On July 3, Timi Wahalahti opened a discussion on the Community WordPress blog on whether WordCamp volunteers, WordCamp attendees, or Meetup attendees should be awarded a WordPress.org profile badge. The discussion stemmed from a nearly two-year-old Meta ticket that was recently resurfaced.
The general consensus from the comments on the post seems to be that volunteers should receive badges because they are making direct contributions to the community. Most argue that merely attending an event is not badge-worthy. There are also some technical concerns. However, they should not be a real issue considering we are a community of programmers and problem solvers.
I see the rationale behind not giving badges to attendees. In one way, it feels like it diminishes the badges that others have earned, quite often, through hours of valuable time freely given back to the project.
I am taking a wild guess here and will say that most people would agree that direct, measurable contributions should be rewarded. Whether it is contributing a patch to core, reviewing code as part of the Themes Team, or handing out sandwiches at your local WordCamp lunch line, you should be recognized for giving back to the community.
WordCamp attendance badges would become the participation trophies of the WordPress world.
I get the argument. I do. When I first read the community post, my gut reaction was to make that same argument.
In some parts of American culture, at least, participation trophies are often looked upon as something to be ashamed of — if you don’t earn MVP, it’s not a real trophy. I have seen the culture change, seemingly overnight, in my local community. Fathers will not allow their sons to accept a trophy for merely being on the football team (anyone deserves a trophy for making it through training camp in Alabama’s sweltering August heat). I watch as community members — grown adults — tear down others’ kids on Facebook over the same idea.
The discussion on WordCamp attendance badges feels much the same. However, the argument is valid only because that is how the system is set up. It was created to award based on merit. The awards go to those who put in the time and effort, typically over the long haul.
On the surface, that feels like a good system. However, other systems have benefits that perhaps our community has been overlooking, particularly those that gamify participation. Currently, WordPress profile badges are not being utilized to their full potential. The missing piece is that we are not encouraging more participation. We are not helping the first-time user level up and earn more badges/awards.
In 2018, I successfully completed National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It is an event where thousands of people go through the insane process of writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. One of the things that pushed me through the month, aside from sheer willpower and encouragement from family and friends, was the encouragement from the NaNoWriMo website itself.
The website has two categories of badges. The first category is its writing badges. These badges are awarded based on actually doing work. They are also awarded in stages. Write for a two-day streak. Earn a badge. Surpass 5,000 words. Earn a badge. Finish the month-long challenge. Earn a badge. Throughout the process of NaNoWriMo, earning these writing badges was a big motivator toward keeping the dream of writing a novel alive. If I wasn’t motivated to write on a particular day, I could look at the next badge I would earn by just putting pen to paper for another half hour or so.
The thing about these writing badges that was so important was not that they gave me any bragging rights. The badges were not for showing other people how awesome I was. They were deeply personal. They were things that helped motivate me to continue on. OK, I did brag about them a little bit.
At the end of the day, these achievement-based badges were not about other people. They made me feel good about myself, and that is what mattered.
NaNoWriMo’s second category was for personal badges. They were not awarded for any achievement. Every user on the site could pick and choose the badges they wanted. They were reflections of the person. It told others a little something about you.
One of my favorite badges was the “pantser” badge. It let people in the NaNoWriMo community know that I was writing without a novel outline or any real plan — literally by the seat of my pants. Others would choose the “planner” or even the combo “plantser” badge. And, the site had several other badges that simply added to the fun.
We do not have to think about badges as something that must be awarded based on hard work. Sure, we should have those “gold level” badges that are earned through direct contributions and being on a particular team. Joining the Documentation Team or submitting a plugin to the official plugin directory is a big deal. Those achievements should be shown on your profile. However, they are not the only achievements that matter.
Remember that badges are sometimes personal. Being awarded for even the smallest of things can help build the confidence that some people need to do that second small thing.
Simple badges for asking or answering your first support forum question could be a great motivator to become more involved. Attending a WordCamp for the first time? Get a badge. That might help motivate you to earn the five-time WordCamp attendee badge next.
I would even love to see badges for individual WordCamps. How cool would it be for someone to earn a badge for attending a WordCamp in every corner of the world? Or just on one continent?
There is so much lost potential with the current badge system. We are having the wrong discussion. Whether someone should earn a badge for attending a WordCamp is too narrow of a focus. Let’s start looking at how we can gamify participation in the WordPress community and use that system to get more people involved.
If we maintain the current system of giving badges only for contributions and teams, yeah, WordCamp volunteers should get those. Attendees have done nothing to earn a badge in that system. That seems like an easy call to make and not worth much discussion. But, since we are here, let’s rethink this whole thing.