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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.

Group of people listening to a WordPress Meetup talk.

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 MeetSkype, 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. Ambient noise. Broken microphones and webcams require certain attendees to post chat comments. But we finally get down to business. Dorner encourages all the new people to join the Slack channel, where members can post questions, get help, and continue the conversation after the meetup. We spin a digital wheel of fortune to decide who gets the free JetBrains license—our regular giveaway, which I’ve won twice now.

Soon, John presents his screen and shows us how we can better manage large clusters of media files in our WordPress sites. It all goes off without a hitch. I volunteer to give my talk at the next meeting.

Our Asheville area group has a long list of subscribers. Yet, we only see a fraction of that RSVP regularly. Often, people will RSVP but not be able to attend. More universal topics tend to bring out larger crowds. For some, making it out to a 6 PM meeting on a weeknight is a big ask.

The benefit of the virtual meetup is that it gives those with busier schedules and longer travel times a chance to attend a topic they’re interested in but may have otherwise skipped. We miss out on the fellowship, but we get the knowledge.

John Dorner performs card magic at the Asheville Meetup.
John Dorner performs impressive card magic.

As time and space allow, we can consider what the long term outlook might be. Right now, it’s just a series of if/then statements. We’re all waiting.

As the virtual meetup came to a close, it occurred to me that we could probably expand our boundaries a little bit. I can invite coworkers in Virginia Beach to check out our local meetup. I could invite family from Florida if they were interested. But then, would the Asheville WordPress Meetup lose its local flavor? Is that a bad thing?

Eventually, the pandemic will pass, as all pandemics do. The meetup may land on the hybrid model, having virtual meetings from time to time while keeping the live thing going. I hope we’ll find a happy mix. A meetup without the local flavor, and the camaraderie, would not be the same.

Even if handshakes are replaced with elbow bumps, and we learn to stop touching our faces and to sneeze into our shirts, we need a place to go where we can assemble to keep the polis lively. Change is inevitable, and there’s nothing new about “new normals,” but we don’t do ourselves any favors by canceling what we know works best. Our exile on our personal Elbas will end, and we must go back out into society not as frightened peasants but rather as Napoleons of the new normal—whatever that will be.