WordPress Leadership has a Public Relations Problem

The outrage cycle isn't working. This public relations problem is negatively affecting our ability to solve the real problem in WordPress.


It feels like we can’t go an entire month without the WordPress leadership team serving up something that feels intentionally designed to induce a chorus of groans and face-palms from anyone who follows the inner workings of the open source project. Twenty twenty-two (the year, not the theme) has been a complete carousel of cringe – and we all know that web developers hate carousels.

WordPress Co-Founder Matt Mullenweg, especially, has had an interesting few months, and even when I agree with him, he somehow forces me not to agree with him. He’s been on a binge of saying mostly the right things in the most glaringly wrong way.

Each incident is followed by a more thoughtful write-up from WordPress Executive Director Josepha Haden Chomphosy that unfortunately becomes the sounding board for the community’s frustrations, leading to follow-ups for the follow-ups. In contrast to the eye-roll-inducing meme of open source founders as janitors, I give Josepha props for actually trying to clean up the you-know-what after her boss showed up to stir it.

The thing is – the outrage cycle isn’t working. The project is actually trying to make some really positive changes, but they seem to be taking one step forward and two steps back and stepping both feet into mouth. WordPress has a major public relations problem. And that public relations problem is negatively affecting their ability to solve the real problem in WordPress.

The real problem in WordPress

There’s only one “real” problem in WordPress – is there enough contribution activity to keep the project alive and healthy? Every other important problem – from the lack of focus on accessibility to the ongoing “beta” state of full site editing – is really an offshoot of that original problem: lack of contributors. WordPress’ need for fresh contributions hits even stronger than Joel Osteen’s need to pass the plate every Sunday for that second private jet.

We’ve seen multiple comments from leadership now that the project as a whole is moving too slow, and I fully agree. This has nothing to do with the quality of the contributors themselves but the quantity of resources at their disposal. My gut feeling is that full site editing will not be a feasible design system for at least another few years, and that’s only phase two of four total phases in Gutenberg. Then we get to move onto the rest of wp-admin or other cool developer-centric goodies. I’m genuinely concerned about the project’s ability to successfully pull off phases three and four, especially when the effects of phase one already have our webhosts struggling to handle the increased resources of the React-based editor.

These are real problems of sustainability (both in terms of the project and in terms of the environment) that can’t be solved by new features that are more marketing gimmicks than actual improvements. I’m just not sure we can blame it entirely on GoDaddy or abstract it into a textbook socioeconomic theory, however.

In the past, the project leadership would refer to the “Tragedy of the Commons” as the theoretical framework to hang our worries on, but since Elinor Ostrom suggested that you could increase contributions to a public good by increasing participation in governance, we hear a lot less about that exact issue. Instead, a new villain was needed.

Thus, the Free Rider problem has entered the chat. Most recently hyped in a private Slack channel by Mullenweg in response to a fever-dream tweet-storm, and elaborated on by Josepha Haden Chomphosy, the Free Rider problem posits that the biggest danger to an open source resource like WordPress is the people who use it for free. Yes. You read that right. Which leads to my central thesis:

The ‘Free Rider Problem’ is an Awful Framing Device

The free rider problem is a terrible way to look at what’s happening in WordPress, for any number of reasons. I’ll try to pick just a few. And let’s be clear that while it could potentially summarize the problem correctly in many ways, the point here is that it does so from the wrong perspective, or at least a perspective that is not helpful to the goals of the project.

This is a public relations issue – because the lack of contributor enthusiasm, and thus the lack of progress in WordPress, is mainly coming down to how people feel about contributing their time to the project (not to mention the actual barriers to contributing). While Matt’s original “free rider” comment was directed at a large company, the “public transportation” analogy itself is clearly referencing individual human beings, most often the economically disadvantaged.

I live in Southern California – an area intentionally hostile to public transportation (according to my research wearing out a VHS copy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as a kid). Around here, public transportation is viewed as something to be subsidized by taxpayers, but functionally exists to serve the lowest economic demographics. It’s literally democratizing transportation, even if it’s a losing battle to our suburban lust for massive, congested freeways.

The point is that we should want it to exist for the free riders, because out here, the middle class doesn’t ride the bus. So while we may be trying to say ‘GoDaddy is a free rider’, because of the fact that contributions to WordPress can only be made through individual human labor, the free rider slur feels personal and doesn’t land well.

A Scarcity Mindset Breeds Scarcity

The free rider problem operates from a “scarcity mindset” instead of an “abundance mindset,” something you can look up if you haven’t read any one of a thousand business advice/self-help books or suffered through a single entrepreneur’s inspirational podcast. “Scarcity mindset” was a problem with the Tragedy of the Commons as well. This quick hit is that a scarcity mindset is focused on getting a bigger slice, while the abundance mindset realizes that we can grow the entire pie.

We understand that the true “resource” of WordPress – contributors who are able to maintain and grow it – is a finite one in some ways. Josepha referred to this as a “tenacious need for contribution” and tried her best to separate the two issues. But my argument is that her description of the free rider problem – “a lack of urgency and priority for supporting the public good” – really is the same thing.

We’re nowhere near the actual limit to the number of potential contributors available, even though the larger the project gets, the need for more contributors basically grows exponentially. The misstep then is placing the focus on the “free riders” as the problem. Who cares about the free riders, even the massive ones, when that’s literally the point of “democratizing publishing.”

Instead, focus attention on the “potentially-not-free riders” – the many, many users of WordPress who have actually considered contributing but found it hard or even hostile. Instead of insulting a group that doesn’t really matter, Matt could try welcoming the group that does. If it were easy to contribute (say by making financial donations to an independently-operated and transparent governance board who managed all aspects of communication and development), we’d see more contributions. But people don’t want to contribute to something they don’t feel ownership over, that insults them, or that they feel no longer aligns with their values. And it’s almost as if WordPress doesn’t really want to lower the barrier to contributing, just use it as an excuse.

The Words We Use Matter

Finally, the free rider problem is a failure in understanding your audience. The best analogy I can think of is the slogan “Defund the Police.” Regardless of political orientation, just hearing the phrase itself ended up turning many people off without even letting them engage with the actual ideas for community improvement. This helps explain some of the backlash on the recent posts by Josepha Haden Chomphosy. By even using the phrase “free rider problem,” many commenters couldn’t see clearly enough to debate the actual content of the article, and instead felt the need to stand up for the underrepresented – the free riders.

Hearing someone with the net worth of a small country’s entire GDP complain that other people aren’t giving enough just doesn’t land well, even if it is true. Contributions can only be made out of economic privilege, and it takes a certain type of economic privilege to (even partially) blame the lack of contributions on those without that privilege. It comes across as shifting blame to those without the resources to even engage with the conversation at all, and this is made harder by the fact that we have to keep deciphering the convergence of employees and volunteers.

The point of this article is not that I want to hear less from Matt and Josepha – that they should stop making public statements or interacting with the community. It’s that I want to hear more. It’s helpful to know how the leadership sees the issue, so we can argue it here or on the Make WordPress Project blog. I believe that disagreement is natural and healthy.

We all want the same goal of seeing WordPress make more progress and be a place where all of us free riders are willing and able to contribute. So instead of the “free rider problem,” I’m working on proposing my new grand unifying theory that will solve all of WordPress’s problems in my next article: the “distracted driver problem.”

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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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