WordPress’ Gutenberg Won’t Change the World

The Internet has changed in the last few years, and content creation tools are starting to catch up.

WordPress was released upon the world over 15 years ago; two years later, it received the first version of its “visual editor”, powered by TinyMCE. This editing experience — effectively, providing a simplified version of a word processor in the web browser — quickly became the de facto standard for writing content across the web. It worked well enough, empowering us to italicizebold, underline, and embed our way around the web.

As the Internet evolved from a digital collection of word processed pages into significantly more complicated platforms, these visual editors have begun to show their age. True WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) content creation experiences began to gain strength, and have evolved into the heated battle between Wix and Squarespace that any New York City subway rider is well familiar with. These tools enable the non-technical to create visually impressive — and, often, highly functional — websites with a degree of control and ease unmatched by traditional content editors like TinyMCE.

Since the rise of these platforms, the WordPress community has recognized the need for WordPress to compete with these kinds of tools. Technically simple, content-centric news sites are becoming less and less frequent, with “traditional” publishers like The New York Times beginning to regularly create design-curated and visually stunning experiences and infographics that far exceed the realms of bold-italic-and-font-size. While there’s been a number of admirable independent efforts to create a more flexible content creation experience in WordPress, none have taken off significantly. Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.com and the child of WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg, has made interesting waves over the years in its acquisitons of scroll kit (a tool for Snowfall-like web experiences) and Cloudup (ostensibly acquired for their Javascript development skills), nothing significant had emerged from the WordPress core project for several years.

In 2016, WordPress’ Gutenberg editor was announced. It is not a WYSIWYG content editor. It is not a Wix or Squarespace competitor. On its own, its a nice box with a very small gift inside.

It’s true that Gutenberg is a fundamental, well-executed, and long-overdo rethinking of the way content is written in WordPress. At its core, Gutenberg is born from the recognition that modern content is often best thought of as components — a construction of numerous discrete pieces assembled into one whole. As we consider the many different channels that content is now distributed across, including websites, mobile apps, and, increasingly, new channels like voice control (through platforms like Amazon’s Alexa), separating the layoutof the content from the content itself (and abstracting that layout into something more easily utilized than the combination of HTML and shortcodes that have lived on in WordPress for over a decade) is an essential step forward. From an authoring perspective, it’s also a major improvement in user experience — hiding HTML and shortcodes entirely from the vast majority of WordPress users will prevent newsroom accidents and make content significantly easier to manage.

What Gutenberg isn’t, however, is an attempt to tackle the elephant in the room in the content management system community: the marked change in how people are utilizing the web.

When WordPress was first released in 2003, and when it received the TinyMCE editor in 2005, content creation on the web was a playground for the technical. Over time, it expanded as a playground for content authors, with the expanded rise of the weblog (led by WordPress, along with platforms like Tumblr and Blogger). Since then, it’s become a tool for nearly everyone. There’s now an expectation that every business — small to large — has a website; an expectation that any person in a creative field (art, photography) has a website. If you don’t have a website, you may as well not exist.

WordPress’ Gutenberg editor does not improve the WordPress experience for those audiences. If they want a relatively simple, visually pleasing, and easy to manage website, they’ll go to Squarespace, Wix, or a similar tool. And, as the web continues to grow as a tool to empower anyone (not just content authors and writers!) to reach their audience, WordPress may well just fall behind.

There is a silver lining, however — in addition to being a fundamental rethinking of the way that content authors interact with WordPress, Gutenberg is also a substantial improvement for developers. WordPress’ TinyMCE editor was notoriously difficult to modify or improve as a developer; Gutenberg is engineered from scratch using now-common technical tools (react.js) and is designed to be significantly more accessible. For Gutenberg to help WordPress reach expanded audiences and really change the face of the web, its on the WordPress community to identify how to use it as a building block for doing so.

On its own, WordPress’ switch to Gutenberg is much like the shift from manual to automatic transmissions in cars: a simplification and improvement for a large portion of its audience, but not a catalyst for a major change in the audience itself.

For Gutenberg to become WordPress’ “self driving car” moment — with a significant expansion in audience as a result — it’s in the hands of the thousands of developers worldwide who build upon WordPress for their personal and business needs. And, with a strong business and enterprise community (10up has thrived serving high-end clients with solutions built primarily withWordPress), there’s significant upside to be found in doing so.

While a fuller feature set (potentially including front-end editing) is in the long-term plans for Gutenberg, those initiatives are currently in the conceptualization stages, and may take years to materialize; time WordPress may not have. Right now, WordPress is playing catch-up, while the rest of the web carries on ahead. If WordPress is going to take that “giant leap”, it’s likely to be at the hands of a subset of the community — an agency, a startup, or even a solo entrepreneur. Who’s going to lead the charge?