns out, this was likely our only meetup at this venue.)

As time went on, we got to March 3. I had finally had enough of the flagrant inaction. The impending meetup about a week away, and still no official announcement by either organizer. I sent this to the organizers in an email at 14:44 Central Time on that date:

The March Meetup at Caroline Collective is still only showing as suggested. This meetup is actually happening, it has not just been suggested.

I would like to ask as your last acts as organizers that you announce this meetup, transfer organizer status to Claudia Franco and David Lee, and then step down as organizers. If for some reason you feel Claudia and David should not be running the group, I am welcome to discuss who else is fit to take the group over, but we can’t have organizers who are just in it for the PR and do not give a shit about the group (pardon my French). It would be nice if you would apologize to the group as well, as your inaction has made it much more difficult than necessary to organize meetups.

I am asking privately before making a more formal request visible to the entire community in a blog post (my WordCamp Houston 2010 wrapup which has still not been posted just yet). Nothing personal against either of you, but this has gone on too long and I’ll be damned if I’m going to just sit here while it does.

Sincerely,
Shawn K. Quinn
Houstonian since 1975 November, WordPress user since 2008 December
spectacularshawn.com rantroulette.com quinnsbigcity.com

Yep. I dropped the S-bomb. For a day or two I regretted it, but in retrospect it was exactly the message I needed to send. Not surprisingly, I have yet to get a reply.

A direct message to Christopher Smith’s company account on Twitter was not replied to. Worse, I made a point of checking if I was still following the account, and found I was blocked the morning after sending it. These actions, taken by themselves, clearly indicate someone who does not have the community’s best interests at heart.

Coming up in part 3, it’s time to call for backup again.

(Note that as of very recently, by which I mean mere hours before I was about to schedule this for posting, there has been a change. It does not fit well here or even in part 3, but will be covered in part 4; I am referring to it here just so my readers know it has not been ignored.)

Picking up the pieces and moving forward: the WordCamp Houston 2010 wrapup, part 1

I am quite aware that this, the WordCamp Houston 2010 wrap-up post, is way overdue. Originally, I had planned to make this one long post. However, there have been ongoing events about WordCamp Houston and now the Houston WordPress Meetup. I also originally thought we’d get to a relatively quiescent point, but as time has gone on, that has not happened. There has to come a point where I draw a line and post what I have, even though events are still ongoing.

I intend this series of posts to be my last posts ever with substantial commentary about the WordCamp Houston 2010 event. I don’t see there being anything more to write except to mention in passing. My focus has now shifted to the Houston WordPress Meetup, and making WordCamp Houston 2013 happen.

First, the good news which I have not had the chance to acknowledge here just yet: As you may be aware by now, the proceeds of WordCamp Houston 2010 have been awarded as a college scholarship. Per the announcement dated 2012 January 9, the scholarship was awarded to Andrew Douglass. I wish Andrew the best in his studies and in life, and I would assume the rest of the community does as well.

Also of note, I am aware that the organizers published the budget from the 2010 event on 2012 December 3. The discrepancy which I pointed out in my previous post has been acknowledged and answered with a posting of the budget, and according to the budget as posted, the amount of the surplus is $2,790.30, which I have also been told is the revised amount of the scholarship award. Based on everything I’ve seen and read, there appears to have been no interest earned on that money over the past two years. For the moment, at least, I’m willing to let that go; it may have been a mistake on my part to even mention anything about interest.

I’ll get back to the budget later on. First, I need to apologize for my own rather sloppy research habits regarding the Flip video cameras that were unsuccessfully used to record the breakout sessions of WordCamp Houston 2010. Specifically, I apologize for assuming, in error, that the “technical issues” explanation from the as-yet-unidentified sentient being who e-mailed a reply to me from behind “admin@wordcamphouston.com” was a cop-out for operator error. I recently learned that Cisco quit making the Flip video cameras entirely as of 2011 April, and there well-known technical issues involving the Flip cameras as evidenced by this video by Jon Paula of “Is It a Good Idea To Microwave This?” fame (note that he does swear quite a bit on this video, and unlike “Microwave This?” it is not beeped out during editing). I really should have taken the time to research this before posting; the most cursory of searches would have uncovered this somewhere. I have high standards on my blogs, and to say the least, in this instance I fell way short.

(Incidentally, I still haven’t found out for sure who wrote that message, and I still think it is poor public relations to reply to a message such as mine and not sign a name to it. )

With that out of the way, I need the original call for nominees back in 2010. The organizers, Monica Danna and Chris Valdez, state in the most recent call for nominees that they published a call for nominees for the scholarship back during the time shortly after the event in 2010.

In 2012, I observed that the call for nominees in 2012 was posted on Facebook, Twitter, the Houston WordPress Meetup discussion boards, WordCamp Central, and on wordcamphouston.com itself. However, back in 2010, there were no such posts in any of these forums as far as I knew, despite my being on the lookout for such, nor were there any mass emails which I received. (I should have been on the email list as a volunteer at the event. I’m treating any email messages I did not receive, whether for “technical reasons” or being intentionally removed from an email list by one of the organizers, as having not been sent. From my point of view, it’s the same thing.)

Note also, that by the organizers’ own admission, there were no nominations for scholarship recipients in 2010. It follows, therefore, that any such publicity of the scholarship in 2010 was at least effectively nonexistent, even if not absolutely nonexistent.

It’s likely that many of you, if not most of you, are willing to give Ms. Danna and Mr. Valdez the benefit of the doubt. I am not; I, personally, do not think there was a call for publicized nominees in 2010 at all, and thus Monica Danna and Chris Valdez told an outright lie to the Houston WordPress Community stating there was a call for scholarship nominees in 2010. This is completely unacceptable.

Further, I asked in an email for either the details on exactly when and where the call for nominees was publicized in 2010, or a retraction of the portion of the announcement implying that there was a publicized call for nominees at all. No response was received, and no retraction has been issued of which I am aware. I’ve heard back absolutely bupkis from the organizers, or for that matter an attorney representing them. So it would appear Ms. Danna and Mr. Valdez believe it is beneath them to respond to a legitimate inquiry from me. This is also unacceptable.

The result of this is that I am a bit hesitant to accept the budget posted as the final word and the whole truth. Nothing appeared to me to be obviously out of whack the first time I looked at the budget, but due to time constraints I was facing at the time, it was not as thorough a look as I would have otherwise taken. I was able to take a closer look in early January, and at that time I noticed that the T-shirt sale proceeds were not included (and I was not able to get the email out about this until after the scholarship had been awarded). While it is unlikely this amount is large, it does need to be acknowledged in some form (even if it’s missing).

In a previous post I addressed the overticketing in excess of the venue’s capacity limits. However, I left out what I think is the most important part: this is against the law. It was very unwise of Ms. Danna to admit to a violation of the law to a roomful of volunteers. (According to my source, there were 150 to 170 seats total in the rooms we were using for breakout sessions. The budget shows that there were 250 lanyards and badges printed, and 200 “attendee bags” printed. Assuming all those attendee bags were claimed, that’s at least 30 over capacity no matter how you slice it.) Thinking back, I can only imagine what might have happened had a fire marshal showed up (I think the museum would actually have gotten stuck with the citation, not Ms. Danna). Worse, imagine if an actual fire had broken out at the museum during WordCamp Houston 2010, and someone couldn’t get out in time because the crowd was too large. That’s why this is a big deal.

In part 2 of this series, I will address another instance of former WordCamp organizer dishonesty as well as the original Houston WordPress Meetup and what would, as of now, appear to be its unfortunate and untimely demise.

Brief note re: WordCamp Houston scholarship

For those that missed it, nominations are open for the WordCamp Houston scholarship per this post to wordcamphouston.com. That post also contains the link to apply for the scholarship if you qualify. This has been a long time coming and I regret that it took so long for me to get this post up to help spread the word. Anyway, nominations will remain open until December 1, so there’s still plenty of time both to apply and to spread the word to any interested students.

I am aware of the discrepancy between the announced amount of $2,500 versus the $3,000+ figure from Ms. Danna’s speech on video in 2010, and have inquired as to what’s going on. I thought about it for a while and to me, $500 is enough of a discrepancy that it needs to be accounted for, and I also feel it’s not right for the community to be left in the dark. Were it, say, $100 or so, it’d be a different story. I’ll follow up with what I find out in a final followup post on the topic slated for 2013 January.