As the number one content management system on the web, WordPress makes online publishing accessible but is it also leading to the homogenization of the internet?
Assignment: week three
In WordPress: A Content Management System to Democratize Publishing, Jordi Cabot describes an open-source software product that not only began with the idea of putting publishing in the hands of “the people” but continues to embody that ideal even as WordPress grows beyond its initial blogging platform concept.
Although WordPress is described as a multibillion-dollar business, Cabot credits the company’s success to the user community and WordPress’s bottom-up philosophy, pointing out certain principles that have helped sustain WordPress as the most-used CMS on the internet, including:
- Reliance on community buy-in
- Non-profit foundation (inspired by Mozilla, et. al.)
- System of meritocracy for contributors
- Utilizing one-size-fits-all model
- Engaging large users to “give back” to the mission
- Backward compatibility
- Flexibility and scalability
The democratization of web content and access is a continual struggle with the traditional market powers. From the battle over net neutrality to the proliferation of online “news” outlets, the internet still provides an open and accessible platform with low barriers to entry. The downside is (natch) without the traditional gatekeepers, consumers of information must be diligent as they vet for themselves information found online, or shift through a lot of “bad” content. In this case, platforms like WordPress help ensure that content remains (somewhat) decentralized while also ensuring laypeople access to the means of production.
Although Cabot suggests that WordPress developers are presenting a one-size-fits-all solution, the scalability and flexibility of the platform indicates responsive making it suitable for a variety of enterprises. While customization is available, non-technical users may be limited to presets of the software. This brings us to the next topic…
WYSIWYG, the enabler
In her paper, Styling the Self Online: Semiotic Technologization in Weblog Publishing, Elisabetta Adami asks whether online platforms, in this case, WordPress, actually stifle authentic expression because of the built-in options that also make the platform user-friendly. She suggests they do. “Self-styling,” as she calls it, is framed by the platform parameters, especially for non-technical lay people who lack the expertise to access and manipulate the code.
“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”– Marshall McLuhan
Making the case for Web 2.0
In Adami’s example of the evolution of the food blog, The Diary of a Frugal Family, she rightly points to the transformation overtime and the eventual conformity to an expected or conventional aesthetic (Web 2.0), while also seeming to suggest that this adherence to trendy styles diminishes the blog’s authenticity. However, in the span of that four years, the blog evolved from a homespun personal diary to an “influencer” site with thousands of readers and sponsors. It isn’t surprising that the author would employ expert help to expand her now-viable business venture. To look “more professional,” because now, she is.
Bad design hurts everyone
Additionally, one could argue that the aesthetics of this particular blog, and other sites across the internet, have evolved in much the same way that fashion, cars, and entertainment have. The internet does not look like it did 30 years ago, just as computer processing doesn’t look like it once did. The 1s and 0s have transformed into flashy interfaces that are user-friendly and designed for ease and performance. At some point, the techno-geeks got into bed with the design snobs who brought their cascading style sheets and typography rules, forever transforming the expectation of what a website should look like.
While there might be a homogenizing effect, much of web design is based on valid principles of readability, organization, and other time-tested design principles.
In her concussion, Adami argues:
“Beyond the single case, with personal blogs relying on web publishing platforms for their design, the naturalized mainstream/hegemonic styles result in self-regulatory practices, a reduced diversity in aesthetics, and, ultimately, a reduced freedom/agency in using all available semiotic resources for self-expression; in banal terms, regardless the purposes for blogging, everybody tends to (want to) look professional, with professional being equalled to certain layout/font/colour/image combinations.”
Adami reinforces her argument by suggesting that it is the medium itself, in this case, the publishing platform, that is essentially self-limiting.
“In this, the innovative potential of the participatory character of web design production in WordPress is disempowered, because the platform-as-a-semiotic-technology conceals difference and foregrounds mainstream uses and taste.”
Adami isn’t wrong, but isn’t she simply describing the evolution of taste? Shifts in internet aesthetics are akin to shifts in fashion aesthetics. If Adami is right that WordPress “foregrounds mainstream uses and tastes,” then it is no different than how J. Crew or any other large retail purveyor of clothes also “mainstreams taste.”
We tend to covet or like what we see, and we often look to gurus who set the style and tone. Sure the internet may sport a somewhat homogenous look these days, but it’s less the limitation of the medium or platforms like WordPress and more about deference to “what’s in.”
Adami, El. “Styling the Self Online: Semiotic Technologization in Weblog Publishing.” Social Semiotics, vol. 28, no. 5, 2018, pp. 601–622., https://doi.org/10.1080/10350330.2018.1504713.
J. Cabot, “WordPress: A Content Management System to Democratize Publishing,” in IEEE Software, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 89-92, May/June 2018, doi: 10.1109/MS.2018.2141016.
Hale, L.R., 43% of the Internet Runs WordPress: To Democratize Publishing!
The official site for the estate of Marshall McLuhan