Criticism, Innovation and ‘Caring Loudly’

Discussion

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WordPress is at an interesting impasse right now. Many concurrent challenges are generating a lot of feedback, criticism and new ideas in the community. For some, that feedback seems a little too public and a little too loud.

First and foremost, there is clearly an understanding among the major stakeholders (including co-founder Matt Mullenweg and his for-profit company, Automattic) that Squarespace and Wix are innovating in a way that is making WordPress less appealing to do-it-yourself website owners. The community projects to address this competitive threat, Gutenberg and Full Site Editing, have so far produced underwhelming results, generating a lot of negative (but often helpful!) feedback from the community.

Meanwhile, the entire tech industry is struggling to change its demographic trajectory, which has caused flare-ups around diversity, often revealing that (despite good intentions) the community is not always living up to its stated values. There’s a war between two countries in which a lot of our community members reside, which has forced the WordPress team to make difficult decisions around free expression. Some companies see an impending recession and are laying off workers, while others are making acquisitions and hiring.

This adds up to a lot of weighty and intense conversations – or what my colleague Allie Nimmons likes to call “caring loudly.”

A vibe shift

This seems to be a change in tone compared to the past decade or so, and community veterans are noticing. Matt Medeiros recently asked, “What’s up with the WordPress vibe?” James Giroux shared an excellent article about his own journey as a manager in a post called Embracing Feedback: A Guide for WordPress Leaders. Bob Dunn contemplated whether negative feedback on social media hurts our clients’ perceptions of WordPress. Each of these articles is very different, but they all get at this core question of when and how to give and receive feedback.

In general, I think it is fair to say that employees today are more vocal about their employers and industries than they were 10 or 20 years ago, and that trend – which I think is a good thing overall – clearly applies to our community as well. For some, though, the change is jarring.

Bob Dunn recounts two anecdotes in which newcomers to WordPress expressed confusion about public criticism of the software:

“I was at a local WooCommerce meetup once. And I met someone who was wanting to get into WordPress and WooCommerce development. He was new to both the tool and the community and was a nice guy, pretty mellow and open to ideas. But the next time I saw him at a meetup, he asked me something like this.

Bob, I find it kind of weird as so many of these people here are really passionate about the community and people that are in it. They also appear to enjoy using WordPress to make a living. But I have connected with some of them on social media, and I swear a good chunk of them spend half their time complaining about both WordPress and WooCommerce, the software and the community.

What could I say?

The next time, at a WordCamp, a similar thing happened. A newbie asked me at the afterparty.

Why are so many of these people in conversations bitching and moaning about how WordPress is run? They are obviously making good money using it?

Yes, I paraphrased what both individuals said, but this is how I remember it.”

Later in the article, Dunn suggests that clients might not like seeing their developers criticize their software of choice. To put it another way: a developer who recommends WordPress for a project should ideally have nothing negative to say about it in public, lest their software recommendation be seen as insincere.

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Challenging the status quo

If you’ve spent more than a few minutes reading MasterWP this year, you probably know that I take a very different approach to criticism and public discussion of the future direction of WordPress. In fact, I frequently pay people to criticize me and then e-mail that criticism to 43,000 people.

That said, I can understand where Dunn is coming from – it is not fun to be criticized! And there is certainly a line where good-faith feedback ends and unreasonable pessimism, mean-spiritedness or trolling begins. (As Giroux and others note, though, being able to graciously accept feedback is really the game-changer.) I’ve never had a client express concern about the nature of social-media discussion around WordPress (usually they worry about security instead), but I could certainly imagine that being an awkward conversation.

So while I can understand the desire to quell public dissent, I think doing so actually accomplishes the exact opposite of Dunn’s stated goal. If you want to grow the community and make it more inclusive, the first step is to encourage a larger group of people to get involved and express themselves freely, even when their ideas don’t fit neatly into the status quo.

In fact, my experience is that newcomers – especially those from underrepresented demographic groups and non-traditional tech pipelines – want to see openness to new ideas, in part because their very participation in this industry is one of those new ideas. Many things about the status quo in tech are pretty horrible. Shaking things up is a good look.

When the folks Dunn cites in his article witness these conversations, they seem to perceive them as inherently negative – something to be hidden from clients and addressed only in hushed private settings. By contrast, I see difficult conversations as an indication that the community is healthy, passionate, and making continuous progress.

A community where everyone agrees is stagnant and boring. An organization where everyone avoids dissent to assuage the higher-ups is bound for embarrassing failures. When folks criticize, theorize, brainstorm, call out and otherwise challenge their fellow WordPress community members, it shakes things up in a good way. It is not always comfortable – but I believe the ability to speak freely and disagree publicly is an important part of any healthy organization. This includes my own company, where we have very strong protections that allow employees to express themselves freely, even when they disagree with me or with each other about controversial topics.

Criticism fuels innovation. Good leaders don’t decree, they inspire and persuade.

An alternative conversation

In his article, Dunn mentions two new WordPress community members – people who might be coming to him for mentorship or at least looking to him as an older, wiser guide. In my view, he misses an opportunity to challenge those newcomers to think differently.

If a young WordPresser posed the same questions to me, I’d hope that I’d have the presence of mind to nudge them toward a different mindset. For example:

Q: Why are so many of these people in conversations bitching and moaning about how WordPress is run? They are obviously making good money using it?

A: You can make money by using a tool and have ideas about improving that tool. These two ideas are not in conflict. WordPress is not perfect or complete – so of course, everyone should share their ideas, positive and negative, about its next iteration. The idea that “making good money using it” precludes criticism is nonsensical, and if you have a boss or leader who promotes that idea, you should head for the hills. In a healthy organization and society, you are encouraged to speak your mind.

Also, using a gendered phrase like that can be really insulting to some folks. We’re all down for debating with each other to get to a better solution. But adding inflammatory language can hurt more than help.

Q: “I swear a good chunk of them spend half their time complaining.”

A: Try not to jump to conclusions about people based on their Twitter feeds. Social media always amplifies the negative and makes everyone meaner and snarkier than they are in real life. Social media acts as a sort of funhouse mirror, making even the most minor disagreements seem like vicious duels. You may disagree with your colleagues’ priorities, but it’s disingenuous to say that they spend too much time on things that are important to them. Everyone gets to make that decision for themselves.

A better future for WordPress: radical transparency

As I’ve carefully observed (and participated in) the WordPress vibe shift, I have noticed that there is a common thread that – in my view – is exacerbating the problem. The de facto leaders of the community – including but not limited to the folks at Automattic and other major WordPress companies – seem eager to stay out of it. At most, they occasionally chime in when things go viral on Hacker News or in the Post Status Slack, but always in very neutral ways, saying things that are intended to cool emotions but never actually standing up for any particular point of view.

The problem here is that the critics are not just passing trolls – they are the actual users, customers and contributors who have made WordPress great for almost two decades. Their criticism – whether on social media or in world-renowned publications like this one 😉 – is a specific, direct call for help, and that call is going unanswered.

The path forward for FSE and Gutenberg is not clear, and people are worried it will mess up their business models. A leader should clearly lay out their reasoning for this new approach — Are we competing directly with Squarespace? Are we Sherlocking Elementor? — and attempt to persuade others that it is a good idea. Saying less is not a good leadership approach, especially for an organization that is supposed to be built on open-source principles.

At the same time, the “arbitrary decisions where the buck stops nowhere” approach to major decisions, including those related to how WordCamps are run and how plugins are moderated, sows distrust and confusion. It gives individual people plausible deniability – “Oh, I’m just a volunteer” or “Oh, it was a group decision” – but if we have committees making important decisions, we should provide more transparency into who is speaking, who is voting, and how those decisions are being made.

Right now, WordPress is not living up to the goal of radical transparency. That’s a big reason why you’re seeing what seems to be escalating public feedback – because if you ignore people who are “caring loudly,” they will naturally care more loudly until you show you care about them, too.


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Rob Howard is an editor at MasterWP and the CEO of Howard Development & Consulting, the company behind WP Wallet.

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