Cookie-cutter failure: thoughts on WordCamp The Netherlands

The Netherlands WordPress team recently announced that WordCamp Central would not approve a WordCamp The Netherlands event for 2017. The blog post is in Dutch of course, but the emails exchanged with WordCamp Central are in English and tell the story quite well.

Let’s keep a few things in mind: The Netherlands is a rather small country. Small enough that the US states of Vermont and Connecticut put together would have a comparable land area, or looking at it another way, The Netherlands has around one-sixteenth the land area of Texas.

The culture over there is a lot different as well. Quoting one email from The Netherlands WordPress team:

The Netherlands has its own culture, which is unaffected by decisions made in other communities.
The second, and more important reason to keep WordCamp The Netherlands is because it is for everyone in The Netherlands. We as a people are proud to be Dutch. Being Dutch is something that unites. Being Dutch overrules all the issues there are between people from different cities and regions.

For example, if we drop WCNL in favor of city-based WordCamps, the people from Amsterdam wouldn’t visit a WordCamp in Rotterdam, or any WordCamp east of Utrecht. The people of Rotterdam wouldn’t visit a WordCamp in Amsterdam, or any WordCamp east of Utrecht. The people from Groningen wouldn’t visit a WordCamp in Eindhoven, and vice versa. Of course, you could argue that WCNL could become WordCamp Utrecht. But that has a few issues too.

I’m keeping the quote as short as I can to get the point across, though it does mention fragmentation and the fact that none of the current WordCamp Netherlands organizers are from the larger cities in The Netherlands, and would thus be disqualified from organizing. (As it stands right now, the first city-based WordCamp in The Netherlands would be in Utrecht, and the status is listed as “Application vetted, Needs Orientation/Interview” as of about a week ago. Unfortunately I did not follow the WordCamp status page closely enough to see when the original application for WordCamp Utrecht was submitted, but I can’t imagine it being all that long ago.)

The response from WordPress Community Support contains quite a few points of note. In order:

We have worked hard in the past eight years to move the WordCamp program away from country-named events and toward city-named events for a number of reasons that focus on the health and longevity of the community as a whole.

While I can see how the city-named model would work in many countries, it is obvious to me that The Netherlands is something different. It’s just a guess, but I suspect that none of the “hard work” mentioned was put into looking at the culture of The Netherlands and why it still had a country-named WordCamp after all this time. Of course, if it was, that’s even more damning, as this change is being forced on the WordPress community of The Netherlands despite knowlege of that cultural difference.

In the case of WordCamp The Netherlands, the discussion around moving to a city-named event has been ongoing for five years. We requested the change (via phone calls or in person, with volunteers or with paid staff) and received verbal agreements multiple times.

There’s a somewhat humorous saying (original author unknown): verbal agreements aren’t worth the paper they are written on. Apparently whoever entered into this verbal agreement either lacked the authority to do so or did so without advising the rest of the community team in The Netherlands. Or, perhaps “verbal agreement” is a misrepresentation of what actually took place during the conversation. If the call starts off “we aren’t approving WordCamp The Netherlands in 2017, you guys need to start organizing city-based events” and the gist of the response is “we still want our WordCamp”, that’s not an agreement, that’s coercion. I’m not saying that’s what happened, but it’s one possible situation.

The Netherlands is not the only community we’ve asked to make this change (other examples include the UK, Switzerland, Denmark, and Israel to name a few). We realize it is certainly a hard thing to ask. But we also have seen benefits for the WordPress community as a whole in areas that have taken this chance.

Do any of these other countries have the same culture as The Netherlands, where they all unite as Dutch at events like previous the WordCamps (held as WordCamp The Netherlands versus WordCamp The Hague, WordCamp Utrecht, etc)? I would be willing to bet the answer is no. How willing were smaller countries like Denmark willing to make the change? I would guess they made it only reluctantly so they could continue to have events.

What does this mean for WordCamp The Netherlands? We previously recommended they rename the event WordCamp Utrecht and continue to do the outstanding work they already do. WordCamps in other countries have moved on to new names and have been successful, and we’re hopeful that the same will happen here.

I read two things in this: “we’re hoping the same ‘cookie cutter’ solution works for The Netherlands despite there being clear cultural differences” and “what we really got our undies in a wad over was the country name as the WordCamp name”. The former is at best rather short-sighted. I’m not even sure how to best characterize what it could mean at worst. The latter is just plain silly. Clearly the Dutch are happier continuing to call it WordCamp The Netherlands. I fail to see the harm in that.

Jumping back to the beginning:

We’d like to start by saying we are truly thankful for the hard work WordCamp organizers in the Netherlands have put into their events over the years. They have invested countless hours working on their events and the community, and we value their dedication and contributions.

Actions speak louder than words. To me, the non-approval of WordCamp The Netherlands 2017 sends quite a different message than the words written in this post. I believe if those in charge of approving WordCamps are truly thankful for the hard work and dedication of the community leadership in The Netherlands, the right move is to maintain the status quo and approve WordCamp The Netherlands 2017, or allow the current WordCamp Utrecht to change its name to WordCamp The Netherlands at the organizer’s option.

[Update 2021-07-25: correct punctuation error]