The issue with WordPress lies in its positioning, not its plugins.
Geoff is a technical writer and editor at Smashing Magazine. In addition to his editorial role, he is also a freelance professional who instructs classes on front-end design and development. Learn more about Geoff ↬
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If you ask an average user to distinguish between WordPress.org and WordPress.com, you're likely to receive a nonchalant shrug. I know this because it's one of the initial questions I pose to my students in my WordPress development class each term when introducing them to the content management system.
I find it fascinating to ask this question because it's astonishing that a platform that powers 43% of the internet can remain largely unknown, much like Taylor Swift can enter a crowded football stadium without being noticed.
However, for the power users and developers among us, the distinction between WordPress.org and WordPress.com is not only clear but also represents a hallowed yet indistinct boundary between the vibrant open-source community that WordPress is renowned for, and the commercial endeavors of Automattic, the company that utilizes WordPress to fuel its hosted CMS platform.
This distinction is a hallowed boundary because crossing it compromises the open-source nature of WordPress as a decentralized project upheld by a community of predominantly unpaid contributors.
Keeping vested interests at bay is what maintains WordPress as a platform for the people, by the people.
This hallowed boundary is also indistinct, at best. A prime example of this occurred last week when WordPress.com replicated the WordPress.org Plugin Directory on its own site. As is often the case with WordPress #HotDrama, a couple of developers notice a change, tweet about it, and Automattic founder Matt Mullenweg adds fuel to the fire. In this specific instance, plugin pages on WordPress.com seemed to rank higher than plugin pages on WordPress.org in web searches.
This is another instance of a situation that sets the open-source community against Automattic’s commercial interests. We've seen this scenario numerous times in the over 20 years that WordPress has been around. The debates are complex, of course, but I'll broadly outline each side's argument:
The issue is that this is often where the debate transitions from being constructive to becoming downright nasty. Nobody benefits under these circumstances.
Both sides of the argument can be valid, even if they disagree. It would be equally misleading for plugin developers to deny any benefit from WordPress.com’s exposure as it is for Automattic to assert that developers receive as much in rewards as they invest in writing code.
And that's the crux of the matter. When the conversation shifts towards labor issues and hurt feelings, we deviate from the core issue: WordPress has a positioning problem, not a plugin problem.
Sure, that makes for a catchy headline, but there's genuine substance to it. How different would the debate be if it was between WordPress and Automattic rather than WordPress versus WordPress? I suspect it would be significantly different.
The issue is no longer about search rankings and blocked accounts but truly about distribution and labor in the open-source community.
By drawing clearer boundaries between business and community, we can have more transparent discussions without the indistinct divisions derailing the conversation.