Categories
My Opinion

Blogging is dead. Long live ephemerality.

Text in images is the least accessible, most ephemeral way to put important information into the world. It exists, for a brief moment, only for those who happen to see it, and then it’s lost, forever. Informational entropy at its most extreme. This is how we lose our history in real-time.

A tweet caught my eye earlier this week. It featured a series of images of white text on a black background originally posted on Instagram. In these images, the author, a woman from Istanbul, Turkey, describes how a hashtag and social movement created to draw attention to the murder of women in her country has been co-opted by people who don’t know the meaning of the #ChallengeAccepted hashtag. (You can read more about this story in reports from KQED and The Guardian.)

This tweet, and the originating Instagram post, and resulting Facebook posts of the same images of text, exemplifies a trend I’ve observed over the past several years: Blogging has moved from text in blogs to images of text on social media.

I think it’s time to say out loud what many of us have been discussing in private for years: Blogging as we knew it is dead. We, the people who built and promoted blogging tools, failed at convincing people that owning their blog and controlling their content is important. We failed at providing the publishers of the world with the tools they needed. And, most crucially, we failed at keeping pace with the changing behaviors and attitudes of our users. People don’t want a permanent web log; they want an ephemeral lifestream – there, and then gone again. And they want absolute control over the appearance and curation of that stream.

An image of an image of text

At the height of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, my social media feeds (in particular Instagram) overflowed with excellent information about the issues of racial inequality and inequity, hidden biases and how to overcome them, white privilege, nationalism, supremacy, how to be an ally, how to support BIPoC, etc. Almost all this information, crucial to the forward momentum of the civil rights struggle of our time, was shared as meticulously designed and entirely inaccessible images of text. 

What do I mean by “entirely inaccessible?” The web is built to transmit text from author to reader, and web browsers and tools are designed to parse that text in a way the reader can access: displayed on a screen; read out loud; printed on a braille display; or something else. For information to be accessible, it needs to be provided as plain text. An image of plain text contains no accessible information unless that information is appended in an alternative text attribute.

Worse still, Instagram in particular has no functional way of sharing a post with others outside the ephemeral Instagram Stories feature. As a result, much of this already inaccessible information is reshared as photos of the original post in stories, effectively a copy of an inaccessible image. In some cases, when the post is evocative enough, people will reshare it across other social media, by taking screenshots and posting them on Facebook or Twitter. And then people take screenshots of these posts and re-share them. A copy of a copy of a copy.

This resharing of online content is nothing new. Artists Mark Samsonovich explored the informational entropy associated with resharing (at that time called “regramming”) of content over social media back in 2014. What’s different now is what type of content is being shared. We have moved from sharing text posts with images or videos attached to sharing images of text.

What the user wants 

According to my students, I am “an old.” And they are right. I started blogging when blogging was a new thing. I spent 15 years of my life building and promoting blogging tools and telling anyone who would listen about the importance of owning your content and creating a permanent record of your shared ideas online. I surrounded myself with likeminded people, and for a good while, we ruled the world. Then last year a series of events forced me to take a critical look at my understanding of the evolving landscape. What I found all around me were the walls of an indie-web adjacent echo chamber. It had become my comfort zone, and everything I believed was echoed right back at me. But outside, the world had moved on, and I had somehow not noticed, or at least not accepted what I was seeing.

A pivotal moment came when I discussed social media sharing with some younger relatives. I told them about how I publish content online and they looked at me in incredulity. “Why would you bother posting something on your blog?” they asked. “Nobody is going to see that!” I tried to explain that yes, people do see it and they shrugged. “Sure, when you post tutorials and stuff, people see it. But that’s not blogging. That’s … publishing. When I post stuff, it’s for my friends, for my followers. And it’s not forever. It’s for right now. If they see it, great. If not, their loss.”

In that moment I realized what I value – the permanence of my published information – is the opposite of what they value – the impermanent ephemerality of sharing moments from their lives.

“And seriously Morten,” one of them said, “the blogging tools are really not good.” I tried not to take this too personally and asked them to continue. “I can post text and images and other stuff, but I can’t control how it looks. When I post something on Insta or Snap, I want what I see on my screen to be what people see on their screen.” They went on to show me examples of posts and gave me a walk-through of the tools they used to make their posts just right. 

I was floored. When I post to Instagram, it’s mainly either photos straight off my phone or straight off my camera. When they post to “Insta”, it’s often a design process involving two or three different apps. A photo may pass through a Snap filter and other editing tools before landing on the Instagram feed. And before it does, other photos may be culled to ensure the “wall” (the grid of photos you see when you go to the user profile) is curated and looks just right. There are even tools for previewing what your wall will look like once you’ve posted a new photo!

And when it comes to images of text and Instagram stories, the process is essentially a mobile version of a full design sprint with iterations, advanced tools, typography experiments, filters, the works.

What these users want is true WYSIWYG – What You See Is What You Get – which is what we’ve always wanted on the web but never got because the web can never fully be WYSIWYG.

Photos of text on social media give the new generation of web creators what Flash gave my generation: Absolute control, well beyond what the web platform can offer.

What is lost is the future

Some of my friends have become successful influencers today, the same way some of my friends became successful bloggers 10 years ago. They post content online, they get sponsorship deals, they make serious money. And just like 10 years ago, I know many more who pour hours of their day into reaching that influencer status. To me, today’s influencers are yesterday’s successful bloggers. Same deal, new wrapping. And to be quite honest with you, for all the talk of influencers posting bad content and being bad … influencers, the bloggers of my time were no better. As with the bloggers of my generation, I take issue with the commercialization and marketing aspects of modern-day influencers. But I also understand why they do it and why it’s so effective. Getting a peek into the curated life of someone you look up to will always be appealing, and I gladly spend time out of my day looking at what people post on all social media channels for this exact reason.

What saddens me is how we lost the battle of publishing to the commercial platforms, in large part because we trapped ourselves in an echo chamber: the anachronism that is the blogosphere.

It saddens me because the shiny surface and WYSIWYG-ness of the walled commercial gardens people use today is built on a graveyard of dead information. These platforms are not built for sharing, they are built for user retention and engagement. Link in bio is not a moderation tool to avoid link spam, it’s a slow knife to kill the open web. And text in images is the least accessible, most ephemeral way to put important information into the world. It exists, for a brief moment, only for those who happen to see it, and then it’s lost, forever. Informational entropy at its most extreme. This is how we lose our history in real-time.

We failed because while booting up space on a shared server, setting up WordPress, publishing an article, and meticulously sharing it out to the world was revolutionary 15 years ago, today it is an onerous task reserved for people who live in the past (at least according to my aforementioned younger relatives). To them, time is better spent designing a nice looking image with some text and putting it in their Insta Story, or on Snap, shared only with the people they choose, for a day or two, before being lost to our memories and the occasional copy of a copy of a copy.

Cross-posted to LinkedIn.

Categories
My Opinion

100 Days

I began a journaling project on March 13, 2020 as the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic started hitting us full-force. It was for me, to put down my thoughts at the end of each day, and for our son Leo, so he has a day-by-day account of events as they unfolded when he gets curious about everything that happened in 2020 or writes a school paper about this period a decade from now. Here’s my entry from Sunday June 21st, at the 100 day mark, submitted for the record.

The worst part is the uncertainty. In March I told one of my co-workers it felt like we were all trapped on a train heading for a cliff knowing at some point the tracks would drop away and we’d drop with it, but not knowing when that would happen. At 100 days, that analogy doesn’t cut it. I struggle to find a relatable comparison to fully encapsulate the anxiety, the exhaustion, the tedium, the frustration, the endlessly dragged out slow burn eating its way through the fabric of everything.

You broke your leg two weeks before the lockdown. 9 weeks of first a cast, then a brace, and somehow that was just one small part of the madness of the past 100 days.

A playground play structure covered in orange plastic netting.

As the lockdown descended on British Columbia in March, I went on my every-other-day evening runs through the neighbourhood. Each day the number of people on the streets would drop while the number of parked cars grew and grew. Driveways overflowed, then streetside parking. It struck me how many cars belonged to each household. Then people started washing them. Nothing better to do. Slowly my runs turned into a car show of sorts.

Two weeks in and I was all by myself in the world. 6 kilometers of usually buzzing neighborhurhoods, main arterial roads, busy playgrounds and parks now devoid of people. Play structures surrounded by yellow warning tape and covered in orange plastic nets, roads without cars, sidewalks without people. At one point I stopped on Kingsway, took my earbuds out, and heard only two crows harking at each other a block away. The constant background hiss of traffic was gone, leaving only nature as the bed track for my voyage through the world.

Empty store shelves surrounded by empty cardboard boxes once holding Purex tissues.

We were scared. Everyone was scared. The virus occupied our minds every minute of every day. The stores were stripped bare of first hand sanitizer, then rubbing alcohol and aloe vera gel, then cold medications and bleach. Stores at the mall started closing. The province closed the restaurants, then the community centres and gyms. Then the oil price tanked and suddenly gas in Burnaby was going at $0.92/l – lower than I’d ever seen it in my 17 years in Canada. The parking lot at the mall became a sprawling emptiness populated by discarded surgical masks and rubber gloves slowly migrating toward drains.

Businesses closed. People lost their jobs. A lot of people lost their jobs. Our friends lost their jobs. I talked to my co-workers about job survivor guilt. What at first felt like a slow-moving train was starting to feel like an avalanche driving us towards a tsunami.

Your preschool closed and you didn’t understand why. We tried to explain but it made no sense to a 3-year-old. You asked to hang out with your friends and we said no. You thought you’d done something wrong and we told you “no, it’s because of COVID-19.” You asked when you’d be allowed to play with your friends again and we said we didn’t know. Eventually you started talking about all the things you’d do once COVID-19 was over. “We’re going to have a big party with all my friends,” you said. “We will visit bestemor and bestefar in Norway,” you said. “Can we have a party with all my friends this weekend?” you asked and we again explained that no, we can’t, because of COVID-19. Yesterday you looked me square in the face and said “I’m so angry at COVID-19. I don’t think COVID-19 will ever end.” I hope I hid the pain well.

Hand puppet pig with cloth mask.

100 days later and you’re back in preschool, at reduced capacity, with fewer kids, less freedom to roam, and a lot of outdoor time. Hand sanitizer is back on the shelves and available right at the counter, in new varieties and strengths and fragrances and consistencies and brands. The mall has re-opened, at reduced capacity. There are direction signs for walking, lines outside every store, plexiglass shields on every counter, plastic coverings over the chairs at the food court. People are back on the streets at night, and I am once again back to leaving the sidewalk to get around unyielding pedestrians, only now I go on the outside of the parked cars to keep proper social distancing. We wear masks when we go to crowded places, though most of the people around us have stopped wearing masks. There is hand sanitizer in the car, at our front door, and in our bags.

Table and chairs in front of a Starbucks restaurant tightly wrapped in thermal plastic.

100 days later the world has also changed in another way. In May, in response to yet another violent and unlawful police killing of yet another black man, people first in the US and then all over the world braved the pandemic risk and flooded the streets to make one thing clear: Black Lives Matter. In the midst of a pandemic lockdown, maybe even because of the pandemic lockdown, people let the pent-up frustration of racial injustice manifest itself in public action. What started as scattered protests turned into a world-wide movement. More than a month later, the protests are still happening and the world is finally listening. When you look back on this time I hope it is described not only as an unprecedented pandemic, but also a transformative moment for racial justice in the USA and around the world. For the first time in my lifetime it feels like we as a society are moving in the right direction on this issue. Incrementally, slowly, painfully, but we are moving. As bestefar’s aunt said, life comes in lumps; long durations of flat normality interrupted by sudden lumps of everything happening at once. That’s certainly what it feels like. Everything happening, all at once.

100 days later, COVID-19 is very much part of our life, still infecting millions of people, still making some sick, still killing some. They say to form a habit you need to do something for around 21 days straight. 100 days of looking at ever-climbing numbers of infected, sick, and dying and what was at the beginning a claxon pointed directly at our faces reminding us of our own mortality has become the new normal.

A discarded cloth mask lying in the street next to a curb.

On March 13, when I started writing this, the global death toll was 4,718 and everyone was in fear for their life. Today, the global death toll is 470,000, and every day more people are putting away their masks, going back to work, dining out, and demanding restrictions be lifted.

The pandemic is not over. By many estimates, we are still in the first wave, and we will have to ride it for months if not years and hope it doesn’t engulf us. 100 days of COVID-19 has exposed deep fractures in our societal fabric, and how we deal with these fractures over the next 100 days will determine not only what the immediate future looks like for us, but what your future will look like decades from now. When I grew up people talked about my generation as the first in a long time that would not be better off than the last. I fear your generation will look at this analysis as a cruel joke. Unless we, the adults living through this right now, make all the right decisions, the world you grow up in will be nothing like what it should or could be. The virus amplifies every mistake made, and the uncertainty makes it hard to recognize mistakes even after they happen.

Billboards across Greater Vancouver now show various nondescript art pieces in place of advertisements.

Some say the best we can do when faced with uncertainty is to embrace it. I strive every day to embody this philosophy: Change the things I can, let the things I can’t change play themselves out without allowing them to frustrate me. That’s not easy knowing the things I can’t change are the things that will most directly impact your future.

One evening in August 2017 I went for a run. The sun was still up, the sky was bright and blue and without a single cloud. The next morning I could hardly breathe. We had left the window open and our house was filled with smoke. A forest fire hundreds of kilometers away had dumped its cloud directly on us. For two weeks the brown sky trapped the heat of the sun making the air unbreathable and our house an insufficient refuge. “Imagine if that fire was here,” I said to your mom and we rested assured that would never happen. A year later a forest fire, the biggest in the US to that date, surrounded our head office, displacing many of my co-workers and putting things in limbo for months. The fragility of everything screamed in our faces: Even when you think everything is fine, things can happen!

An angry orange sun forces its rays through a thick cloud of smoke over a suburban street.

That’s what it feels like now. We are in a vast, all-encompassing forest fire. Some places, like BC and Norway and Denmark and Taiwan where our family is, have been relatively unscathed, dealing mostly with smoke and the occasional spot fires. In other places, the fire burned through towns leaving immense destruction and death tolls so high they are impossible to process. In yet other places, the fire is slowly creeping through the landscape and seems impossible to stop, either for practical, political, or societal reasons. And even though right now, where we sit, the sky is clear, I don’t think this fire is over. I’m not even sure it has fully begun.

That’s the uncertainty, and that’s why it’s the worst part: We know the fire is still burning, we know it could be burning under our feet right now, and we don’t know how or when it will end. Yet somehow we must embrace this uncertainty and move forward, together.

An empty parking lot BBQ with friends in the rain.

In many ways I am glad you’re not old enough right now to fully understand what is happening; to see how the uncertainty is wearing on your mamma and me and everyone around us; to see our modern society desperately try to stop a fire we don’t fully understand, to see people refuse to accept reality and cling to conspiracy theories to explain the unexplainable while putting everyone else at risk. And I hope by the time you read this this will all be a strange memory of a year when things were somehow different. Though I fear it will instead be the moment that defines your generation.

100 days and we are still here, in our house playing with your toys, going on walks in the forest, talking to our family in Norway over the internet, doing everything to make this new normal as normal as possible to give you the best chance at being able to build a future you will find meaningful. That’s the thing about trains and waves and avalanches and forest fires: they eventually end. And when they do we pick up our lives and what was destroyed, put things back together again, and build the future together.

We are together, today, and the day after this day, and we will be together for the next 100 days, and the hundred days after that. And when all of this is over, we will have that party, with all your friends, and we will do the things and go to the places that suddenly became impossible. COVID-19 will end, or we will find a way to live with it. That is my promise to you. We will get through this, together.

Categories
Internet My Opinion

The Internet is an Essential Service

“You can consult canada.ca/coronavirus to get the best updated information about the spread of the virus.”

– Justin Trudeau, April 3rd, 2020

A daily mantra rings out from government officials around the world: The call to visit official websites to get the latest information on the COVID-19 pandemic and to access essential services. Yet to many constituents accessing the internet is not an option because internet access is still considered a luxury available only to those who can afford it. This has to change.

Over the past two months, everything from education to work to ordering and delivery of essential goods to basic communication has moved online. COVID-19 has made one thing very clear: Internet access is a necessary condition for the ongoing functioning of our society, and every person should have access to fast, reliable, and unfiltered internet at a price they can afford.

The internet is an essential service. It is time we take political action to ensure every person has access to it.

The privilege of access

Late last year, a video surfaced on social media showing a 10-year-old boy doing his homework on a display tablet in an electronics shop. The description read “Humanity at its best…?? This child doesn’t have internet access at home, so a store in the shopping mall allows him to use their tablet to do homework.”  

For many, this was their first introduction to what’s been labeled the “Homework Gap,” a sub-segment of the Digital Divide. Millions of students around the world do not have access to the internet and are therefore not able to access the full educational resources made available to them.

Flash forward a few months to today, and that electronics shop is closed, as is the school, the library, the coffee shop, and any other place that 10-year-old boy relied on to access essential online services. And he is joined by millions of others, young and old, in cities and in rural areas, all over the world, at home, without the ability to access the websites their elected representatives so urgently point them to.

Inequity is the norm

Almost half the world’s population has no access to the internet. At all. Those most affected are, as seems to be the case for most things, women, the poor, and the disenfranchised. Why? Because internet access is considered a luxury, and its availability is contingent on large media companies deeming your particular region of the world worthy of investment, and your ability to pay often excessive fees to get access to it. Somehow, in our relentless pursuit of faster connections and devices giving access to vital (and entertaining) online services, we have glossed over this inequity. COVID-19 took a steel brush to that veneer, forcing upon us the reality of how vital a fast, stable, and unfiltered internet connection has become to our lives. We have gone from tweeting about how nice that store was for letting that kid do his homework on a display device to realizing our home internet is our lifeline to information, income, connection, and entertainment. The internet has become essential to our lives, yet we treat it as a privilege afforded those fortunate enough to live where a connection can be established and wealthy enough to pay the excessive fees for access.

A public good

Late last year, a boy in an electronics store caught the attention of the internet and people started talking about providing proper equipment and connections to students. When COVID-19 hit and school children were sent home and told to attend classes online, school districts booted up ad-hoc solutions like parking digitally equipped buses at community sites to provide access for students. That’s a dollar-store band-aid on a gaping 20-year-old wound.

The digital divide causes hardship to millions of people by depriving them of essential access to the internet. COVID-19 did not create this problem – it merely made it impossible to ignore. Banks, government services, education, shopping, news and information, much of what we consider necessary conditions for functioning in modern society had already migrated online prior to COVID-19. Today the internet has become the only means of access to many of these services. It can no longer be considered a luxury, and its availability can no longer be contingent on the whims and profits of large media corporations. That’s why the World Wide Web Foundation is working to label the open web a public good, and that’s why you and me and everyone else need to demand political action to make the internet available to all.

Let’s not beat around the bush any longer:

The internet is an essential service. As such, any limitation of access to a person or group based on their physical location, income level, or any other reason is effectively an act of discrimination.

To the elected representatives of the world I say this: Declare the internet an essential service. Guarantee equitable access to fast, reliable, and unfiltered internet for all. Put plans in place today to connect the world in a way that promotes human flourishing over corporate profits.

To the media corporations who have grown fat and complacent on profits from connecting people to the things they need I say this: You’ve had your fare share and more. You succeeded in making the internet an essential service. Now you must act like it: Do your civic duty and share that wealth with the world by building solutions that put human connection above shareholder profits.

We have awoken into a new and unfamiliar world where we all feel a bit more vulnerable. It is in times like these we find solace in solidarity with other people and with ourselves. Let’s do this small thing together to better the world for everyone

Header photo by dullhunk. CC BY 2.0

Cross-posted on LinkedIn and dev.to

Categories
Ethics Open Source

Value Neutrality and the Ethics of Open Source

2019 was the year of the “ethical source” licenses – or ‘open source with a moral clause’ licenses. It was also the year many in the open source movement labeled any attempt at adding moral clauses to open source licenses not only made them not open source licenses, but were a dangerous attack on the core principles of open source.

The Ethical Source movement, exemplified by the Hippocratic License, the Anti 996 license etc, has created a deep rift in the open source community; between those who aim to protect the core values of open source ideology as defined by the Four Freedoms, and those who believe granting open source creators the capability to impose moral clauses on the use of their software is essential to ensure software is not used for evil. 

The rift has opened because adding moral clauses to a license is effectively limiting the use of whatever the license is applied to, which stands against the core idea of open source as absolute freedom for the end-user.

The Tenuous Position of Value Neutrality

From my perspective this rift exposes what I’ve long felt is a central flaw in both open source licensing and open source ideology: The Four Freedoms concern themselves only with software freedom – as in the freedom of the software itself – but are in reality imposing value neutrality on whatever is licensed under them: The Four Freedoms protect the freedom of the software itself, and do not concern themselves with what the software does or how it is used. As an ideological platform, they are too narrowly scoped to hold the weight of our societal responsibilities as the designers and builders of modern reality.

Let me explain:

If evil people use open source software to do evil things, there is nothing the creator can do about it. Because doing something about it would be limiting the freedom of the software which goes against open source ideology.  And in the view of many open source ideologues, it would be morally wrong for a creator to do anything about it because limiting the use, modification, and distribution of software is in itself morally wrong. 

This ideological view stems from the original GNU Manifesto:

“‘Control over the use of one’s ideas’ really constitutes control over other people’s lives; and it is usually used to make their lives more difficult.”

“When there is a deliberate choice to restrict, the harmful consequences are deliberate destruction.”

The GNU Manifesto

These quotes capture two central ideas of the GNU Manifesto, one I think most of us agree with, another I think most of us take issue with:

The first idea is that creating something and releasing it into the world changes the lives of ourselves and of others. That is what we design and build software, and that is why being a creator means taking on a moral responsibility for how we change the world.

The second idea is that imposing any restrictions on anything is inherently harmful. This is neither true nor how the world works. Though restrictions can be harmful, they are mostly introduced to prevent harm. The restriction on how loud your headphones can be or the permitted level of toxins in food-safe plastics are in place to prevent harm, and removing the restrictions could in itself be harmful.

I think it is in the tension between these two ideas – creation as a moral act and restriction as a moral wrong – we find both the current dilemma of open source and morality and a potential path forward.

The weight of responsibility

When I publish anything under an open source license, be that GPL or MIT or any other license ratified by the Open Source Initiative (OSI), it takes on a life of its own. It can be used and modified and distributed by anyone for any reason, with or without my involvement, but I cannot restrict it. That’s the whole point of open source ideology.

The problem is this effectively abdicates me of responsibility for my own creations: By releasing software with an open source license I relinquish control over who uses my software or what it is used for. Thus I cannot be held responsible for the software or its consequences. And if I can’t be held responsible there is no incentive for me to make sure my software, when used or modified or distributed by others, doesn’t cause harm or can be used to cause harm.

This is what I mean when I say open source licenses imply value neutrality. And it is here I think the Ethical Licensing movement found its root.

From this perspective one can argue closed source (proprietary) licenses hold the moral high ground over open source licenses because closed source licenses imply responsibility: If a company knowingly releases software that can be used for harm, they can be held liable because they are the only moral actor capable of modifying and distributing the software.

Moral clauses to the rescue?

The big question then is if adding moral clauses to open source licenses can help solve this problem. As much as I hate to say it, I think the answer is no, for two reasons:

First, like the Hippocratic Oath in medicine, breaking a moral clause in an open source license does not have any consequences. Doctors swear to uphold the code of ethics defined by the Hippocratic Oath, but if they cause harm their actions are judged through the legal framework of medical malpractice. A “do no harm” clause in an open source license carries moral weight, but without enforceable consequences and mechanisms to appeal a judgement of harm being caused, it has no teeth. 

Second, applying moral clauses to a license does not solve the problem of value neutrality because it is a problem of ideology, and the license is merely a manifestation of that ideology. 

If we want to go down the path of the Hippocratic Oath, we need a Code of Ethics for Open Source and a framework for enforcement and adjudication of breach of those ethics. That’s a huge undertaking, and not one I see bearing fruit any time soon.

Toward a New Ethos of Open Source

If we want to take on the issue of ethics in open source on a shorter timeline, we need to take a hard look at the ethos, the core ideals, of open source ideology and ask some tough questions about where the ideology comes from and whether that picture of the world meshes with our lived reality. Open source aims to grant everyone the capability to use, modify, and distribute software. That does not mean open source ideology cannot also embrace the moral and societal responsibilities of the creator, the user, and even the creation itself. To get there we need to broaden our ideological platform, consider what “freedom” means in our current context, and work together to figure out how the Four Freedoms can become part of the larger spectrum of rights and freedoms afforded to us.

Cross-posted to LinkedIn and DEV.to.

Categories
News

2010 – 2019: Decade in Review

As the decade comes to a close, I thought it would be interesting to look back on the past 10 years. So, rather than posting my regular year in review, here’s an abbreviated trip through the past 10 years of my life, both personal and professional.

2010

In the control room at the IBC, February 2010

The decade started for me in an almost poetic way with the end of one life and the beginning of another. I’d been working in live TV production from 2004, but my last job as the one-man production crew for one of those talk-radio-on-TV shows had abruptly been terminated as the result of a corporate takeover of the radio station in November 2009. Left on my TV plate was One Last Job: The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.

For three weeks, while the city reveled in endless parties, mild weather, and the discovery that the rest of the world care more about cross country skiing than hockey, I sat in a production studio in the International Broadcasting Center (now Vancouver Convention Center) doing graphics for sliding sports and biathlon. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the last time I found myself behind the graphics desk in a TV studio. Some of the most important lessons in life involve figuring out that something is not for you.

Nick Brazzi and Morten on set at lynda.com in Ventura, California.

In September, the work that would come to define the decade for me began. I found myself in Ventura, California recording a course called “WordPress Essential Training” for lynda.com. It was an experiment to see if video training was a better fit than writing books, and at the time everyone figured it would be a one-off thing. That all changed a month after the course went live when it climbed to the top of the most viewed list and the content manager called me asking if I’d like to make some more courses.

2011

The suede soles of old and new dancing shoes.

One of the defining elements of the 2010s for me was dancing. Angela and I went to a ballroom dancing class on a whim some years earlier, and by 2011 it had pretty much become our “thing.” As I settled into my new career as a self-employed web developer and sometimes (quite often actually) lynda.com instructor, dancing was a thing that filled much of our lives. We danced two or three nights a week, and rapidly expanded our repertoire. Our dance instructor Elaine said to me at one point “If you’re always learning new things, you’ll always be a student, never a dancer,” and we took that to heart by bringing dance outside the studio and into any space where music was playing. Toward the end of the year I successfully danced my first pair of shoes to destruction and had to buy a new pair, which to me was a major milestone.

2012

While our business grew and my course production with Lynda.com really started to ramp up, Angela and I realized we could no longer stay in our small apartment. We needed to invest in either a small house and a separate office or a larger house with room for an office. We’d been hunting for a house for 4 years but kept getting squeezed out of the red-hot market by builders willing to buy anything, tear it down, and build a crappy duplex on top of it.

The horror show of a kitchen that met us when the old owners moved out. It looks unrecognizable today.

We’d all but given up when chance had us crashing a private showing of a house in our area. Two days later and we were suddenly homeowners! The house needed extensive renovations and much of the latter half of 2012 was spent first going through the various stages of “we’ve made a HUGE mistake” followed by “all these contractors are trying to scam us” followed by “hey, at least we got one that isn’t half bad” to “OMG they opened up all the walls and we have no plumbing or electricity” all the way to “Can you believe this is the same house we bought?!?”

2013

The first recording setup in my home office. This didn’t work and we ended up installing a proper soundproof booth in the next room.

Between 2012 and the first half of 2013 I found myself flying back and forth between Vancouver, Canada and Caprinteria, California pretty much on a monthly basis to produce courses for lynda.com. At one point a Starbucks barista at LAX called me over as I walked past on my way out of the terminal. “Morten! I have your drink for you!” I had no idea what she was talking about. Turns out I was so regular in my flying – always flying on a Sunday morning, always the third week of the month, etc – that she had taken down my regular order and decided to make one on the assumption I’d arrive as usual. A big tip was in order, followed by a conversation with my content manager.

Little beknown to me my content manager also had some thoughts, and one day I found myself discussing salary and benefits for a new job as a Staff Author at Lynda.com. And just like that the experiment from 2010 had turned into a full-time job!

2014

A large bonfire the night before my brother’s wedding.

To find proof the world has become more multicultural and borders and distances mean less and less, look no further than my extended family. I, a Norwegian, live in Canada with my Tawianese wife. In 2014 we traveled to Romania to attend the wedding of my youngest brother and his wife. If anyone had told us this would be our future when we grew up on Nesodden, nobody would have believed us. How much things change.

The wedding comprised three ceremonies: A Viking ceremony (pictured), a secular ceremony, and an orthodox ceremony in a very small church with beautiful singing, cake, wine, and a lot of laughter as Romanian priests tried to pronounce Norwegian names.

2015

A Wisakedjak diving off a branch.

My father’s aunt always said “life comes in lumps.” 2015 was for me yet another example of this being the truth.

The year started with the passing of my paternal grandmother and a sudden trip to Denmark and Norway for her funeral. It was a somber but wonderful time of reacquaintances with family and friends and the celebration of a long and eventful life.

In April I was woken at 6am by my phone ringing non-stop. It was friends from the east coast telling me LinkedIn had bought Lynda.com, so now I suddenly worked for one of the largest social media companies in the world.

In May, Angela and I embarked on a trip criss-crossing the United States to attend and speak at conferences in Boston, New York City, Carpinteria, and Miami. By the end of the month-long trek I had acquired what my doctor described as “stress-induced shingles.” All I’ll say is the Norwegian word for this disease, helvetesild or “hell’s fire” is an accurate description.

My official enrollment as a LinkedIn employee happened on the 30th of August, and life went on as normal.

2016

Baby Leo, in his incubator, wearing protective goggles because of the UV light.

I don’t think anything changes a person as much as having a child. In 2016 our son Leo arrived, 6 weeks prematurely, and the first three weeks of his life were spent at the hospital neonatal intensive care unit. Angela and I had been on an extended trip to Vienna, Austria for a conference just weeks earlier and after an extremely stressful day involving two different car accidents caused by first a careless driver and then a careless bicyclist, her water broke. The next week was spent at the hospital before Leo arrived screaming out in objection to the lack of “fast music” in the birthing suite on a sunny Saturday morning. We were lucky: The Canadian health care system is impeccable when it comes to treating mothers and babies, and our every need in this difficult time was met and exceeded. We lived in a cocoon as our son gathered strength and checked more and more of the boxes for early release, and after 3 weeks, still 3 weeks before his due date, we suddenly had him in our car and were driving home.

To say it was the most intense time of our lives is a gross understatement. But everything worked the way it should and moments ago I played penguin with Leo while we waited for Angela to rush him through the rain, into the car, and off to preschool which he loves.

2017

A set prop from the recording of JavaScript Essential Training.

“How do you feel about taking on JavaScript Essential Training?” This was the challenge handed to me by my former content manager, now boss’ boss Shira at the beginning of 2017. What followed was three months of intensive research on how JavaScript is taught and how to do it better. It was the most complex and intense course I had done to date, and we had an absolute blast putting it together. On my plan for 2020 is a complete reworking of the course to bring it up to current standards, and I am very excited.

Workshop room at WebCamp Zagreb.

2017 was also the first time I was approached by an international conference to come speak. Which is how I found myself in a cave in Zagreb, Croatia, in October as part of the speaker tour / dinner for WebCamp Zagreb. It was an amazing conference for an amazing community, and I hope I’ll be able to return at some point in the future.

2018

Graffiti on a wall in Freiburg, Germany.

Back in 2015 the same Shira had asked me to define what success looked like and what I strived for professionally. I stated two main goals: Get published in a recognized online magazine like Smashing Magazine or A List Apart, and eventually speak at their respective conferences Smashing Conf and An Event Apart.

I got two articles published in Smashing Magazine in 2016 and 2017, and in 2018 Vitaly Friedman invited me to come speak at Smashing Conf Freiburg. This was the first time I got to bring my tech and design ethics talk to the main stage at a web conference and I am eternally grateful to Vitaly and his team for taking a chance on me. Side note: If you find yourself in Germany, I recommend visiting Freiburg. What an amazing town!

2019

Morten on the set of Technology and Design Ethics.

Back in 2011, right after the recording of my 2nd course for Lynda.com, I told my then content manager Cynthia Scott that I eventually wanted to do a full-on philosophy course. “I’ll somehow camouflage it as a tech course, but it will really just be philosophy” I said, and she nodded and with a knowing smile responded “I’m sure you’ll make that happen.” And it did.

This summer my two content managers Simon St. Laurent and Stephanie Evans granted me the extraordinary opportunity to develop what would become “Technology and Design Ethics.” The course is the culmination and condensation of my academic work from two decades ago, my 17 years in the web industry, and my 10 years as an instructor with Lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning. If I may say so myself it both the best and most important work I have done, and I am eternally grateful to everyone who helped me along the way and made this course possible.

The future

People always ask me what’s next, and I can go on in great detail about what I think my murky crystal ball is showing for the web community. As for myself, I am far less certain. So far, my 2020 calendar tells me I have major plans for courses at LinkedIn Learning, and I am speaking about design and tech ethics at An Event Apart in Washington D.C. and in Orlando. I’m hoping to get some more conferences booked, and I am working on three new talks to make that happen.

Personally, I’ve committed myself to spending more time playing guitar, honing my craft at table tennis, and Angela and I have high hopes of getting Leo settled in a sleeping routine which makes it possible for us to go back to dancing 2 days a week. Without lofty goals, you have nothing to strive for.

The past decade has been a trip, with huge changes, huger obstacles, and tremendous personal and professional successes. Looking back on it all, I realize how important it is to celebrate and document your achievements and I’m committing myself to doing a better job at it so my 2029 decade in review is a little less complicated to research.

That was a small peek into my chaotic life, and if you’ve read this far, I thank you for indulging me in this introspective exploration. I also encourage you to do your own review, in private or in public, and find highlights worth looking back on. Remember the good things and let them drive you forward as we start writing 2020 everywhere.

Hope is a catalyst.

Categories
Open Source

Walking Away and the Ethos of Open Source

Every time we contribute to an open source project, in any way, we are answering an important question:

Why don’t I walk away and start a new fork?

I’ve been working in and with and around open source software for the better part of 15 years, and over that time I’ve seen the rise of amazing ideas, powerful communities, valuable ecosystems, and massively profitable companies. Which is great. Open source is eating the world by giving everyone a chance to contribute and use software and technologies without being beholden to expensive proprietary licenses. I’ve also seen a slow and systemic erosion of the principle of walking away. Which is not great. Actually, it very bad.

Some time ago I posted what I called the “Open Source Serenity Prayer” on Twitter.

 My intention was to remind open source contributors of what I believe is the core ethos of open source: the ability to walk away and make something new. Yet when I posted this text, a chorus of concerned friends and acquaintances chimed in with the same refrain: “Walking away? If I walk away, I lose everything.”

This is a problem. This keeps me up at night.

Asking for clarification on people’s concerns, I heard variations over the same theme:

  • My job depends on the success of this particular version of a project.
  • My skills are tied to this particular version of a project, I can’t succeed anywhere else.
  • A project is too big / too dominant for a fork to be successful.
  • A project is no longer a tool; it has become infrastructure.

In other words, some open source projects have turned into monocultures – the exact opposite of what open source was meant to create.

This is why walking away matters, maybe now more than ever before.

The Ethos of Open Source

At the core of open source ideology and practice lies the powerful concept of “forking;” taking what already exists (a “branch”) and making a new copy (a “fork”) from which new branches can grow. Very much like cultivating a garden. This is the proverbial “standing on the shoulders of giants” made real: You take something that works, often the work of countless other contributors like you, and build something from it. It may be a slight variation on the same theme, or something entirely new and different. Then someone else can take this new thing you built, fork it again, and build something new and different from it.

Forking and branching gives open source communities the freedom to explore a plurality of ideas without starting from scratch, and individual contributors the capability of choosing every day to do work they find meaningful and valuable without any expectation or obligation of future commitment or their work being wasted: If you create something which you find valuable, and the project you want to contribute to does not want to include your work, you can create a fork and build your own vision of the future. All the while, the maintainers of the original project and anyone else can copy or build from your new work to make further works, with or without your involvement. Everything is connected to everything else, and everything builds on and learns from everything else.

Contribution to open source and the open commons is in a very real way the giving away of your work without direct remuneration or reward. Your work may be funded by someone, and you may get status, or praise, or even power from your contributions, but these are secondary. Once contributed to the commons, the work becomes the property of everyone, from which new forks can be made.

Thus, every time we contribute to an open source project, in any way, we are saying to ourselves “I believe in this fork, I believe in the future it builds, and I am going to give away my time and work to it today to move it forward.” We are also saying “today I choose to stay with this fork, to not walk away and start a new one.”

The important things here are agency and capability: The choice of continuing to contribute to a particular fork, or to walk away and create a new one, must be a real choice. When a project becomes so powerful, or dominant, or such a monoculture that the choice of walking away becomes unfeasible, or a significant risk, or even impossible, the effective capability of forking the project is lost. And with it we lose what makes open source valuable to begin with.

Walking away

Open source ideology started as a revolutionary counterculture fighting monopolies, monocultures, and corporate control. Choosing open source was an active walking away from the default models of expensive and restrictive proprietary licenses. Inherent to the open source ideology is the freedom of agency, autonomy of contribution, and the capability of walking away and starting a new fork when the work is no longer meaningful to you, or you have a new vision of the future, or you disagree with where the project is headed. This, the capability and willingness to walk away and start new forks and new projects and new versions and futures, is what made open source so successful. If we don’t embrace this, if we don’t actively cultivate the plurality of ideas which brought us here, we’ll fall victim corporatization, monopolization, and the creation of monocultures. Which is what I’m seeing everywhere I look.

When an open source leader says their project is “not a grain, it is the soil” and implies a single fork should become the infrastructure for everything, it may be time to find the strength to walk away and start a new fork to keep our open source garden from succumbing to monoculture.

Cross-posted to LinkedIn.

Note: This article was inspired by Cory Doctorow’s book “Walkway” in which he explores a future where citizens literally walk away from “Default” society to live and work in a new society founded on open source ideals and values. I think this book should become essential reading for open source ideology and open source contributors (it’s also a very good and entertaining book, so there’s that.)

Categories
Ethics

ASPIRE: An Acronym for Better Web Practice

Sometimes interesting things happen on Twitter. Last week Scott Jehl proposed ASPIRE as an acronym for the practices we should follow as web designers and developers. From the resulting blog post:

Great websites should aspire to be:

  • Accessible to folks with varying cognitive and physical abilities and disabilities
  • Secure and reliable for storing, manipulating, and transferring information
  • Performant on average devices and in constrained or unreliable network conditions
  • Inclusive to diverse audiences and produced by diverse teams to create better experiences
  • Responsive in adapting the user interface contextually to any screen
  • Ethical in how users’ preferences and data are handled

I’m interested in the last one: E for Ethical.

What constitutes “ethical” web practice?

While we have pretty well established standards and practices for the first five; AccessibleSecurePerformantInclusiveResponsive; we have yet to establish what “Ethical web design and development” means, what it looks like and how it is practiced.

Part of the problem is the term “ethics” is often equated with statements like “do no harm” or practices to avoid legal issues. In reality, ethics refers to the principles and practices we agree upon as a society to judge the goodness and rightness of acts. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics describes it like this:

“ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues.”

In short, ethics is about practice, how we conduct ourselves and how we judge our actions.

Ethics cannot be summed up as “do no harm” because that leaves the door open to moral relativism: what is harm, to whom is this harm being done, who decides this is harmful, etc.

So what then is ethical practice in relation to web work? Here’s my rough draft to start a conversation about a definition:

Ethical web design and development practice: Work focused on human flourishing through ethical practice and methodology and centered on the rights, capabilities, and agency of the end-user.

What is “ethical practice?” Design and development practice rooted in ethical principles.

What are “ethical principles?” Principles derived from well-established moral philosophies including Consequentialism (specifically Utilitarianism), Duty EthicsVirtue Ethics, and Capability Approach. I wrote a huge article for Smashing Magazine about how to use these in web design, and also done some talks on the topic:

Bottom line, ethical practice is about the doing and being of the practitioner, whether they see their users as ends or means to an end, whether they put “ought” before “can”, and prioritize the agency of those they act upon. It’s about how we judge the goodness and rightness of our work.

I’m really excited about this conversation, and I hope we can get together as a community and figure out what ASPIRE means to us, and how we want to define Ethical web design so we can come together around shared principles and practices and carve meaningful paths into the future for other people and for ourselves.

Cross-posted to LinkedIn.

Cover photo by ?ukasz ?ada, Unsplash 

Categories
My Opinion

Where We Go From Here: 10 Thoughts on the Immediate Future of the Web

I was asked to close out WordCamp Vancouver with a short 20 minute keynote on something interesting. After some thought, I put together a list of 10 trends I see in the web community and where we are headed in the immediate future.

0. The Future Keeps Arriving

In my +15 years working on and with the web, the one major lesson I’ve learned is the future keeps arriving, sooner than you think, and often the future is already here. The web, the internet, and the technologies and communities powering them are evolving ever more rapidly, and what we consider future possibilities today often becomes practical realities the very next day. The future keeps arriving. Keep this in mind as you read on.

1. WordPress Themes are Dead. Long Live WordPress Themes.

If you’re of the WordPress persuasion, you’ll know about the Block Editor, nee “Gutenberg,” and how it’s changing everything. Even if you don’t work with WordPress, even if you don’t care about WordPress, this transition from the content blob to each piece of content being its own “block” with its own properties and attributes is changing everything about how we think of content on the web. Why? Because WordPress powers a full 34% of the web meaning what WordPress does impacts everyone, even those who don’t use it.

Why does this matter? The front-end of pretty much every WordPress site up until this moment is a template displaying content in a relatively rigid way. With the Block Editor, that paradigm is all but dead. Right now, blocks are confined to the “content area,” meaning the post or page content itself. That’s about to change. In the foreseeable future – probably within the next 12 months – the block concept will spill outside the content area to take over the whole view. This article and video from Matias Ventura gives us an early preview of this future:

Exactly what this all means is still up for debate, and the debate is happening right now: See Ben Gilbanks’ “The End of WordPress Themes Is In Sight” and Justin Tadlock’s “Rebirth of Creativity: Gutenberg and the Future of WordPress Themes” for two contrasting views.

Bottom line: What we think of as a “WordPress theme” is already an outdated concept. The future has arrived, we’re just waiting for the practical implementation.

2. Gatsbyfication of the CMS Ecosystem

If you don’t know what Gatsby is, you will soon. The emergence and popularity of static site generators like Gatsby, 11tyNuxtJekyllHugo, and more is the beginning of a communal shift from delivering server-side rendered front-ends to delivering static or faux-static front-ends, often powered by JavaScript frameworks powerful APIs, and new query languages like GraphQL (see below for more on that). Gatsby and its ilk sit adjacent to traditional CMSes pulling data from them through APIs and presenting it to the user in new and more performant ways. And they can combine data in ways those old CMSes can not. More on that later as well.

What’s driving the Gatsbyfication of the CMS ecosystem? Several things:

  1. The idea of the monolithic end-to-end CMS solution is old and outdated. We no longer consume data from single sources, and giant monolithic CMSes like WordPress, Drupal that try to do everything for everyone etc are becoming dinosaurs.
  2. Performance is the new Black, and CMS-generated just-in-time server-rendered sites just don’t cut it. Static site generators pulling data from CMSes is the natural progression from caching server-rendered content.
  3. Delivering content on the “Edge”: The web is global, yet CMS-based content delivery is most often confined to one server in one location. Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) have long been used to try to remedy this issue, with mixed results. Static site generators like Gatsby allow content to be computed and rendered on the “edge” – closer to the end-user, and in a more performant way.
  4. JavaScript is the new wine. Nobody likes PHP any more. Love it or hate it, JavaScript is the place to be, and static site generators are soaking in it.

Bottom line: I call this trend the “Gatsbyfication” because right now Gatsby has more wind in its sails than any competitor and money is pouring into the project. Does that mean Gatsby will reign supreme? I have no idea, but I think a Gastby-type solution will reign supreme in our immediate future.

3. With the APIfication of the Web, REST is ceding to GraphQL

REST APIs have been around since forever. I remember going to a web conference in 2009 where almost every talk was about RESTful APIs. REST gave us the tools and infrastructure to evolve the web beyond single-source-of-content solutions and paved the cowpaths leading to the client-side content rendering which is now the default for content rich sites including LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook, and sites powered by static site generators like Gatsby (see above).

The problem is the REST concept is old, and it doesn’t provide the necessary tooling to do the things we want to do today.

Enter GraphQL, a new query language which approaches the same problem REST tried to solve in a new and more modern way. I won’t bore you with the details of how GraphQL works (we have courses for that at LinkedIn Learning if you’re interested!). Suffice it to say GraphQL allows developers to combine data from different API sources and make it available in ways that benefit them and make previously impossible or very hard things practically possible.

If you don’t believe me, look no further than the WordPress project: After an enormous undertaking of creating a proper REST API for WordPress, tools like Gatsby choose instead to use the custom WPGraphQL to query and consume data from the source.

Bottom line: The APIfication of the web has been happening for a while, and future web services will need to serve up comprehensive APIs to stay relevant. GraphQL-type query languages will replace REST as the standard interface, and as a result consuming content from single sources will become an anti-pattern (see below).

4. Content Streams and the Content Mesh

Back in 2013, David Gelernter published an opinion piece in Wired Magazine titled “The End of the Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It” where he talks about the concept of a “lifestream”:

“a heterogeneous, content-searchable, real-time messaging stream.”

David Gelernter

Sound familiar? If you have one of those talking thermos cans at home and asked it “Hey Corporate Surveillance Device, tell me about my day” you know that’s pretty much were we live today. Except the web hasn’t quite caught up to the trend yet.

Enter the “Content Mesh” — the infrastructure layer for a decoupled website — introduced by the Gatsby team and pretty much the manifestation of what Gelernter talked about all those years ago.

The Content Mesh, if we choose to adopt this language, is the idea of building a front-end that consumes and interacts with data from multiple sources. So instead of having one monolithic WordPress site trying to do blogging and ecommerce and forums and forms and everything else, you have one unified front end that brings in blogging from WordPress, ecommerce from Shopify, pages from Contentful, forms from Google Forms, etc. Literally meshing together content.

Bottom line: The current idea of the content mesh is an evolution of the single-source website concept. That’s where we’re headed right this moment. In the slightly more distant future, the content mesh will be served by our personal assistants, configured by the individual user, and the website as we know it will be a quaint anachronistic thing some people choose to spend their time on.

5. The Rectangular Screen as Main Content Delivery Modality is Already Dead

Here’s the new trailer for the dystopian near-future sci-fi show Black Mirror:

Just kidding. This is an ad for Facebook Horizon – a virtual world reminiscent of the OASIS predicted in the book Ready Player One, except it’s run by IOI (you don’t need to read the book or see the movie btw. If you haven’t, just read on).

AR/MR/XR/VR/CR whatever we end up calling it, the idea of computers in some way augmenting our reality by introducing virtual layers in the form of visuals, audio, or other sensory inputs, is now a reality. All the major tech firms are fighting to be the first to inject their own ad-fuelled reality as a layer on top of our own. If you have one of those aforementioned talking orporate surveillance thermos cans, or a modern phone or computer or TV with a voice assistant, you are already living in this future.

The world in which our main tool for accessing information over the internet is a rectangular glass screen is already in the past. We are merely experiencing the late-stage residuals. The second the Fruit Company rolls out their first set of iGlass AR-powered glasses, and the Search Company follows suit with AR-powered contacts, the focus for web content delivery will shift from “how do we cram as many ads into the viewport of a mobile browser” to “how do we cram as many ads into the field of view and range of hearing of the human experience?”

Don’t believe me? Watch Marley Rafson’s talk “The Case for Augmented Reality on the Web” from JSConfEU 2019 and draw your own conclusions:

Bottom line: The APIfication of the web, and the Content Mesh, will become more important than ever because we’ll need to design and deliver our content to new interfaces which don’t even exist yet in the immediate future. Also, unless we actively resist the urge to AR everything and put ads everywhere, our AR world will be an insufferable hellscape reminiscent of Keiichi Matsuda’s “HYPER-REALITY” for the next decade.

6. CSS Changes Everything

On a positive note, CSS is evolving and changing in extraordinary ways, and the future of CSS is even more extraordinary. In our modern web dev world already have magical tools like flexgridcustom propertiesanimations, and filters. Soon our CSS toolkit will expand exponentially thanks to CSS Houdini. Look no further than Una Kravets‘ JSConfEU talk “CSS Houdini & the Future of Styling” to see where we’re headed next:

As if that wasn’t enough, the canvas in which we do our work is about to change as well. Right now, Adam Argyle is working on his VisBug Chrome extension:

Adam made this GIF just for this article!

Sold as a visual browser development tool that makes your browser viewport work more like a design tool, I think this thing is a peek at what the future will bring in terms of web design: The browser itself being the design canvas, and server-powered tools like WordPress’ Gutenberg editor being old hat.

7. Open Source Ideology is D/Evolving

Open source rules the web world. Open source is also experiencing some long-overdue internal strife. Without going into too much detail, Richard Stallman, considered the originator of open source ideology, has stepped down from his various leadership roles in the open source and free software communities due to accusations of decades of problematic behavior. You can read more about this in various news outlets and opinion pieces (and you should, this stuff is important).

Here’s my abbreviated take: It’s high time problematic characters like Stallman are removed from their positions of power in the open source community because their influence has been detrimental to the participation in these communities for many marginalized groups. Moreover, it opens the door to a deeper conversation about the core ethos of open source ideology and whether the radical understandings of terms like “freedom” by a group of entitled white men is a sound foundation to build equitable and inclusive communities moving forward.

I’m going to write more about this in a separate post, but my long-held opinion on open source ideology (and I say this as an open source creator, contributor, and proponent) is open source in its present iteration is exclusionary and privileged. Why? Because it’s based on the assumption that those who have something worthwhile to contribute also have the time, money, and necessary tools and access to be able to contribute. From there follows that anyone who is not contributing, for whatever reason, does not have anything valuable to contribute (which is utter nonsense) and that those who contribute the most (usually because they are paid by corporations to do so – see below) are the best people to lead the project. “Decisions are made by those who show up” really means “decisions are made by those with enough privilege to show up” which is not an equitable nor inclusive base to rest an entire ideology on. Follow Christie Koehler for more on that story.

Then there’s the whole “open source is value neutral” and “open source licenses can’t have morality clauses” thin which deserves an entire article its own. Follow and support Coraline Ada Ehmke in their efforts to debunk that nonsense.

Bottom line: Open Source ideology is being redefined right now. Your participation in that conversation decides whether it’ll be an evolution or a devolution. Your voice matters, so use it! Forward the equitable and inclusive open source revolution!

8. Corporate Control of Open Source is the New Black

Guess what: Open Source is super valuable. No wonder large corporations want their piece of the pie. Actually, they want all the pieces of the pie and they want you to bake it, for free! Yes, yes, I work for LinkedIn which is part of Microsoft etc. But I’m believe in open source, and I’m deeply concerned about the corporatization of the open source space.

Here’s the gist: The core idea of free libre open source software was to effectively flood the commons with free (as in you don’t pay) open source software so the large corporations who sold expensive licenses for proprietary software went out of business. Don’t believe me? Go read the GNU Manifesto (and keep in mind everything I said above). The idea was we would use open source software in the capitalist world to earn money, thereby keeping the software itself without value and only putting value to the services rendered with the software.

So what happened? Corporations figured since all the open source contributors didn’t derive value from their software, the corporations could do it instead! And without paying a dime for it. Literally get people to work for free and then make money from that work.

Sure, that’s an oversimplification, but it is also the reality on the ground. The corporatization of open source, in particular large projects like WordPress and Drupal and NPM, is a reality, and it’s only going to get bigger. If there is value in a project, a big corporation will be made to turn some of that value into cold hard cash. See the aforementioned Gatsby.

Some say this is a good thing. Some say it’s not. I think we need to start thinking more about where we want to go than how we can turn free contributors into cash cows.

Bottom line: The open source community has failed in its mission to change the status quo, choosing instead to double down on good old capitalism. If you don’t like it, do something about it. Also, go read Cory Doctorow’s “Walkaway“.

9. The Tech Ethics Reckoning

The Pope felt it necessary to invite Silicon Valley to the Vatican to talk to the tech industry about morals, ethics, and the common good:

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know #techethics is hot shit, and for good reason: Turns out moving fast and breaking things breaks people, communities, even our democracy.

Here’s the problem: The tech and design communities are largely autodidact. There is no board of ethics for tech or design, and everyone is allowed and encouraged to do whatever they want in the name of disruption, innovation, and creation. Put bluntly, we are working in a non-ethical industry.

Why does this matter? Because in lieu of the tech and design industries regulating themselves, or at the very least adopting and enforcing some basic form of ethics, governments will regulate us without our input. Which is what’s happening right now.

This is especially bad for open source because unlike large corporations and their walled gardens, who spend millions on lobbyists to sway politicians to lock everything down and hand the keys to the highest bidder, open source developers live in some reality dysfunction where they think politics and political involvement are irrelevant.

Trust me when I say they are not. They are the life blood of modern civil society, and choosing to stand aside and let things happen without your input is the same as letting other people carve out the path you need to follow into your future.

Bottom line: Unless we figure out the whole ethics thing for tech and design right now, we are going to be regulated into a walled garden of corporate surveillance of our own making.

10. The Next Generation

Looking around at my industry I see two things:

  1. Old white men like myself wringing our hands and saying “man, we really messed this up, I wish we could roll back the clock and do some things differently.”
  2. Young diverse community members trying to make make a living out of an industry emerging from its adolescence and realizing it now runs the world and needs to do a better job at it.

This gives me hope.

I believe in the next generation of creators on the web, and I believe they have what it takes to turn this chaotic mess we call “tech” into what it can be: A new path forward for a more equitable and diverse society with values rooted in the idea of common goods distributed through free and open commons.

Bottom line: The future keeps arriving. The future is already here. It is our job to ensure the next generation gets to experience the same freedom of creation and discovery on a free an open internet so they can build a robust and inclusive society for all of us.

Postscript: Your turn

This is what I see. I’m just one person, and I have strong opinions about things. To move forward, a discourse is required. We need to share our thoughts, ideas, hopes, and concerns, and figure out how to move forward together.

What do you think about all this? What trends are you seeing? Where are we headed next, and where do you think we should be headed?

Add your thoughts in the comments, or in your own posts, and let’s find paths into the future we design together!

Cross-posted to LinkedIn.

Categories
Events WP Rig

WPCampus 2019 WP Rig Workshop

This post contains the slides for and links to all the things you need to follow my WP Rig workshop at WP Campus 2019, including a couple of verbose code examples for complex walk-throughs.

WP Rig itself:

VS Code extensions

Referenced documentation

Throughout the workshop I’ll mention a proverbial ton of fancy new technologies, best-practices, and other cool stuff. The list below comprises the most salient parts for your perusement:

CSS

PHP

JavaScript

Code examples

VS Code settings

{
  "prettier.stylelintIntegration": true,
  "prettier.eslintIntegration": true,
  "editor.formatOnSave": true,
  "editor.renderWhitespace": "boundary"
}

Walkthroughs

Categories
WordPress

The Case for WordPress Governance

What role does WordPress play in the larger discussions about the web platform and the internet? What responsibilities does WordPress have to speak for the tens of millions of content creators, business owners, designers, developers, organizations, institutions, and governments who rely on this free open source software to share their thoughts, ideas, information, products, and services with the world? And how does WordPress responsibly take part in the external decision making processes which impact not only the application itself but every person who in any way interacts with WordPress?

These questions, and others in the same vein, were the starting point of what would become the WordCamp US 2018 talk Moving the Web Forward with WordPress, and the WordPress Governance Project.

Today, some 4 months later, I want to shed some light on why I think WordPress Governance is so important, and why to me it is less about uprooting existing leadership models and starting a revolution than taking stock of the position WordPress and its community finds itself in and accepting its new role as a driving force of the web.

In this article I speak not as a representative of the WordPress Governance Project. These are my personal reflections on where we are and where I think we need to go next. Consider them part of a larger discourse, and an invitation for you to join that discourse.

33% and growing

A few months ago WordPress crossed a significant mile marker: According to W3Techs, WordPress now powers more than 33% of the 10,000,000 most popular sites of the web as ranked by Alexa. That’s ? of the web gathered under the banner of democratizing publishing through free open source software. Even if we question the methodology or validity of this particular number, the reality is clear to see: WordPress has a larger footprint on the web than any other content management system.

33% is a testament to the millions of hours of free labor the WordPress community has invested in the application. It proves, beyond any doubt, that free open source software published under the GPL is not only a viable but a preferred option in the eyes of the end-user, the people who want to publish content on the web. In short, WordPress has been and remains an unprecedented success story. And that success is the result of a vision of the web defined by project co-founder Matt Mullenweg and supported by every contributor to the WordPress open source project: that web publishing should be available to all; that open source software published under the GPL is the best vehicle to make this happen; that the Four Freedoms must have precedence above all else.

These ideals, combined with a strong belief in meritocracy and an ideological aversion to hierarchical management, have paved the path leading to today. Which begs an obvious question:

If it works, if it got us this far, why change it now?

My answer, “what got us here won’t get us there,” needs both context and more substance. In this article I’ll lay out my two main reasons for wanting governance in the WordPress open source project: Representation for the open web, and deliberately moving the web platform forward.

Who speaks for the open web?

Decisions are being made by politicians all over the world about the future of the internet, the web, and what types of services and contents can be published and used on them. These decisions are already having a direct impact on every person who interacts with WordPress, and there are more to come.

As a person using the internet, and probably using WordPress in some way, two questions should be front of mind in all this:

Who speaks for WordPress when these decisions are made? And what are they saying?

Right now, the answer is nobody, and nothing. This is concerning, and may have significant consequences for the future of the web and the internet, even for those who never interface with WordPress.

If you think I’m being overly dramatic look no further than the UK Home Secretary linking WordPress.com to the spread of terrorism and you realize politicians and lawmakers are in their seats of power, policy proposals in hand, and we have so far chosen to not help them craft those proposals into laws that protect rather than hurt the open web.

To put a fine point on it, right now the future of the internet and the web is being decided by lawmakers with a poor understanding of how these technologies and the communities they foster work. These politicians make their decisions based on input from lobbyists, special interest groups, and industry bodies. While there are some organizations working to promote the interests of the open web, WordPress has been absent in these conversations.

This is a deliberate choice of political non-intervention, and it’s an irresponsible one in my opinion.

By not taking part in these conversations, by not claiming a seat at the tables of power, the WordPress open source project says “we power 33% of the web, but we do not promote the rights of the people who use our software.”

But what policies would a representative from WordPress promote? Who would appoint that representative? And who would they represent? Every WordPress user? The contributors?

All these questions have no clear answers today because the WordPress open source project has no governance structure to allow policies to be created, appointments to be made, or discussions of representation to even take place. Today, the sole representative and only person who can speak on behalf of WordPress with any authority is project lead Matt Mullenweg. When I asked him how we go about representing WordPress in these decision making bodies at WordCamp US in 2017, his answer was quite vaguely that someone should step up and lead. Which is, in part, how the WordPress Governance Project came about.

Necessary conditions as a starting point

I think one of the major sticking points in this whole conversation is how to define policies that can be legitimately said to represent every WordPress user. My proposal is to start by identifying the necessary conditions which must be in place for WordPress to be able to achieve its core philosophy.

The core philosophy of the WordPress open source project is the “democratization of web publishing.” What exactly that means is not clearly defined, but the words themselves have meaning. “Democratize” in this context most likely means “make something accessible to everyone,” so “democratize publishing” means making publishing accessible to everyone.

From this, we can stipulate some necessary conditions including:

  • Unrestricted access to the information on internet
  • Net neutrality
  • Accessibility
  • Privacy
  • Security

These conditions, and others like them, can be turned into concrete policies representatives can bring to politicians and lawmakers around the world. That way, when a proposal for stricter regulation on link attribution, or the removal of net neutrality, or anti-encryption, or pro-privacy laws are proposed, the WordPress project can claim its seat at the table and present comprehensive and consistent policy opinions as the representative of every entity who chooses to use WordPress to publish content on the web.

“These are the necessary conditions for 33% of the open web to flourish” is a strong statement, and one politicians will listen to.

Silence is consent

The current absence of WordPress in these conversations is seen as consent. When 33% of the web stays silent as laws are enacted, the lawmakers read that as 33% of the web approving of those laws being enacted. This silence is not a decision made by the WordPress community. It’s an ideological decision made by WordPress leadership on behalf of the community, and I question whether it is one the community agrees with.

This is a conversation the WordPress community needs to have. To continue thriving on the web, the WordPress community needs to play a role in the decision making about the web. To do that, we need systems in place to propose and ratify principles and policies, elect or appoint representatives, and fund their work to promote the interests of WordPress site owners.

Other communities including Drupal are hard at work trying to put together exactly this type of representation, but WordPress’ absence is a proverbial elephant in the room. If Drupal goes to the EU and says “we speak for our users,” cunning lawmakers and the corporate interest lobbyists who influence them will say “You represent maybe 3% of the web. 33% of the web is silent. Get back to us when they have something to say.”

WordPress should be banding together with Drupal and other open web communities to create a body of influence representing the open web. To do so, WordPress needs the tools and mechanisms to create policy and enact it. That in turn requires governance.

Interlude: Paving the Cowpaths

Behind my childhood home on Nesodden right outside Oslo, Norway, there was a hidden path leading to a bigger path leading deep into the forest. As children my brothers, our friends, and I would take these path as soon as our homework was done and disappear for hours into the wilderness. Over time, what started as tracks of broken twigs and crushed vegetation became well-trodden dirt paths, and eventually the municipality came in to clear away boulders and lay down gravel turning what was a natural path between the trees into a maintained pedestrian road through the forest.

We are a society of road builders, and the roads we build typically start off as paths laid down by animals and people exploring new ways of getting where they want to go. There’s a term for this: paving the cowpaths. We use it to describe the formalizing a de-facto practice, whether that be a path through the forest or a coding pattern for the web.

A significant portion of the modern web standards we work with today were established by paving the cowpaths of the web. Standards bodies look at what established practices exist and what solutions people use consistently, and build new standards around them. Prime examples are how modern JavaScript (aka ES2015, ES6, ESNext, etc) has adopted many of the de-facto practices established by jQuery and similar libraries, and how modern CSS has adopted many of the de-facto practices established by preprocessors like Sass. Seeing cowpaths being formed on the web, the standards bodies get together to pave them, formalizing the practices and making them part of the web platform proper.

What does this have to do with WordPress? To put it bluntly, at 33% and growing, WordPress is the cowpath. Or rather, wherever WordPress decides to go, it puts down a cowpath wider and more established than anything else on the web. That means wherever WordPress goes, others will follow, and standards bodies, browser manufacturers, and every other player in the ecosystem surrounding WordPress has to start paving the path laid down behind it.

I propose this is a one reason why large multinational corporations, major hosting companies, and other commercial parties are investing heavily in developer resources and contribution to the WordPress open source project: Pushing WordPress in a particular direction means pushing the web in a particular direction. WordPress is becoming a vehicle driving the web forward. But where exactly that vehicle is going is not clear. And that’s a problem, not just for WordPress but for the web.

Moving the Web Forward with WordPress

A few months ago a friend reached out to me asking what my goal was for the WordPress Governance Project. I told him I want to move the web platform forward with WordPress. “WordPress could be a vehicle to push the web forward,” I said. “Imagine if WordPress collaborated with the various standards bodies governing the web to implement new features. We could quite literally deploy a proposed standard to +33% of the web over night thereby establishing it as a de-facto practice ready to be implemented across all browsers. It could mean an end to waiting for years for tools like flexbox, CSS grid, service workers, and modern JavaScript to become well established enough to get widespread support.”

He shook his head and said “From where I stand, it’s the other way around. WordPress is conservative, regressive even. It’s not moving the web forward, it’s slowing it down.”

I wish I could say he was wrong.

From my perspective WordPress is cautious to the point of being conservative. And in some cases it is indeed regressive. There are many causes at play here, maybe most importantly WordPress’ policies of backwards compatibility, continued support for older browsers and server infrastructure, and reluctance to adopt progressive enhancement principles.

There are good reasons for these policies and practices: WordPress powers 33% of the web, and its users are distributed across every continent and country on our planet. WordPress needs to work for all the people who use it, and that means providing solutions that work on old and outdated infrastructure, in poor connectivity environment, on pay-per-byte connections, on legacy devices, running outdated browsers.

But these challenges are not unique to WordPress, and they do not need to be a grand piano dragging behind the vehicle of progress. What WordPress needs is a long-term strategy for upgrading the web while protecting every user. That requires a stated vision and goals. That requires the involvement of subject matter experts from within and outside the community. That requires the establishing of plans, assignments, roles, and delegation of tasks. In other words, we need to rethink how the WordPress open source project is structured, from the ground up.

Leadership matters

What got us here won’t get us there, because what got us here was a flat-structure management system based on meritocracy where each contributor works on what they find valuable, and the application evolves based on their contributions. This model is designed for small open source projects developed by the people who use it. WordPress is a mission-critical application built by a dedicated team of contributors for tens of millions of people, businesses, and organizations who never interface with the WordPress community. On this scale, leadership matters.

What’s needed to move forward is a system where the community agrees on a direction, tasks are defined and delegated, and decision makers are assigned to ensure things are done and done correctly. This is how well-functioning organizations work, and it’s for a good reason: No single person can have complete oversight of an entire complex project. Without proper hierarchical leadership structures, management becomes non-existent and project success relies entirely on individual contributors. In a leadership vacuum, ad-hoc leadership structures naturally emerge introducing confusion and often conflict. The end result might be functioning software, but it is guaranteed to be wasted time for everyone involved. Leadership, and leadership structures matter.

Many who read this will immediately object saying this is not how we’ve done it so far, it goes against the very essence of open source, it is not tenable, it means some people get to decide what other people (volunteers) work on, etc. These are fair arguments. In response I’ll say WordPress powers 33% of the web, and every decision made in WordPress affects tens of millions of people. Continuing to develop WordPress in an ad-hoc fashion is no longer responsible. Furthermore, it prevents us from being a true vehicle of progress for the web. And as Gutenberg has proven, it is also not how things are done today:

The evolution of WordPress is not as ad-hoc as it appears. It is very much guided by the grand vision of Matt Mullenweg, and his vision is the reason for WordPress’ continued success. The ad-hoc nature of the evolution happens further down the decision tree, in the minutia of application development. That’s where chaos takes root, conflicts arise, and significant volunteer time and resources are wasted, all because there is no system in place for proper project management. There is no governance.

When I told my friend about my vision for WordPress being used by standards bodies as a vehicle to move the web forward, his immediate response was it wouldn’t work because WordPress can’t be trusted: “Right now” he said, “anyone from WordPress can come to a meeting of a standards body and say they want to implement a new standard. But there’s no guarantee that will actually happen. We can’t trust WordPress to actually do what it says, because nobody speaks for WordPress. Even if a solution is built, there is no guarantee it gets implemented. The process of actually accepting something into core seems arbitrary at best. It’s like there’s a cabal of secret leaders in the project giving each feature a yay or nay. That’s not something we can work with.”

The reality is WordPress does have a hierarchical management structure, and there are people in the project with powers to stake out a vision and delegate tasks. One of those people is Mullenweg. Other people include sub-project leads appointed by Mullenweg. Yet others are people with core contributor access. All of them are promoted to leadership positions through meritocracy. Yet, if you ask them if they are leaders in the project, many will say “no” and explain WordPress doesn’t have leadership; it just has contributors and the playing field is even. This is, and pardon my harsh words here, nonsense. And the refusal to admit there is hierarchical leadership in the project is a problem.

Let me give you one general example: Over the years I’ve observed subject matter experts attempting to contribute to the project only to be overruled by contributors with higher meritocratic status. In several of these cases, the refusal to accept the contributions of the subject matter expert was due to a lack of understanding of the issue by the person turning the proposal down. Because of the lack of any type of transparent leadership structure within the project, there is no clear way for a contributor to raise this issue and get a fair resolution, so they shrug their shoulders and walk away.

What WordPress needs to move forward is to have a conversation first about how to manage a large open source project responsibly, then how to introduce a long term vision and concrete plans for the future of the project and the web, and finally how to introduce more hierarchical management structures with checks, balances, and decision makers to ensure the contributions made by thousands of volunteers result in meaningful progress for the application and the web.

These are conversations and decisions we need to make together as a community.

Only with these structures in place can we start taking part in the larger conversation about how to move the web platform forward, and how to use WordPress in a meaningful way to do so.

We can move the web forward with WordPress, but to do so we have to act like the leaders we want to be. If we don’t, WordPress could become a battleground for competing corporate interests who want to use WordPress to carve paths into the futures they envision.

Build the future you want to live in

People ask me why I started the WordPress Governance Project. My answer, as you’ve seen in this article, is it’s complicated.

I believe WordPress can be a force of good on the web, but the way things are right now we can’t take on that role because we don’t have a clear way of governing ourselves.

I’m not here to start a revolution, or a coup, or even stir things up. I’m here with a plea to the community to take a breath and think about how we got here, where we want to go, and what we need to do to get there.

WordPress is important. For many it is mission-critical. We owe it not just to the people who use WordPress or to the web but to ourselves to take stock and create the necessary structures for WordPress to continue to thrive on an open, accessible, progressive web for years to come.

WordPress needs governance. What that looks like, I am not sure. That’s why the WordPress Governance Project exists: to have the conversation; to explore possibilities; to work together and find solutions.

Those are my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours.

Categories
gutenberg WordPress

A simpler way to add SVGs to custom WordPress (Gutenberg) blocks using SVGR

For the past several months I’ve been developing a new course about custom WordPress block development for LinkedIn Learning. Early on in the process I started looking for a simple way to add custom SVGs to custom blocks. The solution (or more specifically a solution) was found deep inside Create React App: SVGR.

From the SVGR documentation:

SVGR transforms SVG into ready to use components. It is part of create-react-app and makes SVG integration into your React projects easy.

SVGR documentation

Unifying custom block development with @wordpress/scripts

To take full advantage of the features of both the WordPress block editor and modern JavaScript, you need to use some combination of Webpack and Babel to introduce full support for ECMAScript 2015. Configuring Webpack and Babel and all the necessary WordPress packs and everything else can be a challenge. To make things simpler, the Gutenberg team has released @wordpress/scripts aka wp-scripts, a “collection of reusable scripts for WordPress development.” This package has now been updated to include configurations for Webpack and Babel to provide a unified build process for the WordPress community.

Using SVGR in WordPress (Gutenberg) block development

In my own block development I’d been using a custom Webpack + Babel + a bunch of other stuff setup. This setup included SVGR for simplified SVG inclusion. Last week I refactored my build process to using @wordpress/scripts and in the process had to figure out how to extend the pre-packaged webpack configuration to include my custom script.

Since there’s a good chance you’ll want to add some SVG magic to your WordPress blocks, I figured I’d share my findings with you here. I’ve also added a simplified code example to the official @wordpress/scripts documentation.

By the end of this process, you’ll be able to

  • turn any SVG into a React component
  • have that SVG output inline by calling the React component
  • add the SVG as a base64 encoded image element if you want to call it directly from the src attribute inside an <img> element

For this we need two packages: @svgr/webpack and url-loader.

Here’s the full breakdown (this assumes you are already using @wordpress/scripts):

From within your project folder where package.json resides, run the following commands in terminal:

npm install @svgr/webpack --save-dev 
npm install url-loader --save-dev 

Create a new webpack.config.js file.

Require the original webpack.config.js from @wordpress/scripts:

const defaultConfig = require("./node_modules/@wordpress/scripts/config/webpack.config");

Extend the existing config with custom settings for @svgr/webpack and url-loader:

module.exports = {
  ...defaultConfig,
  module: {
    ...defaultConfig.module,
    rules: [
      ...defaultConfig.module.rules,
      {
        test: /\.svg$/,
        use: ["@svgr/webpack", "url-loader"]
      }
    ]
  }
};

Place your SVG(s) in the /src folder of your project.

In your index.js file (where you’re using registerBlockType()), import the SVG:

import customLogoURL, { ReactComponent as customLogo } from "./logo.svg"; 

Now you can call customLogoURL (the SVG transformed into a base64 encoded URI) and customLogo (the React component) from anywhere within your block definition. Example:

registerBlockType("block/myblock", {
  title: __("A Block", "myblocs"),
  icon: {
    src: customLogo // The React component
  },
  category: "regular",
  attributes: {
    blockImage: {
      type: "string",
      default: customLogoURL // The base64 encoded URI
    }
  },
  (...)
}

Cool, right? And clean and easy to read.

Stay tuned for my upcoming LinkedIn Learning course on WordPress Block Development where you’ll learn more about how to build your own custom blocks!


Cross-posted to LinkedIn Pulse.

Categories
governance WordPress

WordPress: Users, Stakeholders, and Known Unknowns

Who is the WordPress user? It’s the question everyone involved in WordPress in some way asks themselves at one point or another. And it’s a question without any clear answers beyond the Open Source Dogma: The User is anyone using the software. Which, to be frank, is not very useful.

Yesterday (February 26th, 2019), the WordPress Governance Project published a research document titled “Identifying the Stakeholders of WordPress” which serves as a starting point for a rigorous exploration of the question: “Who is the WordPress user?” This is a question we, as a community, need to answer, and to find the answer we need to work together. Consider this your invitation to take part: Read the document, contribute your comments, and if you find something missing or inaccurate, help correct it.

Personas: a Primer

One of the tools in the design process toolkit is the Persona, a “fictional character created to represent a user type that might use a site, brand, or product in a similar way.” Personas serve as prototypical users with properties and attributes representing user groups. Over the years, the idea of the Persona has evolved from a strictly fictional character to a more nuanced representative entity. Personas are often paired with Empathy Maps (XPlane, NN Group), Journey Maps (NN Group), Affinity Diagrams, and Microsoft recently introduced the idea of Persona Spectrums (Microsoft Inclusive Design).

Personas and associated tools are there to help designers and developers get a better understanding of their users. They allow us to ask questions about the user’s Goals and Needs, Hopes and Fears, Challenges and Opportunities. They help us define success and failure criteria for projects. And they give us direct references to point to when asking questions about decisions within the design process.

That said, a Persona is only as good as the data it’s based on, and a good persona is typically built using data from both qualitative and quantitative research.

For a project like WordPress, much of that research is lacking. Which begs a question whether creating personas for WordPress is possible, or even feasible. I think it is, and here’s why:

Personas for WordPress?

I teach design principles both as an instructor with LinkedIn Learning and at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. A central part of the process I teach is clearly defining and investigating both the Stakeholders and target Users of the design project. In simple terms, the distinction between “Stakeholder” and “User” in this context is the level of ownership and vested interest. For an ecommerce site, the Stakeholder is anyone with ownership of and/or a vested interest in the success of the store, while a User is someone literally using the ecommerce site to find, research, and possibly buy a product. For WordPress, the distinction between Stakeholder and User is more obscure, if it exists at all: Every person who uses WordPress in some way, even if it’s just as a visitor to a site powered by WordPress, is a Stakeholder in some small way because of the ideology WordPress is rooted in: Democratizing publishing through open source software. By using WordPress in any way, a person takes an active part in the furthering of this ideology, which makes them a Stakeholder.

Early on in the WordPress Governance Project meetings, the question of a clear definition of WordPress Users and Stakeholders came up. With no official definitions beyond “WordPress is for the people who use it” and “WordPress is for everybody”, the project started work on a research project to group the different stakeholders of WordPress into Personas. The document presented yesterday is the beginning of this research project.

I should preface this by saying I was not part of the team working on this project. My role was solely as a reviewer of the final text. That said, I stand behind the result 100%.

To start, there are two statements:

  1. The WordPress User is anyone using WordPress (past, present, or future)
  2. Every WordPress User is by definition also a Stakeholder in the project.

If these two statements can be agreed upon as a hypothesis, it is possible to work from them to create personas identifying the different types of Stakeholders within the project. This is important because it turns the poorly defined amorphous blob of the “WordPress User” into structured and segmented groups of Stakeholders, each with their own distinct Goals and Needs, Hopes and Fears, Challenges and Opportunities. This grouping also allows for a weighting of influence for each group: When the goals or needs of one group conflict with those of another, what group takes precedence? How is this weighting decided? And what mechanisms are in place to challenge this weighting? Defining Stakeholder Personas is an essential part of understanding WordPress: Its impact, its cultures, its diversity, and its governance.

This is the beginning

Identifying the Stakeholders of WordPress” is not a complete and final decree of how the WordPress Stakeholders should be sorted into Personas. It is the beginning of a longer process of identifying Personas within the WordPress user base so we can better serve those we build the application and its community for.

In the wake of the publication of the document, some relevant queries have been raised including questions about its purpose (which I believe I’ve answered above), and what research it was based on. This last question brings us back to something I mentioned earlier: if we don’t have qualitative or quantitative research to build on, how can we define reliable and accurate Personas? Here’s my answer:

The liberal definition of the WordPress user as “everyone” using WordPress is, from my perspective, dangerous because it stands in the way of having serious conversations about the real impacts WordPress has on the people who use the application because with such a diverse user group, it appears as if no clear Personas can be defined. However, that definition is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future so as they say, it is what it is.

If we take this definition literally, it can be further interpreted as “anyone in the world with the capability to use WordPress” meaning anyone with access to a computer and a reliable internet connection. If we agree to this broad definition, we have made the user base so broad and diverse any research about the internet-using public becomes relevant data for the creation of Personas for WordPress. This means until we do extensive and rigorous qualitative and quantitative research on the WordPress user base, we can rely on other research to inform our Personas.

The Stakeholder Personas proposed in the Identifying the Stakeholders of WordPress are a starting point for this process. The document proposes rational Personas based on levels of involvement and types of uses of the application. Moving forward, we need contributions from people like you to improve these Personas through research (new or related) and exploration.

Contributions welcome!