WordPress is out. Flat-file is the new wine. Or so the developer literati claim. I beg to differ. I also think these claims are an indicator of a serious problem with the open source industry: The people who develop Open Source applications are disconnected from the people who use their applications.
Flat-file vs WordPress: A 1 minute primer
There are some definite benefits to a flat-file (or what we old fogies call “static sites”) approach: You don’t have to rely on a complex server array for the site to work so your site won’t buckle under the sudden load of thousands of visitors, each page is an individual file so it will (at least in theory) load quicker, and you don’t have to deal with complex server management.
There are many flat-file solutions available and more coming online every day. This is after all the new wine for developers and everyone wants a taste. You have your CMS-style options like Ghost (originally proposed as a “simplified WordPress experience”), Kirby, Statamic, and Jekyll – all of which have been lauded as “WordPress Killers“, and you have your externally hosted solutions like Harp (which uses DropBox as the file repository) and even DIY solutions that allow you to use Google Drive as the file repository. And you have services like GitHub Pages which let you use advanced developer tools to publish basic static websites.
And yes, I am aware there are a wide range of options here, that I omitted your favorite solution, and that my explanation is oversimplified.
Ghost Face Killer?
When Ghost was proposed and then launched it was to much fanfare and celebration. Bold predictions were made of the imminent demise of WordPress due to Ghost’s simplified user experience and obvious appeal to bloggers. It’s safe to say these predictions did not correspond with reality. Why? Because setting up Ghost is not easy. In fact it’s quite complicated and requires a high level of expertise. Same with most if not all the other self-hosted flat-file CMSes. They may have a simplified file structure and user experience, but if people can’t figure out how to make them work, they won’t use them.
To curb this problem Ghost has launched a hosted for-pay service (though my theory is this was the plan all along) where you simply set up and pay for an account and start blogging. Which is no different from what WordPress.com, or Medium, or countless other hosted blogging services are already doing. So when flat-file becomes a hosted service the differentiation disappears.
“Kill your databases” they said. “It’ll be fun” they said…
One of the prime arguments for using flat-file is that you don’t need a database for most sites. It goes something like this:
“For a marketing site with 5 to 8 pages a database is just bloat. You’re better off just writing the code yourself.”
This is true in some cases, and if you are writing the code yourself you don’t need a flat-file solution either! However most sites today are not (or should not be) 5 to 8 pages even if they are marketing sites.
More than anything else the value of the web lies in the limitless potential for publishing. You don’t have to restrict yourself to a set number of pages or articles or images. You can publish as much as you want. And you should. The more quality content you publish, the more likelihood it will be seen, shared, and acted on. So when I see someone talking about a 5 to 8 page marketing site and the lack of need for a database my first question is “what about the attached blog?” There are very few cases I can think of where adding a blog with constant updates to a site would be a bad idea. In most cases adding such a blog can be a tremendous benefit to search and share traffic and the blog can even become the primary marketing tool. And once you have a blog and comments and other things you are moving into database territory. Sure you can use a flat-file CMS for this but it’s not really a good idea.
The Reality Distortion Field
I believe the emergence of the flat-file CMS has less to do with a consumer need than a developer desire to create something new and dethrone the current King of the Open Source Hill. While the argument for these solutions is that proper CMSes like WordPress are too big and too bloated for most users the alternatives they offer are more complex and don’t address the main appeal of WordPress:
What makes WordPress so popular, and the reason a lot of developers hate it so much, is that anyone can do it. You don’t need to understand Git or Markdown or Node.js or even PHP or MySQL to set up, configure, and publish content with your own self-hosted WordPress site. A complete novice with limited web browsing experience and a credit card can get a shared hosting account and publish content on a shiny new WordPress site within half an hour.
WordPress is a tool for everyone.
The flat-CMS tools touted so aggressively by developers on the other hand are developer tools built for developers by developers. Don’t believe me? Pick a random person off the street and ask them when was the last time they did a Git commit or wrote something in Markdown. The real world user of WordPress is not a developer. The real world user is someone wanting to share their thoughts, ideas, images, or art with the world in a simple and easy way.
When a flat-file solution uses Git commits or Markdown or “write your own HTML” as a marketing tactic you know all you have to know: This is not for the people, it’s for the developers who built it.
Rumors of WordPress’ demise are greatly exaggerated
WordPress is not dead or even on the decline. And flat-file solutions are not a threat to its position at the top of the Open Source Hill. The real threat to WordPress is actually WordPress itself, and this is something I’ll write more about in the future. While the flat-filers are wrong in their claim that flat-file is easier or better than WordPress, they are right in that WordPress is getting too complex and too heavy. For WordPress to continue its growth and eventual takeover of the entire published web it needs to slim down and become more modular so it can address the needs of an ever more diversifying user base. And those who build their businesses and reputation on WordPress need to realize kindergarten is over. We are not just playing at this any more. Serious business relies on WordPress and WordPress is serious business.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Are you running a flat-file solution? Have you abandoned WordPress for something slimmer? Leave a comment and pipe in.