In November 2019, life around the world was carried on as usual, and COVID-19 was nothing but a whisper in epidemiological circles. The biggest news in WordPress circles was that Matt had just given the annual State of the Word address in St. Louis, Missouri, and shared Block Editor enhancements and the great work done by the community.
But by December 12, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in China. Two months after the State of the Word address, on January 20, the first case in the United States was identified in Washington state.
WordCamp Asia was to take place in Bangkok in February 2020. The organizing team began their preparations months earlier, in May 2019. Amid fears of the contagion that began gripping the world in late January 2020, they became acutely aware that COVID-19 impact their planning and started thinking of the best ways to have a safe event.
The organizers created a channel in the collaboration software, Slack, that acted as a forum for discussions that ranged from designs for masks to updates on travelers from China. They planned an advisory page for the website and discussed how to accomplish social distancing. In a meeting with WordCamp Central early in February, they were asked whether they thought they could safely proceed. They felt that they could. They planned to proceed with caution. “We were 100% sure we were having the event,” says Naoko Takano, the event’s lead organizer.
On February 12, 2020, WordCamp Asia was abruptly canceled. The event was scheduled for February 21, so all the arrangements were already in place, and some attendees had already traveled to Thailand. Josepha Haden Chomphosy recalled that there had been close to four years of work building the community and a full year of preparations for the event. She did not want to cancel, but Matt Mullenweg decided that the event could not take place. Josepha agreed, looking back, that this was the right decision.
Naoko agrees. At the time, the news was devastating. “If we had planned it for even a week earlier…” Naoko says sadly.
“Our thoughts are with everyone affected by the virus so far, and we sincerely hope that everything is resolved quickly so that this precaution looks unnecessary in hindsight,” Matt wrote.
WordCamp Asia could have been one of the early superspreader events, Matt now realizes. “I follow world news quite a bit and have a personal passion for science,” he explains, which allowed him to foresee the dangers of COVID-19 at that early date. “It was an unpopular decision…the team was very upset.”
Nonetheless, the decision was made. The virus had spread across continents. Countries began closing their borders to outsiders. Italy went into a nationwide lockdown on March 9th. Two days later, on March 11, 2020, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
WordCamp Asia had been expected to be the first flagship WordCamp in Asia but instead became the first WordCamp to fall victim to the pandemic.
“At some point,” said Josepha, “it turns into disaster recovery.” The event organizers wanted to be the ones to communicate about the cancellation to speakers and attendees, but WordPress assisted with efforts to get refunds for people who had already made their travel arrangements.
Amid the uncertainty, the WordPress community began adjusting to a new normal. Sponsors also stepped up to help with cancellation funds and relief efforts.
Naoko Takano, the lead organizer, wrote, “Reading all the caring and thoughtful messages from the global WordPress community makes me happy and sad at the same time. And they remind me of the reasons why I started this adventure in the first place: I wanted to help connect more people through this event. So my wish is that this event that never happened can still somehow trigger you to “meet” (online or offline) someone new, get to know them, help them out, and build a trusting relationship.”
Attempts to hold the event in 2021 were also canceled, and the first WordCamp Asia would not take place until February 2023.
WordCamp San Antonio was the first virtual WordCamp, taking place March 28-29, 2020. Many more followed, including WordCamp Europe, another flagship event, in Portugal. WordCamp U.S. was canceled, but there were 31 WordCamps in 2020, mostly virtual.
Meetups went virtual in many communities but remained an important part of the organization. 745 meetup groups in the WordPress chapter program met, for a total of more than 4,900 meetups.
For some participants, these virtual meetups were essential sources of human contact. One developer who lived alone and worked remotely shared at a Meetup that he had not seen another person in two weeks.
Contributors were affected too. The Corporation for National and Community Service (AmeriCorps) found that one-third of Americans volunteered regularly before the pandemic and that there was a 60% drop in these rates after the pandemic began. Community organizer Cami Kaos saw similar patterns among WordPress contributors.
“About a month in there is just this utter and complete fatigue where we realize this is no longer a fun novelty thing that we’re doing,” she told MasterWP. “This is our world now. We can’t go and see our friends, we can’t do in-person events. Now, rather than being excited that we can do these fun new event types, we’re upset because we can’t do the at-there event types.”
She found that community members felt frustrated. They began to ask things like, “Why won’t you let us meet in person?”
“Then,” she says, “I saw people start to just ghost.” More than half her volunteers disappeared.
“I have never, in my decade with WordPress, had a hard time getting people to volunteer to do something,” she said. During the pandemic, though, it was tough “because A, it was a whole new thing people had to learn how to do, but B, everyone’s life was just bogged down with heaviness. We have to look at the mental health crisis that the pandemic created, we have to look in families where you have children in the home, those children were no longer going to school, they were no longer going to preschool or daycare.”
Grief, fear, loneliness, and general uncertainty about the future caused people’s priorities to change. “So many contributors to WordPress do it for fun,” Matt pointed out. “Other things took precedence.”
Josepha noted that the lack of in-person events affected contributor recruitment significantly. “One of the things that we were not able to account for in the potential disaster recovery plan was contributor recruitment and acknowledgment,” she said. “It’s not the same as being with them at a Contributor Day and saying, ’I really love that thing you did!’ There’s nothing that can really take the place of that. Recruiting people to use WordPress or learn WordPress or to learn how to contribute to WordPress is really hard to do online.”
The lack of in-person WordCamp and Meetup experiences resulted in fewer contributors and fewer opportunities for recruitment and development. However, the decision to end in-person events was taken early and continued for a long time.
“People did not all agree with that decision,” said Josepha. “ Some said this was us trying to exert too much influence into that space or that people should be able to just make their own decisions and take their own personal risks.”
Mark Maunder wrote at Wordfence in March 2020:
Thus far, I’ve seen most of the arguments for attending events or traveling centered around how deadly COVID-19 is, or how likely an individual is to die from infection. While this may be based in fact, this is an individualistic view and does not take the global community into account. Instead, are we considering whether we are facilitating transmission or helping contain the outbreak? That should be the moral arithmetic, not whether it will inconvenience or kill you personally.
“WordPress” and “community” are two words that often appear side by side in sentences, and rightfully so. Much of what makes WordPress successful is the community that supports this open-source Project. We all see this, and we value this “community” for all the goodness it brings.
A question to consider: Do we care enough about the WordPress community and the global community to make the hard decisions we should be making to help protect those communities that we value?
“The best way for us to work together toward a common goal was for us all to stay away from each other,” Josepha said, reflecting that the WordPress community didn’t like that idea. “Here’s the thing about WordPressers: you cannot keep them away from one another. They really enjoy the community. That community is the thing that makes WordPress so remarkably different from other open source solutions.”
Yet ending in-person events seemed unavoidable. “As we were watching it get worse and worse and worse, at some point you have to decide we’re not helping.”
Still, in many ways, WordPress provided opportunities and escape from the problems that beset people worldwide.
The frequency of remote work tripled in the U.S. over the course of the pandemic, with 71% of those who could work from home doing so in October 2020. Earthweb estimates that 18% of the global workforce worked from home during the pandemic, leaving many global workers describing remote work as “the new normal.” While remote work percentages varied considerably from one country to another, rates were much higher everywhere during the pandemic than before 2020.
Many people in the WordPress community already worked remotely. Matt considered himself an evangelist for remote working, and Automattic had a distributed workforce from the beginning. Naturally, WordPress offered many tools for online collaboration and productivity. So there was less upheaval for the human economy of WordPress than in other industries.
As Topher DeRosia put it, “Aside from the emotional stress of the world being just crazy, it was kind of a time of prosperity for my family. I already worked from home, so that didn’t change. We ended up spending less money eating out and doing shopping so, financially, we were better off.“
“We had a bunch of skills that were already required for people that had to be shut in their homes, basically,” Josepha said,”WordPress and open source projects in general can help you learn the 21st-Century skills required to work in technology, but also teach you the emotional intelligence type things that you need to know in order to work as a remote worker.”
Those skills made it easy for people in the WordPress ecosystem to adapt to Zoom meetings and other collaborative technology. “A lot of good came out of the pandemic,” said Courtney Robertson, a designer on the Training team, on contributors. “We didn’t have the volume, but I saw more teams mixing together.” With global collaborations and increased integration of different groups within the Project, cross-team collaboration has continued to grow.
Jonathan Bossenger recalls that “the idea for the current iteration of Learn WordPress was born out of the fact that we couldn’t hold in-person events during the pandemic.” The project had been more or less on hold since 2013, but with the pandemic causing limitations on working together, the community worked with members of the training team to revive the project.
Courtney Robertson became a full time contributor during the pandemic and is still a dedicated WordPress Training Team Faculty Member. She explained that supporting other teams’ training needs was an initial impetus for her work with the training team.
The website at learn.wordpress.org shares tutorials to help people learn best practices for WordPress, lesson plans to help people conduct in-person or virtual training, and courses covering a variety of topics for developers as well as other WordPress users. Many of the lessons are translated into multiple languages.
The Learn WordPress site has been lively since the pandemic began to wind down. Projects are presented as ideas, as lessons ready for content creators to work on, and at various stages of progress. The team is working toward certification, and some lessons and courses are required for various community roles, though certification is not at this point possible or required.
“Learn WordPress has grown,” says Jonathan, “and continues to grow, and empowers users to achieve their goals with WordPress through actionable and practical learning experiences that bring the community together.”
At the same time, businesses that had not been online before the pandemic realized that they needed an online presence. Gyms and yoga studios switched to online classes, restaurants took up online ordering and curbside pickup, and e-commerce soared.
For businesses to cope with the changes the pandemic thrust upon them, an online presence became essential. It was unavoidable even for those that had avoided digital platforms before the pandemic. For businesses thinking about getting online or had just dipped their toes in the virtual water, the pandemic often motivated action that had been easy to put off before. With its versatility, robust technology, and user-friendliness, WordPress was an excellent choice for small businesses seeking to create or expand their online presence.
For WordPress, it was a boom, one where the market share rose more than it ever had in the years before the pandemic.
A wave of pandemic entrepreneurs started 4.4 million businesses in 2020—a record. 70% of those businesses were all-digital. WordPress was the foundation for a large segment of those businesses.
“There’s never been a better time to learn and invest in improving your WordPress skills,” Matt said during State of the Word 2020.
One example was contributor Paul Biron. He built a website for COVAX, an international organization supporting COVID-19 vaccinations. The African Union and UNICEF followed suit. The three COVID-19-related websites provided exciting and rewarding work through the pandemic.
Across the board, people in the WordPress economy had more options than those working in fields like hospitality or manufacturing.
The pandemic led to widespread illness and over 350,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2020 alone. At the same time, it brought other health issues to the fore. Some people were more vulnerable than others to COVID-19. Older people, people with chronic diseases, smokers, the obese — these people were more likely to catch COVID-19 and more likely to have severe cases of the disease. They and their families needed to avoid contagion even more than the general populace.
Remote work allowed some people in these positions to continue working safely and also introduced greater flexibility and a better work/life balance.
“In 2019, we had extensive conversations in the WordPress community about whether or not to include mental health and well-being as essentially a component of the WordPress project,” said Josepha. “We had a lot of discussions about whether it made sense because we had groups that were looking out for accessibility. There was a group saying, a lot of us are sustained by this community. So why not just make that an official component of the WordPress project?”
The decision was made not to include that element in the project.
“So up came 2020 and then 2021 where I did really worry about how our WordPress community was doing,” Josepha said. “I told folks regularly this whole project is designed so that if you need to step away because you are physically unwell or mentally unwell, or otherwise need a break, do it. It’s designed to let people come in and out as they are able or are willing. And I really really committed to that with folks in 2020.”
Blogging has been shown to be good for mental health, and WordPress provided the best and easiest opportunity to start and continue blogs during the pandemic. WordPress thus supported mental health in several ways, within the community, and as an affirming software tool.
In addition to providing the tools and community support, as well as creating opportunities for people with special health needs, members of the WordPress community banded together to offer numerous resources relating to physical and mental health.
WP&Up, which rebranded itself during the pandemic as A Big Orange Heart, offered specific support for remote workers during the pandemic. The University of Innsbruck in Austria used WordPress to set up an emergency online mental health program during their lockdown. The Harlem Family Institute used WordPress to publish My Pandemic Story, a guided workbook supporting kids’ mental health.
Even in the absence of serious mental health concerns, WordPress helped some people with the general disquiet the pandemic brought. Francesca Marano remembers being the lead release coordinator for version 5.4 in 2020. “It was surreal in Italy,” she says. “We were all in lockdown, I was interacting only with my son…Having 5.4 to launch helped us to get through.”
The welcoming community and robust yet friendly software made WordPress an important source of support for pandemic-era health needs.
The pandemic also reinforced the importance of collaboration, the focus of Gutenberg Phase 3. “A lot of good came out of the pandemic,” Courtney Robertson said. “We didn’t have the volume [of contact] but I saw more teams mixing together…It reduced the global barriers actually that much more because everybody had to get comfortable hopping on to Zoom more.”
Tammie Lister, too, remarked that she no longer took her ability to travel the world and connect with other people for granted. “I look out the window now,” she mused. “Even on airplanes.”
With supply chain disruptions, travel limitations, and increased awareness of the world’s interconnectedness, the pandemic began to bring Phase 4—native multilingual support—to people’s minds as well.