Joe Casabona on Free Riders and the Creator Economy

MasterWP sits down with WordPress podcaster and teacher Joe Casabona to discuss the creator economy and the "Free Rider problem" in WordPress.

Headshot of Joe Casabona

Joe Casabona is a longtime podcaster, teacher, and coach in the WordPress community. His show, How I Built It, has conversations with some of the most interesting people in and around the space. His other podcast, WP Review, has traditionally been a WP-related business advice podcast. Recently though, Joe has recorded a few episodes that skip the formalities and go straight into his opinion on some of the recent events that we’ve also been discussing here on MasterWP. 

I wanted to talk to Joe about WordPress, about creators, about decision-making in WordPress, about GoDaddy, and about the Free Rider problem. We start the conversation talking about a recent podcast episode of his titled “A Tale of Two Keynotes”. If you haven’t listened to it (or read it), I recommend doing that first and then coming back to this conversation. 

What follows is an edited-for-clarity transcript of our conversation.

One of the things you talk about is the difference between the “creator economy” and the WordPress economy. I’ve seen you almost divide those two groups up. Can you give me a quick contrast of what those two different ideas are and how you see them?

I think it’s really a classic open-source philosophy versus a classic business philosophy. In the creator economy, the main focus is “I need to monetize my work”, and the struggle, I guess, here, is that traditionally, people have not viewed creative work as monetizable. [ConvertKit Founder] Nathan Barry said in his keynote, ‘people say that good artists starve, but now, its good artists make money’. That’s very much a mind shift that’s happened over the last few years. 

Whereas WordPress, and in I think probably most open-source communities, but I can only speak to the WordPress one, it is ‘everything should be free.’ We’re just all sharing things here and you should contribute your time because that’s the greater good, right?

Recently this topic has been brought into focus, from Matt Mullenweg’s infamous GoDaddy tweets to Executive Director Josepha Haden Chomphosy’s recent post on, Open Source and the Free Rider Problem.

So, the free rider problem? You are making free software! You can’t be like, oh, we’re giving this away and we want to own it. We want it to power half the web and then be like, but also pay your fair share and contribute. 

So I think the creator economy I think is really focused on “how can we help creators make as much money as possible?” And the WordPress community/economy right now, at least, feels very like, “how can we get everybody to pay their fair share?”

I feel like there’s this generational shift that I’ve noticed. People that have been in WordPress for a very long time are from the early internet where it’s: “let’s make sure everything is free, so that way nobody exploits anybody.”

But then I feel like there’s a new group of people in WordPress or, the people that are more vocal these days, where the mindset is: “The internet is run by giant companies. Giant companies already own everything, including WordPress.” So we feel like you need to fight to own a piece of it or make money because the internet already feels exploitative. 

They were trying to keep big businesses away, but now we’re saying, “no, big companies already own it all. You’re a big company and you own WordPress and you pretend like you don’t, but you do.” 

Do you think there’s a shift between the old internet and the new internet or something like that?

Yeah. I mean, I think probably you can look at Matt Mullenweg 2003 and Matt Mullenweg 2023, let’s say. That’s 20 years since B2 was forked. And that was like, yes, let’s make and keep this open-source. Everything is great and groovy or whatever. And Matt still preaches that. 

But also, WordPress is owned by Automattic. I mean, I don’t think there’s another way to say it so succinctly. Maybe it’s the quiet part that I’m saying out loud, but Matt has been the release lead for four straight years, except for when Josepha was the release lead. And she was on the all-women release team. I think if it wasn’t an all-women release team, Matt would’ve still been the release lead.

So I think you’re absolutely right. We are seeing this great consolidation. And again, I’m not old enough to see this happen in every industry, but it probably happens in every industry. My dad worked for Bell Atlantic. And then Ma Bell got broken up, and there were all these small companies and then Bell Atlantic became NYNEX, but then they all just became Verizon or AT&T again. 

So whenever there’s a lot of money involved, you’re going to see these big companies come in and do what they can, maybe. And I think that’s just a fact of life. The problem is that what we’re seeing is at least one big company try to also be the little guy, if that makes sense. 

The model that I’ve been kind of interested in is Ghost as an alternative. Their attitude is, “We’re open-source. You can have it for free, but we completely control the roadmap. You can contribute to it, I guess, but it’s really hard. We make you jump through a bunch of hoops because we don’t really care. We’re not open-source because we need you to contribute to make a good product. But we’re also not asking for your opinion.” 

WordPress is now in this weird space where they’re saying, “We want everyone to contribute, but we don’t want to give up the control.” So there’s the balance between we want your work, but we’re not going to let you make the choices. And a lot of people are just like, well I don’t really want to contribute to this thing that I don’t need or I don’t use. Do you think there’s ever going to be a shift of control? Is that even feasible for WordPress? A governance shift?

I feel like I keep beating up on Matt, but he’s made himself the face of the open-source project end of Automattic. He is inextricably tied to both. He’s the one who pushed full site editing through when it wasn’t ready. He was the one who made this change in release candidate two or three because he wanted it. The one that I think automatically set full screen mode when you went into the editor (which sucks, by the way).

The default full screen mode sucks.

Yeah. But he wanted it and so he got to push it through. So while Matt is in charge, for better or worse, no, there’s not going to be governance. I think this is probably why he continues to be the release lead and probably will be through phase four of Gutenberg. 

And that is something that he’ll have to reconcile with, because if he’s just going to take his ball and go home when he wants something, he can’t expect people to play with him when he puts on the guise of being more open.

The other thing I get stuck on is that WordPress relies on a ton of free plugins. I don’t like paying for a plugin if I don’t have to, but I also hate that I’m relying on free plugins because it means that I’m not supporting anybody. I know that when it stops working in two years, it’s my fault because I didn’t pay for it. 

Would we all be here if it wasn’t for all the free stuff? Do we need the free stuff? Or how would you structure things so that there’s a low barrier to entry with free software, but there’s quality and people are getting paid and they’re not just getting slammed with obnoxious support requests on a forum somewhere.

Yeah, that’s the really hard part. And again, this is something that happens across all free software, or really anything, where you move from free to the most expensive. 

You go to an all-you-can-eat buffet and you’re going to find people who will complain that the mac and cheese is too cold. You go a little upscale from that and someone orders a $50 steak and they’re like, “Well, I want it cooked well done.” You’re just going to ruin that steak, but I’m paying 50 bucks for it, so I should be able to eat it well done with ketchup if I want. 

And then you go upscale from that. And someone pays 150 bucks for a steak and they’re just like, “Yeah, however the chef makes it is how it should be made. I’m paying 150 bucks to get the best possible steak.” And it’s kind of the same in software. The people who are the most free are the most entitled, and then the people who are willing to pay thousands of dollars for a service, are just like “Yeah, here’s your check. Do your thing so I never have to think about it again.”

I think the problem in the WordPress space is that it’s really easy to make without having a business model in mind. A really good comparison- or the other side of the coin- is iOS development. You’ve got to pay to play the game in iOS development. You need to pay $99 a year to be an Apple developer. And then if you want to put your app on the App Store, sure, it could be free. It could be ad-supported, but if you want to sell it, you’ve got to pay the piper 30% (or 15% if you make less than a million dollars in a calendar year, or whatever their ridiculous terms are). So you have skin in the game from the very beginning with Apple. 

Whereas I’m guilty of this, too. I built a plugin. I put it on the repo. People downloaded it, but I didn’t have a business model for it. And then when people wanted support, I was like, I can’t support this. Figure it out yourself. This is open-source software. I made no promises of support, but people find this and they need the support. I don’t think that The WordPress Foundation, Automattic, does enough to nurture that side of it. 

And I think the last thing I’ll say on this is I was listening to App Stories with Federico Viticci and John Voorhees, and Federico says he’s really wary of apps that are just free. He doesn’t want to use something where the business model is not obvious, because he knows it’ll disappear in a year. And again, I think that’s a really different mindset.

I would say Federico is a creator, because he makes podcasts and articles and eBooks and stuff like that in the Apple News space, versus someone in the WordPress space who’s like, “This plugin should be free and I can’t even believe that you would charge me for this pro feature. I can’t believe that this is a pro feature.” 

I like Federico’s thought better. I don’t want to build my business on something that could just be gone in a year because they can’t support the business.

Matt Medeiros said recently that every content creator in WordPress is fighting for the same tiny audience. I think he said 8,000 was his number. So when you’re recommending media and podcasting, I mean, do you look at media properties that are WordPress-focused, like WP Tavern, Post Status, The WP Minute and think that well is going to run dry at a certain point? Because there’s only so many people who really want to keep reading about WordPress. Or do you think there’s still value in being a creator specifically in a WordPress economy?

Yeah. That’s a really interesting question. I think there’s an interest in WordPress news, certainly. But I do think that there’s probably a limited amount. How many different takes on Josepha’s Free Rider article could I possibly read before I get sick of reading the same different takes? But that’s not to say that there’s not a place for WordPress news. You just got to find the right niche. 

And this is the other thing I’ve been thinking about. Instead of saying, “Oh, yes. I only focus on WordPress News and I do it for podcasters,” you could say, “I show podcasters helpful tools, and WordPress is an important part of that for me.”

Let’s pick a good example here. LearnDash just launched their cloud solution. So they could create a content website for course creators, which I think they probably have already, and they don’t necessarily have to brand it as WordPress, but they can include WordPress there. They don’t necessarily need to cover some of the inner workings of WordPress, because their people don’t really care about that. 

We’re probably reaching a saturation point for news outlets that cover the inner workings of WordPress, because there are only so many ways you can spin it. I guess that’s probably the short answer.

I feel like all these stories are super interesting and important, but sometimes I hit that wall of yeah, this stuff is outrageous and I just don’t care. You wake up one day and you don’t care, and you wake up the next day and you really care.

Yeah. I’m there. Sometimes I’ll read it and I’ll be like, “Great! The top two people at Automattic that are involved in the WordPress open-source project are calling most of the users free riders.” Who cares? WordPress isn’t disappearing tomorrow. And then some days I’m like, “Who do they think they are? They’re making the most money in the WordPress space.” 

I think it’s obnoxious to really dump on GoDaddy, especially because they’re trying real hard. And yeah, they sponsor my podcast, but they’re trying really hard and it is unfair when the benevolent dictator for life calls them whatever he called them, an “existential threat to WordPress”. Just like calling Wix a roach motel.

Oh, yeah. That’s a deep cut.

Yeah. I’ll never forget that. It’s in my head forever, now. But this is another thing. Imagine if Tim Cook took all of the Apple criticism personally. It really feels like Matt takes all WordPress criticism personally.

Yeah. Although Steve Jobs did do that. But he would write essays and he would publish a blog post on Apple. Some journalist would say something and Steve Jobs would write a manifesto of like, this is why this guy is an idiot. And he would use crazy language. 

But I would love for Matt Mullenweg to do that- to just write 3000 words on why this thing happens. Then we’d all be like, “Oh, okay. Well, now I understand.” That’s transparency. That would be a positive step forward.

That’s true. That’s a good point. I’m not a big fan of Steve Jobs. I’m one of the only people in the tech space, I feel, who’s not. But yeah, you’re right. Steve Jobs took a lot of things personally. But you’re right. Steve Jobs, you always knew where you stood with him. You always knew what he thought of everything. There was, it seemed, very little duality with him.

The duality is the problematic part. Saying that people need to contribute to the WordPress space and then calling some of those contributors an existential threat to open-source. I’ll tell you what. I wouldn’t want to contribute. I’d want to do my own thing.

Everybody is competing. LearnDash and LifterLMS, for example. Yeah, they’re competitors, but one is not calling them an existential threat to the other. It feels like there’s a lot of hostility between WordPress and not WordPress. And I think that that is the true existential threat to open-source. If you view everybody as your enemy, then everybody becomes your enemy. 

Thanks for your time today. Do you have any closing thoughts?

Well, I feel like I was pretty negative this whole time and I don’t really like to be that. I guess the Free Riders post got under my skin more than I realized. But I do want to end on a positive note. 

My issues here are not necessarily with Matt Mullenweg personally. I know he has a hard, complicated job made more complicated by the fact that he’s running both the Open Source project, and the company with the biggest commercial interest in the project. I don’t think that’s right, but that’s his decision. 

What both the Open Source Project and Automattic have done more than most modern open source projects is enable all of these competitors to pop up and offer fantastic, easy ways to creators to get started. I look at what Castos is doing, what LearnDash is doing, even what WooCommerce — who was prominent before Automattic bought them — is doing. I look at the cool things agencies are doing…some of whom were literally saved by joining WordPress VIP. 

And I think it’s a great time to be a creator…especially one with a specific vision. Sure you can go to Shopify and have a store in seconds. But you could also set up WooCommerce and have a store in an hour. And if tomorrow you decide you also want to sell a membership, you don’t need to add a new platform or switch platforms. 

And that gives creators a bright future…one where the saying, “real artists starve,” will be as antiquated a thought as having to find a phone booth.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity. 

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Brian is the Technology Director at Understrap and Howard Development & Consulting. Located in Southern California, Brian is a former college instructor and full-stack developer who brings his unique academic perspective to Understrap Academy. Brian is a graduate of California State Polytechnic University Pomona and California State University Fullerton. His work has included projects for Harvard University, The World Bank, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

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