Episode 18: The Economics of WordPress

WordPress Briefing Podcast with host Josepha Haden Chomphosy
WordPress Briefing – A WordPress Podcast
Episode 18: The Economics of WordPress

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Learn about where WordPress is going, how we’ll get there, and how you can get involved.

In episode 18 of WP Briefing, Josepha Haden Chomphosy reflects on a recent lecture that she gave to students at Hendrix College in which she explored the economics of WordPress and the principles that sustain the project’s ecosystem.

Have a question you’d like answered? You can submit them to wpbriefing@wordpress.org, either written or as a voice recording.



WordPress Showcase

The Value of WordPress: The World’s First Study of the WordPress Economy

Five for the Future

WordPress 5.9 Feature Go/No-Go

Digital Citizenship Resources

Becoming Better Digital Citizens Through Open Source

Empowering Generations of Digital Natives

Responsible Participation in Online Communities


Josepha Haden Chomphosy  00:11

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the WordPress Briefing, the podcast where you can catch quick explanations of the ideas behind the WordPress open source project, some insight into the community that supports it, and get a small list of big things coming up in the next two weeks. I’m your host, Joseph Haden Chomphosy. Here we go!

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  00:40

So today marks the start of Digital Citizenship week. This year in 2021, it is the week of October 18th, and to kick it off, I want to share with you a bit of a lecture that I gave to a college class last week. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  00:55

An economics professor teaches this class. And so, a little bit, I went to talk about how WordPress is essentially a microcosm of global societies. That was mostly why I was invited to come and give the talk. But one of the students asked a really interesting question about economics, and especially the economics of WordPress. And so, I’m going to take some time to do my best to answer that question here as well. But first, we’re going to start with some big picture information about WordPress that I shared with the students, and then maybe you also don’t necessarily know. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  01:00

So the first place that we started was with the question of what WordPress is. Most of them had heard of it but didn’t necessarily have a good handle on what it is. And so this is the definition that I gave to them. This is a bit of each of the facets of WordPress that we kind of see right now. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  01:57

Firstly, WordPress is, of course, a content management system, which means it’s a piece of software that uses a copyleft license, which means that it’s open source, and no one individual necessarily owns the rights to the code. If you get very specific, WordPress is, of course, a FOSS project or a free and open source software project. I know that there are discussions around when a piece of software is free, then what are you using to pay for that piece of software or to pay for your access to that software? And often, the answer is that you’re using your personally identifying information to pay for something commonly referred to as the data economy. If you’re not familiar with that, it’s a little bit of a three-pronged effort there. So you submit your data to get access to the software, or you can join the platform, depending on what it is that you’re working with. That platform or that software collects your data so that they can build a profile about what sorts of content engages you and so that they can share, essentially, audience cohorts like groups of people that kind of are talking about what you’re talking about, agree with what you agree about, and find interesting, the same sorts of things that you find interesting. And then those companies sell access to your attention. This is something that I refer to as the attention economy. I think there are a lot of startups at the moment that refers to the attention economy. The most iconic recent example was when the folks over at Netflix said that they weren’t competing against other streaming services; they were competing against sleep.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  03:54

And I think that might ring true for quite a few of us at the moment. But anyway, to scoot us back one level, I had, as I said, WordPress is free software. But the difference with WordPress is that to get a copy of WordPress, you are not necessarily required to hand over any data. You don’t need to give anyone data to get a copy. You don’t need to give anyone money or data to open up a copy that you own or to build a website in it if you’re just doing it locally, but especially around that data side because WordPress is not collecting any data, we’re also not brokering access to anyone’s attention.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  04:37

Another answer to the question of “What is WordPress?” WordPress software and the project enable nearly half a trillion dollars of revenue in the global digital economy, as we learned from a recent study from one of the hosting companies inside the WordPress project  – oh, Inside the WordPress ecosystem anyway. And WordPress also runs 42% of the web, with some of the biggest sites we know using WordPress. Such sites like the New York Times, Rolling Stone, many, many others, which you can see in the WordPress showcase as well. I don’t necessarily want to just like call out all the big groups that use it. But it’s a lot.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  05:22

 To recap what we just learned about WordPress and what WordPress is. It is software that one uses a copyleft license, meaning no single entity owns it. Two, it is available at no cost, meaning no money changes hands for you to own a copy. Three does not track you, which means that you don’t have to give WordPress any personally identifying information to get a copy. Four is an enabler of a massive digital economy massive portion of the digital economy even. That, you know, means their services, extensions, themes, plugins, all of that stuff. And five, it is software that supports 42% of the web. Practically every other site you visit uses the software. So that’s WordPress.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  06:10

With this massive free software, you might be thinking to yourself a couple of things. The first thing you might be thinking is, “Well, that sounds impossible.” But if that’s not what you’re thinking, you may be thinking, “how is it possible that a software that is technically owned by no one and takes no money or data to obtain –  how is it that a software like that can power 42% of the web.” This brings me, of course, to a topic that I specialize in, which is how WordPress is made. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  06:45

WordPress is, by now you know, built by a global community of contributors. And it’s partially contributors that are self-sponsored or giving of their own time freely, and partly sponsored volunteers, people who are paid by Five for the Future initiatives inside various companies. I have said many times, most recently at WordCamp US, that I have an ideal ratio of about two to one in that kind of volunteer or self-sponsored versus corporately sponsored set of voices. And also, as I said, at WordCamp US, we’re not necessarily getting to that ideal ratio right now because of the nature of the way the world is at the moment. However, this community functions almost like a tiny little digital society. There are ways to get your voice heard ways to take on leadership roles; there is a little bit of light governmental structure. And as with any society, any community like this, there’s a relationship inherent there. There’s almost a transactional element that takes place when you’re participating fully. Although I know that for the WordPress project, especially for open source in general, there is a reminder that we should always be contributing without the expectation of reciprocity. But even if you are contributing without the expectation of reciprocity, you still are engaging in an existing community, which means that you are fostering a relationship with the community or with the people who are also participating in the community with you. It’s just inescapable if you have people around and working together. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  08:38

So two concepts really informed my work to future-proof the WordPress project. And the first one is digital citizenship, which is why this particular WordPress Briefing fits today. And the other is the Tragedy of the Commons, especially how we go about refreshing those commons. So digital citizenship, I talked about it a bit in the last WP Briefing. But it’s still true today that that’s important. And the thing that really matters to me as we are working through how to make sure that WordPress is moving forward together. But most discussions of citizenship are location-specific, which makes plenty of sense. However, with so many mobile devices and broader access to some level of internet, we have increasing opportunities to be connected because of interests or skill sets. And even the things that we aspire to or aspire to be with a community like WordPress, which has no home office or main location. Of course, it’s very important that all of the leaders in WordPress, all of the team reps in WordPress, are proactively engaging with the people in their teams and in their portions of the community instead of waiting for like happenstance running into people. We also use a bunch of social stuff to get people together: twitch screams, not twitch screams because it’s not that Halloweeny! Twitch streams, hallway hangouts, events that are both online and off. Everything that the Learn section of the community is doing with their discussion groups. There are so many ways that WordPress proactively engages with each other and engages with itself. And that work is all really important to keeping the community involved, which is key to any organization’s long-term success, and certainly is true for WordPress as long-term success. Because when your community or your organization or your society is engaged and invested in your collective success, then you are (get ready for a list) one, more likely to see obstacles early and be able to overcome them, two more likely to see upcoming trends and prepare for them, three more likely to see what is broken and be able to repair it before it is a major issue. And four, you are more likely to be a resilient and fruitful organization long after any single member has stopped participating. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  11:10

The more connected to the community you are and the more active, the greater your influence and the ability to affect changes also become. And so, not only is it important for us to remain connected as a community just to make sure that everything is going well. But also, it’s one of the primary ways that people who are giving back can sort of have more of an opportunity in this particular ecosystem. In open source, anyone can gain influence by helping others by helping the software and by keeping the trains on the tracks. And so, one of the only lasting limits to long-term potential in an open source project is how good you are at seeing beyond yourself and seeing what good action can make beyond just your own benefits. I understand that there are also specific hurdles to contribution in your free time that I have dedicated a couple of different podcasts to, so I don’t want to neglect that reality. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  12:19

I have found in my experience that one of the limiting factors that sometimes cannot be unlearned is not being able to see kind of a broader scope, a broader perspective than what you’re already bringing into it. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  12:34

So being a good digital citizen, that’s a really important part of keeping any society together any organization together and moving forward. But especially is in the context of digital citizenship, is true for WordPress. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  12:48

The second thing that is really important to me is this concept of the Tragedy of the Commons, which is, of course, an economics term, open source has borrowed. We have talked about it in this podcast in the past. And today, I specifically am talking about how WordPress works to consistently be refreshing the commons. So the theory of the Tragedy of the Commons says that all societies can withstand a certain volume of free-riders. A certain number of people who reap the benefits of that community’s society without necessarily putting anything back into it. And that is no different in open source than in any other place where you would apply this concept. The particular catch for WordPress is of course, that it is free, freely available and has no specific copyright holder. And so in those circumstances, it is incredibly easy for a small group of people to maintain the software while the whole world uses it for free. And not only is it possible for a small group of people to maintain it, but if you’re not careful, it’s also easy for a small group of unpaid people and unacknowledged people to maintain something forever. And at the volume that WordPress operates at, that’s a really risky choice. It doesn’t help to support those people; it puts the long-term stability of the software in jeopardy. And at the end of the day, it just does not help to replenish the commons to make sure that everybody keeps getting to have the benefits of this ecosystem in the long term. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  14:39

As many of you know, there is this program called Five for the Future. And that program is essentially modeled after a tithe. So the invitation to this program when it was first introduced in 2014 was that if you or your company or your community is made better or made possible by WordPress, you should give back to the WordPress project 5% of your resources. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  15:07

It is an aspirational 5%, of course, and some groups give back their time while others give back with their money. But almost anyone who wants to give back has some skill that WordPress needs. That particular program has really grown in leaps and bounds since it was introduced. I don’t know exactly how many team members were considered Five for the Future contributors when it was first introduced in 2014; it was a little before my time. But at the moment, it’s about 150 people that I am routinely aware of or in contact with, which is still a small number considering how many people use WordPress. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  15:52

However, many corporations who have seen the most benefit, including, you know, the company that I work for (Automattic), and a lot of other hosting companies in the ecosystem, all do a really good job of refreshing the commons so that WordPress is still usable for businesses of all levels. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  16:11

I want to leave us with one final big picture thought about open source. This is going to be a callback to one of my earliest episodes in this podcast. But I think that it’s always worth remembering. We’re going to talk about this really popular phrase in open source projects “free as in speech, not free as in beer.” And for WordPress, as you know, it’s a little bit of both. It’s literally free. But also, since it’s open source, it has a free as in speech component to it as well. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  16:46

The four freedoms of open source as laid out in the 90s. So 10 years into the open source movement, are basically that you have the freedom to run the program for any purpose, the freedom to study how the program works, and change it so that it can do your computing as you wish, the freedom to redistribute copies so that you can help your neighbor and the freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions, giving the community a chance to learn and benefit from the changes that you put into the software.

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  17:22

I don’t remember if I said this in my original podcast, but I’m going to say it today, free speech has a lot of responsibility, just like being a part of a community. Governments or communities, or in our case, this software is built by the people who show up. For WordPress at 42% of the web, every small choice we make can cause huge changes in how people experience the web today and tomorrow. And that, to my mind, is really no different than participating in any sort of civic infrastructure. The changes that are made today, or the errors that we prevent, set the tone and the circumstance and the potential to thrive for everyone who comes after us. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  18:17

That leads us into our smallest of big things. I just have a couple of things for you all today. Firstly, at the time of this recording, this is prior to the Go/No-Go demo meeting for WordPress 5.9. So I have no idea what’s happened. But by the time this podcast has been released, we will have had the Go/No-Go meeting and also have shipped the post that summarizes what happened, what we hope to change in the next essentially sprint so that we can confidently move forward with a clear set of features for the 5.9 release. I will include a link to the notes below in the show notes. Kudos to everyone, props to everyone who participated in that meeting. And also props to all the people who have been helping us as we head into this final release of the year and all of you who are going to help us make it successfully to the end. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  19:15

The second thing I already kind of alluded to at the top of the podcast, it is Digital Citizenship week; two or three years ago, the WordPress blog had a series about digital citizenship and what it means to be a good digital citizen, what it means to do that in the context of WordPress. I will drop a link to those posts in the show notes as well. They are very well written and very important, and fairly evergreen content. If I think that there is something worth updating, I will update it before putting it in the show notes. And that is your small list of big things. 

Josepha Haden Chomphosy  19:57

Thank you all for tuning in today for the WordPress sprint. I’m your host, Joseph Haden Chomphosy, and I’ll see you again in a couple of weeks.

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