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The 5ftf blunder

Automattic owner Matt Mullenweg recently made a scene on Twitter when he called out GoDaddy as a “parasitic” organisation for profiting off of WordPress without making a sufficient number of contributions to the WordPress community and for developing a competitor to WooCommerce, which is Automattic’s ‘WordPress but for e-commerce’. (To the uninitiated, Automattic owns WordPress.com and maintains WordPress.org. WordPress.com is where you pay Automattic to host your website for you on its servers; WordPress.org is where you can download the WordPress CMS and use it on your own servers.) At the heart of the issue is Automattic’s ‘Five for the Future’ (5ftf) initiative, in which companies whose profits depend on the WordPress CMS and the community of developers and users pledge to contribute 5% of their resources to developing WordPress.org. There has been a lot of justifiable backlash against Mullenweg’s tweets, which were in poor taste and which have since been deleted. But most of the articles on the topic that I read weren’t clear or not written well about what their authors’ reasons were to disagree with Mullenweg. So after some reading around, I thought I’d summarise my takeaways as I see them, and in case you might benefit from such a summary as well.

1. 5ftf appears to mean different things to different people. This has been a recurrent bone of contention because Mullenweg lashed out against GoDaddy because GoDaddy’s contributions were not legitimate, or not legitimate enough, for him. But this is hardly reasonable. Not every entity or individual can contribute in exactly the way Automattic wishes at a given time nor can Automattic, or Mullenweg, presume to know exactly which contributions can be discarded in favour of others. In fact, I’ve been sticking with WordPress even though WordPress.com has been becoming less friendly to bloggers because a) it presents a diverse set of opportunities for me, vis-à-vis the projects and services I know how to set up because I know how to use WordPress, and b) WordPress has engendered over the decades a view of publishing on the web that is aligned with progressivist views on publishing on the internet. So in my view I contribute when I recommend WordPress to others, help my fellow journalists and writers set up WordPress websites, provide feedback on WordPress services, build (rudimentary) WordPress plugins and, within my newsroom, promote the use of WordPress towards responsible journalism.

2. Mullenweg was wrong to abuse GoDaddy in public, in such harsh terms. This was a disagreement that ought to have been settled out of view of public eyes, and certainly not on Twitter. Mullenweg is influential both as an entrepreneur more broadly as well as, more specifically, as someone whose views and policies on digital publishing can potentially affect hundreds of thousands active websites on the internet. By lashing out in this way, all he’s done is made GoDaddy look bad in a way that it probably didn’t deserve to be, and certainly in a way that it would find hard to pushback against as a company. To continue my first point, GoDaddy has also said that it sponsors WordCamps and other events where WordPress-enthusiasts gather to discuss better or new ways to use Automattic products.

(Aside: In his examples of companies that are doing a better job of giving back to WordPress.org, Mullenweg included Bluehost. Some of you might remember how bad GoDaddy’s customer service was in the previous decade. It was famously, notoriously awful, exacerbated by the fact that for a lot of people, its platform was also the gateway to WordPress. I get the sense that their service has improved now. On the other hand, Bluehost and indeed all hosting companies owned by Newfold Digital have a lousy reputation, among developers and non-developers alike, while Mullenweg is apparently happy with Bluehost’s contributions and it is also listed as one of WordPress.org’s recommended hosts.)

3. Mullenweg blundered in a surprising way when he indicated in his tweets that he was keeping score. While GoDaddy caught Mullenweg’s attention on this occasion, the fundamental problem is relevant to all of us. You want people to support a cause because they want to, not because someone is keeping track and could be angry with you if you default. Put another way, Mullenweg took the easier-to-implement but harder-to-sustain ‘hardware’ route to instituting a change in the ecosystem than the harder-to-implement but easier-to-sustain ‘software’ route. We’ve come across ample examples of this choice through the pandemic. To get people to wear masks in public, many governments introduced mask mandates. A mask mandate is the hardware path: it enforces material changes among people backed by the threat of punishments. The software path on the other hand would have entailed creating a culture in which mask-wearing is considered to be virtuous and desirable, in which no one is afraid of being punished if they don’t wear masks (for reasonable reasons), and in which people trust the government to be looking out for them. The software path is much longer than the hardware one and governments may have justified their actions saying they didn’t have the time for all this. But while that’s debatable, Automattic doesn’t have such constraints.

This is why 5ftf should be made aspirational but shouldn’t be enforced, and certainly shouldn’t become an excuse for public disparagement. I and many, many others love WordPress, and a large part of it is because we love the culture and ideas surrounding it. We also understand the problem with for-profit organisations profiting off the work of non-profit organisations. If GoDaddy is really threatening to sink WordPress.org by offering the people hosting their sites on GoDaddy an alternative ecommerce platform or by not giving back nearly as many programming-hours as it effectively consumes, Automattic should either regard GoDaddy as a legitimate competitor and reconsider its own business model or it should pay less attention to its contribution scorecard and more to why and how others contribute the way they do. Finally, if GoDaddy is really selfish in a way that is not compatible with WordPress.org’s future as Automattic sees it to be, Automattic’s grouch should be divorced cleanly from the 5ftf initiative.