WordPress – Doomed to a Life of Conflict?

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.

mer·i·toc·ra·cy  (mr-tkr-s)
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”.

Patches Welcome

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.

10 thoughts on “WordPress – Doomed to a Life of Conflict?

    • That is WAY to much to ask for. As much as I appreciate the things you do for the WP community, your comment is a perfect example of one of the biggest problems I see coming from respected contributors. You can’t tell someone to fuck off, then expect them to quietly walk away.

        • Perhaps not, but the point of this post isn’t about you specifically, Pete. Perhaps you and KJ have unresolved personal issues, or whatever… That’s not something we’re going to get into here.

        • Pete – you did just say “vote with your feet.” That’s a polite way of saying “do go away old bean.” Which your average dock worker around here would translate as meaning “fuck off.”

          Telling people to vote with their feet isn’t constructive. Trying to see why they feel like they do *is*, and is something that’s needed in the WP community if it’s to prosper in the long term.

          I love WP. I helped sell it into The Telegraph, and later got them into the idea of using BuddyPress. I’ve sold WP into parts of the NHS. I’ve sold it into the US Government. There are major UK corporates in the UK using WP in all sorts of ways and some of them are paying for VIP support services. I’m not a core contributor because I’m an awful PHP developer, but that didn’t stop me writing one of the most popular search/replace tools to assist devs in migrating WP sites.

          You may feel that complaints or issues raised by folk like me are unimportant. And in the overall scale, just one person or business *is* unimportant. But there are a lot of people starting to complain that they feel ignored, and that’s bad for WP. We absolutely must acknowledge this and listen, or as a community we’re going to fragment. The cracks are showing, let’s do something about it before they turn into wide open fractures.

  1. I’m going to say some things that need thinking about:

    1. It’s not a meritocracy – otherwise we’d select the best leader. Is Matt Mullenweg the best leader? Well, maybe. Maybe not. But if nobody else can be leader we can never know. So that’s the first key point and if I hear anybody say that the WP community in my presence then I might just express my frustration.
    2. Because of the strong Automattic links with the core group, developments will be selected where they favour Automattic’s business. This, frankly, is natural. I mean, they contribute by far the most of any company in the community.
    3. When a patch gets submitted you can spend ages getting it raised, a core member will mark for a release, then somebody else will kill it saying that it’s a duplicate of another, better patch but which nobody will test or mark out for release because it’s too complex. Frus.Tra.Ting.
    4. WordPress is brilliant. I love it! I’ve built a successful business around it, and I’m not going to complain about the product itself. Yep, it has limitations, bucketloads of it, but so does every other piece of software known to man. So long as you’re aware of that and don’t try and push WP too far in a direction in which it was never intended to go then you’re fine. There’s other software.

    So, those are my key points about what we experience with WP. In summary though it’s an awesome system.

    Where I do think the WP elite go wrong is to do the following:

    1. Fail to accept that they can be wrong about many things, and that all complaints, however whiny, are actually valid. In the real world of software you have to do that – you can’t say your customers are wrong.
    2. Fail to understand that people who use and contribute to the WP community (whether core patches, plugins, themes, helping on forums etc) are as much customers as anybody else. They may not have contributed money, but they’ve certainly contributed a lot of time. In fact, if we cost our time (and we do, we’re organised) we can see that supporting the WP community costs us far far more than our company’s total spend on non open source software like MS Office, CS or even hardware.

    Our business depends on WordPress. But in reality it also depends on PHP, Apache and MySQL. It would be interesting to see how much time or money the WordPress Foundation or Automattic have put into any of those platforms. Proportionally very little, I suspect, and I’m almost certain that it’s less than we have put into the WP community. Of course, that’s just my opinion and supposition, so I may well be wrong (and I often am!)

    So every time I hear a complaint like “just put a patch in” or “get stuck in to get your voice heard” I get just a little bit angry. It’s a position that looks down a little on those who aren’t in the elite group, and it makes people feel mad. I totally understand why they say it, and I can even see the benefits in the way WP is organised. I just think… it could be better. Moving the WordPress Foundation into a more democratic model (even if based on monetary contributions buying voting rights for board selection) would be a huge step forward. I’d love to hear that this is the case, but there’s little sign of this happening.

    The result is that the community is fracturing slightly. The fractures could lead to forks of the core project, and the original WP project will continue to do well, but the forks will be targeted at slightly different needs. One or two may succeed. I’d prefer it if WP doesn’t fracture (explaining new platforms to clients is *hard*!) but I won’t be entirely surprised if it does.

  2. And just to mention, there are initiatives which are driven by Automattic (so far as I can tell) like CodePoet which pay back companies like ours in a very positive way.

    I think sometimes Matt thinks I don’t like him or his company, but the truth is that by and large I have a positive vibe towards both. I just think there’s a few things that need a tweak here and there in order to make things really really brilliant and truly achieve greatness.

    • Heh. Yeah, I’m sure Matt and others think I dislike them. Truth is, I love what they’ve done, but it’s time they let go a bit and let the community continue driving the project with the energy and enthusiasm they did when the project was their primary focus.

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