Thoughts on WordPress Governance, as Governance Project Retires

A couple of years ago — though the ways in which the world has altered in the interim, can make this feel like a couple of decades — I posted a short note about something called the WordPress Governance Project.

At the end of this week, the official Slack channel for the project will be closing, for good, after a long period of inactivity… at which point I thought, for the sake of posterity, and out of a personal spirit of wishing to complete something, I would blog about some of the outcomes and discoveries I made while the project operated.

When did this begin?

Thankfully, because I blogged the original launch, I can put a date on it; the launch was on 15 January 2019. To refresh memories in the context of WordPress, this was shortly after the December launch of WordPress 5.0, which contained the new editor Gutenberg.

Why was the Governance Project launched?

The project had been trailed at WordCamp US in 2018, as a forum to discuss important issues relating to how WordPress is governed, by Rachel Cherry and Morten Rand-Hendriksen.

The project had two stated goals:

  1. the governance of the WordPress open source project and its various community components, and
  2. WordPress’ role in the governance of the open web including representation in forums where decisions about the web platform and the Internet are made.

What were the Hot Button Issues at this time?

Gutenberg was not a universally popular addition to WordPress. There was pushback from several corners about the new editor, which would, it was felt by some, ultimately see WordPress moving towards full page editing (it would, and has).

For my part, I wasn’t in either a strongly for, or strongly against, camp, therefore I will refrain from too much commentary about why Gutenberg was perceived to be a “bad thing” by some, and a “necessary evolution” by others. Suffice it to say, co-founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg, and the core WP team, believed in Gutenberg.

Indeed, I had an office hours chat with Matt Mullenweg shortly before the launch of Gutenberg. He was strongly behind this being the correct direction. “Ship it” was my primary comment, among some other general points about how the marketing and information delivery could perhaps have been better handled.

While dramas were ongoing, several notable commentators in the WordPress space joined the WordPress Governance group Slack channel, initially, there was quite some buzz and energy.

When did the WordPress Governance Project End?

The project website was archived, and the Slack Channel, will be entirely shut down on 5 November 2021.

What Came of the Project?

Early in the project meetings and discussions, there was an intention to build towards a speech or presentation at WordCamp EU on Governance. This did not materialise.

Groups were formed to participate in various pieces of research. The documents produced by these groups were not published, nor presented anywhere. They have since been deleted.

Missed Opportunities?

There was significant energy at the launch of this project; many people felt – and likely still feel – that WordPress Governance could be more transparent; that WordPress needed to communicate and solicit opinion better from all it’s stakeholders – including we who use and contribute to the project.

Potentially, some may feel that the WordPress tagline “democratizing publishing” is somewhat at odds with its structure and governance.

Such thoughts were expressed at the time by many in the initial conversations around the launch of the WordPress Governance Project.

However, this initial energy was quickly drained. The splitting off of people into “research groups” was perhaps the biggest missed opportunity. I am relatively bookish; I studied law for several years; not many people are motivated by the prospect of doing research into the structure of open source organizations.

While such things are worthwhile and necessary, the majority of people in the meeting hall do not want to take an active research role. They merely want to be consulted when big decisions are about to be made. Further, when consulted, they want to be listened to.

So despite a large attendance by many people; this energy immediately dissipated. People quite quickly drifted away. This was to be – at best – a research project which would end with a speech at a WordCamp.

Who wanted to contribute their energy to that?

As it turned out, basically nobody.

Did Good Things Come from This Energy?

The above may seem quite critical. It is. I don’t feel this is unduly critical. There were many potentially galvanising presences in the launch conversation – including a co-founder of the Project – and potentially, with a little motivation, some real change could have been possible.

But WordPress did begin changing. New leadership was installed. New marketing people were drafted in. These moves were – similar to Gutenberg – imposed at relatively short notice, and with little discussion; again some of the shortcomings of WordPress were exposed even as Good Things were being done.

In my office hours with Matt Mullenweg, he said “nothing good is built by committees” (or words to this effect) — and particularly, he felt, this is true of software. I actually partially disagree with this; however, evidence for his position is perhaps embodied in the gradual decline and ultimate fizzling out of the WordPress Governance Project itself.

But the ideas and the energy which led people to be at that initial meeting were not wasted

Those at the core of WordPress surely know that they are operating on a licence: the community will move, and quickly organise, if they are to stray.

That the community around WordPress cares enough about the project – and the software – to be willing to attend such meetings in the first place, should, in and of itself, be chastening to Matt and the core WordPress team.

Does WordPress Need to Change?

In order to evolve, everything needs to change. Software needs to continuously improve or it will wither and die.

The same is true of the WordPress project… and its governance. Perhaps the structure which was correct to get the project to where it is now, is not the same as the structure necessary to consolidate as the most used software on the web.

In order to continue truly “democratizing publishing” WordPress may need to ensure that a more democratic culture continues to bloom. Without buy-in from its community, WordPress the project would have no future.

The project should continue to open up; Governance of WordPress should become less opaque. It should be easy to understand who makes decisions at WordPress; how those people were appointed; and which, if any, groups or committees oversee their operation.

It should not have been necessary to devolve into “research groups” to understand these basics. In conclusion, it is here that WordPress does need to change.

WordPress is now 18 years old. It is time to evolve… it is time to grow up.

By Robin Scott

I'm Robin Scott, a WordPress and WooCommerce expert who, along with three other people, runs a business called Silicon Dales Ltd remotely, from a base in the North West of the UK (kind of near Manchester!). I enjoy using my talents for programming to track and interpret sporting, political or retail data - and therefore you'll see me posting some content in these spaces in this, my personal website. If you're interested to talk about leveraging this for your business (in sport, entertainment, retail, etc) please contact me.

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