Shape of Intent & Visible Future :

“My God, it’s full of stars!” – The Phenomena of WordPress

“My God, its full of stars!” muttered Dr. David Bowman as he steered his vehicular pod into the monolith of Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” He found his assumption’s of a flat, solid object to be incorrect as he plunged into a bottomless well of potential.

Last Saturday, I was not off the limb of Saturn’s moon Iapetus but on the campus of the University of Washington at WordCamp Seattle 2011. In this case, the stars were the 350 attendees who represent a sliver of the tens of millions of WordPress websites now installed.

I press often and hard that technology is not a universe but one of a myriad of galaxies in the universe that is humanity. From the first moment one of our small, hairy ancestors picked up a stone and smashed open a bone for the marrow within, found the stone wanting and fashioned it further, we were engaged in technology. Considering the amount of flint flakes and stone points found everywhere across the globe, stone tools were most likely the first Opensource technology as well.

Over the years, I have attended several hundred technology conferences. They have been focused on all the main themes: entrepreneurial investment, applications, operating systems, research & development, hardware, software, mobile, etc. You come to expect a given set of characters: pundits, pseudo pundits, neck beards, gear heads, chest pounders, plus the usual crop of mercenaries and opportunists. You also meet a handful of great people but they all have a statistical commonality, they were usually Young White Males.

A few adjusting clarifications, YWMs are not always Caucasian, there were and still is a large contingent from the Indian subcontinent and Asia as well. As fairly gross generalizations go, it holds true that this demographic is mostly young, mostly male and very technology centric. They and aging peers, that have migrated to management, form a perspective that represents the industry sector but not the general society at large.

For many years, the technology sector was dominated by a few very large companies. At first it was the dominance of the hardware mainframes but that fell away to the dominance of operating system developers and the desktop personal computers that ran that software and the applications. The introduction of the Internet brought about another turbulent iteration of technological transition and e new set of dominant companies.

Each technological evolution has brought about an increasingly pervasive granularity that matches the overall demographics of the American population. IBM dominated an age of mainframes and Microsoft the age of desktop and the inception of laptop computers. The transition marks the move from a relationship of server distribution and dumb terminals to individual computer users with their own operating systems and applications.

WordPress is not dominated by those who are coming from technology but by those who are coming to technology.

The age of the Internet has many similarities to past transitions and a very significant difference, being less about broadcasting from a central concern than about multicasting from many points of interest. At present, the mindshare landscape is dominated Google and Facebook, companies that are the next logical step in the evolution of increasing granularity. One is search, in a universe of stars how do you find the one you are interested in? The other is social networking, in a universe of stars, how do you find the star that is in your own galaxy, cluster or neighborhood?

The point being, we have gone from somebody who did everything for us, to someone who provided tools and now, to someone who helps us find others doing the same thing. Herein lies the changing heart of technology development, the great rush of users to WordPress is not dominated by those who are coming from technology but by those who are coming to technology.

The goals of the later group is not defined by an interest in technology, to them, it is nothing more than a requirement en route to achieve their goals. They were at the Wordcamp to learn how to better use SEO for their business site or their business or personal blog, how to create and sell themes or to how to better select and use plugins. It is a very different goal to seek a tool for your business than to develop a tool that might be a business.

Many were there with a keen understanding of social networking and determined to build community as part of a marketing or brand strategy. A woman sitting at a nearby table explained that she was at the Wordcamp with a few of her executive colleagues from the retirement center they managed. They wanted to learn how they could better use WordPress in building community for their staff and residents.

Like Dr Bowman plummeting towards the monolith expecting a solid object, I went to WordCamp Seattle with my own bucketful of assumptions, but my stars were the diverse group of individual attendees. I do not have exact numbers but using standard crowd counting techniques, stare at 20 chairs and count, stare at next 20, etc. I was able to achieve a good demographic breakout. Close to half of the audience was women, this matches the gender percentage of the overall population. I have noticed this growing trend for some time.

I was surprised by the age demographic for a technology conference, about 25% to 30% of those in attendance were in their late 40s or early to mid 50s. It was new for me to see a mother and daughter in one of the extremely technical seminars asking questions that would have pressed any ardent technologist. The daughter appeared to be in her early 50s and the mother in her late 60s, not your typical hard core technology geeks.

Source Data: Pew Internet & American Life Project, February 3, 2010

Assumptions of gender, race or age and their involvement in technology, their purpose and their level of expertise may be increasingly invalid. My observations at the WordCamp Seattle 2011 are being reflected in other observations and reports. The chart above, using numbers from The Pew Research Center’s report, “Social Media & Mobile Internet Use Among Teens and Young Adults,” shows a steep decline in younger individuals creating blogs.

In just the three years between 2006 and 2009 the number of blogger that are under 18 years of age has been cut in half. The slightly older demographic of 18 to 29 also declined nearly as much in the two years between 2007 and 2009. Despite this precipitous drop of the young in blogging, overall blog numbers have held steady because of the increase in blogging by those 30 and older.

Source Data: Pew Internet & American Life Project, December 16, 2010

WordPress and blogging are not the only trends showing a greater age participation in the development and consumption of technology. The chart above, derived from Pew’s, “Generations Online in 2010″ report, shows that all age groups are increasing in the use of social network sites. It is true that in the period between 2008 and 2010, those in the ages between 18 and 34 started at a healthy 67% of their age group and shot to 83%, an increase of 124%. What is more remarkable, the baby booming age group of 55 to 65, increased by a whopping 478%!

All age groups above 45 years are increasing their use of social networking sites, which include blogs, Facebook and Twitter, at double and triple rates, making them very likely to overtake those under 45 in a very short period. Even our grandparents, at 74 years and above have increased their representation by 400% to 16% of their age group.

These trends and many others are showing a clear direction, a broader participation by a larger and more diverse set of population segments. Also, this participation is not merely passive and consumptive based but defined by groups willing to role up their sleeves, wade fully into technology in order to create their own blogs, websites and social network pages. WordPress is not the only factor, there is larger story, which I will tell in the third essay of this series, “The Democratization of Technology.”

Yes, Dr Bowman, WordPress is full of stars, and not just the hot, blue variety that are planetless and new but those yellow, older, sun-like stellar objects. Surrounded by rocky planets that are the homes to civilizations and their billions of inhabitants.

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