A couple of weeks ago a post by Kevinjohn Gallagher, about his agency dropping WordPress as their “go-to” CMS, inexplicably went viral and the normal rumble of conflict in the WordPress community suddenly erupted into a roar. Once again, as if on cue, two camps quickly formed and the shit slinging ensued.
At first, I had a very hard time understanding why such a fairly benign post spiraled into a civil war of words. Truth is, I shouldn’t have had any trouble understanding at all. It blew up for the same reason most conflicts do — the upper echelon has been ignoring the hoi polloi again. Oh, and vice-versa.
We can get a better understanding why this the community blows up over and over if we look at a few key words and phrases that get tossed about in WordPress circles these days…
Ah, yes, meritocracy… A term often used and abused by people like Matt Mullenweg, Jane Wells and others in the WordPress community to describe the hierarchy and management of the team. I’ve posted a definition of the word so that we can be clear on its meaning.
1. A system in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement.
2. a. A group of leaders or officeholders selected on the basis of individual ability or achievement. b. Leadership by such a group.
— The Dictionary
Frankly, when I hear someone describe WordPress as a meritocracy, I can’t help but laugh a bit. Ya see, I’ve spent a fair bit of time meeting developers over the last few years. In fact, I’ve had the privilege of sitting down with a number of regular core contributors and even a couple of core committers. Though I won’t name names, 9 out of 10 agree that, although ability and achievement do play a part in the “meritocracy”, it’s mostly a game of politics, ass kissing and playing favorites. So, basically, if you’re not at least 99% on-board with the upper management, there is no place for you in the core WordPress group.
So, is WordPress really a meritocracy? It’s pretty obvious from the outside looking in, and apparently from the inside looking in, that ability and intelligence are required but often trumped by favoritism and your ability to suppress any opinions you have that might not fall in line with the powers that be.
The vocal minority
Another term that’s been used quite a bit as of late. The vocal minority is mentioned on the WordPress Philosophy page and as it’s presented there, it makes perfect sense:
There’s a good rule of thumb within internet culture called the 1% rule. It states that “the number of people who create content on the internet represents approximately 1% (or less) of the people actually viewing that content”.
In context, this is a great rule of thumb. The statement is made regarding content creation and individuals on the web. The problem is, it’s being used quite a bit to describe developers that use WordPress for their clients. Once we alter the context of who the vocal minority is, it makes no sense at all.
Fact is that developers rarely speak for one person. They each work with clients, typically dozens of them, and some have a client-base of thousands. These developers probably have a wider and better perspective on how people want to use WordPress than many of those in the WordPress core group, so when a small handfull of developers start to rally around a feature that’s been removed, or disagree with a change that’s been made to the Admin UI, they’re more than likely not a vocal minority and probably speaking for more of the user community than those making decisions choose to perceive.
…we look to engage more of those users who are not so vocal online. We do this by meeting and talking to users at WordCamps across the globe, this gives us a better balance of understanding…
I’ve attended a few WordCamps and I’ve been to many WordPress centric meetups and events. I don’t believe this statement to be true at all. Perhaps I’m wrong, but every time I’ve had the opportunity to join in with a group of users and whichever core group members were there, the issues of the “vocal minority” are often the same issues that become central topics at WordCamps. Every time I’ve gone out for drinks with fellow developers, their needs and wants seem to bare an uncanny resemblance to those that are dismissed as one-off needs of the “vocal minority”.
The ever more popular “Patches Welcome” response that core team members fling around is rarely realistic.
Often times a patch is outside the ability or comfort level of your average developer. Combine that with the fact that patches are often ignored or met with an angry us-vs-them mentality, the message of “patches welcome” is viewed more as a fuck you than an invitation to actually submit code.
It’s “Us” vs. “Them”
Not really something I’ve heard coming from the community — but it doesn’t surprise me when I hear it directed towards the community by highly regarded core contributors and committers.
Fact is that most of the community really appreciates what WordPress has done for them. Whether a community member is a blogger just talkin’ about life, a hobby enthusiast that shares their passion and makes a buck or two on the side, a freelancer earning their living installing, customizing or building really big things on WordPress – they all love the fact that WordPress exists.
Most of them, however, don’t think their gratefulness should extend to the point of blindly agreeing with core when they feel poor decisions are made; this seems to be a sensitive issue for many in core. Disagreement is often met with aggressive and sometimes downright abusive responses. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the phrase “Vote with your feet”.
Vote with your feet
Well, I guess we can finish off where we started.
If you don’t like the filter, vote with your feet or with a plugin. -Matt Mullenweg
“Vote with your feet” was a very popular phrase with WordPress A-Listers over the last couple years, but judging by the reaction to Kevinjohn and his vocal decision to ditch WordPress, I think what they meant to say is “Vote with your feet and please don’t say anything bad on your way out the door because we can’t deal with any sort of negative criticism”… Not quite as catchy as “Vote with your feet”, eh?
Fact: Kevinjohn is most definitely not the only one that’s making the tough decision to walk. Slowly, but surely, agencies and freelancers are looking at alternatives for their clients.
Doomed to a life of Conflict?
So, do I really think WordPress is doomed to a life of conflict? Frankly… Yes.
But I really hope I’m proven wrong.