The #wpdrama is a quite often used hashtag whenever great change in WordPress ecosystem is announced (or stalled). Sometimes it’s not even a great change but a trendy subject.
What I think it means is the WordPress ecosystem is far larger and plural than when the project was in its early stages, and any potential change or somewhat opaque decision is going to trigger a large discussion, not always constructive. But, hey, that’s the internet nowadays.
WordPress drives more than 30% of the internet (over 55% of CMS powered sites globally, roughly the same in my country, Portugal).
Despite being free software, it has become a large business, with global economical and social impacts.
This happened mainly because WordPress is open source and has a very friendly entry level. A lot of WordPress developers didn’t have prior developer experience. A lot of people doing business building solutions based on WordPress still don’t have developer experience.
This friendliness and, specially, WordPress’ flexibility and plasticity, helped many people build their business and their lives around WordPress. Many entrepreneurs were empowered to build their online businesses because WordPress was there and was easy to use, and has a huge ecosystem and community that offers support like no other.
It’s not rare to find someone that says “WordPress changed my life”. I, for instance, can certainly say that my life would be very much different if I hadn’t found WordPress to solve my problem. It empowered me to build my site, to build sites for others, and to empower others to build their own sites.
This makes WordPress very different from any other software.
Not every WordPress user is aware of the huge community that supports it, though it’s one of its advantages.
When I first started using WordPress I had no experience building for the web. I ended up with it almost by accident. But right there I realised there were a lot of community driven resources, to learn, get help, and third-party solutions to use, like plugins and themes.
It was also very clear that there were a lot of ways you could help the project. Being a technological project, it usually requires technology driven contributors, programmers, sys admins. But the WordPress community was (and still is) much more than a technological community. In fact, I believe the greatest achievement of the WordPress project was to captivate the most broader sample of contributors.
I could hardly imagine myself contributing to a web software with code. But I found myself useful to WordPress, translating, helping others to translate, proofreading translations, organizing events. And training new users.
As my good friend Zé Fontainhas never tires of saying…
Everything you do not share is lost.Zé Fontainhas
In WordPress and open source jargon this is called “giving back”. It means that you give back to the project the way you can, with what you know or are able to bring to the project and the community.
When you succeed in giving back and you feel you can in fact contribute to a large project like this one, there’s a sense of belonging. A sense that there’s a place for everyone, regardless of capabilities and functions.
I believe this sense of belonging also increases the responsibilities and sensitivity in relation to what happens with the project. Especially when the changes affect us in particular.
When I first joined the WordPress community, one of the things that most impressed me was how easy it was to get in touch with the project leads. In a certain way, it still is. It’s just not that obvious. A kind of hierarchy that was not visible a few years ago is now in place, pushing up decisions to a restricted group. Perhaps it was always there, we just have more people in between.
One other thing that became obvious, and that we struggled against for a long time, is the confusion between the WordPress project and Automattic, Matt Mullenweg’s company.
Mullenweg is WordPress’ co-founder. Him and Mike Little forked b2/cafelog into WordPress back in 2003. Automattic is one of the businesses Mullenweg built around WordPress, WordPress.com, the hosted version of WordPress, being its most notorious child-project.
As both WordPress and WordPress.com thrived, the paths of the two projects were always very close, with Matt Mullenweg in the lead. This has created the public assumption, right from the early years, that Matt and his Automattic was actually leading the WordPress open-source project, making it more suitable for a commercial service like WordPress.com.
Although there are a lot more core contributors than just Automatticians, truth is that some respected independent developers from the past have departed, and now almost every project lead is an Automattician.
Now, I have no personal issues with Automatticians and I acknowledge the importance of Matt Mullenweg and Automattic in the growth and thrive of WordPress. If it were not for his insights, probably it wouldn’t exist, let alone grow this big.
But to have such a broad role in an open-source project like this one and, at the same time, defending the project is what the community wants it to be, without a dictation from above, it’s somewhat confusing.
You know this community is all f*cked up when the first comments are all about who is “we”Marco Almeida, regarding this.
This is to say that the WordPress project hasn’t a clear governance model. It’s like everyone accepts that Matt Mullenweg, Benevolent Dictator for Life, is in charge and that’s it. There’re no clear guidelines on how the governance model works, how people are chosen for leading roles, how some questionable decisions are taken.
For example: why is there a featured plugins section on WordPress.org focused on Automattic’s plugins? Shouldn’t featured plugins be independently curated, to be fair to all the developers that contribute to this indispensable part of the ecosystem? And how does the recommended hosting section works? Why these companies and not others?
I get it: follow the money. My point is, if this was made clear, it would be fairer for all.
One of the areas where #wpdrama turns out to be more intense is user feedback. And in different ways.
First, there’s this idea that, whenever a change is being prepared, user feedback is not fully taken into consideration. This has been especially obvious with Gutenberg plugin reviews and the consequent discussions regarding the true value of this (mostly negative) reviews. “Frustrated users are more likely to leave reviews”, hence the 2:1 ratio of negative feedback.
There’s even a section for what they call vocal minority in the WordPress Philosophy page. The ones that leave feedback are considered barely 1% of the real world users, and the project aims to reach less engaged or online active users. (Which, at the same time, is disregarded in favor of “meeting and talking to users at WordCamps across the globe”, as if real world users are more like to be in WordCamps than reviewing stuff online.)
On the other hand, “decisions are taken by those show up” is also a quote that gets systematically referred when the path of the project is questioned. So, a feedback “minority” is disregarded, but another minority is considered when making fundamental decisions. Sounds confusing?
I get that a project this big and with specific goals can not be dependent on erratic feedback, it has to be based on regular contribution of a core group of people. But, by favouring almost exclusively the views of a semi-closed group, there is a real risk of deviation from the day-to-day use of the software.
Assumptions, not Data
One criticism I have about the path the project takes is the tendency to base decisions on assumptions. The use of WordPress is so vast that it is impossible, of course, to respond to all needs. One way to base decisions is to follow standards and best practices.
But standards can also easily become doctrines, in the most negative sense, when they are out of step with most common usage. An example of this is the proposal and discussion around removing the “open link in new window” option.
Doubts have arisen in the community about the need to collect data that can identify more reliable usage profiles. Though collecting data is a sensible subject, telemetry carefully implemented, and definitely anonymous and voluntary, “would give WordPress the ability to inform decisions about current and future features”, as Morten Rand-Hendriksen suggests, and I tend to agree.
The social media syndrome vs. transparency
In conclusion, we might consider the project to be at a crossroads, amid the frenzy of what I believe to be the social media syndrome, with its feeds of galloping cruelty (you can see it both in reviews and in the devaluation of reviews, most often with the “fear of change” argument), and the need for greater transparency in processes. Whether in decision-making processes, based on more objective data and less subjective or doctrinal assumptions, or on governance itself.
This social media syndrome I talk about is something we and WordPress won’t fix. Our best contribution is to adopt a code of conduct reasonably applicable to all events related to the project (including the online interactions), one that advocates peace and “depolarization”. Anyway, being nice and civilized.
As to transparency, maybe it could start with small steps. I mean, WP-CLI has a clear statement about Governance, why not the main project itself?
Drupal, other successful open-source CMS project, has addressed governance more than once. And is doing it again. ClassicPress, the no-Gutenberg WordPress fork, is very clear about the way it pretendes to be managed and evolve. Perhaps this can also be an incentive for the WordPress project to live up to the responsibilities.
WordPress has grown in an unimaginable way. The amount of data available on the project website is immense, and it is easy to overlook some information that is relevant to enlighten the newcomers. Clarity in all areas of the project is imperative.