State of the Meetup Under Lockdown
By now we’re all getting weary of the phrase “new normal.” Much ink has been spilled over the question of what that new normal will look like after the pandemic has passed over us. There’s a stubborn streak in the American national character that admits of little change but, like an assiduous puppy, finds what works. I’ve been attending the local WordPress Meetup since moving to Asheville, North Carolina, three years ago. Finding myself in a new city, getting out into the community and meeting people in the same industry seemed like a good opportunity to get connected. And it worked. I’ve lived in a handful of cities, and nothing has worked faster and better in getting me acclimated to a new locale. As I write now from a sort of exile, present circumstances make clear why the meetup matters. The WordPress community is a naturally diverse one. But diversity itself is neither inherently good nor bad. Developers all over the world may commit to the same codebase, but that doesn’t mean they’re all together. Working among GitHub avatars and social media accounts alone, it’s easy to allow in-group preference to collect and fester and eventually spill out; as it did recently with a brouhaha about a certain baseball cap. The WordPress meetup is an in-group breaker. People of wildly different backgrounds manage to come together around a common theme (sometimes literally a theme). We meet in person, face to face, catch up on old things, and learn all new things. Depending on who you sit next to, you might even hear a dirty joke. We get the all-important sense of being in what the ancient Greeks called the polis, the city-state. We’re all different, but Asheville is our city-state, and WordPress is why, twice a month, we get out of our homes and assemble. When we talk about democratizing publishing that means for everyone. This is why the meetup is important, and why it must go on even during a pandemic. At the meetup, we’re not just learning about WordPress. We’re learning about each other. Business cards change hands. Smiles and handshakes lighten the air. Asheville is a beer town, so there’s often a brew before, sometimes during, and always after. This kind of fellowship is a critical ingredient to building a tight-knit group, yet it’s what we sacrifice first when the order to keep “social distance” comes down. Social distance? I thought. How is it possible to even have a meetup under such frosty circumstances? But have a meetup we did—at least virtually. As the order to distance and stay at home came down, I canceled my “Basics of SEO” presentation and pondered whether the meetup will simply have to wait until the virus clears. John Dorner, a local developer and arch-organizer, decided we must give the virtual thing a try. Who knows how long we’ll be barred from gathering? These days we’re all familiar with Google Meet, Skype, and a host of other video conference tools. I’ve been working remotely for three years now, and regular video meetings are part of my weekly routine. It’s not that the video conference software isn’t perfectly adequate, but there is a lack of warmth about it. It’s perfunctory, a means to an end. But maybe I was wrong. As the virtual meeting launches, we have the usual throat-clearing and the customary hiccups. » Read More
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