How Ann Arbor's WordPress community drives open-source online innovation

When Lisa Saad started her new travel blog, she wanted a simple platform for building and maintaining it. The new Ann Arbor resident started blogging to keep in touch and share her stories of "adventures, dining on the road, and cooking in a small kitchen" with friends and family back home in Denver. She's not a developer and doesn't write code, so WordPress' free, turn-key web publishing platform was a logical solution.

"But like all things, when you download something like WordPress, it's not as easy as it seems, and it doesn't come with a user manual like in the good old days," she says. "[So] you go, 'Great, what do I do next?'"

Unsatisfied with how Google searches and online forums handled her queries, Saad turned to Meetup.com, hoping to find some face-to-face help. That's where she found WP Ann Arbor, a group for area WordPress users founded seven years ago by local web designers and developers Ross Johnson and Declan O'Neill.

WP Ann Arbor meets monthly on campus at the University of Michigan for presentations by WordPress professionals and general discussion. Sometimes members grab a beer or coffee afterwards. Talks cover a range of topics and skill levels, all for free. It's one of two WordPress-centric meetups in Michigan, and one of thousands around the world.

This Friday and Saturday the group will host its third annual WordCamp Ann Arbor conference at the Rackham Building. Hundreds of WordPress enthusiasts from all over the United States will gather for in-depth sessions ranging from building your first website to generating business leads, working with subcontractors, and developing for-profit custom plug-ins.

The conference has grown each year since 2014, and organizers expect 400 people will attend this year (fewer than 20 spots were still available at the beginning of this week). Tickets are a reasonable $36, which includes a T-shirt. That low price is possible because the event is run entirely by volunteers. Speakers pay their own travel and lodging to attend, whether they're coming from Ann Arbor or San Diego.

WP Ann Arbor member Kyle Maurer says that culture of paying it back is what draws many, like himself, to the "broader WordPress community." Maurer also leads a WordPress meetup in Jackson and he's co-organizing Ann Arbor's WordCamp this year.

"We're always reminding ourselves there was a time that we needed help and someone helped us," Maurer says. "People made free stuff we got to use, like the WordPress software itself, and people taught us, so we're always trying to turn around and give back to those who are in those conditions."

Maurer has attended WordCamps in several states, where he now has acquaintances he can call on when he's in town, including a close friend he met in Los Angeles whom he now talks with daily. Earlier this year, they took their families on vacation together to Costa Rica. He's looking forward to seeing old friends this week at the conference.

"There's just a really open and friendly culture," Maurer says. "There's going to be a lot of people giving hugs and reuniting. There's a significant segment of attendees who will not even attend many sessions. They'll just spend time catching up with all their friends."

A typical WP Ann Arbor meeting draws 10 to 30 people, ages 20- to 60-something, depending on the "subject, time of year, and if it's snowing," Johnson says. Some, like Johnson and Maurer, use WordPress for business to serve their web design and marketing clients (Johnson at Ann Arbor's 3.7 Designs, Maurer at Real Big Marketing in Jackson). But most are end users who have built a site for some other purpose — managing a church webpage, launching a web store, helping out at a nonprofit —  and want to know what else they can do with the platform.

"They're not programmers, they're not designers. They just need a website, and WordPress seemed like the best fit," Johnson says. "A lot them are in a situation where they don't know what they don't know, and they're aware of that."

At her first meeting in August, Saad was immediately impressed by the size of the crowd of about 25 attendees, as well as the expertise of the panel presenting that night.

"When you're looking for something and you're not very confident in your knowledge base, and you don't know anybody, walking into a room like that, it felt very professional and very put together," she says.

WP Ann Arbor member Steve Beyer started attending two years ago to get help expanding the functionality of his condo association's website. The retired retail worker has been off that project more than a year, but he's still a regular at the meetings, even though he doesn't have a live website at the moment.

Beyer notes how welcoming the group is, calling attention to the fact that representatives from competing firms often share panels and outline tips for success in front of each other.

"It's a very collegial atmosphere," he says. "You wouldn't think it's as honest and open as it is."

Part of that egalitarian approach may have to do with the nature of the software itself. Launched in 2003, WordPress started as a popular open-source blogging platform, as underlined by the ubiquitous "Just Another WordPress blog" tag some may remember, but has since evolved into a full content management system (CMS) that today drives an estimated 25 percent of the web.

According to Maurer, that transition started around 2009. New features that made the software easier to use and adapt by developers were introduced, and new adaptations started to take off. More developers made for faster release cycles, which are all intentionally backward-compatible, so users don't have to feel anxious about hitting the update button.

Today, Maurer is excited by the new ways he sees large, Fortune 500 companies and tech startups alike leveraging the software for "fascinating and cutting-edge use cases."

"It's being used as ... a framework, or for developing apps — for all kinds of advanced things," he says. "We're kind of on the cusp of a new generation of WordPress."

While it's grown in popularity, there are still some misconceptions about the platform. Johnson notes a sometimes-confusing distinction between the free software available to download at WordPress.org and the commercial entity WordPress.com, which is a paid webhosting service founded by one of WordPress' cofounders. He gets requests occasionally to speak on the company's behalf, and he has to explain he doesn't actually work for it.

"It's a common misconception that the for-profit business is driving the conferences, meetups, and development, but it's not true," he says. "People don't really realize how much goes into this software just because people love it. I mean, the amount of man-hours in just creating a new release is staggering. This is all something people are doing just because they want to help."

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Photos by Doug Coombe.
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