There was a fair amount of news that came out of this year’s WordCamp US, particularly announcements made during the State of the Word. (Thank you to the WCUS organizers for the reliable, high-quality livestream that let people like me follow along from a distance!) But I think the most important thing to come out of the event was the project launched in Morten Rand-Hendriksen’s “Moving the Web Forward with WordPress.” If you missed it, it’s the first session in the Saturday morning livestream video (unfortunately, no captions yet).
In that session, Morten explores the consequences of choices made in the WordPress project. Powering 32.5 percent of the web, WordPress has an enormous impact on the norms, standards, and common practices that shape our online experience. When WordPress makes a decision—even a decision with a small technical focus—that decision can reverberate through the web in unexpected ways.
But who makes those decisions? For a project with a “democratizing publishing” ethos, the processes by which decisions are made are surprisingly opaque.
Enter the WordPress Governance Project, an initiative Morten announced to explore these issues and help the community find a way to exercise its power in a responsible, intentional, and representative manner.
In the session, Morten doesn’t articulate a comprehensive agenda. But he does emphasize accessibility, privacy, and open governance as core organizing values. And he invites everyone in the community to join the conversation by signing up via a Google form to participate in future meetings.
The Need for Governance
Morten’s announcement of a governance project doesn’t come out of nowhere. His memorable questions for Matt Mullenweg during the 2017 State of the Word, at WordCamp EU earlier this year, and again at this year’s State of the Word explore how WordPress exercises its power on the web, and how those decisions are made.
Earlier this week, just prior to the WordPress 5.0 release, I had a brief exchange on Twitter with Matt:
I would find it helpful to have some clear mechanisms by which "the community" can influence decisions.
Communities depend on a combination of formal rules and informal norms to guide decisions, keep folks informed, and solicit feedback. Both have seemed lacking in this process.
— Brian DeConinck (@BrianDeConinck) December 5, 2018
All the feedback is definitely influential on me, and you can tell I’m reading and engaging. It is not as consensus as it seems though.
— Matt Mullenweg (@photomatt) December 5, 2018
While I have expressed criticisms of Matt and his leadership in the past, I don’t doubt his sincerity here. I do think he’s listening, and doing the best he can to make sense of what he’s hearing.
But these two tweets underscore the need for project governance. Feedback from a community of millions of users can’t adequately be processed and acted upon by a single individual listening and making decisions for the project. This is particularly true for a relatively wealthy English-speaking American like Matt, whose life sits in a very different cultural context than many WordPress users. (Indeed, Matt acknowledges this challenge.)
Matt is the central figure of the WordPress project. He’s been a guiding force since the beginning. He’s the founder of Automattic, whose talented team and WordPress.com service have helped the project grow in countless ways. His personal blog is linked from the footer on WordPress.org. Without a doubt, he’s an important and valued member of our community. I don’t imagine governance as a means of usurping him.
But should there be a single human face at the head of a project and a community at this scale? When people are critical of decision-making, having Matt at the center makes it easy to make criticism needlessly personal. This dynamic is hard on Matt and others in the project leadership, and ultimately toxic for the community.
Well-defined project governance can provide a process for managing feedback from a diverse global community, and do it in a way that’s insulates individuals from vitriol. It can ensure that decision-making results from a transparent process, and not from private conversations and individuals mulling things over. I believe it could result in better outcomes for the project, and for the web at large.
Governance Success Criteria
I am not a particularly important person in the WordPress community, and I’ve never been involved in a governance project on this scale. But I have been thinking about the project that Morten has proposed, and the challenges of getting it right.
I would like to propose some basic success criteria for the WordPress Governance Project. Really, success criteria may be overstating it. But these are some features that I feel should be a part of whatever rules and processes come out of the project.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. I’m hopeful that this list will prompt others to compose their own lists. If nothing else, this is a way for me to start sorting out my own thoughts.
- WordPress governance should be international, multicultural, and multilingual. The WordPress community is global, while developers are disproportionately in North America and western Europe. There needs to be some way to provide entry points into project governance for people around the world.
- Diverse voices should be represented in decision-making. This includes race, ethnicity, gender, disability, and nationality—but also the industry where you work, your employer and employer type, the way that you use WordPress, and even whether you use WordPress professionally.
- Decision-making processes should support asynchronous participation. In a global community, no decision should depend on a live conversation taking place in a single point in time—like an hour-long Slack meeting. Live exchanges of ideas are important, but shouldn’t be the only way to publicly participate in the conversation.
- Decision-making processes should support irregular participation. Individuals who are unable to participate on a consistent basis should still be confident that their concerns are being considered. You shouldn’t have to show up at every meeting to make the same point over and over again to be heard.
- There should be clear mechanisms by which any WordPress user can provide feedback. And those mechanisms should provide an entry point for users to understand the governance framework and how decisions are made. Participation should be easy and encouraged.
- There should be transparency in how conflicting points of view are evaluated and conflicts are resolved. People will have disagreements. The test of a good governance framework is how those disagreements are resolved, and ensuring that everyone leaves confident that their concerns have been considered. If—purely hypothetically—the accessibility team and the editor team disagree on the readiness of the editor, how are those viewpoints assessed, and how does that assessment lead to a decision?
- An independent budget should be available to help facilitate governance processes. While volunteers are an essential part of any open source project, there needs to be a mechanism by which those contributing their time can be compensated. That might include day-to-day operations, but also special short-term projects or vendor-commissioned services. (With a budget obviously comes a whole lot of other issues, like where it comes from and who decides when to spend it.)
I don’t have answers for how to accomplish these, and it could be that governance that falls short on some is still highly effective. I do think that tools that WordPress developers use extensively, like version control and revision history, have potential for powering some of these processes and providing transparency. But getting from “public revision history would be nice” to a solid governance document is a big step.
Regardless, I’m hopeful that the conversations that result from the WordPress Governance Project will lead to greater confidence in the direction of the project and the impact the project has on the web. I’m looking forward to participating.