Jesse Lawson

Software engineering, artificial intelligence, writing, and open-source tools

Jan 1, 0001 - WordPress

WordPress, Ghost, and the Future of WordPress

As much as I hate to admit it, the new blogging platform ghost has stepped up and is gaining traction as the blogging platform that WordPress used to be. As more and more people start realizing that Ghost gives them all the publishing power of WordPress without all the bloat, I think we’re going to start to see WordPress replaced by Ghost as the best tool for “just blogging” — but not until Ghost is a little more user-friendly.

I stumbled upon a great read today about WordPress that sums up my frustrations with the WP developer community in a single sentence: “In its quest for broad appeal, WordPress is becoming overgeneralized.” I’ve talked about this in my theme documentation (if you’ve ever downloaded one of my themes); developers and designers today, I think, are running into the chasm of FRAVOC: Feature-Rich And Void Of Content. WordPress is a great tool for CMS. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend any other product (that includes Drupal, Joomla, and even Newscoop) for a CMS that’s deployable, dependable, and designable.

Where I start to hesitate these days is when it comes to recommendations when people who just want to blog ask me to set them up on WordPress. I don’t hesitate because I don’t want to do it (quite the opposite!); I hesitate because I know there is a learning curve to getting WordPress to do what you want for people who are otherwise not very literate when it comes to technical stuff. WordPress is incredibly powerful and you can tailor it to a wide variety of applications, but for some people, surrounding your content with options (see picture below) is just oversaturation. I know when I setup WordPress that I’m going to have to explain all these things that they see and I know that this can be a huge turn-off to someone who just wants to log in and start writing.

The Problem: WordPress is Different Things to Different People.

The majority of work on WordPress that I’ve done involves simplification of theme layout and under-the-hood maintenance. Automattic calls their code wrangers “Janitors,” and I couldn’t think of a better word for this. What I see as the state of WordPress now is about what Rand-Hendriksen is saying: WordPress is different things to different people.

This is both a benefit and a handicap. Ten years ago, WordPress made perfect sense for the up and coming trend of online blogging. People needed wanted a lightweight system that was more user-friendly than b2/cafelog, and that’s exactly what they got with WordPress 1.0.

Back then, WordPress just looked like it was all about the content:

The old post editor screen, free of clutter, unnecessary options, and bloat.

Even this could’ve been streamlined a bit: instead of having a general post editor screen, have a list of posts available from the main dashboard, and commands that allow you to “create a new post in categories X Y Z with rules A B C.” Combining WordPress’ original intentions — to be a clean, efficient blogging tool — with a more minimalist approach to functionality presentation, I think WP can continue to stand the test of time.

But times are changing, and so has WordPress. Whereas before we got a simple system that was created specifically for blogging, now we have a fully featured CMS solution that is scalable, customizable, and out-of-the-box ready for anything you throw at it. This is both good and bad, as I said earlier, but the bad is starting to outweigh the good in the blogosphere.

Yes, WordPress has dominated the blogging marketplace when it comes to usage. We know that. It’s popular *and *supported and easy to work with. Having said that, why has a blogging-platform contender garnered so much support on Kickstarter?

I’m talking about Ghost, a new .JS-powered blogging system that is lightning fast and extremely clean (albeit still in a released development stage). First my designer friends were on board with starting to dive into the Theme community for Ghost. Now, my developer friends are hopping on board.

Just look at that interface above. First impressions? Gorgeous. Honestly, it reminds me of why Lyx is such a beautiful alternative to Word Processors; markup language on one side and fully rendered copy on the other.

Surely Ghost’s success and popularity aren’t due exclusively to its post editor, though. After all, WP does employ the “Just Write” feature, which blocks out all the extra stuff I’ve been talking about here. So we’re left with a few questions: what is so attractive about a new solution? Why are people readily willing to commit the extra time and energy to learn something new that does exactly what WordPress has been doing well for over ten years?

The answer, to be quite candid, is that WordPress is no longer “just a blogging platform.” Ten years ago, you can see what WordPress was supposed to be:

WordPress was born out of a desire for an elegant, well-architectured personal publishing system built on PHP and MySQL and licensed under the GPL.

Nowadays, look how the description has changed:

WordPress started as just a blogging system, but has evolved to be used as full content management system and so much more through the thousands of plugins and widgets and themes, WordPress is limited only by your imagination. (And tech chops.)

It’s still the same WordPress — we know that — but it’s more than just our awesome blogging platform. For people who want a fully-featured, highly customizable and easy to use CMS, WordPress is always going to be my first choice.

For bloggers, however, how is WordPress going to complete with solutions like Ghost when it spends so much core power on competing against Joomla, Drupal, and the like?

How can we get WordPress back to being an “elegant… personal publishing system,” like Mullenweg initially intended it to be?

The Solution: WordPress Needs Multiple Distributions.

Imagine that you have a portfolio of clients all wanting different things. Client A would like a blog that she can update regularly where she writes about what’s happening in her neck of the woods. Client B would like a site where they can set up a whole shopping cart system. Client C would like a combination of both.

WordPress can accomplish all of this, of course, but what differs among the solutions is less about the code itself and more about the presentation of WordPress as a publishing system. For Client A, WordPress should look like it was built specifically to get those blog posts up and running, with built-in SEO and Google Authorship optimization, automatically generated pretty permalinks, and themes that retain WordPress’s core tenants (to me): deployable, dependable, designable, and dashing.

Do we rewrite all of WordPress starting from scratch? That would be silly. Besides, far too much has been accomplished thus far to just wipe it all away and begin anew.

Here’s the catch: maybe that’s exactly why Ghost is becoming so popular. People are ready for a WordPress alternative because it has tried to make too many people happy. WordPress is about blogging, yes, but it’s *also *about plugins, themes, tools, media, CMS, etc.

We can get back to WordPress being about blogging through a specialized distribution of WordPress, one that is specifically generated for bloggers and that declutters and debloats what WordPress has turned into over the years. Imagine if WordPress *never *strayed from its mission to be a personal publishing platform. Imagine if the powers of business didn’t motivate development commitments into business-oriented functionality (like CMS tools).

I’m not saying we modify WordPress. It’s a great platform and in the right hands it can do anything. I truly believe that. What I am saying is that we build off of the core motivations of why WordPress was started and ask ourselves, “okay, how would WordPress look today if the focus was always on the personal blogger?” This sounds easier than it actually is, and there are a few things we need to consider.

  • How have the expectations of modern web communication changed the development direction of WordPress over the years? WordPress has adapted very well to the needs of the widest audience online, but in doing so, has it turned into a completely different system than what it set out to be?
  • **Saturated option and customization systems are a hallmark of truly open and customizable functionality, **so why would we want to remove some of those features?
  • WordPress just works. Plain and simple. Creating something new would mean trying to convince people who are already either fed up with or neutral about WordPress to commit their time and energy to another WordPress system, one that may or may not fully introduce them to the vast power that a standard WordPress distribution would give them.

We are left with a few things to think about. For starters, if WordPress is going to continue to be the recommended blogging mechanism, we need to start looking at why Ghost is such an up-and-coming contender. What have they done that WordPress failed to do (or no longer does)?

And the most important question of all: what would happen to the WordPress community if we had multiple WordPress distributions?