Opinion: WordPress Gutenberg and the responsibility of owning a website

I heard a thing today which made me realise something about what has happened with WordPress’s new “Gutenberg” editor.

I have been really frustrated that people like me that build websites for others seemed to be a bit left out with both WHAT Gutenberg is and HOW is was delivered.

I’ve always known that the new block editor in WordPress is designed to help WordPress compete with website builders like Wix and SquareSpace and Weebly.

What I had ignored or forgotten was that website builders like those are intended to help people build websites on their own, without small agency owners like me being involved.

And so WordPress, in moving to this model, is actually moving to a space where people like me aren’t needed. Or at least, to a space where IT APPEARS that people like me aren’t needed.

For example, take the fact that Gutenberg allows someone writing a post or page to change the font size or text colour. People like me are cross about this because we spend time designing sites, and paying attention to details like font sizes and colours that should be consistent across the site. So we’re frustrated that people will now be able to come along and use text sizes and colours inconsistently and mess up our nice designs.

But regular people who want to build a website are probably thinking: “Woo hoo! I can edit text colour and size, and even change the background colour of a block. I don’t need to ask my web developer person to do this any more, I can build the site myself!”

Now, I’m not complaining that Gutenberg is taking my work away. That’s not the point I want to make.

I’m also not complaining that Gutenberg is bad. At least, not the IDEA of Gutenberg. I think the idea of a block editor is exactly the right thing. I just think Gutenberg is the WRONG block editor.

The point I want to make is that making a good website requires skill, knowledge and experience. The Wix’s and Weebly’s give the impression that someone with very little knowledge can, for a few dollars a month, have a beautiful, functional website.

And to some extent that’s true. But then I look at the stuff that people make with these tools and it’s often very poor. And I look at the code that the builder creates, and the speed of the site, and other “under the bonnet” technical things, and it turns out that these platforms are really bad at the technology stuff.

Gutenberg is intended to give this same veneer: you don’t need someone to help you; you can make a website yourself!

This may enable WordPress to compete better with the site builders. To maintain and grow it’s already-enormous market share. But at what cost?

At the cost of annoying many people like me who previously recommended WordPress to people but who are now seriously considering alternatives, or have already jumped ship?

At the cost of tricking people into thinking they can build a site by themselves when actually what they need is some help to do it properly?

At the cost of raising the bar of what’s needed to develop for WordPress by including React and lots of complicated build processes?

Has the project lost its way chasing user numbers rather than focusing on its mission?

A different Gutenberg might have said “OK, let’s let Wix and Weebly do their thing, and we’ll do our thing. They might take some people away from WordPress at first because those tools appear easier. But WE will guide people along a better path.”

And these thoughts lead me to having a better understanding of why the WordPress governance project has sprung up (best explained here on the recent WordPress Weekly podcast). Who was making the decisions to chase after these things? Where are the bigger decisions about the direction of the project not documented? Why are some of these processes so opaque?

This is just opinion, of course. But I do think it was an important realisation to have: WordPress isn’t focussed on agencies and developers right now – it wants users who can fend for themselves.