Micah Dailey: When we started making this podcast series, I thought that in order to understand WordPress, I had to understand it’s software. And, while that’s been an important part of my journey, I quickly learned that if I wanted to discover WordPress and it’s community…I had to see it in action. I had to see how WordPress manifests itself in the grand scheme of things, and I had to see it at work in small subcultures. And that is how I ended up here…
Micah: It’s December 7th, 2018, and I’m currently in the Music City Center in Nashville, Tennessee, walking through what’s called the “Hallway Track” at one of WordPress’ largest annual gatherings, WordCamp US. Imagine an otherwise modern, hotel-esqe ballroom. You know…the kinda space that’s only decoration is the visually ornate carpeting that’s been spicing up rooms like it since the 80’s? High-traffic casino style. Yeah. You get the point.
Anyway…throughout the event you’d hear many attendees refer to this room as “the one with all the sponsors.” There are rows of tables, booths, and displays with narrow paths filled with hundreds of people doing what I’m doing…
[Micah and a Male Voice exchange greetings]
Micah: What are those?
Voice: These are cord tacos. You wrap your cord in it and it’s like … They’re pretty handy.
Micah: Adam from GoDaddy just gave me a cord taco.
Micah: Yes. You just heard live, in-action audio of me snagging my first piece of “swag”. For my non-hip-to-the-game listeners, regardless of Google’s formal and informal definitions, swag is not “a curtain or piece of fabric fastened so as to hang in a drooping curve.” OR “marijuana, typically of a low grade.” At WordCamp US, swag is best described as free–or in some cases, purchased–promotional items.
More importantly though, in this recording you can hear an in-person interaction with my very first WordPress friend. Remember Adam Warner from our episode on security? That was him.
WordCamps put a face to the WordPress name. They give users of all experience levels opportunities to learn, connect, and contribute together. At this particular event, I’m surrounded by 1,338 other attendees who, if nothing else, have one thing in common and, if no one else, have each other to call “community”. And if that doesn’t inspire you…than you probably use Squarespace. Did that sound negative? Let me try that one more time. If that doesn’t inspire you…you probably use Squarespace, and that’s cool, too.
Anyway…this trip to WordCamp US was the culmination of a lot of “firsts” for me. My first business trip, my first time meeting any of my co-workers at WPMU DEV (other than, obviously, Josh and his wife, Christy), my first WordPress gathering of any kind, and my first season finale for Hello, WP!
Micah: So friends, join me as I journey to the center of the WordPress world to try and understand the “why” and “who” behind it all.
I never imagined that this podcast would take me across the country to put on a lanyard and shake hand with the very active-yet-tiny minority of the WordPress ecosystem…let alone land an unexpected interview with arguably the most influential person on the web. More on that later…
So welcome to Hello, WP! A podcast that reminds you what it’s like to be a new WordPress user. I’m Micah, and at different points throughout this episode you’ll hear my co-host, Josh.
Segment 1: All About the SWAG
Micah: Okay. I wanna back up for a minute, to the day before WCUS began. I’ll call it the chaos, before the calm, before the storm.
Micah: Without going too far into the weeds of planning the logistical beast that is WCUS, let me try to give you a quick glimpse into the amount of time, person power, and of course…money involved in bringing it together. This event, WordCamp US 2018, had a team of roughly 30 organizers, 175 volunteers, and 50 sponsors.
While this is my first time attending a WordPress gathering, it’s also WPMU DEV’s first time sponsoring a WordCamp US.
So, in the days leading up to the “main event”, amidst all the preparation, meals, drinks, and first-time-in-person conversations, I worked on grasping why WE, as a company, value participating in these conferences.
Now hold on to your headphones, ‘cause I’m gonna do some audio inception here. While I’m walking to the Davidson Ballroom–A.K.A, The Hallway Track; A.K.A, where our booth is set up–in this recording, I’m gonna cut to a conversation Josh and I had the night before at a sushi restaurant.
Josh Dailey: Hello, Micah.
Micah: Hello, Josh.
Josh: I want to know, in your first five or six hours–we’ve been spending a lot of time with the team just kind of like a good ole family reunion around here. My question is: Have you learned anything about the culture of WPMU DEV in the first six hours?
Micah: That’s a good question. I’ve actually been thinking about that a lot. I’ve been thinking about how … how much WordCamp is a social event. This gathering is a social event more than a tech event. Is that accurate?
Josh: I agree with that very much so for us, specifically as a company. We look at the experience of WordCamp as a… as much a way of connecting with the community of WordPress as a way of developing the people of our company. Relationship building internally–in a remote company, that’s really hard to pull of a lot of times. So… Do I have a lot of vocal fry going on right now, do you think?
Micah: Aside from the obvious marketing perks that come with showing your face at big conferences, WPMU DEV has chosen to make WordCamps a part of its company culture for reasons that aren’t as obvious.
If you listened to our 2nd episode of this season, “Hello, Plugins!”, then you know that we, admittedly, failed at this for many years. Unintentionally making us an outsider of the community we depend on, and feeling the side effects of a growing, distributed company. Now, and really over the past four years or so, we’ve been adjusting our focus. And that comes with its own set of challenges.
You’ll see what I mean here in a second. Let’s go back to my, seemingly never ending, walk to the Hallway Track, where the team is setting up our booth.
Micah: Alright, I’m walking into Davidson… I see Pantheon, I see Plesk, I see GoWP, WooCommerce, Yoast, GoDaddy, Siteground, Google… Oh, there we are: There’s WPMU DEV. Pretty awesome. Josh Dailey: Give me your narrative of what’s happening in the Davidson Ballroom right now.
Josh: We’re here in the Davidson Ballroom and around me are some of the biggest names in WordPress setting up their very beautiful, very lovely booths. And you can tell who’s done this before and made this a part of their culture because they have really nice things they’ve put together. And then you can tell who’s new to the game.
Micah: I think we look like some of the new guys.
Josh: We look like some of the new guys, but that’s okay. But I’m excited to just be a part, because it’s been a long stretch coming for us.
Micah: Okay, I’m going to go bug Ronnie. Ronnie! Listen, we’re recording a little audio diary. And you facilitated our whole booth, so I want to ask you how you’re feeling about everything coming together.
Ronnie: Oh, much better now that everything’s here. When the truck was late this morning, we were a little nervous–
Micah: A little stressed.
Ronnie: A little stressed for a moment or two, but everything’s up! We’re rolling some shirts…
Micah: Okay, describe what we have.
Ronnie: So, we have a giant, 10-foot-tall tower of super heroes, a couple of banners; so, all we’re missing is DEV Man himself. He has not made an appearance.
Voice: Helloooo, friends!
Micah: [laughing] Oh, he just walked in the room!
Micah: In case you’re wondering…no, Ronnie is not joking. We had a full size DEV Man mascot made that several members of our team wore while dancing, high-fiving, and offering free photo-ops to any event-goer that would humor us. I’ll include a link to our Instagram in the show notes if you wanna see photos.
So after the setup chaos and an evening of calm, the only thing left was…the storm.
Segment 2: The People of WordPress
Micah: Good morning, good morning. Testing. Micah Dailey here. We’re taking the walk over to the venue. Christy’s here. Say hello.
Christy: So excited!
Micah: Josh? Josh is here.
Christy: They can’t see you.
Micah: My first two days in Nashville were spent looking at the subculture of WPMU DEV to see how we’ve been shaped / are being shaped by the WP community. But now, I wanted to look outside of our company, to understand WordPress big and small.
Now, if you’re like me, and have never attended a WordCamp US before, well…it’s a lot like other open-source software conferences. And if you’re also like me and have never attended other open-source software conferences, then it’s vaguely like a music festival? Okay…maybe that’s a bit of a reach.
Micah: Throughout the first two days, rotating sessions take place in two different conference spaces. All of these sessions are curated by the organizing team to feature a diverse group of speakers and cover a wide array of mostly WordPress-related topics. From broad web and/or businesses development, to in-depth coding workshops, to diversity and inclusion in tech. At this particular event, there were a total of 36 sessions. And on the first day, while crowds of eager WordPress-ers shuffled between 21 of those 36 sessions, I found a quiet area on the 3rd floor to chat with my first “interviewee”.
Micah: Meet Miriam Schwab. She’s a freelancer, turned agency owner, turned software company owner from Israel.
Aside from her company being one of the sponsors this year, Miriam did a session about “content security policies” earlier this morning.
Miriam: So, after my fourth kid was born, I was like, Okay, I’m going to be freelance from now on. I thought I was going to do content. But, I had time on my hands, so I decided to learn how to build websites. Like, I taught myself with Google. And people started wanting me to build website for them. At that time, I was just building HTML, CSS websites. And I was so annoyed that they wanted me to edit their content. So, I looked for a content management solution and I tested Joomla, I tested Drupal, I tested WordPress … and I just fell in love with WordPress. It was just smart. It was smart from the point of view of me building the sites, it was easy for me to teach my clients to use it. My freelance career developed into running a WordPress development agency in Israel. We worked with top tech companies, universities, custom WordPress solutions.
About two years ago, I felt like I needed a change. I had had ideas for products throughout the years, but I knew that I could not try to work on them, as a mom and all that, and running the other business. But I felt like I was at the point where I could explore something other than that. I had the idea for the current company that now is the company called Stratic, based on the pain points that my clients had had in the agency related to security and performance. I started exploring the concept of a static site generator for WordPress sites, because then you get the best of both worlds.
Micah: As a business owner, what is the benefit of a WordCamp?
Miriam: I’ve built a lot of my professional career around participating in WordCamps one way or another. So, I organized five WordCamps in Israel. And participating as an organizer, as a speaker, helps position you as a thought leader. It’s not instant. You don’t go to conference, and then everything changes. It’s one conference, and then meet up at another conference, and you know…. I’ve created really valuable relationships with people that I love through these conferences.
Micah: So, it’s as much a part of your culture as it is just…
Miriam: I never thought of it that way, it is…
Micah: So it’s really building a culture of community for you and your employees.
Miriam: Yeah, community. For sure. There’s a few things. We gain from it, obviously, just meeting people and learning, like you said. It’s amazing. But also, between organizing the WordCamps and speaking, I feel like this is something I can give back.
Micah: “Give back.” A term that, in the WordPress community, means everything. It’s a call to every user to “put a ring on it” and commit their time, talent, and resources to the software that millions of site-owners depend on.
Contrary to what I thought when I first heard about contributing to WordPress, code is NOT the only way to “give back.” In fact, there are currently 17 other ways to get involved. And this takes me to my next interview…or I guess, back to my first one?”
Micah: Every day at 12:30, attendees, volunteers, and sponsors all make their way to the cafeteria on the 3rd floor of the Music City Center for a buffet-style-lunch featuring this…a live jazz band. Thanks Nashville…
Micah: It was during lunch on the first day that I met freelancer, WordPress contributor, and Hello, WP! listener, Birgit Olzem. Unfortunately, our first hat was cut short, so we planned to meet up for another chat the following day.
Micah: What does WordPress mean to you, personally. How has it affected your life or your community, your work…
Birgit: I’m really passionate about it because I learn so much about programming through tutorials, how to build, and also to publish my own thoughts and also through a community engagement, I made so many friends. And I have something I can do something meaningful. For some years, I was responsible to publish the translated WordPress in Germany. And when you imagine there’s someone who push the button to send out an update to WordPress to 30 percent–at that moment I guess we were about 20 percent–and you imaging your action has that effect on so many million of sites… that is huge. So you are creating something special. What WordPress for me, it’s like my second family. Yeah. It is not software alone. Yeah, it’s a passion.
Micah: There’s no denying it…WordPress inspires passion. In fact, that passion is what gives birth to events like WordCamp US and it’s what motivates contributors.
But what (or who) inspires WordPress? After an extended period of development for the next phase of WordPress ’ evolution (see our “Hello, Gutenberg!” episode), this question was on the lips of many of this year’s WCUS go-ers.
Segment 3: The State of the Word
Micah: It’s about 4pm on day 2 of WordCamp US, and to close out the main conference portion of the event, WordPress ’ co-founder, Matt Mullenweg, will take the stage in a large concrete-floored room to give his annual “State of the Word” keynote. It’s here, that he updates the community on the previous year, celebrates milestones, and casts vision for the future of WordPress. Imagine huge screens, rock star lighting, a big open stage with a podium, and a single oversized cowboy boot for decoration.
Although I’ve used WordPress’ software for many years, I consider this WordCamp, and really this podcast, my first real introduction to WordPress. And coincidentally, during this State Of The Word, nearly 15 years after its formation, Matt Mullenweg wanted to take this opportunity to re-introduce WordPress to everyone.
Matt Mullenweg: There’s a lot that’s been going on. So I actually like to allow WordPress a chance to re-introduce itself. It is the reason we’re here. WordPress isn’t a physical thing. It’s not a set of code. It’s kind of an idea. It’s backed by the full faith and credit of every person and company that depends on it. It only exists in the space between our heads and our minds. It has a constitution. It’s built on the four freedoms: The freedom to run the program for any purpose; the freedom to study how the program works, and change it; to redistribute it; and to share your changed versions.
Micah: It was right about now, while hearing Matt’s voice bouncing around this echo-chamber of a hall, that I realized WordPress , at its core, is far more grand than I had ever imagined. But this realization was by no means a new concept to everyone in this venue.
In fact, an understanding of this larger vision for WordPress and its effect on the users of the internet at large is what begged questions of WordPress’ leadership structure during the post-State of The Word Q&A.
Morten: Hello. I’m Morten, from planet Earth.
Matt: Stand a little closer to the mic.
Morten: Right. Sorry. I wanted to talk to you about the use of the word “we”. Previously, you used the word “we” to refer to the people in this room. And then you use “we” to refer to all of the people that use WordPress. And then sometimes you use “we” to refer to something that sounds an awful lot like Matt Mullenweg. This is actually more a question about leadership than it is about “we”, it’s just that it’s framed within how we use the term “we”. I think the community needs to have a better understanding of what leadership looks like in WordPress currently. What the vision is for leadership moving forward. But we also need some clarity in language because this language that’s been used is awfully confusing the way it is. So, who is “we”?
Matt: Good question.
Micah: After the State of the Word and the Q&A that followed, I left The Music City Center that night with (what felt like) more questions than answers. And in the days that followed, as I made the trek back home to Arizona and began putting the pieces together for this episode, that unsettled feeling persisted.
There was obviously a lot more than met the ear with Morten’s question in the clip you just heard, so I decided to reach out and see if he’d be willing to shed some light on this interaction with Matt.
Micah: After the break…the anti-Matt Mullenweg?
Micah: This season of Hello, WP! Is brought to you by WPMU DEV.
Josh: Hello, Micah.
Micah: Hey, Josh.
Josh: WPMU DEV Fun Fact–
Micah: [laughing] You have a lot of fun facts.
Josh: I do! I have a lot of fun facts. WPMU DEV is more than probably what you think it is. A lot of people associate it with their favorite product like Smush. But when they think, “I’m going to upgrade from Smush to Smush Pro,” they don’t realize they’re getting a whole bunch more for the same low price.
Micah: Becoming a member of WPMU DEV is like paying for one ticket to The Avengers.
Josh: It’s like buying a ticket to [laughing] The Avengers.
Micah: Build better, faster, more secure WordPress sites, optimize WordPress performance, and make ongoing site maintenance simple with WPMU DEV. Try it today for free, at WPMUDEV.com
Segment 4: Democratization of Publishing
Morten: You have to have been at State of the Word for multiple years to understand this weird relationship that Matt Mullenweg and Morten Rand-Hendriksen have. It’s almost a running joke thing going on that every year, I come and ask some sort of very difficult question, and then the next year I come back and basically ask the same question again and then three, four, five times later, there is some sort of answer and then I move on to the next question. And that’s why, if you go and watch the State of the Word, you can see when I step up to the microphone, Matt stands, leans on the podium and there’s like a jokey exchange. It’s because this is like an ongoing conversation that’s been happening over years. Some people have this impression that I’m the anti-Matt. Do you know what I mean?
Micah: [laughs] Yeah.
Morten: And the reality isn’t that at all. I guess that’s how it looks to people. Matt and I have very strong opinions about where WordPress should be going. And they don’t always correspond with each other. I come from a political background and I feel my role in the WordPress project is to surface some of these tension points and some of these underlying problems in such a way that the community can talk about them. And I choose that forum to bring them to the surface because it’s a forum where Matt has an opportunity to respond immediately. Now, I cannot state this highly enough: My role in the WordPress project is extremely minor. I am just really loud.
Micah: So, can we just start with your name and what you do?
Morten: My name is Morten Rand-Hendriksen. I am a senior staff instructor at LinkedIn Learning, which used to be Lynda.com.
Micah: Okay. Leading up to WordCamp US and the release of 5.0, the two questions that I kept hearing and seeing from folks in the community was What’s coming next–you know, with Gutenberg and with everything in 5.0–and Who is in charge? Does that seem pretty accurate, or is there anything you could add to those questions?
Morten: There are two questions a lot of people are asking and because those questions don’t have any clear answers. There is controversy around Gutenberg itself. As in the code base; as in the design around it. You have the question who was this designed for? This is a project that was designed quite literally backwards from normal design process. You normally start with defining target audience, you identify their needs and wants and desires and goals. And then you try to create a solution around that. Whereas Gutenberg started as an interface design of a block editor and then reverse engineered itself all the way back to a user target, which is really not how you design software. Just to be frank, this is backwards.
I teach at a university, too. I teach interaction design. The design process always starts by identifying needs, goals, and users. And that was never done for Gutenberg. Now, the interesting thing is, that has also have never been done for WordPress. And through various mechanisms, the decision making that’s been done in WordPress up to this point has hand out for the good. Now the answer to why that has happened depends on who you talk to. But, it’s becoming somewhat problematic because WordPress is such a big piece of the web now, that the risk of making a decision that has long term consequences that are negative is much bigger now than it was in the past because 32 percent of the web, that means that any decision you make in WordPress affects millions and millions of people and their lives and their businesses and whatever they’re doing and their content on the web. So, the lack of a clear target audience, a clear goal, a clear understanding of exactly what is being done is becoming more and more of a problem.
And this is why me and a group of people have proposed this WordPress governance project, which is going to look at how do we create governance structure, or take some of the governance structures that exist already within WordPress and make them formal, so that the answer Who speaks for WordPress / Who makes decisions for WordPress / Who is responsible… can actually be answered.
Micah: As a WordPress newcomer, I initially connected the statement Democratized Publishing to a democratized leadership structure. So, I’ve also heard and seen a lot of people express similar feelings. Do you think WordPress should be treated as a democracy?
Morten: No, that doesn’t work.
Micah: Can you get into that a little bit?
Morten: Yeah, sure. When we proposed this governance project… This is not a new thing. A lot of people have been mulling about this for a while now, which is why, when we proposed it, there wasn’t a [gasps] “My God! What is happening?!” Everyone was like, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” This sounds like the right time to do this. And one of the immediate questions that we got from the audience was, “Do you mean that we’re not going to vote on WordPress features?” We’re not going to have a poll for every feature; you can just imagine how chaotic that would be. If you had every WordPress user, you log into WordPress and you get this voting panel.
Just let me take a side note for a second. This ideal that WordPress aims toward–this principle of democratizing publishing–is an extremely powerful idea and I think the reason for WordPress’ success, and the reason why WordPress is where it is today is because of Matt Mullenweg. It is because of Matt Mullenweg’s grand vision of what the web should be like. And it is because WordPress and that concept of democratizing publishing is the actualization of the promise of the web. The promise of the web is to make all content accessible to everyone. And for that to happen, you need some way for people to be able to publish content and WordPress very much is exactly that. What we need to do as a community is to figure out what exactly does it mean when we say ‘democratize publishing,’ beyond just those words and what are the necessary conditions that need to be in place on the web for us to be able to meet that goal. And that’s where the governance project comes in is to try to figure out: How do we define principles–political principles based on that core ideal. Because that’s the only thing that we can say without any question that every WordPress user agrees to and adheres to. And then we can say, Okay, there are a bunch of necessary conditions that need to be in place in order for us to be able to do this. Things like, there has to be a way for us to publish WordPress. There has to be a way for people to contribute back to WordPress without barriers. And within that then comes a bunch of things about net neutrality and fairness to access–everyone needs access to high speed internet. And then we can say, you know we know that we need things like net neutrality: who make those decisions? Well, that’s politicians. So, what are the channels to gain access to those politicians to say to them, “For 30 percent of the web to be able to do what they want to do, net neutrality is necessary.” And who goes to those people and talks to them? And what mandates do those people have? That’s governance. Is actually having structures in place to make all of these decisions so that the voices heard of all the people who use WordPress and benefit from WordPress.
Micah: That’s great. So, I was wondering: Is the governance project something that Matt has given his “blessing” to? Has he asked for it? Is he involved in it? What’s going on there?
Morten: I think … he has not told me, “Yes, go do this.” Or said, “I am totally for this,” or anything like that. I think Matt is curious about what this will lead to. I’m also fairly certain that Matt thinks this will not lead anywhere. As are many people in the WordPress project. And of course, I can’t speak for Matt Mullenweg, because I am not Matt Mullenweg and I have not spoken about it. But, inferring from previous conversations I’ve had with him and previous conversations I’ve seen him have with others, there’s a general attitude in the open source world that creating governance structures for open source is almost impossible. And it’s fair, because there have been many attempts at making governance structures that have just ended with chaos and very, very, very unconstructive solutions that have either just fallen apart or actually damaged a community. One of the key aspects of the governance project is we have to make a structure that actually works and a structure that supports Matt and his vision.
Micah: Morten’s right. He can’t speak for Matt, and I sure as heck can’t either. But I wanted to see if we could get away from speculation.
Approximately two months before WordCamp US, Matt declined my request for an interview we hoped to include in our “Hello, Gutenberg!” episode. But…that was then, and this is now. So after some of the dust settled from the release of 5 dot 0, and the busyness of WCUS was behind us…I thought I’d try again…
Micah: While scrambling to finish production for this episode, I received a simple “Sure.” from Matt Mullenweg. Somehow I, a totally WordPress noob, scored time with one of its founders.
So after scheduling a time to chat, I attempted to get my nerves under control.
Micah: At WordCamp US, you started the State of the Word by reintroducing WordPress. Why did you feel the need to reintroduce WordPress at an event that is for WordPress and about WordPress?
Matt: First, it allowed me to make a reference to Jay Z’s “Public Service Announcement” and allowed me to reintroduce myself. A lot of people got it, so I will take this podcast as an opportunity for people to check out that song and get the reference. Often we start our conversations with the assumption of a lot of previous knowledge of previous conversations, and often previous assumptions as well. I really wanted to say, we’re introducing a very bold vision for the future of WordPress. I was laying out the longest roadmap we’ve ever had in the history of the project. I was introducing the biggest developments we’ve launched. So this is kind of the biggest thing we’ve ever done. And it felt important in that moment to kind of ground ourselves. Why are we here? And also to sort of say why I think we’re here. Because to a lot of people, WordPress is somewhat of a blank canvas and people can bring their own thoughts, hopes, ideas, assumptions, biases to it. And this is the one opportunity I have per year to use the bully pulpit to point the community in a direction that I find inspiring and innovative and the thing that I think will bring us closest to our goals. And hopefully that resonates with other folks, and then we spend that year working on that map.
Micah: On the philosophy page of WordPress.org, there’s a portion on designing for the majority. Can you speak to that? Can you break that down a bit?
Matt: That’s a tough one. So, almost everything on the philosophy page can be used to make either side of an argument. [laughs] That’s its weakness. The intention when we put that ‘designing for the majority’ is to say, we want to create things that can be powerful for people who need the power, but intuitive for people who are using WordPress as an ends to a means. And the majority–people often mistake it for the majority of current WordPress users. But, really what the majority means is a majority of people in the world. Now, that doesn’t mean that everything we’ve ever launched in the history of WordPress was something that 51 percent of the people were asking for. Sometimes we do use the software as a way to shift the conversation…shift the web…or provide something that we consider fundamentally important.
Micah: Do you ever feel like the community–the WordPress community–has ever forgotten who WordPress is for?
Matt: Well, that would almost be impossible to do, depending on how you define community and how you define what WordPress is for. I think that people bring many of their own ideas to it. And they see actions that the developers of WordPress, the designers of WordPress, people contributing through a lense. And that can be helpful or harmful. Something that I struggle with a lot is a lot of people put a lense of: Matt is trying to maximize this short-term profit for Automattic in his leadership role of the WordPress project. And I think there’s lots of logical refutations in that. But if you see every single thing I do through that lense, you’ll just look for patterns or you’ll justify everything with it.
Micah: Remember that moment during the State of the Word when I realized that WordPress was much bigger than I imagined? It’s here in my conversation with Matt that I realized something else – I now view WordPress through a lense of my own.
A big part of my, so called “WordPress lense”, has been developed by my life – meaning my experiences, my upbringing, my beliefs, and so on. And the other parts of my “WordPress lense” have been shaped by the last 6 months of creating this podcast.
Hear me out ‘cause I’m gonna be vulnerable here for a second…
After hearing Matt’s response to my arguably “leading question” about forgetting who WordPress is for, a sense of failure as a WordPress gumshoe flooded over me. Maybe I had gotten too caught up in the #WPdrama on twitter or different comment sections, and allowed the negative lenses that Matt just mentioned to skew my unbiased perspective I had hoped to provide, because they were the loudest voices. And maybe…just maybe…I had forgotten “who WordPress is for”.
While trying to look at WordPress and its community from every angle, and learn from the unique perspectives of its users, I had effectively forgotten what it’s like to be new to WordPress.
Micah: It’s interesting because I reading the philosophies and trying to understand what WordPress means, with democratizing publishing and who that includes–and that includes everyone; it’s a call to everyone. But it’s also a special statement to say that it’s not just for the minority of developers; it’s also for the writers and for the people who are just creating things and trying to put things out there. And so, I guess that’s what I was going toward with the question of if the community has forgotten who WordPress is for. But, I guess that is from my perspective of what it means to design for the majority. You know what I mean? Like, the majority of people aren’t developers. The majority of people are probably closer to bloggers….
Matt: But it’s very circular. Because, without the developers, would WordPress be that motivating?
Matt: Without the agencies, would there be as many examples of WordPress powering the most creative independent sites on the web? It’s kind of for everyone and no one at the same time. And what you end up doing when developing something new is you try to think of different constituencies and think about how it could affect all of them. With Gutenberg being a great example. It both makes things easier for new users and a lot more powerful for developers. When you can find something like that, it’s golden. You just have to run towards it and do your best job at it.
Micah: WordPress is for everyone and no one all at the same time. I remember when I decided to move my first site off of another content management system and re-build it on WordPress . I wanted a platform that could accommodate my non-developer-skill-set, but had the potential to take me far beyond my limitations. Some could argue that WordPress isn’t for me or users like me, and others might argue that WordPress was made for me. But Matt and Morten have a lense of WordPress that says “both, and…”
Okay, so let’s move into my questions for Matt on the leadership of WordPress and, of course, his thoughts on the governance project.
Micah: So, as a WordPress newcomer, I initially connected the term democratized publishing to a democratized leadership structure. Do you think that WordPress’s open source status accentuates that thought process?
Matt: I guess it depends on what your form of democracy is. For example, in the U.S. we live in a representative federal republic. So, I can vote directly, periodically–every year or two, sometimes every four years–on a representative that then creates the legislation and rules, which then are implemented through other branches of government. So, but I’m not directly voting on every single issue that comes in. That is probably the closest analogy, if we were to draw a line to WordPress and how software gets created. People vote by using and promoting and telling their friends about the software, which increases its usage, and they essentially elect which branch–both which software to use in the first place and then what parts of that software they choose to interact with or use or promote or what plugins they use, and things like that. And then the people who have the ability to make a change, which is I guess is core committers, and the wider audience people who can develop and commit to WordPress–if they are benevolent, or enlightened, or at least want to be informed, they will look at that usage data and use it to inform the direction that things are going to go. It’s not a poll on WordPress deciding what features we use next, but it is very much the sort of engagement with the software by the wider community and also the non-engagement of the software by an even wider community–think of the seven billion people who don’t use WordPress yet–and inform the direction we choose to go, essentially the laws we choose to pass and work on. And then we release it and see what happens. [laughs]
Every release is almost like an election, right? It’s an opportunity for those ideas, designs, theories, to be out in the world, and then we observe how the world interacts with them and do it again. That process of iteration is probably the closest you can get in software to a truly participative process. I think it’s a lot better than the purely passive interactions that we have with things like Facebook or other commercial services. Because it can also be informed by the transparency, which is inherent in that you actually see the code, you see the changes. People might gripe about how the decision to make a change is made, but you can’t say that every change was not purely committed and documented and you can tell everything that led up to it, at least from a code point of view.
Micah: How do you see that view of the direction WordPress goes–how does that affect the leadership? Do you think that automatically makes people think that the leadership structure is like a democracy, kind of like the U.S. democracy?
Matt: Well, not if they’re familiar with any of the history of WordPress. [laughs] The closest you might have is some sort of nonprofit committee structure, that do public voting, but usually that’s not all the representatives, it’s usually a portion of them. And there are more projects that are run closer to that. Now of course, just being on a deciding committee is useless without the ability to implement the change. So you need developers and designers and the folks actually executing the vision is as–if not more–important than the ability to make a decision. And that also is part of the dynamic, which I think makes things at WordPress participative, that people choose to develop on it or not. And guess what: As we go a certain direction, and maybe become opinionated or go someplace controversial, people choose to leave. They start forks or work on other things, or choose to do something else with their time. And that’s totally fine. That’s a way that they are sort of voting with their participation in the future of the project. And that does influence it; absolutely.
The most challenging is if people feel they weren’t heard in the first place. So, totally okay. And actually there have been many times in WordPress’s history where I disagreed with a decision, but I felt like my point of view was well understood. I had an opportunity to make the best version of my argument and the people felt they understood it, but the release leads at the time decided to go in a different direction. So because I believe ultimately in the long-term potential of WordPress and the community, I supported the decision even though I disagreed with it. And that is ultimately what makes long-term healthy projects of any type, whether it’s commercial, non-commercial, open source, proprietary–that ability to have a difference of opinion and work together toward some further goal. I know most people would love to have all of that in politics today.
Micah: I have often seen people refer to you as a benevolent dictator in a way that says like, it didn’t used to be that way, or it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Where do you think people get the idea that decisions are made by more than just you? Where do you think people get that idea?
Matt: Because that’s the truth. [laughs]
Micah: Yeah, can you dig into that?
Matt: It’s like why most conspiracy theories fail. Generally large, complex systems are too large and complex to be truly directed by any single person or any secret cabal or anything like that. There is so much going on, even on WordPress.org everyday, that it’s beyond certainly my capacity even to be aware of it all. It means that very often, a large majority of everything happening every day are decisions that are made at the edges. Why they might think I am involved in everything is that I am involved in the very big decisions. So that is part of my contribution to WordPress. It’s trying to take all available information and given probably two–you know, if it’s a hard decision it’s probably because there’s good arguments for both directions and use my experience, any wisdom I’ve accumulated, as much input as possible, to try to allow us to choose a path. And the truth is, what makes it less stressful, is often either direction is better than no decision. It’s one of those things where, we have two good options. I can see us being successful with either one, and having a decision will be much, much better than if we stay in stasis or are paralyzed–decision paralysis for a long time.
And I’d say that’s actually probably one of our biggest issues right now in WordPress: We have a lot of areas that are paralyzed and part of what I’m trying to do by creating some more explicit deputies, that is trying to make explicit roles that in the past might have been a little more emergent or less clearly defined, which also meant that no one was sure who could actually make a decision. So, long term, maybe a common misperception is that I want to make all the decisions. I want to make as few as possible. Because that means that the system and the hierarchy and the systems that we put in place are making great decisions before it ever gets to me. And I also want to feel like how we’re operating there is highly aligned with what I think the best possible version of it would be.
Micah: So, moving forward to the Governance Project: During WordCamp US, Rachel Cherry and Morten announced the WordPress Governance Project. It’s an effort to look at internal and open web governance of the WordPress Project, and I wanted to know what your thoughts were on this and if you have–or if you are–going to give your “blessing” to it.
Matt: What would it mean to give my blessing to it?
Micah: Well, I think it’s–and correct me if I’m wrong–my understanding of the project is that they’re gonna come up with a structure and they’re going to pitch it to you and it will be up to you to implement it. So I guess that’s what I mean by giving your blessing to it.
Matt: Part of the reason we moved it off of official WordPress.org stuff is people did see it as an official thing, people assumed it already had kind of a blessing. Or, implied or explicit commitment that whatever the recommendations of this group would be we were going to do. I’m very curious to see. There are some extremely smart people exploring some interesting areas. So, I’m of course going to read and review whatever they produce. But, I don’t know if–or certainly we haven’t seen in the past–that approach to deciding how we work as the project is the most effective way of deciding what to do next. Governance makes it sound a lot fancier than it actually is. Like, we’re building software. [laughs] It really all comes down to code at the end of the day. And so, I personally prefer that a lot of the ways that we do things are code-centric. Discussions should be on track or GitHub and let’s try to keep it to technical merits and expected outcomes or metrics. And not necessarily getting too abstract. Because like I said, things on the WordPress philosophy page can often be made to make an argument either way. It’s not actually useful for deciding between two pretty good directions that we could go in. So that’s kind of my personal bias and our problems end up being a lot more prosaic than kind of you would think.
Micah: Matt is 100 percent correct. The problems that he (and Morten) alluded to in these short interviews are far more prosaic, or unsexy, or mundane, than I expected, but that’s where life happens…right? Life is experienced in the humdrum, and I for one am thankful for people like Matt and Morten, who through different approaches, remind us to care for the things that may easily go unnoticed and the people who are often forgotten.
Micah: So, what do you think is the most valuable aspect of the WordCamps, in your opinion?
Morten: The people. WordPress is the people. It’s easy to think of WordPress as software, but it’s actually the people. It’s the contributors to the WordPress project, it’s the people who use WordPress, it’s the people that interface with WordPress sites, it’s everyone who touches WordPress in some way. And the value of WordPress is in the people. So, going to WordCamps is one of the only ways you get to interface with the real WordPress and see just how diverse it is.
Micah: Some of our first critical feedback that we got towards Hello, WP! was about the lack of diversity present in my journey, and attending WordCamp US 2018 helped me visualize just why.
Community forces you to think past your experience and look at the broader implications of what is happening around you. It’s easy to affirm opinions that benefit you, instead of the whole – my business, my blog, my job, my money, I, my, me, mine. And that’s how most people experience the internet. Including myself.
Participating in WordPress as more than just a simple way to build a website, pushes us to step back and ask how others are experiencing the web. And that requires us to be challenged by the voices of others. Voices that don’t always sound like our own – voices from different countries, backgrounds, sexual orientations, age groups, and varying economic brackets…because THOSE are the people WordPress is for – it’s for communities and it’s for individuals. It’s for developers and it’s for people like me. It’s for everyone and it’s for no one.
This mindset is what brought hundreds of WordPress community members back to the Music City Center in Nashville for a third day. After the event had culminated the night before with the State of the Word, folks got up the next morning and went back to work at contributor day. They didn’t come back for the big conference buzz, they came back for the mundane.
The beauty of WordPress is that it calls it’s users to action by participating in something far bigger than their individual lenses.
Micah: I’ve heard you say that WordPress is your life’s work. I’m wondering why: Why WordPress for you?
Matt: I think it has been the feedback loop. I have seen the impact that these lines of code have had on people’s lives. So, it’s incredibly rewarding. I don’t do it because it’s easy. [laughs] I don’t do it because it’s fun. I do it because I see the impact it has on the world. And, you know, it’s an opportunity to have a dent in the universe. It’s probably the most open opportunity to do that on the web today. I don’t know; it’s just so much fun. [laughs] I also really love the people involved. I learn so much from the people I interact with in the WordPress community. And that’s also a big motivator for me, is learning. It’s the best possible school, college, grad school, Montessori–all mixed into one.
Micah: Hello, WP! is a podcast by WPMU DEV. It’s produced by me, Micah Dailey, and Josh Dailey. I did the editing and original score for this season. Our super design team — Julian, Yudy, and Osh — created our show’s art and Allison transcribed each and every episode. You can read those at HELLOWP.WORLD.
Thank you Birgit and Miriam for chatting with me in Nashville. It was an honor to have met you both in-person. And, of course, thank you Morten Rand-Hendriksen & Matt Mullenweg for jumping on calls with me post-Nashville. You all made this first season of Hello, WP! truly unforgettable.