The Builder Backlash

Even as someone who has thrown in their lot with Gutenberg, I have had my moments where I might have been tempted to tweet, as Ari Stathopoulos did a few days ago on Twitter, that “I can’t understand our code anymore and it keeps getting more and more complex instead of simpler.”

Stathopoulos is a core contributor and has done a bunch of work on Gutenberg as well, so he’s not just some guy talking through his hat. And his lament (and decision) resonated with quite a few others on WordPress Twitter.

I don’t know whether the complexity here is the result of WordPress having strategically blundered or whether Gutenberg’s complexity reflects the current state of large open-source (and commercial) projects. They tend to be complex. They tend to be looked after by sponsoring organizations who are paying for a lot of the relatively small number of developers who understand what’s going on under the hood.

Nor have I taken more than a glance under the hood of the Gutenberg code, so I can’t really evaluate whether it’s gotten truly impenetrable. But at the same time, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s gotten fairly hard to sort out.

And that’s because just using the code is a lot more complex than WordPress has been in the past (five years back, say). Or rather, you can still code more or less exactly as you might have done when writing a plugin or theme five years ago, but if you want to embrace the new stuff, there’s a considerably taller hill to climb before you get anything meaningful accomplished.

Ari may be a lone voice among developers working on Gutenberg itself (I don’t have an inside view), but among those using Gutenberg, both developers and what for lack of a better word I tend to call “builders,” there’s a “builder backlash.”

No revolt just yet

The backlash is by no means outright revolt, but you get the impression that a lot of these folks think WordPress is on the wrong track with almost the entirety of the Gutenberg project. And Gutenberg is really the dominant piece of what WordPress even is these days.

While there are certainly some developers who are part of the backlash, I think it’s mostly a builder-populated resistance. And that’s potentially an enormous problem, because the builders, the people who can play WordPress like a violin but, precisely because of that skill, don’t wind up dealing with actual code all that much—they are what is responsible for the growth of the platform over the past ten or so years.

I want to sort out the difficulties and my project for the next few blog posts, but first we might reasonably ask why people can’t just ignore the new stuff. Why bother building things with blocks? Why bother developing custom block types?

Yeah, well, they are ignoring the new stuff.

Deciding not to bother

A significant percentage of WordPress professionals (large enough that it seriously worries me some nights) have decided precisely that they’re not going to bother. They can create every webpage look and functionality they want, they say, using Elementor and, once in a while, creating extra meta fields with ACF. Part of this camp says they’re just waiting for the block editor to settle down and, to paraphrase a little, “not suck.” There’s another, smaller part of the “no” camp that seem to have dug in their heels, waiting for the madness to subside and some far better way forward to be presented, either with a simple return to the classic editor and PHP templates, or perhaps by folding in an existing commercial page builder.

If the builder population jumps ship, we’ll have a very different WordPress ecosystem on our hands.

The potential outcome where WordPress becomes a more code-first environment for those doing more than page design may be inevitable (and by no means terrible), but it’s not the ideal course and, luckily, it doesn’t seem a forgone conclusion, not yet anyway.

Immediate tasks

Almost immediately, though, two things need to happen.

First, some way around the “traditional page builders do this better” objection has to be delivered pronto. Vendors like Kadence have moved impressively far, but then again, beginners (not all, but too many) get stopped cold by the editor and nothing that I’ve seen delivered by those creating sets of blocks has found a way to make page building feel natural despite whatever faults the block editor has in terms of being user friendly.

Put another way, if somebody out there comes up with an overall editor experience that’s actively better than the legacy page builders and runs with Gutenberg blocks, the migration will be inevitable.

Second, there’s a marketing problem. WordPress is making huge shifts and we just haven’t done a good job at setting expectations or, frankly, controlling the release cadence. People who make a living with Elementor and Divi and the like ran headlong into an early, considerably less capable editor. Sure, it’s earliness was clearly disclosed, but it was also built into the mainline production release, which sent a contradictory message.

Past messaging isn’t the point, though. Forward-rolling messaging, though, desperately needs to make it clear which new pieces are aimed at which parts of the broad community. Along with that, we need to recognize that a modern platform that does what other modern platforms do is simply not going to something where everyone with a penchant for technical things is going to making pull requests. Messaging to those who will be making changes under the hood is going to need to be rather different from much of the messaging to builders and then a further subdivision will need to be made for folks who are just learning enough to build a nice, basic site and, you know, take advantage of democratized publishing. And we need to signal clearly who’s being addressed by these different kinds of messaging.

I think there’s an urgency to this that I suspect I don’t need to convince you of, not if this you’ve read this far.