WordPress: A community conflicted

An Open Letter to the WordPress Community

Every so often, the debates heat up and some of the more excitable members of the community get their panties in a bunch.

We’ve seen articles calling for Matt Mullenweg’s resignation, posts lambasting 3rd party developers that choose to go closed source, endless twitter fights and tantrums, and even the threat of law suits.  The GPL arguments alone have taken up hours of my time.

The whole situation turns into a black eye for WordPress and Automattic, and causes a great divide in an otherwise helpful and united WordPress community.

“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”

— William James

If you came here expecting drama, you should stop reading now.  I’m not doing it.  In general, I think it’s the overly dramatic members of our community that have turned healthy debate into project poison.  For every conflict that exists within the WordPress community, simple non-combative solutions exist.  Thats what I’d like to talk about, and perhaps we can come up with some useful solutions.

So, if you’ve read this far, you might be thinking, “who the crap is this guy, and why should I be reading this?”, so let me take 10 seconds to introduce myself.  I’m a 37-year-old IT consultant and Sr. Project Manager with nearly 20 years of experience.  In a past life I was a very active and vocal contributor to the Mambo/Joomla communities and served as the “Head of 3rd Party Development Standards and Guidelines”.  I’ve been a WordPress fanatic for several years and have managed, developed and consulted on dozens of large and medium WordPress implementations and customizations.  Back in 2005, Yahoo was kind enough to give me a little award for a terribly simple implementation of one of their products.

All that said, I won’t pretend to be someone of any particular importance.  Although I’ve been very active in the community for several years, I’ve tried to keep my head low and let the debates and general bullshit arguments pass me by.  The only reason I’ve decided to get vocal now, after many years of relative silence, is because I see the cancer growing and I’d like it to stop.

So, where do we start?  What is the biggest perceived problem?

The biggest arguments seem to surround the “Conflict of Interest” between Automattic and WordPress.org.  Some very squeaky wheels believe that, because Matt Mullenweg founded and generally controls both the for-profit and non-profit entities, decisions about WordPress are geared toward increasing Automattic’s bottom line .  To further the argument, critics seem to believe that Automattic’s hiring of several core contributors increases this conflict.  A recent announcement stating that Jane Wells, an Automattic employee, was being paid to do nothing but help with the open source project, fueled the fire of several very vocal community members.

Put simply, the argument is flawed.  I’ll bullet-point in an effort to keep it brief.

  • Automattic needs WordPress coders and why shouldn’t they hire the best coders they can find?  It only makes sense that they hire from the pool of very talented core contributors.
  • Automattic is the largest contributor and supporter of the WordPress.org project — they have every right to steer the project in a direction that is most beneficial to them.
  • The vast majority of improvements made by Automattic employees are put into the open source codebase — without those contributions, the project would suffer dearly.

That said, there are a few things that Autmattic should be doing to calm the waters.

First of all, if Jane Wells is dedicated to maintaining WordPress.org, she should be a WordPress Foundation employee.  As such, her mandate would be to do what’s best for WordPress.org. That would mean doing everything to keep it’s biggest contributors and supporters happy while getting the best possible outcome for the community.  This might seem like an argument of semantics, but it’s an important one.  As an Automattic employee, her role is viewed as such — and her duty, perceived or real, is to help Automattic make money.

Second, Automattic should be much more open and vocal about their intentions.  There’s nothing wrong with saying “Hey, we want this because it’ll help our bottom line.  We contribute the code, we fund the show, and we’re giving it away to you guys for free so quit your bitching!”.  It’s their right to do things that are in their best interest and until The WordPress Foundation starts getting support and contributions from other companies that can rival those of Automattic, the Foundation should listen.

Lets not forget that Matt Mullenweg co-created WordPress.  He created the company that financially supports the project.  Those core contributors he hired now have jobs that allow them to work on code full-time, they get paid to code for Automattic, and most of that code comes back to the community.  Until the naysayers can invest the same amount of equity he and his company have, there isn’t much to talk about.

GPL Issues

The GPL has been a very hot topic for a long time.  I don’t particularly want to use this venue to argue which side is right or wrong; Instead I’ll just give a 30,000 foot view of whats going on and suggest a few changes in current policy that might help smooth things out.

There are basically two interpretations of the GPL and how it applies to WordPress plugins and themes:

  1. Anything written for WordPress is covered under the GPL as derivative work – The End.
  2. Themes and Plugins don’t derive themselves from WordPress, but rather they use the API as an interface to add functionality without actually modifying the code.

It’s really not that complicated, and both sides make very valid points.  You either follow the licence to the letter or you follow the “spirit” in which the contract was written.

As it currently stands, The WordPress Foundation insists that anything written for WordPress is covered by the GPL and should be treated as derivative works.  They’ve deemed that anyone releasing plugins or themes under a non-GPL compatible license in violation of the GPL.

The big problem here is the attitude The WordPress Foundation and Matt have displayed in regards to the subject.  I won’t argue that their interpretation of the GPL is incorrect, but their vigorous condemnation of those that choose to release themes and plugins under non-GPL licenses is just plain bad PR.  It’s a very grey line and until there’s a legal precedent that gives one of the two sides a solid foundation, they really need to either treat the situation much more gently or take it to litigation.  Sadly, I don’t think there’s any middle ground here.

Calming the waters

What needs to change?  How can the community, Automattic and The Foundation do things differently to keep the WordPress vibe a shiny happy one?  Well, ultimately, nothing will ever please everyone.  The WordPress community revolves around an enormous and very diverse population of people and commercial ventures and there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution to every conflict.  There are, however, some simple changes that might just help the general perception of WordPress.

  • Open and direct public relations;  No more sudden announcements and changes in policy without open discussions.  No more speculating on why a feature is being dropped.  I know it’s a pain in the ass and perhaps a bit of a time suck, but it’s necessary.  There will always be critics, but it’s pretty easy to take the boom out of their thunder if you take away their ability to speculate on motive.
  • Some separation between Automattic and The Foundation.  Make someone like Jane Wells an employee of the foundation, acting in the best interest of the foundation and the community.  The end result may be nearly identical to what we have now, but at least then the foundation can justify why decisions are made, how they’re beneficial to the community, and even if those decisions still sway in the direction of what Automattic wants, it won’t be Automattic making the decisions.  It’s all about perception and public relations.
  • Get rid of the gray area with regards to the GPL.  Lawyers can interpret the GPL as it applies to WordPress however they’d like, but until there is some real legal precedent it’s always going to be up for debate.  I know it’s scary for everyone involved, but it’s “final”.  The debates feed the cancer.  Persuasive individuals on both sides of the fence will always build up armies of followers and set them off to combat.  We don’t need another never-ending war.

Can it really be as simple as that?  Hell no.  There will always be some kind of conflict.  These issues are the biggest problems right now, and it’s time to address them before the next conflict begins.  Lets use the current conflicts to build deeper relationships, find better ways to handle things and the end result will be a better community for everyone.

15 thoughts on “WordPress: A community conflicted

  1. Gil,
    While naturally I disagree with some of what you say (especially regarding the conflict of interests that exist), I think your suggestions on how to calm the waters are spot on.

    While I certainly don’t want to turn the discussion about your very even headed and well worded post into a GPL debate, I do feel that issue is that the core of the issues that cause strife within the community.

    I would love to see progress made towards any of the three points you list and agree that they would go a long way to making the situation better.

    • Ben,
      I’m pleasantly surprised by your comment. It’s great to see that you’re open to some less extreme changes and I hope others, from both sides of the argument, can see the benefit of building better relationships in order to make WordPress as awesome as possible.

  2. Interesting read.

    I’m “on the record” as feeling the relationship is “vague” – and pressed Automattic’s Ranaan Bar-Cohen on the subject during an interview on WordPress Weekly. I don’t think that the relationship is a “bad” one. In fact, I think the strong personalities atop the community have actually managed to steer the ship in a direction that has kept the project tighter and more focused than many of the other open source CMS projects. I don’t object to it – I simply want more transparency, as you’ve called for.

    That said, as fascinating as this for those of “in the business” of WordPress, it’s really a tempest in a tea pot. No one outside of the pretty small community that follows WordPress closely and makes a living developing for it probably even knows what we’re talking about. You could make the argument that the “in the know” developers are thought leaders who will steer the market, but even the most outspoken in the community have not actually expressed any intent to “leave” WordPress for an alternative.

    Point being, the debate is healthy, and many of your suggestions are excellent, but I don’t think this is remotely impacting WordPress’ broader “reputation”. The *erroneous* myths about WordPress security resulting from poor shared host implementations is, in my opinion, having a much greater impact on the software’s reputation.

  3. “Automattic is the largest contributor and supporter of the WordPress.org project — they have every right to steer the project in a direction that is most beneficial to them.”

    Not really. If Automattic is in de-facto control of WordPress.org then it can prevent others with competing interests or (more to the point) simply different viewpoints from contributing (both code or money).

    If WordPress.org is truly devoted to the best interests of the WordPress community then Automattic shouldn’t have veto power (or worse) over it’s decisions. Either WordPress.org is independent or it’s a sham.

    • James,

      Even if WordPress.org was absolutely independent, do you believe that Automattic wouldn’t have the ability to veto anything they wanted? Realistically, no matter how you structure The Foundation, Automattic is funding the vast majority of contributions being made to the project. There isn’t a single situation where it would be beneficial to the community, as a whole, to bite the hand that feeds.

      As the project is licensed under the GPL, there is absolutely nothing to stop someone with “competing interests” from funding and supporting a fork of the project. I don’t see this happening any time soon, but if such an interest existed and could provide the funding, there wouldn’t be a single thing stopping them.

      • Gil, actually in a comment on my blog today Matt made the argument that Automattic CAN’T fund the vast majority of the WordPress Foundation.

        And surely having viable competition for Automattic would be good for the community as a whole but not good for Automattic’s bottom line?

        Also, the project being licensed under the GPL has nothing to do with the control that the WordPress Foundation as a proxy of Automattic wields. It has to do with who controls the trademarks and runs .org. Neither of those is impacted at all by the GPL.

      • Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure, James is my father although we disagree more often than agree and he certainly wouldn’t have any problem telling me if I were wrong (he’s done it many times before).

  4. With smaller projects over the years / decades I’ve usually just said “Screw you” and walked away. Not that anybody noticed. Just sayin’.
    With such as Mozilla I headed to a deep / dark / dirty corner of the swamp and went to work … a great way to meet the finest sorta folk.

    With WP … well, even just a few weeks ago I chipped in every way I could, “Well, there are some folk feeling left out of the loop. They feel committed, as though having something to contribute, wanting to help out, but they’re getting frustrated. And there are ways of responding to that legitimate concern”.
    I never got even a single slight response.

    So I’ve updated one very trivial site to 3.0 to give MU functionality a run for its money, but I don’t think you’ll hear more than *shrug* and *sigh* from me. I’ve been a professional communicator with such as NORAD/SAC on my CV, but I just don’t rate here. I guess you either have to be uber-geek or A-list blogger. HeyHo, so it goes.


    • Ben, I think your frustration could be helped by much better communication from WP.org’s leadership.

      Believe it or not, IRC chats aren’t a great way to discuss things with the community.

      They have several blogs, and a forum, and yet one of the most common complaints I hear is “I spoke up/offered help/tried to help/etc but got shot down/ignored/scolded.”

      That’s a bad sign for any community.

    • Ben,
      I can feel what you’re saying — but, having been involved in many large community projects, I also understand that sometimes, even the most dedicated contributors can go unnoticed.

      I do think that WP, in general, could do a better job of addressing people like you — but realistically, patience and perhaps gentle persistence is the way to go. I don’t know the particulars of your situation, or how you were helping, so I can’t suggest anything more detailed.

      I can say, however, that sometimes you have to go into situations like this on your own and for yourself. For instance, when i wrote this article, I did HOPE people would read it and respond, but frankly I didn’t have any expectations of even a single person commenting. I don’t expect it to make a huge impact on the community or WP, but I do HOPE that some of it is heard and taken to heart. At the end of the day, I’m just happy that I’ve gotten it off my chest, I’ve said my piece and I’m happy with what I’ve written.

  5. Before going crazy, wait a month. Really. Changes are happening, but change takes time. Things are in motion and have been for a while now.

    • Otto, your response is a perfect example of why the community is conflicted.

      What changes are happening? I think this would fall under the Open and Direct Public Relations bullet Gil mentioned, no?

      The “don’t ask questions, just trust me” form of leadership only works until the leader gives followers reasons not to trust him or her. For many within the WP community, that time has come and gone but we’re still in “trust us” mode.

    • Otto,
      I’d love to hear more about these changes. I think everyone would. Perhaps this is a good time to start getting the community involved in the changes by letting them know what they should expect? I’d love to have a chat sometime — maybe we can do a short interview sometime soon?

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