Email to Ian Stewart

I left a comment on this post by Ian Stewart. The comment was:

“this sounds nice but superficial … I would wish for something deeper and more substantial …”

Ian did not approve the comment but did write me to ask what I meant. I wrote him a lengthy email. He replied and said I should post what I wrote. So here goes nothing:

Hello Ian,

First, THANK YOU, really THANK YOU for writing me. I wasn’t expecting that.

Introduction (for context)

I rarely voice my thoughts on WordPress anymore. I don’t think anyone is listening. I used to reach out to Jane (I guess that if Jane will remember me it will be as a nudge) and occassionaly poke Matt. I am not a developer (though I know more about development then I care to admit – and don’t care to become one) so I can’t really get in on the conversation. I used to be a software designer … now I am homesteader in a remote village in Romania.

I don’t follow WordPress blogs much anymore. You are my only link to the project (I follow you on Twitter) – and that is because I still use Thematic exclusively for all my themes and have great appreciation for your work. So REALLY thank you for asking.

I used to dump my thoughts on WordPress in a ad-hoc blog – though it is mostly dormant: http://ontekusuto.iamronen.com

Though at first my answer will not appear to relate to themes, I promise you, it does.

Idea1: Frontend Admin

I think WordPress development in general, themes included, is pointed in a self-indulgent direction. Self-indulgent in the sense that it caters first and foremost to the “geeks” who make it or use it. It is a typical development issue (apparently both in closed source and open source) – developers develop first and foremost for themselves. Even the recent discussion around”options” is a geeky one. The “geeky” side of me has tremendously enjoyed post-types, post-formats, custom taxonomoies,etc. But for the end-user in me WordPress hasn’t had any substantial changes since I think 2.7. It has gone through refinements, some asthetic upgrades.

I strongly recommend an excellent and fun book on this: http://iamronen.com/2007/08/the-inmates-are-running-the-asylum-by-alan-cooper/

For there to be a serious conversation around these issues there has to be a context … and to me the only context that counts is people – end-users. Now with WordPress one could argue that this is a huge problem because there are so many diverse users. However I do believe there is a way around this problem. Fortunately WordPress has a clear and loudly communicated purpose, to “democratize publishing” … and here’s the thing … that has been accomplished. Anyone who wants to have an online voice either already uses WordPress, knows about WordPress or knows someone who knows about WordPress. It is an amazing achievement. However from a user-experience perspective WordPress could have stopped at 2.7 and still attained this position.

From what I can tell, though the overall numbers of WordPress users are impressive, … is expansion is also crawling forward. It only seems to jump substantially when there is some kind of merger or another platform goes under. I suspect this will be even more true if you filtered out active blogs from “play blogs”.

However I can point out at least 3 groups of people who are already publishers but are not on WordPress nor can they consider it as an option for their needs:

  1. Commenters – anyone who leaves comments is a blogger. Anyone with an IntenseDebate or Disqus profile is a blogger (I think there needs to be super easy, almost transparent though optional migration path from an IntenseDebate profile to a WordPress blog – I envision a future without comments – I sure wish I could automatically integrate my IntenseDebate & Disqus comments within my WordPress blog – a new post-format “post-comment”!).
  2. Tumblr – in my mind Tumblr exists because WordPress UI is not right for them – it is so complicated that many (many millions) of people can’t handle it. Had Tumblr been open-source I would not be worried – but it is a commercial platform. So, in my mind this is WordPress being out of tune with its own purpose by driving people away from a democractic platform to a commercial one.
  3. Facebook – though there is much social garbage on Facebook – there is also much content (again many millions). There are people there with a voice that don’t know that (a) they have a voice and (b) they’ve sold their voice. WordPress is not an alternative for them … again not because of capability but because of inappropriate UI.

So what has all this got to do with Themes? I used to believe that WordPress admin needs a MAJOR simplification (http://ontekusuto.iamronen.com/okwaterdown/). I still think it needs it and that it is doable as a plugin however I now believe it needs to be taken a (major) step forward. The first step in this direction was taken by the P2 theme which included post-creation in the theme. Well that is a direction that definitely needs to be explored further.

  • Theme options? how about bringing them to the blog itself. The doorway already exists with the new admin-bar.
  • How about a quick post interface from the front end?
  • How about an upload image (one image, no question asked).
  • How about authoring an “aside” (and sending it to Twitter for me) without having to leave my blog or having to go through “publishing a post”.
  • How about a small theme API and library for enabling other developers to hook into and expand such capabilities

I believe this kind of capability can open the door to a whole new UI domain for WordPress where important and interesting things can happen.

Idea2: CSS Magic

So you managed to let people choose a background color and a header image … pardon my french but … big woopeedoo.

How about letting people choose one color and have a theme palette generated around it. How about giving them a few control like good old TV’s – brightness and contrast to modify the look of the theme. If you want to get adventurous … let them choose another color. Make it fun … make it a game!

I know that there have been some efforts on CSS modification libraries (I even recall someone working on a Plugin for this … I think it was a summer-of-code project). That needs to be coupled with some color-palette knowledge (mathematic and asthetic) … and there is some magic there.

How about exploring an API of sorts to let other theme developers integrate this capability into their themes?

How many junk themes would become redundant it people had a little more (fun) control over the looks of their site?

Again – I’m thinking of millions of other people (less serious bloggers) who I want to see on WordPress.

Summary

These are just two off the top of my head … and this is without being in a conversation with others and this is without having WordPress on my mind much (our water supply froze, the chainsaw is on the ritz and the car wouldn’t start for a week due to freezing temperatures).

One of the obstacles to a healthy democracy is getting everyone to vote. The right to a vote is not enough if it isn’t realized. There are commercial online forces taking away or taking advantage of people’s voices. Democratizing Publishing is a noble cause – but comes with responsibility … WordPress is neglecting people who are not proficient enough to use it – kind of like “money buying power” only with WordPress its “geek knowledge buying power” – and both are not right … and not very democratic.

Thank you for your precious and much appreciated ear-time.

I wish you and everyone at WordPress a prolific and inspiring 2012.

All Things Good
Ronen

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