How Low Is Too Low?

wordpresslogoI’ve been sitting on this post for a long time. In fact, I started thinking about this complex issue around the time when the discussions were centered around WordPress security and end user responsibility. The complexity extends way beyond end user responsibility in that, the bar to use WordPress has been lowered to a point where anyone can use the software. As an experienced user of WordPress (two years) I’m beginning to wonder how WordPress plans on handling this burden of inexperienced users as they far outweigh the number of experienced users. I don’t mean to insult any user types but that’s just the way the situation currently is.

So how has the bar been lowered?

Third party scripts such as Fantastico and Simple Scripts automatically install WordPress with little to no user intervention required. This means users don’t need to know about MySQL, PHP, or FTP in order to get WordPress up and running. Throw those skills out the window.

Upgrading is a breeze. Whether it is core upgrades, plugin upgrades, theme upgrades, they can all be done without using FTP. Instead, users make a couple clicks with their mouse and way they go.

WordPress has a built in text editor which provides an easy way to format text to your liking while providing a way for you to see how it looks in real-time. This means that instead of knowing HTML tags to format text in content, you only need to highlight the text with your mouse and press the corresponding format button.

There are other examples but I need to move on with my point. Don’t get me wrong, I love all three of the examples I provided as an end user but I see a set of circumstances that may or may not come true. When WordPress was just a small project, the core userbase was made up of developers. Today, I’d guess that 75% of those who use WordPress are end users while 25% are developers. Developers are smart people and they understand how things work. These are the people the 75% rely on for help. What happens if the majority of support these folks offer every single day becomes answers to questions such as simple HTML, uploading via FTP, upgrading, etc. Couple that with the fact that WordPress is becoming more and more user driven meaning the software will continue to be dumbed down to make it as easy as possible for everyone with a voice to make it known on the web and you have a scenario where the developers move on to a new project that has that feeling of being small with the majority of the user base being developers. This would leave the WordPress userbase consisting of not only end users, but fewer people who know the ins and outs which I think would hurt the community over time.

I think of this issue as a double edged sword. Make WordPress so easy to use that I can publish content with my eyes closed but on the flipside, I don’t have to know how to upload files, I don’t need to know how upgrades work, I don’t have to know HTML to bold text or italicize it, etc. As the bar to use WordPress continues to be lowered, how will the smart people cope with the ever increasing demands for support, especially for questions that would be considered common knowledge before using a CMS like WordPress such as HTML and FTP?

I don’t want to see WordPress become complex but at the same time, I don’t want to see the community turn into a bunch of end users that have no clue as to what they’re doing and that is who I have to rely upon for help. I suppose my only hope is that there is a constant flow of up and coming knowledgeable people in the WordPress community taking notes from the current crop of WordPress rockstars. If not, then I will harvest the current crop and continue to plant knowledge in the WPTavern forum!


44 responses to “How Low Is Too Low?”

  1. Remember when Nirvana hit the big time and suddenly realised they didn’t like most of their mainstream fans (instead of attracting just cool grunge fans they starting getting jocks and metalheads at their shows).

    Anyway, shoddy analogy but the core message is you can’t attract the masses and also choose your audience. The worst possible thing is when a online community starts taking an exclusionist stance on those who need the most help. Lets not kick the slowest kids out to the special class, lets find a way to help them without slowing the rest of the class down.

    Take a page from Microsoft *gasp* and build automatic updates into WordPress.

    Here’s how it should work:
    – by default, WordPress will auto-upgrade 7 days after a new release. Each day the admin screen nag *as well as* an email nag to the admin account will remind them of this countdown. On day 7, boom, you’re upgraded.
    – advanced users who want to manage their upgrades themselves can turn this feature off via wp-config.php

  2. You have a valid point. I think platforms like WordPress will always attract people who like to tinker. So, I expect there will always be a contingent that are able to inform the novices.

  3. I know my path is not true of all WP users, but the easy install and ability to get up and running got me interested in WordPress in the first place…but I’ve since learned a lot more in order to customize the sites I work on. I’m still not a developer or able to write my own plugins (I think), but I can answer a lot of the questions *those* people don’t need to waste their time on. I know a lot more about MySQL and PHP than I did prior to using WP and definitely more than I would have learned using an alternate low-access point blogging platform/provider (eg, LiveJournal, Vox, Blogspot).

  4. @Paul – You are right which is why I choose my words carefully as to not alienate a group of users or call the noobs morons which is a wrong thing to do considering I was at that point myself. We all were.

    Throw the upgrade stuff out the window. The crux of the matter is in this:

    Lets not kick the slowest kids out to the special class, lets find a way to help them without slowing the rest of the class down.

    @Ron – That’s my hope. If the knowledge fountains disappear, where are the novices to drink?

    @Angelique – So are you saying that WordPress helped you get a foot in the door but because of it’s ease of use, you were able to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes over time?

  5. This is a really interesting post. I’ve been using WordPress for over a year now, though I’ve been creating websites for over 10 years using HTML. Before I started working with WordPress, I didn’t know a thing about PHP (still have a long way to go) and I have to say I agree with Angelique that it was the ease of WordPress that first drew me in. Fantastico gave me the ability to dive right in and start building a site. I like the ease of updates, but I also like that I know how to use FTP to upload files if I want to go that way. I like that I know HTML and CSS because it gives me the ability to go beyond the easy stuff.

    The more I learn about WordPress and plugins and theme development, the more interested I am. So I’m happy that upgrades and installations can be relatively easy — it gives me a chance to concentrate on the more complex stuff which is what keeps me interested.

    And if people don’t want to learn the ins and outs of WordPress and want to rely on me or others to help with uploads/installs/upgrades or CSS, that’s fine with me — that’s one of the reasons I’m in this business.

  6. @Regina

    that’s one of the reasons I’m in this business.

    Very true. Trouble is most people, i.e the ones who have no idea about FTP/HTML/plugin upgrading (OMG, do I click it…and then what?) expect you to help them for free. Since WordPress is free they expect your time to be as well.

    If I could charge a quarter for every email I’ve sent for free support I would have a truck load of quarters.

  7. I would echo Angelique’s comments. I migrated from Blogspot to to my own install of WordPress, picking up bits here and there to the point where I have my own sites and have done some custom work for clients as well. I appreciate that WordPress has been streamlined enough that it’s easy to get up and running (compared to, say, MovableType), but also that the PHP is still exposed so that I can dig as deep as I want to. Theme shells or frameworks like Thematic encourage that behavior. I love digging into the hooks and actions and writing custom functions – if WordPress ever glossed that over, I might start looking elsewhere.

  8. I think premium themes are going to prevent tinkering to the point that no one knows how to make changes without an admin panel.

  9. @Hyder

    Trouble is most people, i.e the ones who have no idea about FTP/HTML/plugin upgrading (OMG, do I click it…and then what?) expect you to help them for free. Since WordPress is free they expect your time to be as well.

    Yes, this is a real problem. Several times, I’ve been contacted by people asking me to elaborate on one of my blog postings about using WordPress and when I respond, often in detail, I never hear from them again. Not even a thank you, much less “a quarter.”

    I see this a lot on forums and on sites such as LinkedIn, where I once saw a person post a link to a beautifully designed web site and ask, “Can someone tell me how to make my site look like this?”

  10. @ Jeffro – Great post and obviously on the minds of many:)

    @ Ron – …there will always be a contingent that are able to inform the novices

    I believe this is true. In fact, it’s the very reason I started my site, to give back to the next generation of WordPress users as I had been helped along the way, and I’m sure I wasn’t the first nor the last to do so. The world works in cycles, as does the WordPress user base I imagine.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely altruistic. I make a portion of my living by using WordPress and other Open Source software, as I expect many of us do. My employer and my clients pay me for my knowledge of the software and for knowing where to find solutions. Where do I find solutions for WordPress that I can’t solve on my own? In the community of course, those who I consider more knowledgeable than me with tasks like custom plugin creation and programming…(you know who you are). My point is, no matter how simple WordPress becomes to install, upgrade, manage, and extend, a “pecking order” or “food chain” will always exist between users who are satisfied with a basic install, and those who will want to extend and tweak…and build something continually better.

  11. We’re already seeing it in the MU world, since there’s a host or two offering one-click install for people who then have no idea how to run it, let alone tinker with it. And then toss in the merge, and the noob audience will get bigger.

    But, I think this will give a lot of people the opportunity to shine. More emphasis on learning (for those who want to learn) and paid help (for those who really need it) rather than trumpeting “Look at all the free stuff!” Even the free code, when you know how to use it, still costs in time. Nobody points that out. If there can be a concerted effort to emphasize learning on your own, helping those who need it (either for pay and in giving back to the community) that will helps us all.

  12. I think it’s pretty clear just from looking at the main site that the intent is to bring as many user onto the product as possible. I don’t think they consider it a ‘burden’ as you stated and in fact certainly have done lots to promote the concept of outside people and organizations supporting less experienced users through things like plugins and themes.

    The simplicity of the software, the low barrier of entry, and the existence of the many easily installable add-on products seems to be one of the reasons why WP has risen above the many other blogging\CMS products that are much less user friendly.

    It’s funny how things can skew depending on your point of view; for example, hard core PHP programmers might look at plugin users the same way you seem to look at inexperienced WP users – why should people develop plugins to help users who should easily be able to modify a WP theme (or create one from scratch) with the instructions clearly posted on WP’s support site?

    I think the reality is that the more people and organizations that join into the whole WP ecosystem, the more robust and improved the platform will become. And it seems like there are certainly theme makers who are doing very well while their products support more inexperienced users getting going with WP. And I think plugin authors would too if they (and I’m generalizing here, does not apply to all) supported their products better and were more aggressive about building some sort of revenue into their products.

    How do inexperienced users put a burden on any of these folks?

  13. Who’s in charge of the site? Automattic. Who gets the affiliate dollars when people pick a host from the site? Automattic. Who’s responsible for the direction of wordpress development? Automattic. Who’s got a new VP charged with ‘user growth and retention’? That’s right. Automattic.

    I’m sure community members will continue to help out those who need it, but unless they are running around actively promoting wordpress to inexperienced users it’s really not their responsibility. If lack of support for novice users ever affects growth of the software, Automattic will eventually take action, even if it’s only to redirect them all to

  14. I think we need to have a broader perspective. WordPress should figure what it is committed to (like any decent organization) and focus on that. For example, if the goal is speed, focus on that. If it’s flexibility, focus on that. If it’s ease of use . . . Maximizing for everything is impossible.

    I’m only worried to the extent that WordPress takes on being all things to all users. I don’t think that’s happening. Functionality will improve. Ease will improve. Speed can improve at the same time. The technology that WordPress runs on is not static. The skills of the WordPress gurus are not static. The tech savvy of the village idiot isn’t even static.

    The key is to get the balance right. Don’t leave the developer frustrated with unnecessary bloat. Don’t cater only to the newfound masses. Don’t neglect featuresets that target markets see in your competitors. Innovate consistent with your core principles.

    I’m not worried about gurus being inundated with stupid questions because the gurus and the stupid question askers have a choice. For example, I pay for support for some things I’m new at and I colloboratively share with other experts in other things I know well. Models exist and will grow to support noobs (either paid or free) and models exist to support developers (paid and free). I pay for support for Theme Hybrid and hopefully between Justin and the community, it’s worth it for everyone involved.

    The more people using the WordPress, the more features and ease of use will matter and the same is true for security. These are the tradeoffs of life. Any good company navigates popularity and expanding user demographics. I think WordPress will do fine as long as they get the balance right and don’t chase after the noob market without proper supports for everyone else.

    Cautionary note. As a Palm OS user since the very beginning, I can’t resist mentioning that story. The eschewed features for simplicity for so long, they got their lunch handed to them and were near the brink of extinctions. Only by embracing new technology and features (although done in their characteristically simplified way) are they moving away from the cliff.

  15. How elitist is too elitist?
    This post by Jeffro comes very close by my standards. I am 75 and worked my entire adult life in what we now call IT. I have been confronted with elitists like Jeffro all of those many years. I am very glad that very few people listened to them. These are the same types that created the first memory dump I saw back in the mid 50’s. It was entirely in binary, pages and pages of 1’s and 0’s, and there were those who wanted it kept that way because otherwise anyone could read it. I see that the wide acceptance and true benefit of WordPress is that anyone can use it as a tool to easily communicate their opinions, ideas, concepts, and such with the rest of the world.. I hope that someday that I will be able to communicate from my brain directly with WordPress and bypass the keyboard and all other devices. If Jeffro wants to develop something, he should work on that.

  16. 75% end users, 25% developers? Interesting demographic perspective Jeffro. You live so close to the developer world. I feel like the actual WP user-base is about 99.7% end-users, people who have never contributed to development (and in most cases never even thought about it). I know I’ve installed WP for a dozen clients and friends, none developers including me.

    WP should be geared towards helping everyone publish their own content online, as easily as writing an email (with ownership of their own database and control of your codebase & design, instead of submitting your content to Facebook, Live Journal, Blogger, etc).

    Great credit (many thanks) to the developers for making this possible. I’ve always thought the developers’ intent was to make WP simple and accessible to all, for the sake of freedom in being able to publish anything & still own your own content (Word) and means of publication (Press), instead of signing your stuff over to a 3rd party website where you’d have no control and no recourse if they sold-out, changed the policy, or went out of business.

    Provocative blog post, WP Tavern!

  17. As a developer a love how powerful WordPress is – I can create completely custom themes, and plugins to do anything from outputting a bit of text to turning WordPress in a fully featured web application.

    …and I also love the simplicity. Why?

    Because it gives my clients to power to publish content with little or no technical knowledge. If a sidebar widget helps them display an image without having to type any HTML, that’s great. ;)

    I can focus on what I’m good at, my clients can focus on what they’re good at.

    I agree that there is a certain amount of responsibility for running your own self-hosted WordPress installation that may require some technical know-how and awareness, and I think this is something that new users should be aware of before diving in head first.

    But for the likes of myself who creates and manages web sites for people, the combined power and simplicity of is a great solution.

  18. @that girl again – Automattic does not own or direct We contribute a lot to the project because we’ve built our business around it, but is a community site that is independent from Automattic.

  19. Toni, I can’t believe you’re actually trying to act like Automattic doesn’t run the show on

    If it’s a community site then I guess if enough members of the community agree, then I get to publish my next post on the home page of right?

    Also, would you care to share where the affiliate commissions that earns are distributed? I’ve been a member of the community for a while and have yet to see a check for my share of those funds.

    Give me a freaking break!

  20. “Also, would you care to share where the affiliate commissions that earns are distributed?”

    My guess is paying for and managing the server farm that runs on and subsidizing related community events.

  21. @Ron – If the site is community run, I should certainly get a say in where those funds go right?

    Maybe I just haven’t paid enough attention but the fact that we don’t KNOW where the funds go seems to in itself suggest the site isn’t run by the community.

    The fact of the matter is Automattic is interwoven with WordPress and if they want to act like they don’t control things then we the community should force them to abide by it instead of getting to control things when they want but not own them when it’s legally or financially convenient for them.

  22. @Brad Potter – I’m guessing the answer is probably something along the lines of the lead dev team makes those decisions. I’m also sure it’s just a coincidence that Automattic employees make up 3 of the 5 lead dev members.

  23. I think that the break-down between Developer and End-user is more stratified then that. I also believe there is room for growth in each layer from non-technical end-user, to novice developer, and up to hard-core developers. Novices will help the non-techicals, Intermediates (those edging into plugin and framework dev work) will help the novices, etc. What this also means is that for each level, there will still always be a business model. Those at Intermediate and above can charge for support, those not interested in progressing up the skill ladder will pay.

    The non-techie shouldn’t be asking the hard-core programmers to solve much without paying a premium, but the programmers shouldn’t be rude about it either. Say nothing, if not direct them towards the novices. has a bright future, I’m betting the farm on it

    (Also, this arguement may be WP agnostic: An industry is building up/evolving here. WP might be replaced with some other software, but the business will always be there.)

  24. @Ben Cook – Matt has been working on establishing WordPress as a Non Profit organization since the projects beginnings in 2003. A reliable source of information told me that recently, the paperwork was finally being completed or had been completed to place into a Non Profit ORG status and furthermore, there would be a board of members or trustees that would provide oversite of the project. This is a decision Matt has made himself to go non profit, not any of the dev team.

    I suppose if you wanted to get conspiracy theorists about it, you could make a case for three of the core committers being employed by Automattic but considering I asked Matt in a previous interview the question “Has there ever been a decision made for solely for the financial benefit of” He responded with No. I’m willing to take his word for it.

  25. The “board of directors” you all are talking about is called the WordPress Foundation. It’s the open source foundation (currently pursuing nonprofit status) that is behind, and while it is closely linked into Automattic because Automattic is WordPress-centric in its business and many people involved in the development of and related projects also work on operations with the company, .org IS separate is managed by the foundation, along with:

    – WordPress plugins
    – WordPress Themes
    – BuddyPress is currently experiencing a server error, but you can check the Google cache for more information.

    The conclusions being drawn and the lengths people are going here are getting to be ridiculous. (Getting a “check” as a community member from funds, which, as mentioned above, is not for profit and used to keep the foundation running? Come ON.) You all can piece together as many conspiracy theories and “Evil Automattic runs the whole show” whines as you like. In fact, it looks to be quite a lot of fun! However, the truth is that Matt barely took any money the first couple years so it would mostly go to developers, people who had earned their cred. He really wanted to “give back” and what you describe, though unfortunately not possible, is his dream come true, not a joke.

    I tend to lean towards the side of rational thought. You’re not entirely correct on what’s going on here. Sorry. However, if you’re really that unhappy, MovableType would LOVE your business. And so would Drupal! Marvelous thing, free will. I don’t think many will miss the tears and noise.

  26. @Jeffro – I guess I’m confused why it would have taken Matt 6 years and counting to make a non-profit if he really wanted to do that. A good friend of mine set up a non-profit in about 9 months without the help of any lawyers etc. I don’t see why it would take Matt 6+ years to get it done.

    Also, as long as Automattic employees are a majority on the board, dev team or whatever, they’ll maintain control no matter what form it takes.

    And it doesn’t surprise me that Matt would give that response to your question. Why would he say differently? I’m sorry but acting like Automattic’s finances don’t affect decisions made about is idiotic.

    Matt’s job is to provide as large of a return for his investors as possible. If he can do something on that improves Automattic’s revenue he SHOULD do so or he’s doing his investors a dis-service.

    The intricate nature of the relationship is exactly why it’s an issue and exactly why it’s so laughable for Toni to act like there’s no conflict of interest and that is a completely separate & independent entity.

  27. @Ben Cook – I don’t know who the board members are but my hope is that it wouldn’t be anyone employed by Automattic to keep the separation their. However, I guess Matt would most likely be a board member or founder of the foundation where in the points of separation would disappear again.

    Matt’s job is to provide as large of a return for his investors as possible. If he can do something on that improves Automattic’s revenue he SHOULD do so or he’s doing his investors a dis-service.

    If that is the case and this indeed has happened before or continues to happen, then I have a problem with it. As I see it, the investors have put their money into Automattic the company which operates paid services such as TalkPress and The investors should not have any say or give a damn about should not be their concern because is not meant to be a money making machine, is. I will agree that no matter what Matt says, him being the founder of Automattic and him being the founder of a non profit entity in presents an inherit conflict of interest. The only way to solve that would be to choose one over the other and not do both. I don’t see that happening so the next best thing is to hope that Matt doesn’t grow devil horns and turn evil on us.

  28. @Dave Moyer – I was using those ludicrous examples of getting a check or publishing a post to illustrate how ridiculous the claim that is a community run site.

    Automattic employees maintain control at all levels of and if you don’t think they’ll always make decisions in Automattic’s best interest then I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you.

  29. I just today listened to the WP Weekly episode about SimplePie, and the discussion towards the end about the low bar for entry left a bad taste in my mouth. There were some pretty harsh comments made, and one even referring to the “dumbest users” being catered to by the new image widget. Quite a bit deal seemed to be made out of such a little thing.

    I feel that there is a part of the WP community that is building an unhealthy resentment against the mainstream adoption of WordPress. For anyone who would prefer to continue working with a complex, difficult CMS with a much higher entry bar I suggest looking towards the products that well and truly cater to that already (Drupal, Joomla etc). Or just get over it and keep using WordPress the way you like to and not worry about someone else getting a new easy to use feature to play with.

  30. @Ben Cook – I can’t speak for From an Automattic perspective I can tell you that it never was and never will be our goal to own or profit from, and that we’ve worked hard to balance the potential conflicts of interest between Automattic and While we don’t always get it right, I think the overall results have been very positive. On the commercial side, dozens of successful businesses have formed around WordPress (Automattic, Crowd Favorite, StudioPress, etc). On the community side, the number of contributors, plugins, downloads, etc have gone up ten fold in the last 3 years.

  31. Instead of being angry and feeling elitist, let’s see this for what it is–an opportunity. WordPress is going to grow because it is free, well-known and easy to try. That creates a perfect environment for people to offer services to help these new users with their sites by selling themes, plugins and support. Like @Toni said above, many companies make quite a bit of money through this. If it wasn’t for people needing WordPress products and consulting services, I’d have to find something else to do for a living.

    So while some may see the “lowering of the bar” as creating a nuisance, I just see opportunity.

  32. @Bill Robbins – I can understand how you and others could read into the post as me being or feeling elitist but I assure you, that is not the case. I simply gave this scenario some thought and decided to publish those thoughts to see what other people thought. Thanks to the great feedback from those who have commented, it’s easy to see why this scenario will never happen. The last thing I want is a group of elitist in WordPress. Those people do the project and community no good.

  33. @Paul – AMEN! What you said.

    I imagine this partly a response to Matt Mullenweg’s Oct 7th, 2009 Q&A on WordPress and Open Source

    Before WordPress, it was b2, and it was also offered on Fantastico Deluxe. Lots of features have come into play along with the knowledge to do something with WordPress other than use it as a blog platform.

    I am against excluding people, especially when the product is open source. The problem is people who want to learn versus people who do not. Let them use it their own way as it is not anyone’s else job to tell others what to do or not to do.If you met Matt, he is pretty happy about where WordPress is and there are more things to come, especially by what I remember him talking about at WordCamp Chicago. In fact there was talk about combining WordPress and WordPress mu. I even asked about them during the ending session where he opened the floor to questions, from a webhost’s perspective about the chance that even other products like bbpress and others might become one-click installs.

    Of course, there will be some degeneration and possibly sites reminiscent of the Geocities days, but hey… people are interested in at least trying something new.

  34. Jeffo – You sure picked a real conversation piece this time! Thanks for drawing us in. Thanks!

    Though not a developer, I’m now a power user, who started using WP around the time it became a “real” number. I loved it so much in it’s early incarnations, I was willing to stick it out through the various growing pains. Being a DIY type, the more I tinkered with it, the more it taught me. Because of WordPress, I learned to edit and change things writen in PHP, how to modify layouts using CSS, etc., which has benefited me across several disciplines.

    @Ron Hager I’ve been around quite a while, too, since those lovely DOS days. Though I loved to muck around under the hood, most of my clients did not. I maintained a dual training focus: for those who wanted to dive in and get dirty, I taught them as much as they wanted to know, effectively working myself out of a job with them. For those who wanted to remain protected from the “1s and 0s”, from the crypic-ness of DOS-based programs, I did everything for them, and fast introduced them to the graphical windows when it arrived.

    Though that seems like so much history, the story is the same for WordPress, and other popular applications. WP has created a cross-section of grateful, knowledgable users who will always lend a helping hand to to fellow WP users, whether they are just learning or digging around under the hood.


    I’m happy that upgrades and installations can be relatively easy — it gives me a chance to concentrate on the more complex stuff which is what keeps me interested.

    Yes! Even being a power user, and someone who sets up WP for others, I have to agree. Tasks that took forever to do — or were just plain mundane and aggravating — have become so easy, I almost feel guilty. And it is so rewarding to see a client’s enthusiasm as he participates in building his own site. As he gains confidence in mastering WP, I’ll get less support calls — and a “newbie” moves up the ranks.


Subscribe Via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

%d bloggers like this: