WordPress Commercialisation Concerns

I feel bad about writing this. And I’m not quite sure it’s ready to publish. And I’m not entirely sure that it’s an accurate representation of the thoughts in my head. But here goes.

Before we begin

There’s been a lot of difficult conversations going on about WordPress in the last few months and it’s got quite hurtful and personal at times. So I’d like to begin by saying that I LIKE the WordPress project and community. It has an amazing bunch of people building it, and building stuff using it. I’m a part of that community and it’s benefitted me hugely, and I hope that I’ve given back where I can and where it’s been appropriate.

And I really want to say that, though this post is influenced by lots of individuals and lots of smaller conversations, it’s attempting to sum up what appears to me to be a higher-level problem. I don’t begrudge anyone anything, and I have the utmost respect for all of my peers in the community. This is definitely not personal.

But these are my thoughts, and I feel it’s right to attempt to record and publish them at this time.


I’m concerned about the future of WordPress – the open source content management system. I’m concerned that it’s failing in its mission to “Democratise publishing”. I’m concerned that it’s now too complex and, possibly, too popular. And I’m concerned that money is starting to influence its development more and more and that this is reducing the project’s open-ness.

WordPress.com and Commercialisation

There’s been a lot of stuff going on in the WordPress community of late that has been pretty big and interesting news. Two that spring to mind are the Automattic acquisition of WooThemes and the big discussion about whether or not the menu admin should move into the customizer (sic) or not.

(At this point, if I’ve lost you or you don’t know what these things are, then you’re reading the wrong blog post and should probably head off elsewhere. Sorry about that!)

So, here’s some things I get:

  • a very large part of WordPress’s success is down to Automattic – without Automattic’s backing we wouldn’t have a lot of the infrastructure that powers things like downloads, trac, make.wordpress.org, the plugin and theme repositories, and auto-updates, plus lots of developer and support resources.
  • Automattic are a business. They have investors. They need to turn a profit.
  • Automattic are a business tha operates in the CMS space, and they have competition from CMS companies like Squarespace and Wix, and commercial SAAS eCommerce systems like Shopify.

Therefore, Automattic MUST be in the business of making WordPress a piece of software that competes with those other systems.

The acquisition of WooThemes and their WooCommerce eCommerce platform looked, to me, like a strategic move to help WordPress.com have an eCommerce feature that could compete with Shopify and the like.

And the continual movement of features into the customizer seems to be an attempt to make WordPress’s user experience more like the visual builders that you get with other content managment systems like SquareSpace.

WordPress’s continual drive for greater market share is an imperative for Automattic. And Automattic need to build a competetive product for this to happen.

But what does this mean for the WordPress community outside of Automattic?

Open Source and Community

WordPress is open source software. This is one of it’s great selling points. And it has an amazing, global community of ordinary, non-Automattic people who contribute to it and support it. This is another of its great selling points.

But I fear for these things.

I fear that the community’s voice isn’t being heard. I fear that WordPress’s goal of “democratizing publishing” is at risk as it becomes increasingly commercialised.

I also listen to a few WordPress-themed podcasts (doing so has definitely inspired and informed this post), and I’m part of some in-depth developer and business communities, and there is so much talk on them these days about how to turn free and open source tools into closed, commercial tools.

There is talk of mergers and acquisitions being a good sign that WordPress is maturing.

I even heard someone say, regarding themes that they develop, words to the effect of “Hell, no, I don’t give stuff I develop away for free; I want to make as much money as possible out of it.”

Wait, wait, just wait a second….

This makes me real sad.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s amazing that WordPress is a freely available, freely customisable tool that people can use to make a living from. Even I do that. I’m massively grateful for it.

And I get that supporting an open source tool with thousands of users is nigh-on impossible if you don’t make any money from it. It ends up being a drain.

But are we not beginning to bury all of the open source goodness and community?

Here’s one main reason I don’t recommend people use SAAS CMS’s like Wix: they appear to be cheap on the face of it, but they suck you in with a minimal set of features and then charge you high costs for adding stuff that probably knew you’d need from the start but they didn’t give you because they know they need to make money.

Is WordPress not headed down this same road? I feel like, yeah, WordPress is “free”, but the minute you want to start doing anything sophisticated with it you have to buy “pro” this and “premium” that.

Don’t get me wrong (or: Keep Using WordPress!!)

Again, don’t get me wrong. Really, don’t. I’m not about to stop using WordPress or developing with and for it. I don’t think anything drastic is about to happen in the near future. It powers 23% of the web and has by far the largest share of CMS usage and it continues to have the best balance (in my opinion) of usability and extensibility.

In the last few days, I’ve even started to have my eyes opened to all the amazingness that is actually built into WordPress: it’s actually a really good publishing platform!

And I don’t hold it against the people that put time into developing these new features and making WordPress more competetive. This is a really good thing.

And I should also add that Automattic is a great company with a mission that I wholly support, and the WordPress community are great bunch of dedicated, friendly, clever people that I’m proud to be a part of.

I just think I see a gradual erosion of open-ness around WordPress and that concerns me.

What do you think? If you read this far you’re probably interested and have an opinion. Have I got it all wrong? Is commercialisation of WordPress the best thing since admin colour schemes? Or are you also worried about the continual drive to see WordPress as something to get money out of rather than something to use to make the world better and something to contribute to.