Conference talk: WordPress’s role in a changing web

I delivered the following talk this morning at WordCamp Vienna 2020. Entitled “WordPress’s role in a changing web”, I wanted to explain how fragile the open web is becoming, share a case study in how to keep it open, and spell out why the time for the WordPress project to act is now.

Right. Now.

Returning to Vienna has been a hugely emotional endeavour for me. My last trip here, of course, was for WordCamp Europe 2016. That was the morning after the referendum before, when we woke up in our hotel rooms to find the push notification that shattered us to the core and changed our lives forever. So if there was any place I could have chosen to make my first trip back to Europe without my European citizenship, it had to be Vienna. I wasn’t expecting this trip, but I’m so glad I came here, and I’m grateful for DonateWC for making it possible.

This has been my last WordCamp talk, and my last WordCamp. After this, I am retiring from open source projects.

Altogether, and all of them.

There are two reasons for that.

The first reason is the situation I explained in this talk. The open web, and the rights and civil liberties which allow us to use it, are at breaking point. The fundamentals of what we are able to believe, say, and do – both on and offline – are hanging by a thread. In my professional work, I have witnessed firsthand this week how fragile that thread is. This is a battle which needs all hands on deck, and all of my attention (and, frankly, yours too). There is no room for anything else. And anything else – whatever it is – is just details and distractions.

The second reason is that at this critical time, open source projects are not choosing to be part of the solution. They are choosing to be part of the problem. They are not showing up to the political processes which shape the open web. They are not allocating the resources, time, funding, or attention that these issues need, even when these issues are a direct threat to their own existence. And they are doing their best to make life hell for people who do care about them.

Speaking for myself, I recently experienced an astonishing misuse of my time by an open source project which did its best to drag me into its internal backstabbing soap opera. Perhaps that would have made sense if I had ever met anyone involved, or had a clue about what was going on. I didn’t. (I still don’t, and I don’t give a toss.) It beggared belief that a time when there was important work I had to do, complete strangers were demanding that I picked a side in their project drama. What was worse, when they weren’t assuming that I was a character in their soap opera, they were asking me questions about – wait for it – Matt bloody Mullenweg. Of all the topics and issues you could pick my brain for, that’s what people want to talk about? Petty gossip, apparently, is all an eleven-year contributor to the WordPress project is good for.

For me, the experience made me realise that outside our project bubble, being associated with the WordPress project is becoming a liability, both personally and professionally. And the fact that my longstanding commitment to supporting open source projects was so spitefully misused was a warning sign to put some distance between me and the movement. It is a warning I intend to heed.

With the late winter sunshine on my back, here follows the rough transcript of my talk slides. I hope they encourage you to work for a better future than the one which currently lies ahead of you. I look forward to seeing you in the battle lines, fighting for what really matters.

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“We live in times where dreams can be fulfilled and nightmares can come true very quickly.”

That’s an astonishing quote, isn’t it. It took my breath away when first read it.

Now, what took my breath away wasn’t so much the quote, but where I found it. You see, that wasn’t a quote from one of Sigmund Freud’s dream journals, or Gustav Klimt’s explanation of his Beethoven Frieze.

It was the opening sentence of a draft European Commission policy strategy document.

In fact, it wasn’t even a strategy yet – it was a leaked Microsoft Word draft which someone inside snuck out to the Brussels media. It’s a dry, boring, draft idea for the next five years of digital policy.

The thing is, I love reading that boring stuff. It’s my job, as a tech policy and regulation specialist. It’s all part of the amazing career I’ve created for myself based on my experiences both in politics and in web development. I build bridges between tech and policy. I love that, and I love being there, because I bring something to the table that policymakers have never heard before.

Today I’m here to turn that table around. I’m here to bring something to you, as designers and developers in the WordPress community, about the beliefs they have – and the plans they are making – for your work on the web.

That’s a bridge we need to build, because right now, we are only moving further apart.

Look at the schedule on the lanyard around your necks. Here’s what you, here today, think the web is about:

  • Content strategy
  • Customer service
  • The block editor
  • SEO
  • Internationalisation
  • Design and branding
  • Project management
  • Security hardening

That’s awesome. But it’s not what policymakers think the web is about. Here’s what they think we spend our days facilitating on the web:

  • Adtech surveillance
  • Disinformation/fake news
  • CSE & CSAM
  • Trolling/harassment/abuse
  • Self-harm and suicide
  • Electoral interference
  • Racism/bigotry
  • The rise of authoritarianism

A lot of those things are associated with a handful of American social media tech giants – you know the ones by name. But WordPress – the open source CMS we create as a community – is a part of this too. The software we create is used to disseminate and grow all of those things. For the most part, so far, as a project, we have escaped scrutiny. After all, we’re just software, like Microsoft Word is. There have been some attacks on us – you may remember them – but we’ve been lucky so far.

I am here to tell you that our luck is running out. It is a matter of weeks, not months, until the spotlight turns on us, and the software we put into the world, and the role we play in making the web.

I am here to tell you that the open web we have always known, and developed, and blogged, and built the web we love on, is closing.

I am here to tell you that lawmakers, politicians, and policymakers are acting on their beliefs about what it is we do and enable on the web. They are proposing new frameworks, rules, and regulations around the three cs: content, conduct, and contact. What we can say, and how; what we can do, and how; and who we communicate with, and how: all of these things are changing fast.

The changing rules of the three Cs include:

  • The daily battle to safeguard people’s privacy and data protection rights from adtech and government misuse;
  • Online content, including plans for a “duty of care”, filtering, and takedowns;
  • Competition policy, in which everyone wants to break up Facebook in ways which will only make it bigger;
  • Intermediary and platform liability, the fundamental principle of the open web, which is under attack from every front;
  • Electoral interference, disinformation, and the rise of fake news which is eroding our democratic discourse every day.

These things keep me up at night because policymakers and legislators want to craft rules around the abuses of a handful of American companies.

But many of the rules they propose would take every small business, startup, digital agency, and open source project – and that means you, and your work, and this project – down with them.

So that’s what I do now. I work to make sure that when policymakers are going after Facebook or Google or whoever is in their sights, they don’t make it impossible for people like you to start up your businesses, start up your agencies, support your clients, support your customers, and – along the way – stop the users we build WordPress for from being able to use it too.

(I then went into a case study of some successful advocacy work I recently participated in surrounding the UK’s draft online harms framework. Having done that work in Parliament this week, inbetween two WordCamps, I genuinely lack the energy to talk about it again.)

That work we did proved that proper advocacy can help keep the web open. There’s a long road ahead and the battle isn’t won by a longshot, but I’m going to be in that fight for the long haul.

You know what we didn’t do, and what doesn’t work? Exactly what this community does: stick its head in the sand, refuse to engage, and sneer at the entire topic of advocacy and engagement altogether. You can’t pretend that this is “politics, Europe, whatever” anymore.

Which brings me to WordPress.

The WordPress project, as a project, and as its personalities, is apolitical. It takes no stance on anything, save for the four software freedoms. If you press the leadership about this, they’ll tell you it’s software. Just that. Like Microsoft Word.

As I was preparing this talk, I found the notebook where I jotted my thoughts for my talk at WCEU 2017 in Paris. I found a page of things I wrote three years ago. Nothing has changed. They are still true today.

  • “WordPress has a role to play in ensuring the web moves forward code-wise – and in how we use the web for communication and to build societies.”
  • “We have enormous power that we are choosing not to use”
  • “People are profoundly confused by WP’s lack of involvement”

The software has moved on. The project has not.

At the end of the day, what does the WordPress project stand for? “Democratising publishing.”

What does that mean, even?

Well, if you press the question – as I have, and others have done, since the last time we were in Vienna – you get two answers.

One is that democratising publishing is about the four software freedoms.

The other is that democratising publishing is about making it easy for as many people as possible to download and use the WordPress software.

Really?

Is that it?

Downloading the software, by that definition, is the end goal. Once you’ve set it up, you’ve democratised publishing, right? Wrong.

I want you to shift your thinking and view downloading the software as the start of democratising publishing.

If that’s the start, then what are the conditions necessary for democratising publishing?

  1. The ability to access it, which requires free access to the internet and some hosting space, which is no longer a guaranteed right;
  2. The ability to use it, which requires technical knowledge as well as a regard for the human rights of privacy and accessibility, which is something our project seems to have issues with;
  3. The ability to code on it, which is where the four software freedoms come in;
  4. The ability to deploy to it, which requires other software, code, and hosting support, which does you no good if you wake up one morning to find your Github account suspended because of the country you happen to live in; and
  5. The ability to publish on it, which requires freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom from proactive monitoring, filtering, and self-censorship.

All of those freedoms are at risk in the closing of the open web.

As a project, we do not fight for those conditions.

We can’t.

The WordPress project has

  • 35% of the market share of open source content management systems
  • A volunteer community of tens of thousands
  • The contributions of talented professionals who are ready and willing to liaise with government and policymakers – and can’t do so, even if they want to, becuase of the WP Foundation’s American tax registration.

The WordPress project does not have

  • Community-elected, accountable leadership, because we don’t have
  • A transparent, accountable governance structure, so we can’t take
  • Positions on policy, or the ability to take positions on policy; or have
  • An advocacy voice, or the ability to have an advocacy voice.

We use the open web. We do not show up to defend it.

Even when the opportunity is offered to us on a plate.

In November, the European Commission held a workshop on the future of the open source in Europe, to help them decide what policies and legislation they might be able to create to support open source environments. I know the people on this team from my work. They’re not ignorant Eurocrats. They’re smarter than you think. And they are openly, desperately waiting to hear from people like you who make the web for the greater good. They’ve told me they’re sick to death of dealing with Facebook lawyers. They want to know, from you, what you need, and what they can do to help you get there.

There was a time when policymakers made decisions about the web without us. That’s not true anymore. They opened the door. They invited us in. WordPress chose not to show up.

We couldn’t show up. Why? Think about these questions:

  • Who would speak for WordPress?
  • How would they be chosen?
  • Who would choose them?
  • How would their travel and accommodation be funded?
  • How would their time be funded or sponsored?
  • What values would they represent?
  • Who would choose those values?
  • What positions would they take?
  • What support would they offer the Commission?
  • How would the Commission follow up?

These are really basic, simple questions, people. We have no answers to them. Our project is so unhealthy that the questions themselves are verboten. That’s our internal drama.

Our internal dramas and dysfunctions are not the EC’s problem.

Now, open source projects like ours may not be showing up, but that’s not to say open source isn’t showing up. Here’s an image (see slides) I took in October when I was in Brussels representing a client in the copyright directive debates. So I saw who else was in the room, and who had showed up. COSS.

What’s COSS? You’ve heard of OSS. You’ve heard of FOSS.

COSS means Corporate Open Source Software. COSS is megacorporations who use open source software and are seeking to craft the rules and regulations around their needs.

And you know what? They’re not stuck on questions like “how do we fund someone to get there” and “what values do we stand for.”

And that’s why open source is becoming “Animal Farm”. A movement which began to fight corporate dominance is now being co-opted by corporate dominance, because projects like ours sneer at the concept, the process, and the thought of involvement.

Who needs hostile regulators and policymakers when we’re becoming our worst enemy?

So let’s get these questions answered:

  • Who will speak for WordPress?
  • How will they be chosen?
  • Who will choose them?
  • How will their travel and accommodation be funded?
  • How will their contributions be funded or sponsored?
  • What values will they represent?
  • Who will choose those values?
  • What positions will they take?
  • What support would they offer policymakers?
  • How will policymakers follow up?

And by “let’s”, I mean you. I am going to be giving 100% of my time from now on what matters, and doing so with the people who have already shown up for the fight and have proven they can make an impact. And by 100%, I mean 100%. I hope you understand what I’m saying here. This is now your task. Not mine.

“We live in times where dreams can be fulfilled and nightmares can come true very quickly.”

We build the WordPress software to fulfil dreams, and it does. The software we build is also used to make nightmares come true, very quickly.

We have chosen not to speak up for ourselves when our project has been misused. We have chosen not to speak up for our users when their dreams risked turning into nightmares.

We have so little time left.

We are always told we should contribute to WordPress. We are always told we should give something to the project. We’ve done that. We’ve got it to 35%. We’ve won.

We’ve transformed the web. Now it’s time to save it.

It’s time for WordPress to stop telling us to contribute, and for WordPress to start contributing back.

Our legacy to the world, as contributors and as a project, will not be our code, or our blocks, or our market share. It will be whether we choose to show up to what lies ahead, and what impact we make. The open web needs us, as a community, as a project, and as a movement, for the people who use the tools we build along the way.

The open web needs the WordPress project. It needs it now.

I have my battles to fight. Make this one yours.

8 thoughts on “Conference talk: WordPress’s role in a changing web”

  1. This is a great post.
    I’m not sure about WordPress pushing the evolution of the web though as the code is stuck in the 90s which I feel has been one of the things that makes it so popular today. No breaking changes.
    Its time will come like everything else and the dominance will fade away.

  2. The WordPress community is worse off without you. Thank you for fighting. Thank you for challenging. Thank you for standing up and taking on a job most of us wouldn’t even know where to start

  3. Why Automattic haven’t snapped you up on a consultancy contract for future policy and guidance is beyond me.
    Hopefully, they’ll wake up and have you signed up soon Heather!
    All the best for your new paid ventures!

    • The hilarious thing about that is I was on a consultancy contract with them for policy work a few years back. From them, there was no input, no direction, no feedback, no strategy, no inclusion, no defined actions or deliverables, no communication, no being permitted to work on the things they actually said I would be working on, and going weeks without any contact from anyone whatsoever, in a company that boasts about running on remote realtime communication.

      To this day I have no idea why they brought me in. I have no desire to ever work for them again.

  4. Appreciation aren’t enough for the good work WordPress Team are doing. You have really bridge the gap of those interested into the web world without coding skills to be part of the web contributors in their own little way.
    With much of these you have grately achieved, in my own simple and little way I say all thank to you WordPress Team.

  5. Thanks for the post. WordPress is now empowering over 30% of the web. We can’t deny its roles in changing the online business world.

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