The State of the Word (SOTW) for 2022 covered a lot of ground this year and was full of vision and possibility. There was a greater focus on creators, design, and AI that went deeper than we’ve seen before. Big changes are coming to the plugin repository. There will be a new all-woman release team in 2023. We may see a new notification infrastructure. Gutenberg’s continued adoption and growth seem certain. While there is much to review in the achievements of 2022, the year ahead may prove even more transformative for WordPress.
An Emphasis on Creators and No-Code at SOTW 2022
If I had to describe my thoughts about WordPress in a single word as we enter the 20th year of democratized publishing, the word would be “open.” WordPress has always been an open project and community, but it doesn’t always feel like a brightly lit room full of open doors to so many places you want to explore.
Now, that feeling is back.
This year’s State of the Word crackled with energy and a renewed sense of possibility.
Josepha Haden Chomphosy’s opening for the State of the Word emphasized the unique value and power of open source. When Matt Mullenweg took the podium, he related open-source collaboration to just about every relevant point and question to follow. That’s not unusual for a State of the Word and two great open-source evangelists. Even though it’s a very familiar pitch, by the end of the event, I was left with a sense of how much opportunity WordPress has ahead of it. WordPress is like a blank canvas again, as Matt described the new accessibility-ready Twenty Twenty-Three default theme that shipped with WordPress 6.1.
Words like “creation” and “creator” came up a dozen times, and Matt often referred to creating in WordPress without code. This signals a new and needed emphasis on end users rather than developer-focused WordPress insiders. This year “was all about customization and empowering designers — and people who want to be designers,” Matt said at one point. His focus turned to Gutenberg at the beginning, and Gutenberg remained central throughout his presentation. Gutenberg is the key to making things quickly and easily — and not just with WordPress.
These four freedoms enable the removal of barriers to opportunity in the world. And we can secure a free and open and inter-connected web for the future. The four freedoms form almost a Bill of Rights for the web. And as with any rights, you don’t need to know they exist in order to benefit from them or in order for you to deserve them. And so, when I ask myself, “Why WordPress?” The best answer I have always been able to find is that we secure opportunities and freedoms long into the future for people who may not even know that those freedoms should matter to them yet.Josepha Haden Chomphosy, Executive Director of WordPress, SOTW 2022
Gutenberg is Mature and Becoming a Cross-Platform Standard
As Matt has said before this year’s State of the Word, Gutenberg is bigger than WordPress. With the 6.1 and 6.2 releases, we’re halfway through Gutenberg’s four major phases of development. WordPress.org is using Gutenberg for all its embedded forms now, Matt noted. He welcomed the Engine Awesome team in the audience, StellarWP’s Timothy Jacobs and Steve Bruner of Slipfire, both WordPress core contributors. Engine Awesome is a no-code app builder that runs on Gutenberg and Laravel.
Other examples of Gutenberg’s adoption in the wild are the Pew Research Center and the Day One mobile app. Day One required Gutenberg to be licensed under both the GNU General Public License (GPL) v2 and the Mozilla Public License (MPL) v2.0. That process began in 2021 and is complete now. Today, Tumblr runs a full but simplified implementation of Gutenberg without all its features visible. Drupal has had Gutenberg as a popular module for over four years.
The only slightly down note was for those who were hopeful about Joel Spolsky’s Block Protocol joining forces with Gutenberg. In the Q&A period, in response to a question from Mike Melanson, Senior Editor of the ReadME project at Github, Matt said close collaboration with the Block Protocol seems unlikely to happen. However, there is a Block Protocol plugin in the works for WordPress, and some degree of interoperability is being explored.
Strong Themes at SOTW 2022: Creators, No-Code, and Block-Based Design
The recent WordPress.org site redesign, including its blog and new showcase area, represents a lot more than a fresh coat of paint. Matt spoke about it as an example of “our Jazz Design Language” powered by Gutenberg — “our neo-soul, neo-jazz meets software aesthetic … a new web design language” for themes and eventually all of WordPress.org that’s “for the world.”
Block themes and full site editing make no-code site building possible. Style variations “on a clean blank canvas” like Twenty Twenty-Three (which has ten styles) might make it “the last theme for WordPress.”
Matt affirmed that as a likely outcome when Bud Kraus asked him to elaborate in the question period. Matt also said he anticipates a “bifurcation” of the theme market. Some themes that are more like bundled applications will likely go their own way, with Divi as an example. “One theme, one pattern, infinite styles” is a possibility now “without knowing a lick of code.” Matt also pointed out anyone can build their own block theme with the Create Block Theme plugin.
Gutenberg’s Final Phases
For the next big push in 2023, synchronous multi-user collaboration on content and editing workflows will be the main feature. Timothy Jacobs, who is also iThemes’ Security Lead Developer, said he was “surprised, but excited, that we’ll be starting to tackle collaborative editing so soon.” Timothy sees this as “a big test of what Gutenberg can grow to support.”
The Post Revisions interface will be getting an overhaul too. So will the Media Library as it’s integrated more with Openverse. Matt also mentioned the need for “a notifications infrastructure.” Collaborative editing and these other features may need it.
Will a notifications infrastructure in core also be used to standardize the way plugins display notices to users? That’s a question several people asked in the live chat. It’s been a topic of high interest in the WordPress community and has motivated the WP-Notify feature plugin project. A lot of people will be looking hopefully for its adoption or something else like it.
A Return to In-Person Events
In 2022 the number of WordPress meetups has doubled, Matt reported, and 22 WordCamps took place around the world. The WordPress Community Summit will resume in 2023 with WordCamp US in August. This is an opportunity for core team leads, contributors, and community influencers to come together to discuss and collaborate on WordPress’s future. As an unconference, there will be no slides, designated speakers, or planned presentations. Julia Golomb has welcomed topic suggestions for the Summit. You have until January 16, 2023 to submit them.
Release Contributors and New Committers Announced in SOTW 2022
Looking at all release contributors for 2022, the stats are impressive: 1399 total contributors 652 contributing for the first time. 424 also worked on a release in 2021 while 322 took a break before returning this year. Those last numbers indicate a fairly stable core of half the total contributors. Contributors taking a break and then returning bring resilience to the project.
The pandemic took a toll on the WordPress community, so these are good signs the project is bouncing back.
Also worthy of celebration — there are four new core committers: Bernie Reiter, Marius Jensen, Adam Zielinski, and George Mamadashvili.
Reorganizing the Plugin Repository: An SOTW Surprise
Possibly a first, Matt described the WordPress.org plugin directory as “almost like an app store for WordPress” with no costs to plugin owners. The WordPress community and plugin ecosystem have “fractal”-like qualities, in Matt’s view. There are different communities and sub-communities or secondary ecosystems within it, like the extensions, add-ons, their creators, customers, and related service providers that grow around products like GiveWP, Gravity Forms, WooCommerce, Yoast SEO, and Elementor.
To better represent and organize this complex landscape of currently 59,914 plugins, Matt announced the directory would be getting a new taxonomy that will make it easier “to tell what you’re getting into.”
Solo, Community, Commercial, and Canonical Plugins
This was probably the biggest surprise reveal — plugin owners will soon be able to classify their work by their development and support model:
- Entirely free “Single-Person” projects
- Entirely free “Community” projects
- “Commercial” plugins with premium versions or add-ons
- “Canonical,” officially recommended, community-supported, entirely free plugins
These changes will roll out before the year ends in the plugin repository followed by the plugin install screen inside WordPress.
Kathy Zant, Director of Product Marketing at StellarWP, said she is “keenly interested in seeing how the canonical, community, and commercial tags” are implemented for plugins available in the WordPress.org repository. She notes that “many freemium models” have been successful at “helping plugin developers actively maintain and grow plugins,” not to mention “communities that grew up around them.”
Spin Up WordPress Playgrounds Anywhere
A less surprising announcement but one of the more mind-blowing demos was the debut of WordPress Playground. Formerly known as “WordPress Sandbox,” this is Adam Zieli?ski’s project. It’s officially backed by WordPress and is available on GitHub now. Built with WebAssembly, the Playground runs WordPress entirely in your browser.
“Although it’s not a full-featured staging environment,” Kathy Zant says she’s enjoyed trying out WordPress Playground. It’s “a fun way to do quick tests on layouts.” It may prove very useful for education and training purposes, as well as building and staging WordPress sites.
Machine Intelligence, Human Creativity, and Openverse
Before taking questions, Matt offered a visionary and philosophical take on the future of WordPress and open-source artificial intelligence. He shared that “transformative” is the word ChatGPT selected when it was asked to write a fictional scene where Matt describes full-site editing to some developers. It was a convincing piece of writing, as we’ve seen in a lot of ChatGPT experiments lately. “Transformative” might even better describe the impact AI is likely to have on WordPress in the near future.
It’s not a matter of machines doing everything for people and taking over their work. Quoting Pablo Picasso, Matt observed computers “are useless. They can only give you answers.” It’s the questions that matter most to innovation and creativity, which seem likely to remain unique to humans no matter how impressive AI technology becomes.
A Centaur AI Creation Tool
In the question and answer period, Matt expanded on these ideas. In response to Nev Harris, Matt said he envisions WordPress as a “Centaur-creation” tool. This concept combines the best and most complementary strengths of human and machine intelligence.
Matt sees Openverse’s massive repository of Creative Commons Zero (CC0) images and audio files as a huge asset to creative work in WordPress as it becomes better integrated with the Media Library and future AI design tools. CC0 is the “no copyright reserved” Creative Commons license. It establishes photos and other media as fully in the public domain. Openverse currently has two million images, and over a million audio files. It received more than 59 million requests from users in the last month.
To be a useful co-creation tool, the inputs for AI are decisive. The scope and potential for Openverse matters for this reason: it’s material for machine learning that can assist designers and anyone building with WordPress.
Community Questions and Answers
Expanding the Photo Directory
In the question period, Michelle Frechette from Post Status and StellarWP’s Director of Community Engagement thanked the WordPress project teams and leaders who developed a new accessibility handbook and team for WordCamp organizers. Michelle then asked about the WordPress Photo Directory which has grown to about 5,500 contributed CC0 images. How can we promote it better to increase its size? Can we track usage for individual photos as an incentive to contribute images?
Matt wants to combine the Photo Directory with Openverse’s photo library to increase usage and contributions by making it a larger and more attractive resource. AI-generated photos of non-existent people could be used, Matt suggested. This would get around the challenge of securing the necessary permission to use photos of real people.
Another All-Women-Led Release Team
Laura Byrne from XWP proposed forming another release team led entirely by women and non-binary contributors. Matt agreed on the second half of 2023 as a good time to do it.
Our Biggest Challenge in WordPress
In his response to a question from Allie Nimmons, Matt said the biggest challenge facing WordPress is the impossibility of pleasing everyone. Within the “latticework” of all the core teams and ways people contribute, it’s inevitable that some will not get the attention they feel they need.
Matt noted how feelings of neglect can shift around some areas of the project. It’s challenging to prioritize where to place attention or emphasis in the project, but the whole is very dependent on all its parts. How can the WordPress community help balance the load? That’s a good question to keep asking.
PHP 8 Compatibility
As an example of this very problem, Ryan Marks from Pantheon was up next with one of the biggest technical challenges facing WordPress: maintaining compatibility with new and old releases of PHP. Technical debt and deferred maintenance inevitably pile up over twenty years, so how will WordPress deal with it?
Core developer Jonathan Desrosiers and Automattic Chief Systems Wrangler Barry Abrahamson fielded this question for Matt. They noted that WordPress works on PHP 8 without official support. Additionally, Web hosts will continue to support older PHP releases and help create paths forward.
According to Desrosiers, properly supporting PHP 8 will take a lot of work even though all the unit tests for core will pass today with the exception of the new PHP 8.2 release. Abrahamson stressed full, official compatibility is important for core and canonical plugins, but the asterisk next to WordPress core’s PHP 8 compatibility right now may have to do with a single dependency. He also noted that, like other web hosts, Automattic maintains a public PHP 7.4 fork on GitHub with any new security and bug fixes backported to it. Older PHP versions may not have official long-term support from the PHP project, but they do get it from hosts.
Collaborating with the PHP Project on Backward Compatibility
Matt said he feels PHP 8 has gone in a direction that’s much more difficult to adopt than PHP 7, which also came with many benefits and incentives to upgrade:
“I think they’re going to have an adoption challenge in general, not just from WordPress, until they add some more compelling features and maybe work on some backward compatibility. Perhaps it could also be something that as we co-develop, contribute, and give feedback in PHP 8.3 or 8.4, maybe they can do some things that will make it easier, not just for us but for the entire PHP community, to upgrade.”Matt Mullenweg, State of the Word 2022
Later, Cloudways’ Director of WordPress Robert Jacobi asked if there will ever be a break in backward compatibility for WordPress. He got an answer I haven’t heard before: “Never say never!”
Matt also pointed out that Gutenberg is a backward-incompatible change. Browser requirements certainly get raised for WordPress over time. It’s not backward compatible when it comes to Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. Progressive enhancement is the general rule, however. Sudden breaking changes will always be avoided in WordPress core.
After Gutenberg Will It Still Be WordPress?
Zandy Ring, interim COO for Tumblr, read a question from a viewer online. “Will WordPress be a thing after the entire focus is moved to Gutenberg?” Matt affirmed that Gutenberg is transforming WordPress to make it more accessible to users as a no-code tool. The question made me wonder what the questioner thinks “WordPress” is, all by itself.
When Gutenberg was originally proposed, Matías Ventura compared it to the Ship of Theseus. In this mythical tale, Theseus’ ship was completely rebuilt under sail with a full crew on board. The myth became a classical philosophical problem: is it still the same ship? The way Gutenberg totally transforms WordPress makes it impossible to say. Yes and no are both true.
Creating Onramps for Learning and Younger Generations
Courtney Robertson from GoDaddy Pro and the WordPress Training team brought up certification as a possible part of Learn WordPress. How does Matt envision that happening? Courtney and apparently Matt have changed their views on certifying types of WordPress expertise — they’re in favor of it. This is on the roadmap now for Learn.
Certification will have to be an ongoing process with periodic updates as WordPress evolves. Matt wants to make sure it happens in a “WordPressy way.” Certification should be free and as accessible as possible to receive official approval. While others may adopt a for-profit approach, Matt would want to partner with non-profit organizations for certification.
Finally, Michelle Butcher-Jones asked about Matt’s ideas for engaging younger people in the WordPress project. Beyond education and training, Tumblr figures as a key onramp in Matt’s thinking. It’s seeing growth of 50-10k users a day. Half the users are under 25 and are more female than male. It’s already running on Gutenberg, but Automattic is working to bring Tumblr fully onto WordPress and its infrastructure. When that happens, users will be able to build their own themes. This is a hands-on entry point for people to learn and get involved with the WordPress community and project.
As we return to in-person Meetups in smaller communities and larger continental or regional WordCamps, it’s clear WordPress is making big bets on the future. It’s the world’s most popular content management system, but it’s clearly a community project that sometimes seems like a family.
As in 2021, this year’s State of the Word was live-streamed from Automattic’s SoHo office in New York City. This space came along with Tumblr and has lots of colorful art on the walls. It’s the perfect venue for a smaller in-person gathering. Being able to see the audience as conversations moved from Matt to audience members helped convey a warm, casual mood.
Seth Godin was in the front row and got lots of shoutouts on the live chat along with well-known WordPress contributors and leaders. If you missed it, catch the State of the Word 2022 on YouTube. See where WordPress has been and where it’s going next!
Dan Knauss is StellarWP’s Technical Content Generalist. He’s been a writer, teacher, and freelancer working in open source since the late 1990s and with WordPress since 2004.