Fall, Or Matt in Hell

Fall, Or Matt in Hell

Is WordPress, and the internet as we know it, going to be cast out to the firmament at the expense of closed, network enabled, Facebookland? Are the early gods on the way out?

Note to regular readers: Let’s bring back some opinion to this blog :) Not #wpdrama (honestly, I mean that!) but a weekly opportunity to really get into the meat of what’s going down in WP land. So, without further ado… here’s an edited version of a piece I published in The MasterWP newsletter in July.

In case you’re not familiar with SF writer Neil Stephenson, you could probably not do much worse than getting yourself a copy of his 1992 (1992!!!) novel Snow Crash and reflecting on how much of that has (and is still likely to) come to pass. The guy’s a visionary and will generally feature on most of your ‘Tech Billionaire’s Reading Lists’, which is why he’s always worth reading both for the enjoyment of his novels (Seveneves is a cracking read too, if a bit silly towards the end) and also because, well, he’s often as much of a futurist as you’ll find in the digital space.

Anyway – fanboy stuff over – his latest novel, Fall, or Dodge in Hell, is as much a romp through a futuristic landscape as a fantasy novel that deals with the question of what might happen should we be able to develop, post-death, a fully accurate scan of your connectome alongside sufficiently powerful neural computing capacity to bring you digitally back to ‘life’.

Fall or Dodge in Hell cover
Awesome read, especially for you scifi-fantasy double nerds

And here’s where the actually-relevant-to-wp-land stuff kicks in, because Dodge (reborn Egdod) finds himself, and then others, in a haphazard, chaotic, open world of endless possibilities and infinite opportunities for shaping and reshaping. Read, for us, the internet and the chaos of a world yet to be formed that gave us html sites, Dreamweaver, GeoCities, Movable Type, open-source-CMSs-galore and finally, has settled, on yours and my favorite of them all, WordPress.

Which has turned out pretty cool yeh? I’m running a WP-based business as, I imagine, are most of you in some form or another. The medium I am posting this mindump of a post in is, itself, a WP business. Many families are fed and many lives are led as part of this dominant ecosystem. Hallelujah!

But, what if that were to change. What if we & WP were to be flung out. What if that was actually the most likely outcome. What could be The Fall?

Well, I’m very much on the record as arguing, and trying to counter the fact that it would be via the much more easy-to-use, well funded and end-consumer driven third party competition, think Squarespace, Shopify, Wix etc. But I was wrong. Again, lol.

For any number of reasons (capacity, community, cost… to name a few) alongside Gutenberg being the great leap forward (pun intended) we needed to bridge that gap. Yay! WP lives long & prospers!

Or, does it?

Because there are dark clouds not just on the horizon, but already here. Clouds that I think can be fairly neatly grouped into corporate and government threats. Threats that come with their own hosts (I can’t help myself) of support and that would seek to dominate and, even better, displace the web as we know it and, with it, WP.

For purposes commercial I don’t think we really need to look much further than what – to me at least – comes across as a hugely ironic scream into the abyss, also known as ‘A meditation on the open web’. Which, upon watching, as opposed to taking a deep breath you might as well flee screaming down the street shouting “They are coming to take us all arggggggghhhh!!! Faaaaaaaarrrrkkk!!!”.

By which I mean Facebook (and associated entities), and any number of other terrifying, network-effect-enabled, gazillion dollar funded and closed publishing platforms.

And as for Google being, as the entry point (because who, apart from most of us, still actually uses an RSS reader) the gateway and protector of the ‘open web’ what chance do we realistically have when Maps is basically becoming an advertising soaked (if not simply fake) shitshow and, in one of my favourite graphics about WordPress hosting put together by WPShout, basically lies driven by affiliates and advertisers. Thanks Google, great job.

And that’s before we even get into a far more existential threat, the state. In case you missed it Australia – also thanks home! – recently secured broad G20 support for the effective criminalisation of social media publishing, which might not seem like a problem for your lil’ old WP site until you wonder what chance we’ll have when the behemoths that want to eat us all are running scared.

Because if you want a reality check on what that’s going to look like then go no further than China which should do plenty to ritually disabuse you of the notion that the ‘open web’, or (to go back to the book) a Utopian and free chaos has any chance whatsoever of surviving when it comes down to guys and gals with guns. You don’t even need to read that far into (the excellent) We Have Been Harmonised: Life in China’s Surveillance State by Kai Strittmatter to grasp the fundamental fact that what many of us almost universally thought of as being a new dawn, a cause for optimism and a terror for tyrants is in fact the opposite, hard.

Have we already fallen? Have the gods of the early internet been cast down? Maybe, and certainly if you happen to live your life through WeChat (I’d love to see a meditation on that!)

Has WordPress (by which I mean .org, not .com) got much chance of surviving in a state beyond an underground ‘zine of the 80s, and indie record label, a farmstead (sigh) or a series of pamphlets greeted by a ‘no junk mail’ down the road?

I think we all hope it has but in order to make that happen, in addition to simply saying it should we need to do a lot more than hope… dare I say even resist?

Whaddya reckon? We stuffed or what?

James Farmer

James Farmer CEO of Incsub, WPMU DEV, CampusPress & Edublogs