Chris Wiegman Chris Wiegman

The Many Communities of WordPress

“Acquisition,” “Community,” and “Change” are terms we all hear a lot in WordPress these days. One of the most popular posts I’ve written on this site has even been about the changing WordPress ecosystem.

Last week I asked people why they are still in WordPress. As much as many in my circle lament the changing technical landscape (or lack thereof it in some cases), I wanted to know what keeps people working with WordPress year after year, product after product and company after company; even if it isn’t what it used to be (for better or worse).

To date, and it’s only been a couple of days, a few trends have emerged. First, no one has said they stay in WordPress for the tech, in fact nearly all responses have been some variation of staying in WordPress in spite of the tech. In their reasons for staying I’m seeing a trend emerge. People are either in WordPress for “the community” or for the money (job, company, etc).

Even my own answer talked about my own story with the community and what it means to me. This reason, along with all the recent WordPress news of acquisitions and general discontent, has served as a reminder that there is more than one community in WordPress. Let’s break down what they are.

The Four Communities of WordPress

Broadly speaking, after more than a decade of working with WordPress, I think it is safe to say there are four distinct WordPress communities. These are the idealists, the personal brands, the workers and the users. Each has its own reason for being part of the broader community and is distinct from the others, even if there is some general overlap.

The idealists

The first WordPress community, and the community I most identify with, are the idealists. These are the people who may make a living in WordPress but didn’t get into WordPress for the money. They are the volunteers and other folks making their way because they believe in what they’re doing.

For some this means they are building a site with a mission that they agree with or offering their talents to build many sites for an external community that shares their values but doesn’t necessarily have the money they would like to build out their site.

I spent years building university sites where, though I had far more responsibilities than any other job I’ve had to date, I often worked for salaries less than $30,000/yr. When I finished grad school I turned down interviews at Google and others as I didn’t feel they aligned with my personal values, instead opting for lower pay to keep striving for various mission-based organizations.

For others this is the volunteer work they do at WordCamps or on outside of their day jobs. Maybe their passion is helping others fulfill their dreams or simply a love for and desire to push forward the platform that allowed them to express their desires in the first place.

Regardless of the motivation, what it comes down to is that the idealists are the people in WordPress for something other than the money.

During times of change these are also the people most likely to not be happy with where WordPress is going. Idealism and personal values are complicated and often, as we all know these days, quite rigid. As a result even a perceived departure from the historic values of the project can be met with scorn and anger, whether valid or not. In my own experience (and my own ranting) it is this rigidness that has often made this group the most vocal critics of WordPress as a whole.

The personal brands

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the idealists are the marketing “gurus,” businessman and those most interested in their personal brands. These are often the “big names” in WordPress that appear at every event, in every chat or at every party. They’re in the community for the money that they can make off of it and, more often than not, see the other communities as resources to exploit.

As for WordPress expertise, they’ll be instant experts on whatever topic is hot at the moment and whatever topic can best feed their own marketing schemes. They’ll praise open-source and the GPL while avoiding as much of it as possible, often erasing contributors, hiding code or pulling other schemes to “protect their business.”

These are the people who are seemingly everyone’s friends and idols in public yet, in private, the warnings of “you might not want to work with [insert name]” are just as common and just as telling.

These are the people behind the products that everyone loves to hate for various reasons from bloat to rising prices and more.

These are also the people who are doing quite well in WordPress right now. If your motivation in WordPress is solely money (and perhaps, to a lesser extent, fame) WordPress is the place to be. There’s a lot of money to be made in an ecosystem that runs more than 40% of the entire internet and these folks are in a great place to capture as much of it as possible.

The workers

This group is the vast majority of WordPress professionals. You won’t find them at WordPress events or in WordPress chat groups. You will see their work in the plugins, themes and sites you use every other day.

For many folks WordPress is simply the tool that puts food on their tables. They want to check in, do good work and go home at the end of the day. For now they do that work in WordPress but they would be just as happy to do it in anything else if the opportunity presented itself.

I have many friends in this boat. They’re in WordPress because WordPress was what they needed for their job. They’ll use it, build on it and contribute a significant amount to the ecosystem because it is part of their job, not for any altruistic reason.

The users

Ah, the forgotten users. These are the people who are simply using WordPress as a tool to write with, sell their wares or advertise their business. These are the artists, restaurant owners, authors and so much more. These are not the “WordPress professionals.”

We often define the WordPress community as they people who make their living building WordPress as opposed to people who make their living building with WordPress yet these users are, by far, the biggest community in WordPress.

In recent years one can argue that, hopefully rightfully, it is the desire to serve this group that has been the biggest driver of the WordPress project. From Gutenberg to automatic updates and backwards compatibility, WordPress, as a whole, seems to have done a great job of remembering who the software is for, even if one or more the other communities may forget that themselves.

The global community

Taken together, these four groups make up the global WordPress community. They cross at events such as WordCamps, in Slack groups and social media forums. They share personal friendships and work relationships and can usually all get along quite well.

These are the communities that make up WordPress, with all its warts and all its virtues.

When we remember that there is more to WordPress than ourselves and our own little community we all win.

Finally, when we talk about why we are in WordPress, we often list the “community” as if it’s one single entity, yet speak only of our own community within it. This is, from my experience, especially true with the idealists. Recognizing our own limits and motivations, as well as those of the other groups, can, I believe, help make WordPress a better place and ensure it really is the community that keeps us here for many more years to come.