The Creator Economy owes a lot to WordPress, but that doesn’t mean WordPress is valued or even understood by Creators as an open source project and community. Are the stories we tell and the words we use compelling to newcomers and the younger generations we need to succeed us? Is the story and language that got WordPress where it is adequate to take it where it wants to go?

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

I’ve appreciated much of the criticism that’s been offered to the Five for the Future program in the last few weeks. It represents an investment in time, thought, and care of a lot of people who all have positive intentions, however harsh many of the more candid takes have been.

And it has been a real heap of opinion that’s not easy to sort. Still, it’s been an occasion to learn and think more deeply about the culture and history of WordPress, how things work or don’t work. WordPress needs that.

It’s not a bad thing if pushback on some concepts like “tragedy of the commons” and “free riders” drives us to find better ones.

It’s not a bad thing if pushback on some concepts like “tragedy of the commons” and “free riders” drives us to find better ones. Clarifying language and coming to some consensus about the terms and definitions that help people understand the project is really important.

However, a lot of valid points about those terms and the details of the 5ftF program got deep into the weeds or focused on things that simply are what they are and aren’t going to change.

(That’s the stuff that gets labelled “drama” and falls on deaf ears or gets batted around unhelpfully by people who should have better things to do. Everyone has heard it a million times. Don’t worry, I’m not going to touch any of it.)

We can only move forward, but are we living in the past?

As an open source project, the only question that really matters is, “What will drive WordPress forward?” Not in an ideal or theoretical world but with the army we have.

Or, as Josepha Haden-Chomphosy put it: “How can we rebalance the tenacious need for contribution with the immense benefit WordPress brings to everyone” in the WordPress ecosystem?

That question got lost in the reactions, but it’s the one that matters most.

Notice how these words are delicately balanced and easily tipped over. You can read “tenacious need for contribution” as a threatening demand — a clawback on a “benefit” you might not consider “immense” or as immense as someone else’s.

Notice how these words are delicately balanced and easily tipped over. You can read that “tenacious need for contribution” as a threatening demand — a clawback on a “benefit” you might not consider “immense” or as immense as someone else’s. You can read it as a description of scarcity all on one side and abundance all on the other. You could tear it up and set it on fire.

And some people do do that.

The world as it is

Especially in the world of WordPress extenders, builders, and generally small business operators doing well enough to start a podcast or opinion blog, this seems to be where we get stuck. (That’s the big, long tail of the open source communities I’ve been in for two decades.) I’ve watched this all happen before around an open source CMS that once dominated the market. Imbalances, inequities, and unfairness got emphasized, and the community didn’t get past its deadlock of grievances.

I’m not going to say there aren’t imbalances and all the playing fields are perfectly level because that’s not true. (It never is, anywhere.) But I will say it doesn’t do any good to keep saying this. Repetition of failed patterns is not just a definition of derangement, it is a failure to grow into mature thinking. To really face the world as it is requires a capacity for living with apparently unsolvable contradictions. It is less about “being smart” and more about a tolerance for the mental stress and pain of not having control or all the answers. It’s fucking hard, but not being able to do it does harm to individuals and the groups they’re in.

We can cope better with hard problems and survive to solve them another day if we first get ourselves united around common interests, motivations, and values. And that is the task our oldest, most adapatable, legacy systems — human languages — were invented to do as we muddle along together on this planet.

I’m also not going to say we can make deep problems disappear by not talking about them or by using evasive language. I do think we can cope better with hard problems and survive to solve them another day if we first get ourselves united around common interests, motivations, and values. And that is the task that human languages were invented for.

There’s nothing like an external threat to unite people, usually. Lately there’s been a lot of concern about the end to growth and possible losses in WordPress’ market share. I’d worry more about losing relevance with younger generations of people with different outlooks, interests, and needs. That’s people doing stuff. It’s real. Market share will always be a statistic that dimly reflects what people are doing long after they started doing it. Today’s failure to connect and communicate won’t register on the BuiltWith pie chart for years when it’s too late to get in front of.

Creators in community

So let’s talk about the “Creator Economy.” It’s not a trend but a pretty established thing now. Creators with a course, service, or product to sell generally don’t want to focus too much on tools and even less on code — unless code is their service or product.

That’s where WordPress should be, and in a sense it is, but it uses the language of a 20 year-old open source project that is illegible to people in their 20s today.

WordPress and ever-increasing, low-cost, easy-to-use SaaS platforms have enabled Creators to focus on their business. Unlike those of us who were doing this back in the Stone Age, Creators don’t have to install WordPress, try to bolt on installs of phpBB, GNU Mailman, and learn PHP4 to cope with a once-popular horror like osCommerce. Creators are in, or adjacent to the WordPress community, but they’re unlikely to participate in it and contribute in the old, traditional ways that start with bugs and hacking. Software that’s free as in beer and speech isn’t attractive or even meaningful unless it’s presented as a useful platform for their particular niche.

This is painful to hear, especially if this is how you entered the open source and WordPress community. Many of us became developers, designers, freelancers, communication and marketing consultants, and even product or agency founders this way. That was a different time in a different country — once the main doorway into WordPress, it’s now a small, creaky backdoor.

If you think this means Creators are narcissists and mercenaries who don’t participate in communities or care about their tools, you are wrong. Helping them organize into communities that give them value is a smart move. WordPress products, especially ecosystem plugins, virtually grow their own communities. With a now-private Facebook page that’s grown to over 133,000 members, Elementor is the biggest example of this, and they are pivoting to redefine themselves accordingly. Their identity doesn’t emphasize a WordPress plugin but a platform (and community) for Creators.

That’s where WordPress should be, and in a sense it is, but it uses the language of a 20 year-old open source project that is illegible to most people in their teens and twenties today. And if they look a little way into the very limited “WordPress news” space, Creators aren’t going to see Creators there. Certainly not a wide range of artists and makers. They may see “drama” and arguments, or “inside-baseball” like this post.

Craft + Commerce and WordCamp US

I found Joe Casabona’s “Tale of Two Keynotes” really helpful for understanding some key threats and opportunities WordPress needs to face in the context of today’s Creator Economy. Joe’s main point is that Creators focus on earning and growth in their businesses in a context where this message is encouraged and prioritized — and WordPress needs more of that. I’m not opposed to that view, but it’s not the main thing I got out of Joe’s post and want to elaborate here.

Joe looks at the language ConvertKit founder Nathan Barry used to invite community participation in his last keynote for Craft + Commerce, a major conference aimed at Creators in his hometown of Boise, Idaho. Then he looks at the language of participation in Matt Mullenweg’s speech in the last State of the Word.

Barry emphasized goals that could be summed up as, “You can and should make a good living doing what you love in the creator economy!”

Here are the Post Status team responses to SotW 2021. Rereading my own remarks, I’m reminded of how optimistic that moment was — about all the same themes I’m touching here.

Matt emphasized learning through contribution and the danger of more being taken out than given back. What stands out most in my memory is his “Give a penny, take a penny” analogy for open source.

(That’s not a knock on Matt, pennies, his analogy, or least of all the idea that you learn by doing — with others who know more. Post Status is all about that. We repeat “learn by helping” all the time. An example of this actually went out in our latest newsletter. But I do think “learn how to earn together” is a unique emphasis of the Post Status community within WordPress, and it is closer to Barry’s language than anything as close to the project as Post Status is.)

As he seemed to intend, Matt’s keynote reminded me of the values of small towns at their best, where I’ve lived about half my life. That part of me sees Barry as a bit of a huckster — sure, everyone’s winner! What exactly is he giving you? Lifetime free access to ConvertKit? Or just high fives?

I don’t see the two keynotes reflecting scarcity versus abundance thinking or even two very different attitudes, but if you wanted to polarize people over them you could. Pick on the vulnerabilities of one, and amplify the strengths of the other.

There are strengths and limitations to both emphases — Creating and Contributing.

What if we tried to combine the strengths of the language of contribution with new, complementary ideas and language from the Creator Economy?

“Creators” vs. “Contributors”

There are strengths and limitations attached to both of these words when they’re used to define identity and participation in a creative community. Creating and Contributing. They don’t seem very different until you take a close look.

Creating manages to hold together both ideas of giving and gaining. Creativity is about making things you care about deeply and are inspired to work on. When you create something it’s a gift to everyone, potentially, and to yourself.

Contributing has distinct emphasis on giving, not getting back. It is a zero-sum transaction between a contributor and recipient of contributions. To use the language of contribution effectively, you probably have to be seen as truly having a greater need than the people you are asking to contribute more. Better yet, they should see themselves as implicitly benefiting from their contributions.

If they don’t believe this is true, repeating the old magic words will not work unless you do it live on air, interrupting normal programming until enough contributions have come in. Until next time. (Kind of like Admin Notifications used for upselling premium plugins.)

Creating manages to hold together both ideas of giving and gaining. Creativity is about making things you care about deeply and are inspired to work on. When you create something it’s a gift to everyone, potentially, and to yourself.

So what should we do differently?

Am I proposing a massive Search and Replace targeting all forms of the word “Contribute” in WordPress? Nope. I personally find calling people “Creators” more cringey than the older, grammatically tortured term, “Creatives.” But I recognize when I am out of date, and I am willing to adapt where I see value in doing so.

I’m not proposing anything but that we think more carefully about language, tone, and audience. What we emphasize with one word or story as opposed to another may close or open doors with different people. It’s good to have a lot of options to engage a lot of people. It’s good to be flexible and adaptable. It’s good to know what connects and unites.

Do we know?

Can we create it?

Can we teach it to each other?

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