Languages of Contribution and Creation

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: 8 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.

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.

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 good 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. 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?

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.

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 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.

Especially In the world of WordPress extenders, builders, and generally small business operators this seems to be where we get stuck. Imbalance is emphasized, and we don’t get past it. I’m not going to say there aren’t imbalances and all the playing fields are perfectly level, but I will say it doesn’t do any good to keep saying this. It’s probably doing harm.

If you think this means Creators are mercenaries who don’t participate in communities or care about their tools, you are wrong.

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.

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 then 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.

If you think this means Creators are 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. Not 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 people in their 20s 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. The 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 Nathan Barry used to invite community participation in his last keynote at Craft + Commerce, a major conference aimed at Creators. 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!”

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 play to the strengths of Contributors with new, compatible ideas and language from Creators?

“Creators” vs. “Contributors”

There are strengths and limitations to these two words for ways to participate in a creative community — Creating and Contributing. They seem hardly different until you take a close look.

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 in greater need than the people you are asking to contribute. Better yet, they should see themselves as implicitly benefiting from all contributions. If that’s not the reality, 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.

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.

Am I proposing a massive Search and Replace targeting all forms of the word “Contribute?” Nope. I personally find calling people “Creators” more cringey than the older, more grammatically tortured term, “Creatives.” But I fully recognize that I am out of date.

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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