WordPress, Money, and Freedom

I see a creeping scourge overtaking the free ethos of the WordPress community, and I don’t like it. It’s not necessarily menacing, or threatening, or even really a scourge (as I know I just called it) but it’s a thing I don’t like and it took a plugin I’ve used for years being discontinued for me to more clearly see the problem.

WordPress as a whole — the community more than the tool — is less-free now than it was a year ago, and less so still than it was five years ago. That’s the nature of what I see as the problem. But the reason I’m so tentative to call it a problem is that WordPress is also a far better tool now than it was a year ago, and certainly far more than it was five years ago. And like it or not, I think this fundamental creeping unfreedom has, at the least, contributed to the rate at which WordPress has become a better tool than it has ever been.

In my estimation, the first foot-fall of this unfree menace (again, I say that but don’t wholly mean it) were the “premium” themes. Someone, I think it was Brian Gardner, had the reasonable thought that rather than making money solely by purpose-building WordPress themes for clients paying $500 and north, they could fill a market-gap with a well-made theme priced around $100. For users who wanted more than a free theme could give them, but less than hiring a designer would, they got a product that pretty well sat that gap.

One could debate endlessly whether there are more or less good free themes being made today, but judgement about that is inherently subjective and thus not worth making. What is almost certainly true is that free themes are no longer the only non-exclusive themes that exist. And while I, as a rather poor person certainly preferred it when all themes I could hope to use were free-as-in-beer, it’s not an unmitigated catastrophe that they aren’t.

It is worrying how likely it is that because “premium” themes aren’t free-as-in-beer, they’re not building on each other. Being harder to get makes them less likely to be publicly modified and enhanced by others, and to be used to make other similar themes better. Again, we need to balance these facts with the fact that there are more better-quality themes generally, etc, but the effect is not negligible.

Now the other day, the WordPress.com Stats plugin declared to me it has been discontinued in preference to Jetpack, which Automattic portrays as the plugin to “blast-off” into the fun world of WordPress.com features. It’s also, almost certainly, going to give Automattic a convenient place to get self-hosted WordPress users to enter the world of paying for some features, as has always been the available on WordPress.com.

Again, this isn’t ransom or anything. It’s a completely sensible — even admirable — business move, but it’s not exactly fostering freedom and building better software for all users. How many features might not be built into the core of WordPress because Automattic has a money-making Jetpack feature that does the same thing? (Is the reason there is no backup functionality in the WordPress core that VaultPress exists?) Questions like this always contain some alarmism, but that doesn’t mean we should just ignore the potential for a conflict of interest.

These type of vague but indefensible concerns are precisely why I bristled at the thought of replacing what was a relatively lean and fast plugin with the colossus that is Jetpack. I have no concrete reason to think the WordPress core will suffer so Automattic can make more money, but that fact that a I’m seeing more and more avenues by which this could come to pass definitely gives me pause. And that, I guess, is all I’m really trying to say.

After all, as one of my favorite quotes goes:

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”

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