During a recent conversation about WordPress with some fellow bloggers, the issue of WordPress’ 2.9 features came up.
Though I am a heavy WordPress user, running it on half a dozen blogs and writing for three other sites that use it, I wasn’t particularly blown away by the feature list. Though some things struck me as nice, such as post thumbnails and a “trash” can, and others seem to have great long term potential, such as comment metadata and custom post types, many of the much-touted features didn’t seem to be that useful to me.
Image editing is a nice idea, but I already have more image editors than I can count. Likewise, the easier media embedding seemed odd as I’ve never once felt it was too hard or too time-consuming to embed a clip into my site. Copying and pasting a few lines of code just is not that intimidating to me.
But my friends then pointed out something to me, these features weren’t intended for me. Old hats such as myself might grow to find these features convenient, but they certainly aren’t necessary.
They aren’t tools for the people who are blogging vets, but for those who want to start blogging, will be soon or just started. New blogging users, especially those without a lot of technical expertise, have different needs and they are changing the way CMSs, including WordPress, design and build their systems. These changes will affect all of us but, in the long run, will have a positive impact.
The History of the Personal Web
When I first started designing and building sites in 1996, a personal Web page was just that, a personal Web page. You got a few MB of server space from either your ISP or a service such as Geocities and you built a site from scratch.
This was an unforgiving environment. You had to learn HTML to do anything and, even once you mastered the code there was no hand-holding to make these sites look good, thus why so many of the old Geocities sites caused temporary blindness.
But as comical as Geocities is today, even in closure, it was the type of environment that many current bloggers cut their teeth on and it came with some valuable skills, comfort with HTML, basics of image editing, etc.
However, as time moved on, the Web itself became more approachable to less tech-savvy user. Services also sprang up to make it easier for those new to the Web to have their own pages. HTML became a true four-letter word and sites touted heavily how you could build a page without ever looking at code.
That, in turn, expanded into blogging. Services like Blogspot sprang up to make blogging easy, making it possible to create a blog by just signing up for an account, choosing a theme and typing your entries. The trend continued into WordPress, who tried to bring a similar sense of ease with their products, both WordPress.com and their self-hosted WordPress.
In fact, with one-click installs, automatic updates, a theme directory and the WYSIWYG editor, you can setup a blog, on your own domain, without any knowledge of HTML, FTP and, soon enough, an image editor. For just a small fee, you can have your own “.com” blog without any real Web expertise.
However, though it is tempting for old hats such as myself to decry this type of advancement, it seems to be having a positive effect on the Web and, over time, on our CMSs and blogging applications.
Why It’s Important
Though its easy to accuse these tools of “dumbing down” the Web. They make access to blogging easier and that, in turn, has a lot of positive effects.
Consider the following:
- Experts Can Be Experts: Previously, if you wanted to build a site about rose gardening, you had to learn HTML, master FTP and become a guru with images. That’s time away from writing about your passions and is a distraction from creating great content.
- Experts Help Non-Experts: Not only does it mean you don’t have to be a guru at HTML to make a blog, but you can help actual gurus help you out, through theme directories, widget galleries, plugins, etc. This lets people have better-looking, more feature-rich sites than would ever be possible otherwise. Even us “old hats” need help from the real experts much of the time.
- The Web is a Prettier Place: Since bloggers don’t have to be designers to have attractive sites, the Web is a prettier place all around. Compare WordPress.com blogs to old copies of Geocities for proof of that.
- More People Can Blog: With being tech-savvy no longer a requirement for blogging, more people can blog, including experts in other fields. I know that many of the law blogs I read would not be possible without these new tools.
- Blogging Becomes More Mainstream: Finally, as more people blog, they also read blogs and that, in turn, makes them more mainstream and more of an accepted form of media. This can be a boon for those who build solid reputations with their sites.
In short, a rising tide lifts all boats and this is a clear example of that. The easier blogging is, the better off all bloggers will be.
The Future of CMSs
Of course, all of this is going to have a major impact on the way that CMSs, such as WordPress and Joomla, design their interfaces. In short, they are going to get simpler and easier to use.
While that means that the most basic and common tasks will be come easier and faster, it also means that some of more powerful features will be more hidden and outlier situations won’t be as easy to handle.
WordPress, on that front, does a great job with customization and extensibility. You can really make your WordPress install do what you want, but increasingly the default setup is no longer aimed at the long-time user and power blogger.
The WordPress experience has been built from the ground up to make blogging as easy as possible. Power users will need to adjust accordingly. However, it makes much more sense to start with a user-friendly and slightly less feature-rich setup and have users build up than to have users install plugins to simplify things, as was the course of action in many areas, including embeds and image editing. Power users are much better able to make such adjustments.
So, as frustrating as it can be to have your CMS altered to cater to novice users, especially as power-user oriented issues seem to go largely ignored outside the plugin community, it is not a bad thing nor is is unnecessary. It’s an important part of blogging’s future.
For blogging to grow, thrive and survive in the coming years, it needs to continuously reach out to new people and one of the important elements of that is to make it more approachable and a large part of what makes blogging approachable is the platform or CMS.
Fortunately, one does not have to trade ease of use for power. WordPress has done a decent job at balancing the two by providing a lot of customization options. However, it is clear that the defaults will be geared to those who are novices, mainly because they are the ones least comfortable with changing the settings.
Though it might seem to be an invasion of newbie bloggers, it has been going on for some time, as Blogspot is evidence of, and it is a good thing, increasing the diversity of bloggers and helping to grow and strengthen the medium.
That, in the end, can only mean better things for all bloggers.