2018 marked the completion of my 40th lap around the sun. I remember when my parents turned 40 years old, and I remember how old I thought they were back then. Yet last October, when I crossed this arbitrary temporal marker myself, I did not feel old. I felt tired and jaded.
As I entered the statistical last half of my life, a friend commented in jest “What do you buy for your midlife crisis if you hate cars?” (I hate cars, or rather, I have no interest in cars other than as a mode of transport. The idea of owning a flashy red sports car is to me as foreign as that of going swimming in a tuxedo: It can be done, but I don’t see any reason why.) “I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “I guess maybe I should buy myself a therapist?”
For future reference: that’s a great way of stopping a fun conversation dead in its tracks.
Melancholy and the Internet Sadness
Throughout my life, the people around me have sorted themselves into two very general groups: Those who think I’m happy and smiling all the time, and those who think I am a stern, serious, and brooding person. This seeming dichotomy is probably caused by my habit of compartmentalizing everything. Some people know me in contexts where I am happy and smiling, others know me in contexts where I am focused and ready to work. The latter often think of me as “stern” and “brooding” because I have what you could call “Angry Resting Face”: my neutral expression is rather stern. But I digress.
2018 was the year I realized those two perceived Mortens were bleeding into each other and the stern version was taking over. But it was more than that. Where before I was able to say “work is over, let’s have fun” I now felt waves of melancholy wash over me to dampen the mood and bring the darkness I felt all around me into every interaction.
It was during a conversation with Jeremy Felt at WordCamp Vancouver in late summer I finally realized something was amiss. I can’t remember what the conversation was about, but at some point Jeremy added a pinch of black humor to the mix and I immediately converted it to a black hole, sucking everyone down with me. Jeremy raised his eyebrows and said something to the effect of “Dude. That’s darker than where I wanted to go.”
Months later I had a long chat with my wife in which I tried to put my finger on where this darkness was coming from. “I don’t understand how you don’t know,” she said. “It’s obvious! You are pouring all your emotional energy into trying to fix the internet, but you can’t fix it on your own!”
And she was right, as she always is.
For more than fifteen years, I’ve spent a fair bit of my professional and personal time thinking, writing, speaking, and teaching about how the internet shapes us as people. I’ve taught hundreds of thousands of people all over the world how to publish their thoughts, ideas, and creations on the web, and spoken to anyone willing to listen about the importance of making ethics an essential part of the design and development processes that build the web and the internet. At the same time, I’ve seen the web and the internet weaponized against its users, for money, for political power, for no other reason than to hurt others and destroy their lives. And more and more I’m feeling like I am part of the problem.
When asked about it, I used to say “the internet is a thin veneer of amazing covering an infinite abyss of the worst of humanity.”
Five years ago, that comment was met with surprise, confusion, and a lot of shaking of heads. A friend called me “The Doomsday Prophet of the Web” and we all laughed.
Today, people just nod in resignation and walk away carrying a small piece of the darkness I just dealt them. And every time, the hole left by the darkness I hand to someone else doubles in volume and is re-filled. Because in seeing the recognition of what I think we have become in others, I see verification of my own worst fears for the future our son will have to live in.
I have become a catalyst.
That’s not good.
Everything, all the time
I used to joke I burnt my candle at all ends, and from the middle. Turns out I was telling the truth, at least emotionally. If the past year has taught me anything, it is that I need help learning how to walk away from things.
Which is why in 2018 I nearly walked away from the WordPress Open Source project.
Reading this, some will think it was because I disagreed with the Gutenberg project. Not so. I am a firm believer in the idea of block-based editing in WordPress, and the Gutenberg project has been long overdue. I have been critical of the decision making and management processes around the project and how it was rolled out, but that was not the reason for my near departure.
Reading this, some will think it was because I disagreed with how accessibility has been handled in WordPress in the past few years. Not so. To me, bringing accessibility to WordPress is a long journey, one which has yet to meet its final conclusion. Much has been done, much still needs to be done, and I believe WordPress can become the benchmark for web accessibility in the not-too-distant future.
Reading this, some will think it was because of responsive images, or ImageFlow, or documentation, or LTS versions, or internationalization, or any of the myriad of other issues I bring up and talk about in various WordPress fora. Again, not so.
My reason for almost leaving WordPress was the realization my participation in the project, or rather the way I chose to take part in the project, was hurting me and by association those around me, most notably my wife and our son.
I’m not going to try to describe or adjudicate the past year of WordPress politics here. Suffice it to say the emotional weight of watching my community turn on itself over poor communication, forced divisions, turf wars, and misunderstandings inflating to gigantic problems became too much. And I know I’m not alone.
At the end of my rope, I reached out to my coworker Stephanie Evans. “You have to draw a line!” she said. “When you’ve done everything within your power and it isn’t working, you can’t do anything more. You have to step away.” And I tried to explain to her why I couldn’t; that this community has become so much part of my personal and professional identity that I simply cannot walk away. And as I said this I realized it was true, not just for WordPress, but for the web.
I, the person who tells people their work does not define them, that your work should support your life, not the other way around, have defined myself by my work and become so involved I have trouble separating the emotional weight of what happens in my community from the emotional weight I myself carry.
That’s not good. It is also not sustainable.
Moving into 2019, I have made some decisions.
Primarily, I will look out for number one, which in my case is our son Leo who needs a father who is not lost in a black hole of melancholy. I have to be better for Leo, and that means I have to be better for myself.
To get there, I am refocusing my work on what I do best: Finding ways of empowering people to use the web to improve their personal and professional lives. That’s what my job at LinkedIn Learning empowers me to do, and that’s why I am excited about what we will make together in the coming year.
2019 will see a significant shift in my focus away from WordPress and toward web standards and emerging technologies. This has always been where I thrive, and I am excited to immerse myself in where the web and the internet is headed next.
What does this mean for my involvement in the WordPress community? I will focus my efforts on two projects: The WordPress Governance Project and the development of WP Rig. These are projects I have direct influence over where I believe I can do the most good for the open source project and the community. I will still attend WordCamps including WordCamp Europe and US, and continue creating courses and writing tutorials and opinion pieces about the software. What will change? My time invested in battles I can’t win. Interpret that as you like.
Underneath all this, I have work to do on myself. I cannot be someone who doles out parcels of darkness to those around me. To get there, I must rid myself of the darkness within. What form that process will take is yet to be determined, but it will definitely include professional help.
Down on the Upside
Looking back at 2018, I see a year of significant professional achievements and personal experiences. I released some of my best courses on LinkedIn Learning, got to speak at both Smashing Conference Freiburg and WordCamp Europe in Belgrade, Serbia about ethics, the subject closest to my heart, and had the privilege of launching WP Rig, a new open source project to benefit WordPress. My wife and I watched Leo develop into an inquisitive and profoundly interesting 2-year-old, and together the three of us spent the year exploring the world and everything in it. Life, by any measurable standard, is good.
And that, I guess, is the lesson: When the darkness comes from inside, there is work to be done. That’s what 2019 will be for me: Better myself so I can be better to those around me. Because 2018 was a lot. And we can all do our part to make 2019 better, for everyone.