WordPress is 20 – the mixed reality from a consultant’s perspective




Chicago’s anime fans circa 2006 had a problem. Some incredible Japanese films and cultural events were happening around the city, and no one was hearing about them. There’s only one solution, right? Buy a domain!

AnimeChicago.com launched in November of that year. My dev experience then was FrontPage, Dreamweaver, phpbb, and other justifiable reasons to hack at code, like LiveJournal. But this new project required an easy way to publish content and iterate templates as its needs evolved. WordPress was edging out Moveable Type in the CMS market, so I installed that and fiddled. And kept fiddling.

Then I fiddled my way into paid work. Then I made a whole career out of it. WordPress debug, buildouts, and augmentation are the backbone of my 8-year contracting business. I credit this software for helping me put food on my table and crafting the most enjoyable community I’ve had the honor of serving. I’m a graphic design major who builds websites for fun, and WordPress created a space for me to do that.

This is just one origin story of millions of WP users, but it’s worth knowing to frame my opinions below. Let’s dive into it.

My praise is high…

Owning your content is more important than ever.

  • Self-hosting gives you complete control of your identity. Post, format, and share to whatever degree you want, without some algorithm interfering, without some corp selling your data, and without fear of losing content or access. That’s the Indie Web, baby!
  • The ROI of social media was never great and is largely tanking in 2023. Meanwhile, creators are dusting off the RSS protocol (how podcasts work) and newsletter subscriptions. WP has native RSS capabilities, and may fix that newsletter part someday.
  • Twitter’s implosion shifted attention from corpo interests towards Activity Pub, a protocol governed by the open web’s standards daddy. The interconnectivity of platforms leveraging this protocol is called the Fediverse. All of this meshes with WordPress’ values, so WP could natively federate in the future.

The sheer demand of WP empowers all.

  • Non-engineers can build robust websites with minimal headaches with free software. Thank an extremely competitive plugin market for the weeks saved on custom coding per project.
  • 43% of all websites run WP. Every installation benefits from world-class coding, publicly debated design decisions, and the diversity of thousands of contributors.
  • All of these volunteers are connected around the globe and have even found their life’s purpose in the project. WordCamps and WP meetups worldwide tell that story pretty well.
  • Contractors and other experts continue to be gainfully employed. Look at how much revenue managed webhosts and Automattic generate per month. These pockets are deep.

Block layouts are the future.

  • After the death of Adobe Muse, drag-and-drop builders like Squarespace and Wix proved code isn’t necessary to create a brochure website. The Site Editor finally brings WP on the same footing as its competitors.
  • Notion has the right idea. Web content should operate component-first and allow drag-and-drop nesting. Despite my love for the Advanced Custom Fields plugin, decoupling layout from fields easily halves development time.
  • At last! We’re getting the Interaction API to quickly build AJAX functionality. Color me surprised.

…but my gripes are many!

The Block Editor was half-baked at launch, destabilizing the community and overall confidence in the software.

  • Remember the outrage when “Project Gutenberg” was rushed for Matt Mullenweg’s 2018 keynote? WP forks have come and gone, but that anger remains. The Gutenberg plugin has 2 stars. That poorly reflects the vast paradigm shift, the features delivered so far, and the project’s potential in the future.
  • Hasty naming decisions in this multi-year refactor left us with low-quality search terms like Gutenberg, Full Site Editor, Blocks, etc. Coupled with 4 years of missing docs, it’s no surprise WP usage dipped last year.
  • From 2020 to Nov 2022, I was at a complete loss on delivering award-winning WordPress sites. I was telling clients the Block Editor was in its “awkward teenage years” to describe the deviance between the frontend and editor rendering. Devs couldn’t confidently build responsive layouts, systematize spacing, or even control nested lists. Thankfully, 6.2 increased confidence in tools and docs. But it’s been a slog.

Open source discourages moving fast and breaking things, placing the software in limbo between stable and dated.

  • I am unreasonably excited for the native Details Block to power accordions with 6.3 – in the works since Apr 2020.
  • Phase 3 of Gutenberg finally brings collaborative features (ala Google Docs) to the Editing experience… by 2025. Native localization won’t begin until after that.
  • The community is pleading for upgraded admin interfaces and notification APIs. We’ll see if Phase 3 delivers on that.
  • Mid-coders like myself still hack at simple issues, waiting for advanced overhauls. For example: the Query Loop Block doesn’t pass post IDs to nested Shortcode Blocks. I’ve also been told you can create custom blocks without React scaffolding, but no one has yet described how this works. Give me PHP instantiation, pls.
  • 43% of websites use WP. That’s a big target for hackers. Patch cycles are effective but the educational negligence on securing personal data within a self-hosted environment and managing the legal fallout of a breach – it rustles my jimmies!

As a co-founder, Matt’s company Automattic has exclusive rights to use the WordPress name for profit.

  • They benefit from using this trademark in a way that no other company can. Competitors rely on “WP” or “-Press” to indicate affiliation, creating a sea of sameness.
  • WordPress.com (Automattic product) is too intertwined with WordPress.org (nonprofit governing the software) to not be affected by Matt’s business decisions. The public’s conflation also undermines the work and goodwill of the nonprofit. I am so tired of explaining this to clients and anyone who listens.
  • Newcomers wanting a “free WordPress site” start with WP.com, encounter various paywalls across heavily-modded interfaces, get mixed search results for .org tutorials, then abandon WP entirely. I’ve seen this with dozens of friends.
  • Matt is the defacto spokesperson – rich, white, male, English-speaking – hardly representing contributor diversity.
  • Should Automattic ever shift priorities to pure profit generation, everyone’s hosed. Especially Tumblr.

Well, I’m sticking with it.

17 years is a long time to be working with anything. As one of the most enduring open-source projects on the web, it’s pure magic that WordPress is as functional as it is over 2 decades. I won’t always agree with decisions or methods, but I know they’re made with best intentions and can be iterated. A rising tide, right?

It also helps that constructive critics are a podcast, video, or WordCamp away, demanding the transparency and innovation we’ve been promised. We’re noisy because we respect the project. I can’t imagine any CMS competitor dethroning the entire WordPress economy with the same fervor as this community.

And surprise: I’m a little giddy about 6.3’s release in 2 weeks, partly due to the Documentation team’s hard work since last Spring. I’m roughly 90% in the Site Editor and 10% manipulating PHP. Pinch me!

I’m certain my views will change through the years and that the project will face tougher times. But if you gotta believe in something, believe in the people who devote their attention to open-source software with as much love as the WordPress community does.