The WordPress Plateau

It seems WordPress has “peaked”.

Actually, the whole open web platform seems to have peaked.

“The open web” slowly drifts into a “business card” zone in people’s minds: an outdated necessity waiting to be left behind. Who visits websites by domain anymore, and why. Proprietary systems placed inside walled gardens, new up and coming concepts of computing and technologies inspired by social movements are the things that shape up communication and information access today. And they’re all leaving the web behind.

It’s not unlikely that, in terms of growth, WordPress is slowing down because the whole idea of open web is slowing down. If so, I think in order to tackle this challenge WordPress needs to move beyond what defined it originally.

WordPress has to move from information generation and into identity providing, into a framework for free-to-roam gardens, built on open systems, and into an online revenue solution – as a default experience.

To make things approachable, I’ve split the plateau challenge into smaller, WordPress specific, parts which overall contribute to the situation:

Truth: it is hard to sound innovative and smart, and I don’t even intend to, with a 20 year old project. Anything one can imagine WordPress can do – it probably did, at some point, or does, maybe with success today. I don’t have answer to the “how” of many “what”-s, even if I do support the “what”. I don’t have a deep visibility into things like how money is coming and going in the wider open source project, I even miss things that ecosystem sponsors want WordPress not to do. So forgive me if I sound like an “idea person”, I am not oblivious to the unknowns I hold.

Nevertheless, it’s not about sparks, eurekas and secret sauces. It’s about a belief system around what we’re here to achieve. 

The user adoption challenge

WordPress is not where people are. 

While powering so much of the open web, WordPress is not something people reference en masse as their “go to” tool for self expression. People don’t say “my WordPress”. It’s my Twitter, my Instagram etc. And, unfortunately, that includes the flavours and experiences of WordPress offered by tailored hosts, it’s not only about core.

People are where sharing happens frictionless, where there is feedback from other people, where starting is instant (not five minutes preceded by hours of hosting hunting). People are where functions of a product are clear and they can start doing what they need right away.

Core is too hard for users. For the average user who wants to express themselves online we are offering a site and page builder with the actual publishing still vibing like it’s 2008. It has so much stuff in your face after the 1st login. And, surprisingly, this is not because WordPress has too many features, it’s because it has too few features.

Our stance that to merge a feature in core we need a widely adopted plugin is stuck in time, in a time where people had to go through the hassle of setting up hosting and a software product in a weird administration panel, just to post their poetry. But it’s wrong.

People will not adopt core WordPress enough to allow for obvious features to be adopted enough, and they will not adopt WordPress core because obvious features are not in core. Catch 22.

Quick posting, simple sharing and following options rank, in my opinion, as the number one glaring hole in core’s feature list. Immediately after are simple audience capture tools. On a close third basic payment. I insist on the closeness of the ranking in terms of importance, because we’re late in a game started by commercial products a decade ago.

Hence I think a canonical plugin system, where community vetted plugins are the canonical, one click away option to toggle on obvious and common functions of a software, which aims to be mass adopted, is a solution to this challenge. We need a simple way for core users to navigate their growth, focus and needs in time, and the canonical plugin system can be it.

The typecasting challenge

In the film industry, acting agents need to think twice before they use one actor for the same kind of role in a rush for a quick buck. Sooner rather than later, the audience can’t connect to the actor in any other part, because the actor has become the part they played so much. WordPress has been typecast as the blogging tool, and only marginally managed to inch out of this giant shadow of past success into a site builder or CMS. But is a blogging too, a site builder or a CMS the tools that really democratise publishing in this decade or this millennium?

WordPress is a brand that stands for a high level of technology democratisation and typecasting deeply subverts this effort. WordPress is an open source brand, it should be flexible and fresh and ready to evolve with the world. WordPress doesn’t build for the next exit or the next capital round, WordPress builds for long term goals around people’s freedom and ability to express and to build. But with the advent of AI, appending “on the web” to the previous sentence is naive. It has to be, where it has to be.

In 10 years there may be a WordPress which is just an interface to an AI powered hive project. Tomorrow maybe LLMs will never get efficient, or people will move away from regurgitated generated data and there will be a renaissance of human-made content. 

We can avoid typecasting if we’re up the task of fast response to the world’s evolution. WordPress is not there. It seems whatever the endeavour it takes years to catch up and start planning for execution. And even so, the roadmap updates for WordPress constantly takes people by surprise. And, in the end, the things we build seem to address ideals which are not the main focus of today.

The shifting sands of people’s expectations elicit a response from an engineering perspective, which has been successful into maintaining an extremely flexible WordPress system. But the solution is not a “flexible” system, the solution is a flexible product: the WordPress product.

The response to the shifting sands of people’s expectations and social realities should come from ensuring the best product management capacity to manage flexibility. Flexibility has to be in the product roadmap, and the response times of this roadmap should be as fast as a well trained fencer’s.

Alas, there is no product management in open source. Yet, I suggest there should be! We need a clearly defined, open and transparent product management organisation, just like we do all the other functions. If not, who’ll take care of WordPress like a good agent makes sure their actors are not type cast into forever villains or forever jesters?

The community challenge

We promise a community, and we deliver one, but what should this community do, primarily? Should it be an emotional support system, a welcoming committee, or a ramp to individual success? I believe that, primarily, the WordPress community should be a ramp to individual success. In my perception, our current community acts like a ramp to success only if your goal is to be active in the community. Less so if your goal is to be successful with WordPress. For this to manifest we lack good systems in place to bring people in and then give them impulse out into their dreams. 

A feature plugin framework would be a ramp of this sort, as it pulls from the community and it launches success stories. Core should be clear, open and forward about what WordPress should have one day, what needs, for what reasons and effectively open participation in a sort of market where the winner ends up as bringing said feature over.

Being open about what the big corporate players need for their internal strategies is another ramp, for instance, stating clearly that businesses X and Y support the web building or page building capabilities, thus allowing people to contribute to things that matter to big money wielders in a predictable way. That is not to say we should align corporate strategy to WordPress strategy 1:1 – it means corporations who are invested in WordPress should be open about their needs and inform in an open way the WordPress strategy.

WordPress distributions constitute another potential ramp allowing people to craft new vertical-ready WordPress based products but also to get the wind of the community support behind so they can end up running before the wind.

The diverse user base challenge

Because of its vision and mission, WordPress serves everyone. And this everyone is not just people, it’s people, people of all walks of life, people of various cultures and technological prowess, small businesses, medium businesses, NGOs, grassroots movements and other groups of people, big enterprises, designers, engineers, journalists, poets … I could go on forever.

The UI and the UX of WordPress 20 years ago were hailed as a breath of fresh air, in a world where all CMS products were all enterprise-y and filled with cruft. Today we find ourselves in a spot where we need that cruft since enterprises are the major driver of the project’s continued success and existence.

This tension between the areas of the product that fulfill its mission to the people it aims to serve, and those that fulfill its promise to the backers and stakeholders, this tension is growing stronger by the day. We need to approach this head on.

This is greatly influencing and is greatly influenced by the typecasting challenge. If WordPress becomes the open source enterprise content management system, the billions of people for whom we democratize publishing will still be trapped in the Mediums, Facebooks and Substacks of the future.

To solve this we should explore the possibility of a diverse set of clients. Super focused/tailored versions of WordPress. A client for blogging, a client for photo blogging, a client for podcasting and so on, all of which being the same WordPress but simplified and slightly tuned (via canonical plugins) for the use cases of the people. Just like, say, Woo is having clients to serve the needs of the business, so should core try a diverse set of approaches to the experience of using WordPress for the needed outcome.

The developer adoption challenge

We go to the PHP community, which is way into object oriented programming for a decade, with incumbent success stories building great products for developers on top of this pattern (ahem Laravel ecosystem), and we tell them to come develop in our WordPress way of second class objects framework, where objects look like a necessary evil we can’t go around at times.

We go to the JS community, and while we have a React based product, there are WordPress specifics that require a new mindset and reference frame, like data stored in markup, registration, the fact that you need a visual builder to create what is essentially a component tree (of blocks). A javascript developer well versed into React still has to cover ground just to understand the basics.

For both things there are ongoing efforts to improve. Decoupling Gutenberg is one, or low level changes like the recent efforts to just import from React instead of WordPress Element.. Yet the sentiment never changes despite the fact that the technology powering WordPress is ever more interesting and modern, and in spite of countless success stories based on WordPress.

And I “blame” (quotes!) this on, again, The WordPress Way. I don’t know how to describe this foe succinctly, it’s one of those “you know it when you see it” kind of things. But I theorise that it is the primary reason why the adoption of WordPress or Gutenberg as frameworks to underlie ambitious projects for the web has a glacial pace. I propose we pay attention to The WordPress Way and how it makes it easy for us to solve WordPress problems but hard for others to understand WordPress. Then dismantle The WordPress Way. Let’s just be common in how we adjust to our needs of scale and compatibility.

The resource challenge

So many things to do with so few resources. Tragedy of the commons, etc. Canonical plugin system, featured plugin system, the diversification of software clients, they all need serious material expenditure.

Maybe the community can diversify the sources of its resources:

  • giving back – participation in core maintenance (five for the future), fundraising
  • paying forward – encourage open sourcing solutions that work
  • generating passion projects – use advocacy, public relations and recruitment of talent
  • pulling from grassroots development – making it easier for connected communities to participate

We have a giving back philosophy and a program that works. Sure, it can be improved and there is always room for more, but there is a process, we have a name for it and a system: five for the future. I am unsure about how our fundraising happens, but I wonder if kickstarter style direct sponsorships could work?

For paying forward, the idea is how much we can get in connected code that can be also open sourced and become either part of WordPress, or a canonical plugin, or part of a WordPress connected product. For instance, from a desktop WordPress a user should be able to “publish” their creation to any host that hosts WordPress, but for that a system needs to be sourced that is common to hosts and that could be integrated into everyone’s hosting product. It should be as easy to publish your creation to a WordPress host as it is to publish your Gatsby to Netlify or Vercel.

Passion projects already exist, but do we use them enough? Do we loop in people who already contributed out of their free time and own pocket when we finally get to put what they did on the roadmap? How can we avoid redoing and competing in core against the contributions of others? How can we capitalise on the passion of our contributors more?  Separately, striving to answer these questions better could also improve the aging problem of the WordPress community too.

Getting connected communities to help via some bridge construction is another potential resource to consider. Some of these things are already happening – e.g. Drupal embracing Gutenberg – but we need more, more projects that have similar goals and values that can share specifics, implementations and systems (ahem, block protocol).

We should also try and put our transparency on steroids, effectively making resource occupation, costs and budgets, visible at a glance on the WordPress project’s website. Maybe even under Community a new item that leads people to places where they can see who needs help, what is understaffed, what is being funded and what isn’t etc.

Profiles should be brought a bit more forward. It should be that we have a bird’s eye in terms of who is sponsored, who is hired, who is a fellow and who is not. Props could graduate from the obscure Slack channel or commit message and be more visible, right in the profile. This information should be right next to their contribution, so underrated contributors who fly under the radar of whatever funds we have are not missed by those who wish to support the project.


WordPress is a brand highly dependent on the thriving of the community and the relevance of the software but also highly responsible for the overall state of the web. From its current leading position it shapes the way in which the open web responds to centralisation, censorship, content rot and eventual desertification. WordPress needs to lead more.

New heights await. WordPress can lead the way for the open web into new spaces like decentralised messaging, decentralised social networking or A.I..

The web went through adoption in the 90’s, popularisation in the 00’s and monetisation in the 10’s. The 20’s are the adoption of A.I. The web is in danger of being bled dry of meaning by monetizing forces and compacted into one giant LLM to rule them all. But the dangers are the new heights to go to from this plateau we now sit on.

Ev Williams in one of his blog posts justifying the existence of Medium used Tim Wu’s book “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” to justify why depending on a central platform is inevitable. The essential idea in the book is:

It is easy to forget that every development in the history of the American information industry — from the telephone to radio to film — once existed in an open and chaotic marketplace inhabited by entrepreneurs and utopians, just as the Internet does today. Each of these, however, grew to be dominated by a monopolist or cartel. Could the Web […] come to be ruled by a corporate leviathan in possession of “the master switch”?

This was in 2010.

We can see clearly that the thesis not only stands, but gets more and more true by the day. The catering to the lowest common denominator, the lack of regulatory oversight from captive institutions, “the tyranny of the marginal user”, the dark patterns employed by commercial enterprise for profit, the continuous infantilization of the public driving extreme simplification of choice, and so on, a long list of factors that work together, digging, scraping, pushing to make this current plateau not long lasting, but a peak from which the open web’s history to start its descent.

Let’s make sure that WordPress remains the driving force that opposes this!

Let’s hold WordPress front and center, relevant and decisive in things that matter: identity, personal expression, financial independence and ownership of content.

Let’s make WordPress able to serve all those who have something to say, something to sell, something to share, but especially the good ones, the passionate ones.

Let’s make WordPress a core business asset that drives good social governance, that arguably increases profit by decreasing ruthlessness.

Let us leave this plateau, as cosy as it may be for those working on master switches, and, in the process, bring the whole open web with us to new heights of relevance, meaning and impact. Just start packing!

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