WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg’s annual State of the Word speech was held December 15, 2022 in New York City. In this episode Allie Nimmons and Rob Howard recap the highlights of Matt’s speech – things they are excited about, things that confuse or worry them.. and together they try to answer the question: what is the biggest challenge facing WordPress right now?
- Rob’s highlights included the new in-browser Sandbox and the PHP 8 issue.
- Allie’s highlights included collaborative editing in Gutenberg and seeing quantifiable growth in the community.
- Allie’s question “What is the biggest challenge facing WordPress?” is answered: decentralization and the catch-22 of being an open and closed system at the same time.
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Watch the recording of State of the Word here!
Hey Allie, how are you doing?
Hey Rob. I’m good. Feeling a little under the weather from traveling, but other than that, feeling pretty good.
You just got back from a great trip to New York to see State of the Word.
Hey Allie, how are you doing?
Hey Rob. I’m good. Feeling a little under the weather from traveling, but other than that, feeling pretty good.
You just got back from a great trip to New York to see State of the Word.
Yeah, I did. I did.
It was fantastic.
We should probably talk about our takeaways, and thoughts, and ideas for the future, using that as a sort of jumping off point. So you were there in person, how was the experience? I mean, I know you went to Word Camp US this year, and we’re kind of getting back into the world of doing real life WordPress stuff. So I would love to hear, before we start digging into the details of what was covered, how was that experience of being there in person and attending kind of something that’s become a pretty big annual event in the WordPress world?
Yeah, it was really interesting. I mean I went last year in person as well. That was the first time I’d ever attended. I remember last year feeling just very in awe of the space. It’s a beautiful space. This year I was running a little bit late because New York Transit, and so I just kind of slipped, in and grabbed a seat, and just tried to start paying attention. So I didn’t have that moment of like, wow, this space is really beautiful.
Overall the vibe was different. It wasn’t as communal. It wasn’t as warm as I remember it being last year. Also, last year there were, I think, a lot more community centric people. I remember last year there were a lot of people that I knew, that I recognized either from other events or from Twitter. This year it seemed like there were fewer WordPress people invited in the first place. I know that there were some people there from the team at Tumblr, and very new people to the space. So it felt a little bit more like a networking business thing where you don’t really know anybody and you have to introduce yourself, as opposed to last year where it felt very much like everybody already knew each other, and it was a little bit of a meeting of the minds sort of a thing.
Kind of more like a Word Camp. That’s what I would expect from a Word Camp.
A little, yeah.
It sounds like it wasn’t quite the same vibe. One thing that jumped out of me having, I listened to the audio and the YouTube version of it, the stream. There was a point at which Matt Mullenweg said, “Raise your hand if you worked on Gutenberg. I feel like everybody here is a coder for Gutenberg,” or something to that extent. That struck me as interesting because I think that kind of parallels to what you were saying, where maybe it was more coder heavy, or more developer heavy, or there was just a different cross section of participants this year versus in the past.
Yeah, I’d be really curious to see a guest list or attendee list and compare against previous years. I’m not sure if that’s even available. But yeah, it seemed like a slightly different crowd of people. Everyone was really nice. It was still beautiful. The food was great, the drinks were great. But it was a little bit different. But overall I really enjoyed myself and had a really good time, and was felt very privileged to be able to go.
Excellent.Let’s dive into some of the positive takeaways first. So tell me, what did you think were the biggest and most exciting things that either you learned or were discussed at the State of the Word event?
There were so many things, honestly. I was taking some notes on my phone and trying to be a good little journalist, and I feel like I forgot some things because I was really enraptured, and paying attention, and listening to people. But the things that definitely stood out to me were the kind of looking ahead at the future and the features that are going to be coming along, like the Sandbox, which I’ve been thinking about for forever.
I’ve heard lots of other people using similar features of being able to spin up a WordPress environment in your browser, and to know that we’re going to have a, quote unquote, real one is really, really exciting. It just lowers that barrier for entry for so many people who are learning WordPress for the first time. All the courses I make now, I’m not really going to have to say, well, you have to buy hosting a domain first. I can say you can go here and just start playing right away, which is super powerful for getting new users in.
The sort of, I don’t remember if there was a word for it, but the Google Doc style collaboration that’s coming for Gutenberg is also really exciting. I think that’s one of those things where, yeah, it’s kind of a cool flashy feature. But it’s so impactful for, I feel like, the non devs who are often overlooked in this community. The content marketers, the writers, the creatives who can now completely collaborate with each other in a much more seamless way. In addition to the things, like collecting content from clients, that’s going to make that so much easier. It just widens the scope of what WordPress is able to do in a way that’s super native and doesn’t require you to have to add more things as you’re getting started.
I mean, a lot of the highlight for me was just seeing, which is I think mostly what this event is for, is seeing how and where the community is growing, seeing those numbers. If people listening have not gone ahead and watched the recording, I would recommend going and watching it on YouTube if only just for, there was a gif that Matt showed of the entire world map, and how meetups and events have grown from the beginning of the community until now, and how virtual events came in, and then they left. It was this amazing explosion to be able to watch of all of these areas lighting up with all of these community events. Being able to see that in a very visual way was really satisfying.
I wrote down that we had 12,000 Learn WP learners this year, which I think Learn WP is one of our, unfortunately, best kept secrets as a community. It’s such an amazing library of knowledge and information, and there are so many people that are working so hard on it. It’s not really spoken about or promoted as much as it could or should be, considering that we are trying to ramp up our, not to say production, but the number of contributors was affected by the pandemic.
While people did come back, we still struggle with keeping people integrated in the WordPress community and bringing new people in. I think the Learn courses are so effective at bringing people into us that it’s a shame that it’s not double that number at this point. Given the number of people that do use WordPress, there’s no reason why every single person who doesn’t download WordPress for the first time, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be taking at least one of those courses or watching at least one of those videos because they’re so important. So I was really proud to see that the number was as big as it was. I wish it was bigger, because I think that it’s deserved.
But yeah, I mean those were the things that mostly stood out to me. There’s definitely other positives. It’s not just that those were the only goods things spoken about. But those were the things that I wrote down because I was so excited about.
Yeah, I also wrote down the Sandbox thing. So that is the ability to basically run a WordPress instance without hosting or a web server. That seems like the kind of thing where just as five years ago we didn’t really have an easy way to build staging sites and copy from staging to production and stuff like that. New companies and technology have come in and built that, and that’s actually made everyone’s life easier, especially on the agency side. The Sandbox thing seems like it is poised to do something very similar.
Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, there were so many really interesting things. But there are also a lot of things that I was really confused about, either confused about, or got a weird vibe from, or felt concerned about. I think that that’s normal. I mean, we talk about that on the podcast a lot in terms of we care so much about this community that if something pricks up our ears, we want to talk about it. So in addition to the vibe being off, there were some things that Matt said that I was sort of like, okay, well, I want to think about that a little bit more. I’m curious what that actually means.
I am very cognizant, especially being in spaces like State of the Word, like that giant, beautiful room full of expensive art, and furniture, and fancy food, and beautiful views of like how in touch are we with the average WordPress user, the grand majority of people who use WordPress? How cognizant are we of this word cult that gets thrown at the WordPress community a lot, right? I know that WordPress is not a cult. But we have some culty qualities.
At the very beginning, Matt mentioned that a lot of what he was about to say was very inside baseball, lots of terminology. I thought immediately about the new community members watching the recording and thinking, okay, well, I already feel isolated by that, right? Is this for me? Who is this for? Am I going to understand what’s being talked about? I think that in the long run, most of it was accessible to people in terms of understanding what was going on and what was being spoken about.
It just makes me wonder, State of the Word is so great for giving the people who are playing inside baseball a view into what’s going on. I wonder about what’s the state of, what would a State of the Word look like for the average user? What does Matt have to say to the average user that’s not inside baseball, if anything at all?
We talked a little bit about things like … I mean, we talked about Gutenberg a ton, obviously. He mentioned that the new block theme, he literally said, the new block theme may be the last theme for WordPress. Then we just moved on and I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute.
I noticed that too.
What about all of these theme developers? What about all of these people who have built their livelihoods on making and maintaining themes? What about people who are maybe right now in the throes of learning how to make themes because of that interest and that economic structure that exists right now? What about that? That kind of shook me a little bit, and that it was thrown out there as this super positive thing. No more themes. Isn’t that great?
I was like, I think it’s great to have some really, really strong default themes that people can come in with, and use, and not have to pay for. I don’t love the idea of just saying, well, our goal is to make other themes completely obsolete and useless. I think that’s antithetical to a lot of the openness and community-centric attitude of this community. I would love to argue with people about that, because I feel very freaked out about it. Then we just moved on. So I was sort of also like, all right, well maybe it’s not … Am I overreacting to that? But what do you think?
Yeah, and I think that, without jumping ahead of myself too much, because I have more I want to touch on in our later questions about this. But I think what you’re getting at is that WordPress, as an organization, whether we’re talking about wordpress.org or whatever sort of strange combination of for-profit and non-profit things we describe as WordPress, there’s a significant gap in communications.
Some of that is am I communicating with the developers who are contributing core code or core Gutenberg code, or am I communicating with the millions of people who use the site as essentially laypeople every day, or who use the service or software as laypeople? I think the first thing you touched on was I didn’t realize, it was weirdly inside baseball, which even the term inside baseball is kind of a metaphor that not everybody would even get. We use that in engineering and journalism, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a super obvious meaning if I were to say that to somebody who wasn’t in one of those spaces.
So the idea that, hey, we’re going to talk about some really nitty gritty insider stuff. We’re also sort of going to preview some different themes and tools, and nice little videos. I agree with you that it felt like it was unclear who the ultimate audience was. Perhaps that is because WordPress, as an organization, is struggling with speaking to what are becoming more and more disparate audience groups.
So there are high code developers, there are people who use Elementor and Divvy, which Matt, I believe, talked about in one of the questions in the Q&A section where there was this question of, well, what really is a theme? I think one of his vague responses to the concern you just expressed about, well, I noticed you said that there were going to be no themes anymore. What does that really mean? I think that one of the responses was along the lines of, well, Divvy is called a theme, but maybe it shouldn’t be a theme, it should be an app, and we should call it something different.
So there’s all these little weird, somewhat evasive things that are happening there. But I think what they come down to is that the number and type of stakeholders and participants in what we describe as the WordPress community is changing. It’s bigger, but it’s also made up of different people, and different stakeholders, and groups, and types of people than it was 10 years ago. I think we are watching in real time, the organization struggle with communicating with a more diverse group. I don’t mean that in the sense of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but more to the diversity of different knowledge sets, different use cases.
There’s just a obvious lack of communication and preparation for being able to speak to those different audience groups or different stakeholders. It kind of reminds me of, there are some websites where it’s like, hey, you come to this homepage and they clearly know they have three different audience groups. Like, hey, I’m a buyer, I’m a seller, I am a real estate agent, whatever. So there are some companies and organizations that have clearly defined multiple different paths to using their services, and those are based on different needs, different positions in the sort of buying and selling cycle, stuff like that.
WordPress clearly is trying to have one big event that speaks to everybody and not doing a great job with that. As you were talking about this, I was thinking of, well, if we think about the State of the Union that the president gives, that is very specifically intended to be a mass audience, very high level overview of what we’re going to do in the next year. So imagine if the president got up there and was like, “Hey, we’re going to be a little bit inside baseball. We’re going to talk about the exact rules around the child tax credit and the IRS audits.” It’s like we would all tune out blindly. There’d be 10 people who were really excited about that and everybody else would be like, why am I watching this?
So I think even at that very basic level, is this supposed to be a speech to a broad audience or a very narrow developer audience? I think even that, it sounds like, was unclear. That being said, this is supposed to be a positive event. It’s almost supposed to be a little bit of a victory lap propaganda event. I’m not expecting them to be like, well, here’s all the problems we have. But I think what you are identifying is that it was clear that it was almost haphazardly speaking to multiple audiences and not really doing a great job of speaking to any specific audience as a result of that. So I think that was a communication challenge that overlays a lot of the other stuff that I have on my list of challenges for the next year, and things that jumped out at me as areas that I would want the community to work harder on next year.
Yeah, totally. All of that makes so much sense. It’s also indicative of, I keep saying that WordPress is a teenager right now. If WordPress were a person, they would be 15, 16, 17 years old, and they would be angsty, and they would be frustrated, and they would be feeling like, well, I’m not a child anymore, but I’m not really an adult yet, and nothing feels right and nothing is working. What do I do? They would be rushing toward, well, I just want to be an adult, I just want to be a grownup. It’s not really … We’ve all felt that way, I think, as teenagers, and we all go back and wish, well, you should have been a kid for a little while longer.
I think that in a lot of ways we’re kind of rushing to grow up and we’re rushing to grow when things aren’t really … When we should spend more time being a kid. I think about one of the other notes I had was the term Gutenberg will be bigger than WordPress itself, which Matt said. He was talking about how Gutenberg is being used all over the place, on Tumblr, on there was a Laravel engine awesome thing that I didn’t fully understand, but it looked really cool. He talked about it in the day one app, and all of these other places where Gutenberg is existing, and being useful, and creating.
That also made me think, okay, well, Gutenberg still has a lot of issues. We’ve established on this very podcast that Gutenberg is inaccessible literally to millions of people, cannot be used by them. The idea that Gutenberg will become bigger than WordPress itself is like, okay, well, what does that mean in Matt’s head? Does that mean that he’s going toward a future where WordPress is just cannibalized by this block editor, and Gutenberg is all there is? If Gutenberg is going to become bigger than WordPress, where does that leave WordPress? What is the real, I mean, I know what the delineation is between software. I know what Gutenberg is and I know what WordPress is when it comes to the software. When it comes to everything else, our ecosystem, our communities, our events, all of these things, if we are diminishing WordPress for the sake of Gutenberg, where does that leave everything else?
I think that the true answer is that no one really knows what the future will hold or where the real delineations will be. But that there is a subset of WordPress developers or WordPress designers, and I think it’s likely in my mind that Matt Mullenweg himself is probably in this group, where it’s just more fun to do innovative stuff. People see Gutenberg as, here’s the innovative thing I can work on. It has this extreme growth potential where it could be part of Tumblr, it could be part of Day One, it could be part of all these third parties that they need a better editor, at least in the mind of people who are building Gutenberg. I think the premise that we needed a better editor has some basic flaws to it. But that being said, people decided that this was a cool project they wanted to work on. Now they want to see it grow.
So I definitely can identify with just the desire for excitement, innovation, and speed of adoption. So WordPress being a more mature product, it’s just less exciting in that sense, because just the speed at which we get a higher market share or higher adoption is just inherently going to be slower because so many people are already using WordPress. Whereas Gutenberg is interesting and exciting.
I think one thing I did have on my positives list is that the Gutenberg/block editor experience in WordPress is legitimately better today than it was last year, and much better than it was two or three years ago. So I do have to give them that and say, this has improved to the point where we’re using it for clients in still a somewhat limited way. But a couple years ago I was telling clients do not turn on Gutenberg under any circumstances. Now I’m like, there are some circumstances where this is valuable, and we’re using it for some of our own sites. Not for everything, but for a lot. So it really has improved.
If you set aside the issue of the screen reader and accessibility experience, it is a much nicer experience for somebody who is able to use a typical web browser than it was a couple years ago. So it has improved. They’ve done some work on accessibility and there’s still a lot of work left to do. It’s also possible that the technology is just not ready to be … They’re trying to do things that are so complex that it may be difficult for them to ever get it to be fully accessible in the near future, which creates a significant ethical question around, well, how should we treat software that is sort of intentionally flashy, and thus inherently doesn’t work on a screen reader or something like that?
So I think that there’s a lot of big questions there that need to be answered. But to give credit where it’s due, Gutenberg is better than it was before. I think that’s a success. I also noticed, that being said, that apparently we’ve completed phase two of Gutenberg, which was supposed to be full site editing. It seems like kind of a punt because full site editing doesn’t really work yet for anything beyond a personal blog, and has never really been treated as a done deal. But to me, it seems like there is a degree to which we are almost just saying, okay, we got to be done with phase two now. Right? Because I really want to do multilingual, and I really want to do this other stuff.
So that being said, if Matt is going to be the leader of that project, ultimately he can decide what he wants to focus on. There’s also a large market of people who are actually building sites for clients and small businesses that are going to speak with their feet and say, well, we can’t use this yet because X, Y, and Z, in Gutenberg as a project, which is semi-independent from WordPress, can hear that feedback or not and improve it or not.
So I think that kind of plays into some of the stuff that jumped out to me the most about the Gutenberg side of things is like I agree with you, it is completely unclear what it means that Gutenberg is going to be bigger than WordPress. That seems like just nonsensical buzzwords to me. Maybe there’s some more detailed plan for that, but it sounds like just something that sounds cool. I’ve never seen any actual data to back that up. Nor do I think that acquiring Tumblr and putting the Gutenberg software on it is actually a significant benefit to the WordPress community of developers or designers. It just seems like we’re gaming the numbers a little bit by doing that.
The other thing that Matt brought up that is, again, super inside baseball that Leo Losoviz wrote an article on Master VP for us about this. Actually, he wrote a series of articles that were extremely technical, intentionally, because it’s an extremely technical concept, was this question of there’s people out there who are building what they call a block protocol. The idea is that basically you can copy and paste blocks of content to millions of different tools and websites, and they’ll all kind of correctly interpret it and paste it in and out. Kind of like how you could paste something out of Microsoft Word into Google Docs, and they interpret it correctly, more or less. Actually Matt said that that wasn’t working out and the block protocol wasn’t something that they were going to integrate with.
So it’s this idea of portability and universality does not seem like something we’re even close to accomplishing. That being said, it may not be the thing that I would focus on as a software developer, but certainly one of the values and good things about open source is that people can go do whatever they want, and then it’ll get adopted if other people think it’s good, right? So I think that’s kind of where we’re at with that.
But to me, it’s just obvious that Gutenberg is more exciting of a project, and I think Tumblr is also more exciting of a project than WordPress right now. The flip side of that is that I think one of the negatives that we’ve seen over the last year is that without attention and focus leadership, there have been some places where WordPress has kind of gone off the rails as a community in the last year or two. So there is, to some degree, opportunity costs to going out and focusing on that other project if you’re not going to then seriously pass the reins to somebody else to focus on the WordPress project.
Yeah, totally. Well, we are coming up a little bit on time, so I really want to talk about, I did pluck up some courage, and stand up and ask. I asked Matt a question during the Q&A portion.
Which I didn’t think I was going to do. People asked me the night before, what are you going to ask Matt? I mean, my husband texted me and said, when tomorrow do you go heckle Matt? I was like, you know way too much about all of this. I didn’t think I was going to ask a question. But as he was talking, questions started forming in my mind. It was my fault for basically asking two questions in one, which I did like a lot of people do.
My two questions in one were, what do you think is the biggest challenge that WordPress as a project is currently facing? How can we as a community begin to or continue to address that challenge? What was great is he did the same exact thing that he did when I asked him a question last year, which is he shifted all of his weight to one foot, and threw his head back, and stared at the ceiling for a little bit too long. It was great, totally stumped him a little bit.
The basis of his response was throwing it all back to the make teams, and said that the make teams are this lattice work of people who are doing great things and they need to be communicating with each other. When they communicate effectively, then challenges, problems get solved. He talked really beautifully about this pencil analogy that I didn’t really think was super relevant, but it was really pretty. I think if I was braver, I would’ve said, that doesn’t really answer my question. But I decided to say thank you and sat down.
So I think one of the biggest challenges to this community is how decentralized everything is. We don’t have great systems for standardization of practice or thought. When I say thought, I’m not trying to get into a big brother, everyone needs to think exactly the same sort of thing. But it’s a lot of what we were just talking about of there’s so much lack of clarity around ideas, and what things actually mean, and what the intentions are of our leadership and the projects. If we’re feeding code and energy into a product, a project, what is the end goal? That’s super unclear all the time. That comes down to our issues with, I think, everything, our accessibility issues, our diversity issues, the fact that we are racing through these phases, like you just talked about, without maybe moving properly from one phase to the next, and having that first phase be finished.
I think a lot of that comes from our desire to pass the book onto somebody else and say, well, we’re an open source community. We’re made up of all of these teams. So it’s kind of someone else’s problem. Somebody else will fix it, somebody else will figure it out, it’ll get solved. That’s a really frustrating thing to see. To speak to people who have said, I no longer participate in this community because I didn’t feel listened to, or because I didn’t feel heard, or because I feel like things are spinning in circles, that allows us, and it makes it okay for us to bleed resources, time, energy, people, ideas.
I think that I don’t particularly have a solution to that. I think it’s kind of our catch 22 of we exist to be open, and our openness creates a very unstable foundation in a lot of ways for us to be able to do things, and make decisions about how things should be done as we grow into this adult. I mean, yeah, it’s a nebulous answer, I think. But when I really think about it, it all comes down to the fact that everything is so spread out.
I mean, we recently had this amazing new thing arise, this new collective project where people are going to start collecting funds to sponsor people to go to events. It’s something that’s needed to happen for a really long time. Even just this weekend, I spoke to multiple people who are like, well, I want to do that same thing, but for a very specific purpose, and that’s what I’m going to do. It’s like, okay, well now we’re diluting the effort, by decentralizing things on purpose and having many people do the similar things all over the place without actually everyone all agreeing. The whole thing gets diluted, and then nobody succeeds.
So I think, yeah, that’s one of our issues, and it’s a weirdly American issue, if we want to go into that. It always brings to mind this rugged individualism of everybody has to take care of themselves and do things on their own. I don’t know, I could talk about that for hours. But I really want to know what your answer to that would’ve been.
Yes, good question. So first of all, I appreciate you asking an actual useful and challenging question at the event. I think the biggest challenge to WordPress as a community/organization is that the person standing on stage wasn’t able to answer the question of what the biggest challenge is. I don’t see a scenario where you would ask that question to a CEO of a major tech company and they’d be like, eh, I don’t know. It’s probably that people are disorganized or not communicating well.
It’s like, no, you should probably have something in your head. That’s kind of the most basic interview question. What’s your biggest weakness? Right? So obviously this was intended to be a very positive event, but it’s pretty common that people would ask challenging questions when they’re allowed to stand up and do that.
I’ll say, I tried to phrase my question in the most positive way possible.
I think you did. It wasn’t negative, but it was also like, you should have an answer to that, right? So I think Matt did touch on something similar to what you were saying, which is basically there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen. It’s unclear sometimes what the priorities should be. It’s hard to communicate asynchronously, it’s hard to communicate in an open source world.
But I think one of the biggest challenges is that we say, we’re almost like saying two things that conflict with each other at the same time. So there’s one person who is clearly in charge, who approves everything and gives the State of the Word address, but he’s also saying that the biggest challenge is that there’s too many people in charge. So both of those things can’t be true at the same time. I’m kind of putting words in his mouth there a little bit, perhaps unfairly. But the basic idea that we have lots of committees, but ultimately those committees all go through a single person and nothing gets added to WordPress without Matt’s ultimate approval.
So there is a leader, but that leader also doesn’t really want to be seen as a leader. But he does want to be the person giving the speech and doing final approval on everything. So I think Matt really, in some ways, could rewrite the organizational structure to solve the problem that he quoted to you. It wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but it’s just a very difficult process to go through psychologically and emotionally, and it’s a lot of work. It’s also not a fun thing to do. It is a laborious thing to restructure a big organization full of people who have different opinions, and are different types of stakeholders, and stuff like that.
So I think that desire to be the small, rugged, individualist, open source dudes that we were in 2008 now conflicts with the fact that WordPress is actually a big organization, which has a lot of big companies very closely involved in its development and its path forward. Now we’re in a place where there’s just a lot of conflicting stakeholders. There’s businesses, we didn’t even talk about the whole idea of the commercial tag on plug-ins versus the opens.
We should do a whole episode.
Like a free tag, that’s a whole episode when it comes out, for sure. But what’s happening now is that we have, Matt, as a leader, has done a great job of getting WordPress to the place that it is at now. There has been a very clear vision of everything should be ideally open source, and if it’s not open source, there needs to be a really good reason that it shouldn’t be. I think that I have, in many ways, been influenced by, and have always agreed with his philosophy on all of that. WordPress is sort of becoming a victim of its own success, because now it is struggling as an organization to remain in this sort of decentralized, but kind of centralized structure.
I think really the growth metaphor, the teenager metaphor plays into this too. Where it’s like, okay, now we’re at an inflection point where there’s a lot of you who want to pursue a lot of different things. They all sort of play into this central goal of open source democratizing publishing. But there’s also not a very clear path forward, and there’s not a really good plan for handling dissent, or people who maybe want to prioritize something different. I think we’re way past the point where it’s like, well, if you don’t like it, make a fork is a reasonable response. Right?
Really, that was an acceptable response in 2008 because we’re a scrappy team of developers and designers who are building cool stuff. It’s like, if you don’t want to be involved, don’t be involved, right? But now that we have lots of multi-billion dollar companies, including the one that Matt Mullenweg owns, involved, as well as many others who are cooperative, sort of competitive, and then lots of smaller companies, and smaller individuals and organizations. There’s a lot going on here. It’s very difficult to, as we touched on, handle the communication and PR of all this, while also building good stuff.
So to me, I think if I could craft a future for WordPress as an organization, I would really focus on building out teams who can actually manage and execute these various different things, rather than trying to have it just be a couple people who are always putting out fires. Which I think is where they’re at, organizationally, right now. Really empower somebody to run Gutenberg, really empower somebody to run events, really empower somebody to run even some of the technical stuff like PHP8. It was super bizarre to me that nobody on stage was able to accurately comment on why WordPress is not really fully supportive of PHP8 when PHP7.4 is at end of life. They kind of had to BS that response a little bit.
I want to do an episode on that thing as well.
Yeah, it just seems to me like the organization and the community have grown to a place where the management structure is no longer serving its purpose. I think you see this in initiatives that are pursued vigorously for a month and then forgotten without ever really reaching a conclusion. I could think of four or five examples of that over the last year. Initiatives that are pursued by others, but then seemingly accidentally torpedoed by Matt, like when he has said mean things to people in comments or mean things to people on Twitter. It’s like, this is not something that is …
Obviously that’s not a good situation. But it’s okay to say the wrong thing sometimes. But when you have a pattern of meltdowns where somebody is supposed to be running something and then you suddenly take it over, or you suddenly start badmouthing it, or that person gets pulled away and the job never gets done. When that happens over and over again, as I think is one of the patterns we’ve seen this year in the community, I think that’s an indication that everybody needs to have a thing that they focus on and that they own. There can still be a CEO or executive director who things ultimately funnel through. But it’s too big to be run in the way it’s being run right now.
Entrusting more people and empowering more people is something that is really hard, especially when you really want everything to be perfect. It’s really hard to delegate. You and I both are working on that in our own lives and businesses, right? But we’re at a point now where I think it is essential that we empower more people to run more of these sort of little businesses within the bigger WordPress community or little communities within the WordPress community. I think right now there’s not that many people who feel they could actually go do it themselves and not be at risk of a sudden backlash.
So I think working on the culture in the sense of we should be, Matt should have five lieutenants who really do stuff and execute stuff without a lot of supervision or veto points. That would allow one person to really do a great job with Gutenberg, one person to do a great job with the various different pieces of the puzzle. The plugin directory could be one, the events could be another, right? Recruiting and diversity could be a third. Yeah. So there’s all sorts of stuff like that.
But I think bottom line is that the teenager that WordPress is has clearly grown out of some of its systems that worked in the past. I think that’s a big challenge. But I think that’s how things get to the next level, and how we avoid this pattern of like, well, it’s not really good … This pattern of forcing people out who don’t really click with the current structure. Again, as you said, it’s not a thing where you can click a button and solve that problem. That is a problem that every large organization faces. I think it’s an interesting challenge for the next year or two to see if we can help the WordPress community figure that out, right? If we can get that level of permission and delegation from the people who are sort of in charge to actually allow that to happen.
Absolutely. Well, yeah, thank you so much, Rob, for chatting with me about this event. I’m still processing a lot of it. I’m really excited to, this week, read and listen to everyone’s responses and takes. Hoping that if you are listening, you’ll tweet at us or email us your reactions to stuff we’ve said as well, and let’s keep the conversation going.
Thanks, Allie. Always a pleasure. Talk to you soon.