Yesterday Tom McFarlin published an important article titled The WordPress Community (A Comedy of Drama, Ego, Oligarchies, and More). If you work with WordPress or the WordPress community, it is mandatory reading and worth some serious reflection. Tom shines a light on some of the darker parts of flat-structure communities and asks poignant questions about communication, language, and leadership among other things. There is a lot to latch onto here and I have no doubt there are many articles being written in response as I type this out.
Here I want to focus in on a small part of this conversation and contribute my own perspective on something I think lies at the heart of much of the conflict Tom addresses: Trust and Opacity.
The Customizer and the Pyre
In WordPress, like any grassroots political organization, the level of conflict and partisan strife increases with its size and power. WordPress is now so big and powerful that I’m surprised we’re not starting to see breakout groups and organized factions trying to exert their will on the overall project. This is likely due to the spirit of Open Source, and we should count ourselves lucky that it has not happened. Yet.
However, there are clear signs of fracture within the community, exemplified by the furious anger directed toward the Customizer and the team that works on it.
Long story short, the Customizer (which moves many of the theme customizing features into a preview panel for direct experimentation and application) has always been controversial because it does not fit every use case. For the release of WordPress 4.3, the Customizer will be extended to include the Menu Editor (and here it’s important to note that the original Menu Editor view will remain in the admin panel). This inclusion has caused a vocal and often aggressive response that at times devolves into personal attacks on named contributors in the project.
There are people in the WordPress community who hate the Customizer with a passion, and they want to have it their way: Burn the Customizer. With Fire.
The common argument can be paraphrased thus:
“I/my clients don’t use the Customizer. Its inclusion goes against what I/my clients need and therefore has no place in WordPress.”
When work continues unabated in spite of this opposition, the objectors feel like their concerns are being ignored by whomever is calling the shots, they get angry, and sometimes lash out. This is neither new nor surprising. But it is disappointing, especially when it devolves to personal attacks, or even worse, sexist remarks and verbal assaults. These things do not a healthy community make.
Underlying the vitriolic assaults on the Customizer lies a lack of trust; in contributors; in leadership; in the community. To many, even those involved in WordPress contribution, it can appear as if there is a hidden “inner circle” of leadership in the community – a WordPress Illuminati if you will – that calls the shots. And to some, that imagined group may appear to be running an agenda that goes counter to their interests:
“I don’t use the Customizer. Its inclusion goes against what I need and therefore has no place in WordPress. Even so, someone has decided it must be there in spite of my objections. Clearly there is an imbalance of power here. My voice does not seem to matter.”
What we have here is a classic case of mistrust. When questions are asked about the expansion of the customizer, the answers are forthcoming (again, paraphrasing here):
- User testing and research shows that the Customizer is better understood by the average user.
- The Customizer provides a better user experience.
- Users appreciate the ability to see their changes in real time in the real site before publishing it live.
- Users often voice frustrations when having to switch back and forth between back- and front-end and experiment with things like menu ordering on their live site.
The response to such statements are questions like “Who are these users?” or “Who did these tests?” or “That doesn’t fit with my experience.” or “I don’t care. It is not what my clients want.”
Again, this is about trust. When presented with valid (if unsubstantiated) reasons, many opposed to the idea of the Customizer (or any other controversial feature, like auto-updates of plugins) have trouble trusting those that who make the decisions.
“Who are these people, and who gave them the power to decide what’s best for me and my clients?”
This is a problem, and it is one that every grassroots political organization has to face at some point. People want their way. And when they don’t get their way, even if they are in a minority position, they will fight tooth and nail to impose their will on the rest of the organization. Sometimes that is a good thing. Most of the time it is a problem.
Much of this distrust stems from the relative opacity of meritocracies. On the face of it, meritocracies are as open and transparent as is possible, but in reality they are only open and transparent if you are actually taking part and observing the day-to-day goings on.
I spend most of my time working with and researching WordPress, and even I can’t speak with much authority about how a release lead is picked or who the next core contributor will be. I can make an educated guess: Release leads are picked from core contributors based on skill, availability, and willingness to take on the responsibility. Core contributors are promoted based on the quality of their previous contributions. In other words, a meritocracy.
But who picks the Release lead? And who promotes core contributors? That is a question left unanswered, and I think this is where the idea of this mythical “leadership group” stems from.
Like a cascading waterfall, the transparency of meritocracies is made opaque by the volume and force of information that runs through it.
From the outside it appears there is a group that is in charge of WordPress. It is not listed anywhere, it is not elected, it is not given a mandate, it just is. And when a controversial decision is made (like adding the Menu editor into the Customizer), it is easy to imagine a group of evil faced conspirational dictators sitting around a table discussing how to screw the community over by moving everything into the Customizer.
Which is total nonsense.
I know some of these people, and some better than others. I’ve observed their work, observed their interactions with the community, observed their dedication to the project and their relentless pursuit of making WordPress better for all who use it. What I’ve found is that the people who sit atop of our meritocratic pyramid are humble, dedicated, and fiercely passionate about what they do. They also think far ahead – as in far ahead – to what is coming down the pipe in the next several years. They have my trust because I see my thoughts about WordPress and its future in theirs. But that’s just me. I can also see how someone who disagrees with them would feel like their project was being run by a dispassionate group of dictators who hand down decrees like the emperors of times past.
Trust and Transparency – Leadership and Vision
I mentioned grassroots political organizations earlier, and I firmly believe that WordPress is a grassroots political organization in all but name. But that’s not the topic of my current argument.
Regardless of how you define it, the WordPress community can learn a lot from grassroots political organizations. Like I said, the problems we are facing are not unique, and they have been solved before.
Our problems with trust and opacity are both symptoms of the very essence of what makes WordPress (and Open Source) great: Flat-structure meritocracies. At some undefined point, the machine grows so large that it becomes hard for anyone to see what is going on unless they dedicate all their time to this pursuit. As a result, those who find themselves in lower levels of the meritocratic pyramid start feeling disenfranchised and ignored by those higher up and they eventually start rocking the structure and consider moving their blocks elsewhere.
The way this is solved in grassroots political organizations is through the introduction of clear leadership structures and a clearly defined vision and path forwards. This is a colossal project that causes conflict and controversy, but the result is always the same: A structured democratic system that actually works.
Can this be done in an Open Source project like WordPress? Impossible to say; it has never been tried on anything this scale. Is it a good idea to try? I’m not sure.
What I do know is if we pretend everything is OK and brush the problems under the carpet, conflicts will fester and grow until they cause a major split.
So what do we do? I have two preliminary suggestions:
- Make the leadership of the WordPress project public record. The immediate response to this suggestion will be “but there is no leadership”. Seriously. That is not true and we all know it. Meritocratic leadership is still leadership. By explicitly listing the current Release Lead, core contributors, and most importantly other people with decision making power, people can clearly see who is in charge and where to direct questions.
- Create a public long-term vision for WordPress. This one is going to be a real challenge. The vision of WordPress currently is too vague and haphazard. There is a lot of ground to cover between “democratize publishing” and “80/20 rule”. Is WordPress primarily for the average user or for enterprise? What is the goal of WordPress once we reach 25% market share? Who should drive the bus? Where do we go from here? Should WordPress be a leader in web standards and accessibility? Should we get involved in the W3C? A community of our size needs direction. Otherwise everyone will go their own way and people will be left flailing or feeling like they are not being heard.
These are my thoughts. Take them at face value from someone who has experience working with grassroots and political organizations. There are solutions here. They may not be mine, they may not be yours, but if we work together we can find them, and our community will be better for them. The only thing we can’t do is pretend everything is OK and tighten down our blinders.
Epilogue: The Customizer is a Good Thing. Accept it and Move On!
For completeness, I should voice my opinion on the Customizer controversy:
The arguments for the permanent inclusion of the Customizer are, from my experience, valid and in line with the independent research I’ve done on the matter. The average WordPress user benefits greatly from the ability to preview their theme changes before taking them live. The inclusion of the Menu Editor in the Customizer will be a massive improvement to the WordPress User Experience and will take frustration away from millions of users.
Yes, there are edge cases (typically large business and enterprise installations) where the Customizer is not ideal, but because WordPress is Free Open Source Software, an enterprise site is worth no more than a blog nobody ever visits to the project itself. All sites are created equal. So even though the need of an enterprise site to not have the Customizer seems to carry more weight than the need for millions of bloggers to have it, in reality it is the bloggers that matter. WordPress is powerful because of the millions of people who use it to throw their thoughts, feelings, hopes, and desires onto the web with abandon. The big business that chooses WordPress to back their online publications is the exception that proves the rule.