Fences can protect or inhibit care of a commons. “Do not remove a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place,” is a classic piece of wisdom. What are the questions we need to ask about our fences and WordPress as a commons?

Open source governance and WordPress as a commons have been a hot topic this past couple of weeks. Having both watched the discussion and shared my informal thoughts on Twitter as well as the Post Status Slack group, I was invited to write a lengthier article about the subject.

To begin, here’s a summary of my current thoughts:

As WordPress matures, I believe more open discussion needs to be had about:

  • How the various WordPress and Automattic entities are inextricably linked
  • Potential conflicts of interest
  • Who officially speaks for the WordPress open source project internally and externally
  • Transparency and formalization around governance

I agreed to write this article as I’ve long been interested in this topic. It was the excuse I needed to dive headfirst into the multitude of posts, research, and books that I knew existed but didn’t previously have time for.

As it turns out, this article was very difficult to write because the more I learned, the more my views and writing evolved.

I’m writing this to bring awareness and not blind criticism to these issues. I want to ignite curiosity and conversation around them as I believe they are worth discussing.

Where I’ve landed is a place of empathy, respect, and curiosity. To get to where we are, WordPress’ leaders had to get so much right. It’s impressive, and I’m so glad to be a part of this community.

And yet, there’s so much more to be done.

What follows are my thoughts and explorations on this subject. I’m writing them not because I believe I’m smart and/or right, but because:

  • I believe more transparency and research are needed around the subjects of governance and WordPress as a commons.
  • I believe this is something that should be actively discussed so that good ideas might emerge from bad ones; and that, with every new person and perspective that joins, previously hidden research and successful case studies might be unearthed so we might learn from them.
  • I believe this is a very complex issue that benefits from more eyes, brains, voices, and, most importantly, sunlight. Without bringing the history and consequences of past choices to light, we risk wrongly calling for reform and failing the Chesterton’s Fence heuristic.

In short, I’m writing this to bring awareness and not blind criticism to these issues. I want to ignite curiosity and conversation around them as I believe they are worth discussing.

There’s a lack of clarity and distinction around the roles and responsibilities of Automattic, WordPress.com, WordPress.org, and the WordPress Foundation.

As a result, it’s not clear who external and internal parties should turn to for guidance, governance, and more.

As an example, here’s some of the confusing overlap between leadership roles at WordPress:

Matt Mullenweg is the CEO of Automattic, the organization that runs WordPress.com: a hosting company. He is also the Director of the WordPress Foundation, a charitable organization he founded. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy is an employee of Automattic and the lead for their open source division. She is also the Executive Director of the WordPress Project. As far as I can tell, Josepha has no direct ties to the WordPress Foundation despite the significant overlap in its mission and her job scope.

If all this sounds quite confusing, it’s because it is. Personally, I didn’t even know the WordPress Foundation existed until I did the research for this article.

In fact, Matt and Josepha, themselves, have difficulty delineating where Automattic begins and WordPress.org starts. Here’s an excerpt from Episode 8: The Commons of Images at the WP Briefing, a podcast hosted by Josepha. This episode features Matt talking about Automattic’s acquisition of CC Search, now renamed Openverse:

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  15:47

I’ve been asked a few times, and I think you have been asked a few times whether this is an actual acquisition. And If yes, then what entity is it under? Is it under the WordPress Foundation? Is it under Automattic?

Matt Mullenweg  16:10

It’s a little complicated because, as you know, WordPress.org is not part of the Foundation. So basically, Automattic paid Creative Commons, the nonprofit. They will essentially redirect the old URL, so old links to Creative Commons Search won’t break. And we ended up hiring some of the people that they were parting ways with into Automattic. And then we put that open source code, and we’ll run the service on WordPress.org, and then those we hired, Automattic hired, will contribute to WordPress.org and the open source projects that power what we’re calling Openverse now.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  16:54

I am.

Matt Mullenweg  16:56

That’s kind of an acquisition, but also from a nonprofit, and then going into something, which is not a nonprofit, but is open source and sort of freely available, which is WordPress.org, the website.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  17:06

Yeah, that has been hard for me to answer because you’re right, it’s not like it was donated to WordPress or something. But everything that we’re doing is being donated back to the project, and of course, hopefully, really living into that WordPress ethos that we have of giving back to, to the project, something that made your work and your life better. So there’s some, some finger-crossing going on in there.

Episode 8: The Commons of Images at the WP Briefing.

As you can see, the blurred lines can lead to some very interesting organizational relationships. Many of which are difficult, if not impossible, to untangle.

To be fair, this isn’t just criticism. I believe the blurred lines are a large reason why the WordPress open source project has been so successful. It’s much easier to advance an open source project from the CEO seat of a multi-billion dollar corporation than it is as the Director of a charitable organization with donations amounting to $10k in 2020.

This benefit is huge and why it’s hard to confidently say the current state of affairs is untenable. This is also why I’m calling for discussion rather than a call to action.

Next, let’s look at the internal and external implications of this entanglement.

WordPress doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s built on the backs of other open source projects, like PHP. Additionally, there are many other open source CMSes that exist, like Drupal. Finally, millions of sites are built on WordPress, like whitehouse.gov. This is the ecosystem within which WordPress exists.

Open source projects like PHP and Drupal have foundations and associations that are the faces of the software projects and their communities. When things go wrong, stakeholders need to have somewhere to find guidance and seek help. Through these organizations, each project has the leadership to guide and defend it. In contrast, WordPress’ foundation seems more like a side project than a governing body.

WordPress professionals often throw around the 40% market share figure WordPress commands. A number that spiked in the pandemic and has only continued to grow.

But as adoption increases, so do the risks. Having a small hamstrung foundation is an interesting experiment if WordPress was simply a quaint, albeit popular, way to blog. It becomes an issue when the American government calls the next Open Source Summit and 40% of the web is not adequately represented.

Questions worth asking about WordPress and its wider ecosystem#

As I mentioned at the beginning, the point of this post isn’t to provide answers. It’s to ignite curiosity and conversation. Here are some questions worth asking:

Questions about WordPress and the wider ecosystem

  • Who officially speaks for WordPress, the open source project?

Questions about The WordPress Foundation

  • Is there a constitution, mandate or goals? Who wrote and approved them?
  • Who does the Foundation represent?
  • Who are its members? And how does one become a member?
  • Who are its leaders? And how does one become a leader?
  • What are the responsibilities of the various roles?
  • How are decisions made and issues tabled?

Questions about potential conflicts of interest

  • Where does Automattic end and the Foundation start?
  • As an employee of Automattic, is Josepha Haden Champosy’s responsibility first and foremost to the company or the WordPress open source project?
  • Are there examples of past conflicts of interest? How were they resolved?
  • What are some advantages of the current way of doing things? What would we be foregoing if the Foundation had more power? Are the trade-offs worth it?

Internally, there are two key issues that surface time and again in varying forms within the WordPress community. They are:

  1. Insufficient repercussions for bad actors. Lots of people abuse the system and sanctions are applied haphazardly or not at all.
  2. Onboarding more contributors. It’s hard to get the number of contributors we need and onboard them at scale.

At the face of it, these issues don’t seem related to governance or the lack of clarity and formalization around leadership and systems. But once you dig deeper, you’ll see how they’re linked. For example, the lack of formalization around WordPress’ governance makes enforceability difficult as enforcers don’t have much of a mandate. It also makes it hard to lobby for more resources when you don’t know to whom you should lobby or how.

Let’s explore these concerns with more specificity below.

1. Insufficient repercussions for bad actors#

Bad actors are inevitable in a project as large and diverse as WordPress. Eliminating them would be as impossible as eliminating crime in a country. This isn’t a discussion about that. 

Instead, what matters is the lack of disincentives for bad actors. Rules are notoriously implemented on an ad hoc basis, and people who have been banned can simply reappear with new email addresses. Furthermore, there are no repercussions for poor or inconsistent enforcement. Nor are there formal processes to report poor enforcement or review how the rules are being applied. If no one is watching the watchers, how do we know if they’re doing a good job?

Questions worth asking about rules, enforcement, and oversight#

  • Who enforces the rules?
  • How are they chosen?
  • Who ensures the enforcers are doing a good job? And what can be done if they’re not?
  • Who writes the rules?
  • Who decides if the rules should be changed?
  • What is the process for deciding if the rules should be changed?

2. Onboarding more contributors#

As WordPress grows, the number of contributors needs to grow too. To understand the mindset of a potential contributor, we can use a simple equation proposed by Aldo Cortesi that’s inspired by Elinor Ostrom’s original equation governing physical commons.

BC > BN + C

BC is the benefit of contributing, which has to outweigh the cost of contributing (C) plus the benefit of not contributing (BN).

Let’s first explore BC: the benefits of contributing#

BC (benefit of contributing) can also be called Incentives.

Currently, most major contribution efforts are from full-time employees of some of the biggest companies in the ecosystem. Their remuneration is their main incentive for doing the work. This is pretty clear-cut.

Let’s make it even simpler: You want to introduce FOMO for non-contributors.

The long tail of work is contributed out of personal interest and wanting to give back to the community aka a “helping the commons” mentality.

A basket of incentives#

People are often quick to equate incentives with money, but money is just one of many incentives, and I believe it’s the least compelling.

While money is a critical and necessary part of any incentive structure, it’s never just about the money for most people. If it were, people would optimize solely to make it. They wouldn’t be contributing to an open source project, they’d be trading NFTs, mining minerals, financing M&A or whatever it is that brings in the most money these days.

Prominent open source maintainer Jeff Geerling explains in a helpful blog post on the burdens of an open source maintainer, “The truth is, money won’t prevent the next Log4J vulnerability or prevent maintainer burnout (leading to the next colors and faker fiasco). It helps, and it’s necessary to try to fund developers better—but you can’t just say “Microsoft should pay developer X $80,000/year and that will prevent another Shellshock.”

In practice, money can only solve money problems, like rent, medical bills, and debt. But beyond that, additional incentives are needed to ensure meaningful contributions are made to maintain a healthy commons.

BN: Benefits of not contributing#

The goal is to have as low a BN as possible.

The weird “benefit that you want to reduce” phrasing is tricky to understand. Here’s how you can look at it:

All improvements made to the WordPress commons are shared by all. When this happens, people benefit even when they don’t contribute. In order to reduce the benefit of not contributing, you want to create some benefits that are only accessible to people who do contribute.

Let’s make it even simpler: You want to introduce FOMO for non-contributors. (Fear of Missing Out)

Got it? Great.

Cost: Lowering cost/barriers to contribution#

One need only turn to Twitter to feel the frustrations of the high costs of contributing. As WordPress developer, Dan Cameron, shared in his tweet, “the major problem, from my experience, is that a valid contribution can be ignored — for years. The only way to “contribute” is to be directed by a release lead, and most of those experiences can be very exhausting/frustrating.”

I imagine many others have similar experiences. It has been my experience too. In the past couple of years, I’ve made tiny contributions in the form of FSE testing, reporting a bug, and most recently, proofreading posts for Learn WP.

In all three cases, I needed at least 10-20 mins of help each from Anne McCarthy, Tonya Mork, Israel Barragan, and Courtney Robertson. They helpfully explained the steps I needed to take to contribute. They helped me get set up, gave me context, and set expectations so I was able to contribute correctly and in the WordPress way.

I need to make it clear that the 3 tasks I did were very simple things. The amount of time it took for them to help me was far more than the time I took to contribute.

Now imagine scaling this up and you can quickly see the bottleneck.

Questions worth asking about onboarding more contributors#

General questions

  • Who are the people responsible for improving the contributor experience? How were they chosen? What are their roles and mandates? How are they paid/incentivized?
  • What’s currently being done to make it easier to onboard contributors?
  • What would a world look like if contributions were normalized?
  • What is the “between the cracks” work of contributions that needs to be done?
  • What are the minimum requirements of a contributor and where can I find them?

Questions about benefits of contributing (BC)

  • How can we increase the benefits of contributing, in ways that aren’t solely financial?
  • How can we celebrate contributors?

Questions about benefits of not contributing (BN)

  • How can we increase FOMO for non-contributors?
  • How can we make it less intimidating to contribute?

Questions about costs of contributing

  • What are the current costs of contributing?
  • Should we decrease the cost of contributing? In what way are the current costs necessary?
  • How can we decrease the cost of contributing?
  • If I don’t want to speak with anybody in the process, are there still ways for me to contribute?
  • What informal, social cues exist for contributors that ought to be formalized and documented? Which should persist?
  • In what ways is contributing frustrating? Intimidating? How can we reduce this?
  • How can we encourage contributions from people for whom English is not their first language, beyond just polyglot work?
  • How can we give money to contributors to reduce the opportunity cost of contributing?

If you made it this far, you might have noticed I mentioned ‘WordPress as a commons’ multiple times. Indeed, that’s the title of this post!

So before I wrap up, let’s explore this concept a little bit more and see why it matters.

The term tragedy of the commons was conceived of by Garrett Hardin in 1968.

To understand what it means, let’s refer to an explanation by the International Association for the Study of the Commons:

When people share a resource they will over-harvest it because it is in their individual interest to take as much from the resource as possible; depletion of the commons could, according to Hardin, only be prevented via private property rights and governmental regulation. The term ‘tragedy’ referred to the argument that people are not able to self-govern common resources.

Matt Mullenweg loves talking about WordPress as a commons. In fact, he recently spoke at length about it in the State of the Word 2021. Here’s an excerpt:

In the digital world, at least, I think it’s possible to have an abundance of the commons. So the more people that use a program the better. It gets [better] in so many ways — more bugs get reported, more translations happening,… more plugins get developed, more themes get developed. And so the more people that use WordPress, WordPress doesn’t get any worse for any of you. In fact, the more people that use it, the better it gets.

But part of that is some percentage of the people who essentially directly benefit from WordPress, putting something back into the comments, fertilizing the soil, planting some more grass…

Excerpt taken from The WP Minute’s transcription of the talk.

Avoiding the tragedy of the commons#

Since learning about the tragedy of the commons in university, I always believed the tragedy was inevitable and every commons was bound to either fail or become privatized. And all one could do was put off the inevitable for as long as possible.

Imagine my delight when I found out researchers across multiple fields have found many real-world examples of self-sustaining commons that neither ended in tragedy nor needed the installation of private property rights or government regulation.

The most notable of these researchers is Nobel Laureate, Elinor Ostrom.

Most famously, she derived 8 principles necessary for successful self-governance. They are:

  1. The common pool resource has clearly-defined boundaries (effective exclusion of external unentitled parties)
  2. There is congruence between the resource environment and its governance structure or rules
  3. Decisions are made through collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate
  4. Rules are enforced through effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators
  5. Violations are punished with graduated sanctions
  6. Conflicts and issues are addressed with low-cost and easy-to-access conflict resolution mechanisms
  7. Higher-level authorities recognize the right of the resource appropriators to self-govern
  8. In the case of larger common-pool resources: rules are organized and enforced through multiple layers of nested enterprises

The tragedy of not talking about Elinor Ostrom#

Given how often Matt talks about it, I’ve always found it curious that he never mentions Ostrom or that this problem has already been demonstrably solved many times or that principles exist to solve it.

However, I thought to bring it up because so many of her principles map to the issues raised in this article.

Questions worth asking about successful self-governance#

  • Do all of Ostrom’s 8 principles apply to WordPress?
  • How can Ostrom’s 8 principles be applied to WordPress?
  • In what ways are Ostrom’s 8 principles already successfully applied in WordPress?
  • Are there any articles of successfully self-governed open source projects written about how their governance maps to Ostrom’s principles?
  • What are Matt and Josepha’s views on Ostrom?

As I said at the beginning, I don’t profess to have any answers. The purpose of this post was to further discussion around a variety of topics because I believe they are important ones for the community.

As such, I’ve asked a lot of questions in this post. So it’s only fitting that I end it with even more!

Here are a bunch of bird’s eye view questions to further the discussion:

  • The WordPress open source project is inextricably linked to Automattic. How is this a good thing? How is this a bad thing? 
  • What are the conflicts of interest?
  • At this point, the WordPress Foundation doesn’t do much or have much power. Should it be given more? Why? Why not?
  • How can we better regulate our community and enforce rules?
  • In what way is the current lack of formalization good?
  • In what way are the current obstacles to contributing good?
  • How can we make it easier for contributors to contribute?
  • What can we learn from other large open source projects?
  • How can we use Ostrom’s principles to become a better self-governing community?

I want to thank Dan Knauss for helping edit this monster of a piece and encouraging me to write it in the first place. Blame me for all the bad stuff, and thank him for all the good! Big thanks also to Aurooba Ahmed for providing a final sanity check and round of edits.

Finally, I’d like to reiterate that WordPress is a gigantic project and while this post is wide-ranging, it doesn’t begin to cover all the facets and considerations out there. I know I’ve failed to highlight many important facts and perspectives. That’s inevitable.

Rather than attempt to do it all myself, I heartily encourage you to join the conversation and write a blog post of your own!

Thanks for reading. I hope I sparked your interest in these topics, and I can’t wait to see where your curiosity takes you.

DSC06964_01-square-min-Lesley-Sim-752x752 WordPress as a Commons design tips

Lesley Sim has been a government employee, an ad agency suit, and a freediving instructor… and then she found WordPress. She built sites on WordPress as part of her digital marketing agency and moved on to building plugins last year. Now, she focuses on Newsletter Glue, a plugin that connects your email service provider to WordPress and turns the block editor into a newsletter builder so you can build and send newsletters directly from WordPress.