Don’t Get Lost

I both love and loathe my inbox.  On the one hand, it gives me a constant stream of information and instant access to my friends, old college classmates, and current colleagues.  I can send a message to a mailing list and have 20 quality replies in just a few hours.  This never-ending supply of information could easily keep me busy all day if I had no other source of entertainment.

On the other hand, it gives me a constant stream of unnecessary clutter and white noise generated by the instant access my friends, old college classmates, and current colleagues have to me.  Without sending a message to a mailing list, I have more than 20 frustratingly off-topic replies in a few hours.  This never-ending supply of borderline spam could easily keep me irritated all day if I had no other source of work-related stress.

Yes, I’m talking about the WP Hackers mailing list.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with this list since I first learned about it about two years ago.  I subscribed to the list because someone told me it was the best way to get involved with core WordPress development.  After two months of mindless debating over function names and plug-in requirements, I unsubscribed so I could focus on real development.

After I saw a few patches committed to WordPress core with little discussion on Trac (but heavy references to WP Hackers threads) I decided to give it another try.  That lasted a whole week before I unsubscribed again.

Currently, I’m a member of the list once more, and I’m much more active than I used to be – but the list is no more productive.  This weekend, someone asked a seemingly innocuous question about strategies related to protecting premium plug-ins (open source systems that you have to pay for initially) from un-wanted redistribution.

I was very excited because this is a question I’ve wanted to ask for a while … but haven’t quite known how.  Well, the conversation started.  And kept going.  And took a few twists and turns.  And, as of last night, we were still discussing it … I think.

Actually, the conversation derailed somewhere, and we once again got hung debating the WordPress Matrix Easter egg.

Andrew Nacin summarizes my exact sentiments about this frustrating redirection:

It took you guys four days to jump from premium plugins, to GPL, to obfuscated code, to the easter egg. You guys are slacking. Six months ago you would have made those jumps in a day, tops.

Also, major props for having the most productive conversation on the list for the last few months only days before the least productive conversation on the list for the last few months. Surely one might have gotten the wrong idea about wp-hackers after the version control thread, but you guys took pains to set the record straight.

Just last week, we had a fairly long but education debate on the merits of using Subversion versus Git in WordPress development.  The >140 email thread was a lot to follow, but I know several people learned a lot and we settled a few development disputes in the community.  (And no, WordPress isn’t moving away from Subversion … yet.)

But now, we’ve taken a great question on best practices, devolved into a debate over the GPL as applied to obfuscated code, and descended once again into an argument over an Easter egg in the software.  shoshanna dresses

This entire conversation, though, encapsulates my longstanding frustration with the majority of the WordPress project: our general inability as a community to stay on topic.

Example: Features

When I started working with WordPress, it was very clearly a blogging platform.  Every feature spoke to the idea of blogging by creating posts and curating comments.  Pages and supplementary features were entirely ancillary (and I couldn’t even figure them out at first).  Over time, though, everyone argued that WordPress had evolved into a full-fledged content management system (CMS).

We started adding new features, and shifting the focus from blogging to more ambiguous “content.”  I started consulting and selling the idea of using WordPress as a serious corporate CMS to my clients.

Then, newer versions came out that, once again, shifted the focus back to blogging.  The upcoming release of WordPress 3.1 introduces post formats – a fantastic feature if you want to build a Tumblr-style blog (and I’ll probably use them personally) but needless clutter if you’re running a corporate website or e-commerce portal.

Don’t get me wrong, I think features like post formats are great (I’ve even contributed to developing it), but the constant shift away from and back to blogging as WordPress’ core mission is distracting, confusing, and driving away potential users.

This week’s activity on the WP Hackers mailing list shows that this trend is unlikely to abate any time soon, though.  Which leaves me asking, what can we do to narrow our focus and stay on topic as a community?

About Eric

Eric is an author, marketer, and freelance web developer living in Beaverton, OR. When he's not working on his own projects, he spends time helping others get their ideas off the ground - particularly when they're using WordPress.


  1. Andrew Nacin says:

    Unfortunately, wp-hackers stopped being about core development long before I was a member of this community. Unlike many other open source projects, we’ve embraced getting away from mailing lists for core development. I think part of that may be due to what you see now, but that’s really before my time.

    I don’t think I entirely agree with the suggestion that the entire community can’t stay on topic. I’ll admit, dust-ups like standardized posts formats, Thesis/GPL, and other conversations do derail a work day or two for some of us, and in that regard, I agree that we’re a bit whimsical.

    But when it comes to features, I don’t think we have a lack of focus. WordPress was pushed as a CMS by its users and developer community, and we answered in turn. Post formats were a recognition that we needed to take a good hard look at blogging, and see what we could do to make it better. I don’t think this is a lack of focus, but rather, a response to trade winds (if you will). We’re closely watching and taking notes for what we should be doing next, and I don’t think that should be held against us.

    Also, ‘subscribe to comments’ is a great plugin ;-)

    • Eric says:

      I understand the shifts in focus that are due to “trade winds” in the community, but a year ago I was far less involved with core. I didn’t know who was involved or what conversations were going on, mostly because I ignored IRC and Trac. As a result – from an end user standpoint – I’d hear one thing communicated (“We’re going to focus more on CMS features and less on blogging features) and see another thing happen in a subsequent release.

      From the outside looking in, this kind of massive shift in externally-facing messages paired with the disjointed conversations on WP Hackers (which is the easiest community for new developers to participate in), it make the WordPress community as a whole look like they have difficulty maintaining focus. If you look deeper and pay attention to specific members of the core team (i.e. you, Mark, Jane, Matt, Westi) it’s easier to see the focus. But other high-profile members of the community who aren’t members of the core team (we both know who they are) can detract from that.

      Also, just about anything by Mark is a great plug-in :-)

      • Andrew Nacin says:

        Maybe that means we should kill off wp-hackers for all the confusion, headaches, uselessness, and trolling it brings.

        • Eric says:

          So long as there’s some kind of alternative, I’d be for that idea. As it stands now, Trac is too hard to follow and IRC isn’t well-threaded enough to follow a conversation after the fact. As much of a headache as the Hackers list might be, it’s still fairly easy to follow.

          • Andrew Nacin says:

            I think it being “easy to follow” is a weak argument for keeping it when there’s nothing worth following on it.

            I agree that core development can be tough to follow. But given that wp-hackers isn’t core development, it isn’t helping any. It’s a false sense of knowledge.

            If you want to follow core development, there’s wpdevel (big ideas), IRC (real-time ideas), Trac (code), and wp-testers (alpha/beta testing). I don’t see where wp-hackers fits in there at all. Every non-trolling thread in wp-hackers can go in the forums. That doesn’t mean I’m calling them support requests, it just means that they would work very effectively as forum threads.

            For someone who prefers a mailing list over a forum to follow, I don’t suggest that lightly.

          • Eric says:

            Fair argument, and I already follow the rest of those (minus IRC for real time). I actually find IRC, particularly the dev chats, to be the most useful. Minus the fact that I’m at work and shouldn’t really be sitting in an IRC room during business hours …

            But when I think more about the actual valuable WP Hackers threads we’ve had, I agree with you entirely. There have been few, and those that have come up would have been served equally well somewhere else.

  2. hakre says:

    Thanks for the differentiated and detailed insight you’re giving with this post. Staying on topic in mailinglist is always something hard to achieve I guess. It’s a personal decision of what to read and to reply to. So this can have it’s own dynamic especially with opinionated topics.

    The codebase has somehow over-come itself which makes it more and more hard to integrate new stuff. The difference between what’s wanted and what can be achieved is growing and growing. New dynamics are not really taking place, there is a lot of preservation.

    I wonder whenever the foundations philosophy will come to life.

    • Andrew Nacin says:

      I think the difference between what you want and what’s been achieved is an increasing gap, simply because you’re contributing less to code and more to headaches.

    • Eric says:

      I guess I’m not quite sure what you mean about difficulty integrating new ideas into the existing codebase. We’ve always worked to maintain an unheard of level of backwards compatibility, which is where a lot of the “preservation” dynamic comes from. The idea is that a theme or plug-in written for a very old version will still work with a current version of the system – even if we add massive new features and overhaul the interface.

      It also makes it easy on the end user when there are little or no surprises when clicking “update” aside from a handful of shiny new features.

      But the “philosophy” behind WordPress (both the software and the newly formed Foundation) is to build open source software that benefits the community. WordPress benefits the community because it’s easy to set up and easy to use. Continuing to develop WordPress means letting go of one or two smaller issues so we can focus on the bigger picture.

  3. Otto says:

    For any mailing list, it helps to have a good mail client. GMail is particularly good, since you can just assign the mailing list to its own label and keep it out of your inbox. Then you can browse through it whenever you like.

    Mailing lists work fine as long as you don’t try to read everything on them and keep them out of your inbox.


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