People who use WordPress to publish their poetry, their photographs or communicate to their customers their small business (about 30% of the internet) may not even know about Project Gutenberg. Ostensibly Project Gutenberg began as a new editor. Given how mediocre the WordPress TinyMCE editor has been from inception (note: we created FV WYSIWYG on FCKedit ten years ago and it’s still the only editor which allows a writer to switch to code view and back again and not have all his/her paragraphs and line spacing arbitrarily changed), a new editor is a laudable goal.
Peter Small demonstrating the use of the Gutenberg press at the International Printing Museum.
Unfortunately Project Gutenberg turned out not to be an upgraded post editor but a new vision of WordPress in permanent Page Builder mode. There have been serious writings about the tyranny of choice. By forcing writers to make decisions about blocks, multiple photo layouts, forms, sliders every time they create a new paragraph, there are two results likely:
- creation paralysis – so much decision making
- hideous, non-standard layouts through what should be an orderly publication, a weblog or commercial site
Since page builders came on the scene, indeed many WordPress sites, even for commercial organisations, look like they were built by kindergarten children with uneven margins, randomly inserted photos combined with sleek drop shadow. Performance is to match (very poor).
“Under pressure” from Wix and Squarespace over market share, Matt Mullenweg decided to go for broke and sell out the core WordPress experience as of 2012 – a sleek and customisable publishing solution. WordPress was never meant to be a design tool, it was a CMS. I have no idea why – other than market share – Mullenweg decided to turn a hammer into a scale ruler. Scale rulers are about as useful for pounding in nails (posts) as wine glasses. I specifically say Mullenweg as honestly he’s the only one with any control over WordPress. People will mention others but most of those others are on Mullenweg’s payroll directly or indirectly, including WordPress’s only regular beat journalists Jeff Chandler and Sarah Gooding of WP Tavern (part of Audrey Capital)
Many WordPress advanced users and developers have tried to contribute and reshape Project Gutenberg to be less extreme and more manageable.
As the WordPress editor has been deprecated to plugin status as the “Classic Editor”, the community has finally woken up to the grim news they’ve been sold the Emperor’s New Clothes. A feeling of shock which finally resulted in WordPress’s accessibility team lead Rian Retveld (unlike me, Rian bleeds WordPress when cut) throwing in the towel and resigning. No matter how hard she works on improving accessibility, Project Gutenberg rides rampant over her concerns.
WordPress is fast becoming the F-35 of CMS. Over-budget, over-featured and unreliable. Four hundred and six billion dollars later, most missions are still being flown by F-16. I’ve been so depressed about what a complicated, unreliable and high maintenance pile of crap WordPress has become in the last few years that over the last three or four months I’ve been paying less attention to WordPress news. I’ve given up participating on Trac tickets or donating employee time (costs me directly out pocket hundreds of euros an hour as our team would be working on paid projects). Our team hasn’t enjoyed participating as there is so much political squabbling and so little productive coding done that really unless I pay them and mandate it, no one wants to do any work on WordPress. This is after a dozen years of regular contribution with either free plugins or core contribution.
F-16 and F-35. Very similar to the naked eye.
One is fit for purpose with low maintenance costs, the other is grounded.
Something like the new improved WordPress.
So I’m a bit out of the loop for the last six months. Peter Knight has been following the Project Gutenberg drama (everything at WordPress seems to be a drama these days – when a company runs roughshod over its users drama should not be a surprise) closely and posted this incredibly insightful comment at WP Tavern. I worry that the comment there might disappear at some point or the whole post, so I’m republishing it here as the main article (I’ve checked – this text is not on Peter Knight’s own site):
Maybe this will be a wake up call that was needed. Decisions made by core developers in the name of immediate productivity and in pursuit of perverting goals (50% market share) under arbitrary timelines have tons of unintended consequences.
Inclusiveness, open source ideals, democratising development… These are still ideals of the WP project are they not? There’s a big gap between the ideals and the direction WP has been going in.
Gutenberg has raised barriers to entry for anyone looking to contribute or work with WordPress code itself, this seems like a prime example. We’re now leaving it up to people who are the narrow minority of people, enlarging the gap between contributors, users, 3rd party developers on one hand and core developers on the other.
Nothing signifies this more to me than the fact that Gutenberg in a departure from standard practice has been shipping with code that can’t be easily debugged on the spot (with only built/minified code on offer) without numerous extra steps. It has made a significant part of the codebase the preserve of people who are both comfortable with react and have the inclination and confidence to setup a development environment. Effectively, a signal this sends is that working on that code is for core developers, or those with their abilities. It alters how people behave when they run into problems.
I can’t help but note the gap between what well-meaning core team members say and what is the actual case.
When React was chosen, one of the arguments was that was easy enough to learn and that React being so popular would be an advantage in courting attention from the wider JS community. That certainly doesn’t seem to have been the case here, with highly motivated contributors struggling to get productive and struggling to find people who do have the required expertise to help.
It was also said that React would only be a layer underneath, with WordPress providing its own more agnostic api layer in between, playing down the need to basically master React to be productive working on core and develop stuff on top of Gutenberg. This just isn’t true and it’s echoed in this story. If you want to be productive, you need to know React, full stop.
It’s been said that Gutenberg has been in “stable release” for a good while now, but every release we see the roll out of new features and major tweaks, while many people routinely encounter bugs that result in lost work and time.
It’s one thing to break some eggs in pursuit of a better WordPress experience for the whole, but I find it very hard to think this is the way to go about it. WordPress became a success because the barrier to entry was low and invited people in. We now seem to have switched to a model that seems preoccupied by having a small number of makers produce an end product that is going to wow everyone, particularly the new users who would be choosing between WordPress and hosted solutions like Wix.
In that model, development happens more like in a company and users are more like customers who do not need to know how the sausage is made. The real brilliance happens in the core team, who divine their own solutions and parse what customers say with the understanding that the customer doesn’t really know what they are talking about. The response to feedback so far tells the story. You get the same response a company might give. Bad reviews can be treated as noise. It can be labeled as ‘interesting data’ to the CEO. Or it can be taken as a signal that the coding rockstars just need to work a little harder to get it right. This furthers grows the mental divide between core developers and the wider community, while many community members feel even more divorced from how WordPress evolves.
It’s not by design but with the dominant influence of those with high level js skills and react familiarity working in core means all other people are effectively obstacles that slow things down. It’s happening between all categories of WordPressers. Even experienced people who’ve done tons of core work or are noted contributors in other ways have adopted an overly deferential position because they don’t feel as competent as others js-centric devs. Contributors with different expertises (like accessibility or privacy) feel like they are at a disadvantage because they are not the first class citizens in core development world.
One of the worst things about this is that the culture just might continue to change to match this dynamic. Users may start treating WordPress more and more like some product produced by a technical team of workers and less like a co-owned community project in which everyone is a potential contributor. The most bewildering thing is how Matt is helping drive this, by pointing at market share ambitions and being preoccupied with competitors that most in the WP community don’t even care about. There’s no profound vision unfolding here, if it were we’d be building the best editor possible for the sake of users, not for the sake of ‘survival’ concerns, growth of market share and certainly not under the pressure of artificial time limits while deprioritising other important things, like accessibility and the approachability of WordPress in general.
Why do we stay with WordPress? As the publisher or WordPress’s most feature rich and reliable video plugin, we have a commitment to thousands of paid users. We also built and support dozens of VIP clients WordPress sites. Moving away from WordPress would not be a casual decision neither for us nor our clients.
Will we support a fork? Probably. Our plugin BusinessPress already gets rid of a fair amount of the default WordPress.org install noise, adding hidden preferences and saving a publisher installing twenty plugins to clean up default WordPress or creating a huge custom functions.php section to use on every theme (functionality should be in plugins not themes). We’d be keen to contribute to a fork which makes many of these changes at an application level.
It’s time for either Mullenweg to stop listening to his VC buddies and start listening to the community or for core WordPress to be forked. It’s happened in the past in a similar situation to Mambo. It’s sad that it had to happen to WordPress but with the alienation due to a focus on the wrong issues (market share rather than product quality for its enormous existing userbase), it’s been a long time coming.
Image credits: vlasta2. Peter Small demonstrating the use of the Gutenberg press at the International Printing Museum. Netherlands Ministry of Defence.
Alec has been helping businesses succeed online since 2000. Alec is an SEM expert with a background in advertising, as a former Head of Television for Grey Moscow and Senior Television Producer for Bates, Saatchi and Saatchi Russia.
I totally agree with you that direction that WP is going (trying to become Website builder, instead of a stronger CMS) is not most of the developers would like to see. I also totally lost interest about WP related stuff in the past 6 months.
But if you ask yourself a simple question: “Why have u used WP so far?”. The answer will never be the CMS itself but the community. Honestly its one of the worst tools with one lovely community which makes a great choice for inexperienced developers. Least scalable, worst code, definitely not the simplest one.
I think its time to move on. There are so many great CMSes out there that really it doesn’t make sense to pick WP anymore.
Lately I fell for Craft CMS, which has a solid foundation on Yii, has a templating engine (twig), commerce, plugins, small but lovely community. Its kinda pricey for e-commerce, but for regular websites is $300 per projects which is definitely fine.
Also there is Strapi.io which is still in alpha, but its a Node.js CMF and its super easy to setup and get going. Its like WP’s brother from another mother. Just better, faster and easier.
Thanks for taking the time to write out this comprehensive explanation. I keep up as much as possible on WP developments but had not really understood the nature of Gutenberg, and I certainly had no insights into what it’s doing to the developer community.
You bring up a point that I had not thought through: WP’s focus on maintaining market share. Previously, I had thought, “Well, I guess that’s important. Don’t want t be withering away.” But, as you say…for what purpose? Why is that important? And at what cost to the community?
As someone who has never used any kind of builder and only the text editor of WP (since I was originally taught to just place all HTML by hand and I like it), I’ve been dreading what Gutenberg will do to my WP experience. I do hope it’s not ruined going forward when 5 comes out and that the Classic plugin continues to work the same.
I don’t recall why I originally chose FV Player, but it has turned out to be my best plugin support experience by far, which is a testament to the people who work on your team.
The effort by Automattic to promote Gutenberg through WordPress.org began in June 2017 as documented here by Automattic Experience Designer Tammie Lister (karmatosed) with this “Promoting Gutenberg page” ticket: github.com/WordPress/gutenberg/issues/1559
The task was handed off to the WordPress.org Marketing Team, where I was a contributor at the time. The push was for a full marketing plan to promote Gutenberg, not just some information page. There was brief debate about the nature of this request, but the team took it on as a key focus of the group and continued to take direction from Automattic staff who were not members of the Marketing Team.
The Marketing Team was a newer group with limited membership and having trouble completing projects, but most team members thought it was important to follow the lead of Automattic staff and others on the Gutenberg project. I quit as a contributor in early 2018, as the mission of the WordPress.org Marketing Team shifted away from ongoing initiatives to focusing more and more on promoting Gutenberg and taking on tasks by the new so-called Growth Councils.
Matt Mullenweg privately formed both an Enterprise Growth Council and Consumer Growth Council in December 2017 as he had announced at WordCamp US, and they were later rolled out under the guise of WordPress.org by Automattic staff including Tom Willmot, Gary Pendergast, and Josepha Haden Chomphosy. There’s a single blog post, but not much else documenting these Councils: make.wordpress.org/meta/2018/02/01/enterprise-growth-council-meeting-january/
No actual Council teams exist on WordPress.org to this day, though they meet privately, have a #council-ops Slack channel, and direct tasks for other teams. Early this year, when I asked WordPress.org Community lead and Dot Organizer at Automattic Andrea Middleton about what was going on, she replied: “It’s pretty Matt-driven right now, but I’m 95% sure he’ll close the circle on telling everyone else about it soon?”
So, not only is Gutenberg an Automattic-driven project, the CEO and staff of a private commercial company have indeed subverted the Community organization of WordPress.org to use for their marketing strategies, and they obfuscate those activities.
At a recent workshop discussing FLOSS governance with Drupal and Joomla contributors, several commented that WordPress was basically a commercial venture for WordPress.com with open source dressing. Is that what the WordPress Community has become?
Very interesting post. I have been following the drama as of late with WordPress and while I do agree a new editor would be a welcome change, I have to say Gutenberg is not it. There are so many problems with it as an editor that it is just not a welcomed change.
Since I am responsible for maintaining a WordPress website with 10 years of old content and a small team that needs the editor to just work, we have been seriously looking at the fork called ClassicPress (classicpress.net/) The question is will the community behind ClassicPress to drive more adoption. At this point it is a wait and see.