When I reported on the WP User Avatar plugin’s rebranding and repurposing last week, it came as no surprise that users were angry. However, I did not expect pushback against those user complaints from a subset of commentators and others in the community.
There were a few points, each boiled down to the argument that free plugin users have a sense of entitlement.
These points focused either on the concept of plugin authors needing to make a living or the GPL, a license that offers no warranty on the code the user receives. Both of these arguments led the conversation astray at times. The focus of the user complaints was not on upsells or about code they grabbed from the wild. No, the backlash was about logging into their websites and finding things had changed with no warning. It was about a plugin installed from an official, presumably trustworthy, source being replaced with a different plugin.
What I see is not a group of people complaining about an advert. What I see is not a long list of users disliking feature changes.
The issue of maintaining free plugins and user entitlement was never the point.
Even David Bisset of Post Status followed that rabbit down the hole. There are good points to be made on free plugin development being a labor of love — and sometimes just a headache from a support perspective –, but this conversation was never about a commercial upsell. It was about the ethics of wholesale swapping the codebase of one plugin with a different one.
Will some users complain about a new advert in a plugin? Undoubtedly.
Will nearly 200 users leave one-star reviews in that case? Unlikely.
Many users have a sense of entitlement. They grab a free theme or plugin and expect developers to answer their every whim. I would argue that it is a small percentage of total users based on personal experience, but that vocal minority can give the whole group a bad rep. They can be a drag on a developer’s motivation to continue with a project.
I get it. I have been doing this whole free software thing for nearly as long as WordPress has been around. It is easy to feel underappreciated for work that you pass on to the community. And, if you have no benefactor funding all of this free work, you must find some means of putting food on the table.
Users of free software are not owed free customizations. They are not owed free technical support. They are not even owed a promise that a developer will not swap in a new codebase that does something different. They are owed nothing.
However, the price of admission for playing in this market, regardless of whether it is free or commercial software, is that every plugin’s success or failure rests in the hands of those who use it.
Maybe we, those of us who build free plugins, do not owe users anything. But, we have a responsibility to be trustworthy stewards of our sub-communities in the WordPress ecosystem. We have a responsibility to behave ethically, rightness and wrongness as defined by our users.
Whether it is commercial or free software, the goal is to have users — is it really software if no one is using it? They are the lifeblood of every project. Ultimately, developers who want people to use their code must answer to those who would.
On the flip-side, developers are not owed glowing reviews on their projects. Users have a right to complain, even about a plugin that they acquired for free. It is not about them wanting special privileges or treatment. It never was. If you treat them fairly, do right by them, and communicate, you can build a living and breathing community around your software.
Please send virtual hugs to developers who are building the plugins and themes you use. They are a vital part of WordPress’s success. Five-star ratings and donations never hurt either.