August 26, 2011
The other day I did something that I’ve only done once before. I got into a ‘debate’ on Twitter. Even worse, I started said debate. And now, to make it the ultimate faux pas in online etiquette, I’m writing a blog post about it. Fortunately, I’m not writing alone. My good buddy Justin Vasko (@slovaksouthpaw) is co-authoring this piece with me; joining me just as he did on the 140character front lines.
The debate stemmed from a tweet I wrote about this article. The article, titled Stop The WordPress!, was published in last week’s edition of Now, and made, what I thought to be sweeping fear-mongering claims about the blogging platform. The author Joshua Errettt frames the piece with a misleading statement:
“Go to the website of your favourite Canadian publication. In the address bar, type /wp-admin after the URL. See a login screen? that means it’s hosted by WordPress” (note this excerpt has been taken from the hard copy of the article as it originally appeared in the newspaper, it has since been changed in the online version).
If you’ve ever hosted a website and used WordPress as a CMS, then perhaps you understand why the first 30 words of this article resulted in the most epic facepalms of our lives. For those who haven’t, let us explain:
WordPress is a free, open-source blogging platform used by millions and millions of people. Errett is correct, some of your favourite online publications probably use WordPress to publish content. However, these publications are not hosted on WordPress.com as he states. What Errettt seems to overlook is that at the most basic level, the WordPress platform can be used in one of two ways: as a complete hosting service through wordpress.com (at varying price points, ranging from free and beyond), or as a (free) piece of web software that you can download through wordpress.org, customize, and host on your own ISP. To the most casual observer, a few errant letters may not seem like much of a difference, but in terms of functionality and hosting model, the two could not be more different.
To Errettt, there is no difference. To Errettt, there is only WordPress, and it is a threat to the independence of all Canadian media outlets. In short, his article follows this train of thought:
“Go to your favourite Canadian media site. I bet they use WordPress. Lots of websites do! It keeps getting hacked, experiencing downtime, being subject to DDoS attacks, and generally being terrible from a service perspective. That being said, it’s actually pretty good. Oh, but that doesn’t matter because they’ve a monopoly on the Internet, and that’s not right. If it went down for real, all the website using it would be in big trouble. Also, by all of us using WordPress, we’re losing our independence. Karl Marx would say this is a bad idea. Solution? Code your own system that is like WordPress [because it’s good], but isn’t WordPress [because it’s popular and that’s bad].”
This 115 word summary of a 496 word article is basic, but follows his logic and thought structure exactly (which is unfortunate). By the way, did you notice the distinction between WordPress.com SERVER being hacked and ALL THE OTHER PEOPLE IN THE WORLD hosting WP software on their own servers? No? That’s right, because he didn’t make that distinction. To Errett, an attack on one domain name, on one server, means an attack to everyone everywhere who might use said companies product…on a different domain…on a different server…
And thus came the tweet that started it all. I announced on twitter that I found their WordPress article to be ‘so misinformed it’s mind-boggling’. I mentioned @nowtoronto directly, admittedly in an attempt to get their attention; I wanted them to recognize their wrongdoing in providing the masses with hyperbolic paranoid tech blabber. As it turns out, Errett is the manager of Now magazine, and he was quite prompt in telling me, he was still right and WordPress, in whatever form, was still bad and unsafe and an evil capitalist tool.
Unfortunately the only basis, or evidence, Errett had to support his securities claim was the WordPress.com DDOS attack (remember this is an attack on their server and not on the millions of WordPress software installations hosted on other servers) and the popularity of attacks on Windows machines due to their domination over the PC market. Granted, DDOS attacks are a source of anxiety for any corporation with an online presence, and yes, hackers go where people go. Maximum impact for minimum effort. Despite this, we’d have to protest that these grand, semi-paranoid arguments are not reasonable nor sound enough to actually *encourage* people to give up WordPress in favor of an individualized system. Errett agrees that WordPress is a trustworthy service, yet while he’s catastrophizing about the service going up in flames (taking all your favourite Canadian publications with them – because he’s still lumping together .com and self hosting), he seems to forget that WordPress is an open source, community built platform. This means, if we are to consider the vulnerabilities of the SOFTWARE (and not individual servers), that in addition to the official WordPress team of geeks and brainiacs, there are hundreds – if not thousands – of other developers working tirelessly not only on improving the software with Plugins, Widgets, and Themes, but they’re also actively working to patch security holes and vulnerabilities to help protect themselves and fellow users. Rather than the National Post or Toronto Standard hiring a small team of developers to build, protect, and troubleshoot their own system that no one else knows how to use or edit, they can have the same team develop and maintain their website – with a world wide IT community supporting them should they need it – talk about efficient resource management! This isn’t to imply that today’s developers are lazy or incapable, but is instead a symptom of the open source community – one that thrives on innovation, sharing, and support. Let’s face it – if a hacker wants to take down a publication’s website, they’ll find the means to do it, WordPress or not. And, as Justin pointed when he first threw his hat into the ring, based on Errett’s rationale, if we’re so scared about DDOS attacks and hackers, then we should just quit the Internet full-stop and DIY everything. His point: hackers happen, and a custom built CMS ain’t gonna save you from one mighty pissed off troll. So while the pervasiveness of WordPress may lead one to the assumption that it is therefore ‘easier’ to crack, at the very least one has to feel an increased sense of security knowing that you have an army of techies standing by to fight back.
Of course, all of these paranoid security concerns seem to be based on the idea that the online media corps have haphazardly installed WordPress without any regard for additional server or database security. If you’re a big and important publication, we can only hope that you don’t leave any CMS – WordPress or otherwise -hanging around so willy-nilly, lest you want to become a bots best friend. Simply put, WordPress is not, and shouldn’t be, your first or only line of defense for protecting your content, and Errett’s panic over it’s vulnerabilities has us under the assumption that he thinks it is.
Erret’s tirade against WordPress didn’t end with the question of security. Once Justin started getting involved in the debate, things took a turn for the ‘confusing’. As previously mentioned, Errett feels that the seeming monopoly of WordPress as a CMS is threatening not only to the security of a Canadian media corp, but also to it’s ability to remain independent. In his less than 500 word tech article, Errett manages to bring Karl Marx into the mix stating that “Marx, of course, placed all kinds of importance on ownership of the means of production”. Apparently, using a popular publishing platform is akin to state censorship…or something. We can’t help but wonder what Errett used to write his article for his independent news paper, on. Was it a Mac? Was it Microsoft Word? Did he start with an HB pencil and some Hilroy lined paper? Was Now magazine laid out using Quark or Adobe Illustrator? And if so, did relying on popular tools suddenly rob him of his autonomy and ability to produce an ‘independent’ article? Is his content therefore less innovative? At the end of the day, what allows journalists (because, at the end of the day, online publications is what Errett is talking about) to create independent content has very little to do with the online platform with which they publish on – especially when that platform is hosted on the server they own, and is publishing content they create. Now, if one were to really stretch the facts, you could, maybe make an argument that people who host their sites on WordPress.com are less independent than those who host their own sites and/or use a custom CMS. After all like every other online blog hosting service, whatever you post through WordPress.com is subject to checks that posted content does not conflict with their Terms of Service (most of which states they don’t want illegal copyright, programs that install viruses, or pornographic material posted on WordPress.com blogs). Ultimately though, Erret’s assertion that the National Post should heed Marx’s warning is both silly and misleading. As explained, countless times through this post, most major publishers worth their salt aren’t hosting their blogs on WordPress.com. They use WordPress as the foundation for their individual, self-hosted publications. They own (or rent) their server space, they install and use WordPress the same way they would any other CMS, or even OS, for that matter. Faulting people for using what you perceive to be shoddy technology is one thing, but questioning their artistic integrity / independence? That’s low, and an incredibly convoluted notion. They answer to a different power, and a debate on the independence of the publishing world should be less focused on software and more focused on policy. Simply put, WordPress has no stake in the content published through their platform; they just want to make efficient content management a bit more ubiquitous. Their concern is PHP and servers and MySQL databases, not what Joshua Errett has to say on any given day. Besides, I’m sure if we were able to ask Marx what he though about WordPress and the Internet in general, he’d be too busy to applying for jobs with eBay to reply.
Errett’s proposed solution to the ‘WordPress problem’ is that organizations should invest in developing their own CMS. He believes this will drive both team building and innovation, leading us to believe that Errett either doesn’t understand WordPress nor it’s community at all or he decided to swing as many punches as he could – hit or miss. It’s silly, but unsurprising given his logic of “no matter the connection, if you use a tool with a broad userbase, even if it is constantly being updated by a dedicated community, you are playing a fools game / we should abandon windows to code our own OS”. The problem with this proposal (aside from the ridiculous logic that led him there) is that custom built content management systems are cumbersome, costly, and less efficient. If a programmer leaves an organization and hasn’t properly documented his work, the next IT team will be left learning a brand new system and tinkering about just to add some Twitter functionality; it’s hard to be innovative when you’re busy tending to menial tasks. That said, there is merit to this side of the debate, and Erret’s opinion on WordPress being a monopoly is interesting and worth discussing. It is unfortunate, however, that he framed what could have been a tantalizing discussion in such a convoluted manner, such that the most intriguing aspect of our debate was squandered by us getting pissed off over product definitions. There is no doubt that rise of WordPress resulted in the beautification of many publication’s websites (do you remember the Toronto Star’s website from 10 years ago? Horrid). And the aesthetic is, of course, rather uniform. Errett argues that a step away from WordPress would equate to innovation in user experience design – and there, friends, lies the untapped potential of the debate. And we too are interested if a change in CMS, or even just a change in user experience design, could revolutionize the way we consume online media. Perhaps this is the independence that Errett was alluding to? Before we stray too far from the argument, we must acknowledge that there are talented developers all over the world who are constantly experimenting with WordPress, fighting the mainstream implementation of the software which has resulted in the aforementioned user experience design filter. They are the true eHeroes. However, much like our example of the toiling IT guy, WordPress – and the design aesthetic that seems to be common to WordPress sites – is a result of its being accessible to a broad audience. After all, mainstream media outlets are just that – mainstream. Their content needs to be laid out in an open, familiar, easy-to-navigate format, with the knowledge that their audience isn’t going to be limited to tech-savvy twenty somethings who are looking for more than just the weather forecast. User experiences will be both exciting and dull with any online platform. WordPress is not the limiting factor in this case, on trial is the balance that must be struck between accessibility and progressive design that creates the sort of “dull compromise” that Errett speaks out against.
While we are both fans of WordPress we want to conclude by stating that we aren’t so gung-ho on the system that we believe it is the be all and end all of content management. Rather, the purpose for this discussion was to address the blatant misinformation being delivered in our local, independent press. It felt to us that Errett was fear mongering for the sake of fear mongering, catastrophizing over a piece of software that he obviously had not researched enough. Much of his argument could be applied to any software that is both popular, intuitive, and has a broad install base. That said, Errett is a fine journalist and we’ve enjoyed other pieces he’s written. The debate ended amiably, because when you have nerds duking it out on twitter, it never really gets much more violent past the spattering of some particularly vicious, yet passive, sarcastic remarks. And finally, WordPress is a great system, it’s free, open source, and community driven. On top of that, it’s a versatile, capable system which is limited solely by one’s imagination and ability to use Google to find new and exciting plugins or code. We’re proud to use WordPress on both of our blogs. That said, it’s not for everyone, and many other content management and publishing platforms exist – the point is – find or make one that suits your purposes, but don’t jump the WordPress ship just because Now magazine declared it wasn’t cool.
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