Look closely at any of my writing sites. See any difference? Any breakage? No?
I switched everything to ClassicPress, a new hard fork of WordPress, rather than update to WordPress’ 5.0.x. (Here’s a footnote: WordPress is open source, which means that others can take the code and make changes to it and create something new. A ‘fork’ is what it sounds like: it’s an offshoot that forms when people start making changes in a different direction.)
I don’t know whether 5.0.x would have broken anything on my sites. After all, they’re pretty lightweight and straightforward. But given the many people who are, innocently and in good faith, following the oft-repeated advice to always keep one’s site up to date and are finding their sites broken… well, who can say what would have happened?
At issue here is Gutenberg, the new “block-based” editor that WordPress is forcing down the throats of users. More properly, phase 1 of Gutenberg, which is going to expand outside the editor into other aspects in the future. There are countless sites right now covering the flaws in Gutenberg, ranging from site breakage to being a difficult and buggy and non-intuitive editor. I’m not going to repeat them. You can find them. Depending on which part of the Internet you hang out in, you might not be able to avoid them.
I’m not a coder or dev or website designer. I’m a disabled ex-medical secretary and a fantasy writer. Want me to do transcription, filing, reception, data entry? I’m all over it. Want me to spin a story? Just try to stop me. But when it comes to the increasingly complex world of computer sciences and information technology? Uhm… I know the fundamentals of how a computer works and can generally do what I want to do on one. I know the fundamentals of how a cat works, too, and I can keep one healthy and happy, but that doesn’t make me a vet or help much beyond recognizing when something is not right. Cats, at least, do not typically need upgrades once they have core vaccinations and have been spayed or neutered!
That can be a frightening and confusing position to be in. The drive to share what you do or feel or what matters to you is an enormously strong one that pretty much powers social media. We are, after all, social apes, and we desperately need to feel connected and understood and valued. Whatever you do, in the effort to share online, puts you at the mercy of those creating the platform – Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, whatever. The same thing is true for any website where you didn’t build every line of code yourself. Probably there are even forces behind that. How would I know?
My first website to share my writing (a lifetime ago, on geocities!) was hand-coded HTML. I was proud of it and proud of myself for teaching myself how to do it. Keeping it updated was a bit of a pain, but it was mine. I’m extremely grateful that there are alternatives these days that don’t involve manually updating the navigation bar on every single page whenever I add something new. The drawback is, the more complex the alternatives become, the more dependent I become on others to keep it working smoothly and safely. Since I lack the skills to make significant changes, my options essentially extend only to which provider I trust, to not only offer what I need but to continue to do so.
What do I need? Simplicity. On my writing sites, I don’t do multimedia posts. At most, I include an optimized jpg or two of a book cover. (Two non-writing sites are more media heavy, for the record, but I still prefer a simple editor and look.) Otherwise, I share text. I would like that text to be easy to set up into a post and I would like it to be easy to read with easy navigation. I would like my site to be reliable and consistent and not have gaping security holes. I would like essential maintance to be something I can do without needing a degree or several hours. I would like to know that the people that I’m depending on for this are listening to their users. Not to any single user, but paying attention when a significant number of users speak up about something.
At one point, I used b2evolution. It’s a different fork of the same software that WordPress originally forked from, and it has a different philosophy. I switched to WordPress because I wanted something simpler, in which I could just add what I needed and not worry about the rest. This blog, my Moonblood serial, and my personal (mostly cats) blog all spent time hosted on wordpress.com, before being transferred to self-hosting (in fact, the RL/cats one was exported from b2evo originally, so it’s been around!). Part of the motivation for going to self-hosting was that WP switched the editor to a ghastly thing that struck me as being useful mostly for re-sharing other posts or for doing social-media-type posts on a mobile device. On a desktop computer, when trying to create all-text posts, I found it impossible to work with. And there was no Classic Editor option.
Why is this relevant? Because after some years of experimentation, I was sure I’d found a secure permanent platform that would give me everything I was looking for, by moving everything to self-hosted WordPress. That, I thought, would give me flexibility and control and stability, while using open source software. I like open source. I run Linux, although I do have to ask my more tech-minded roommate for help with some problems. And I use LibreOffice, and GIMP, and Thunderbird. I don’t always like the direction of changes, but the neat thing about open source is, I’m usually not the only one, and usually a fork will appear that will make me happier again. (I’m looking at you, Ubuntu Unity.)
Plugins are abandoned sometimes, even ones I find highly useful. Fair enough – life happens. But I felt like the core of WordPress was sufficiently stable that I could trust it. I could build my own domain for my writing into what I wanted, with a main site as a hub, plus a blog, and other WP installations as necessary for anything I chose to serialize. I invested a lot of time working out plugins I needed to get the look and functionality that I wanted, and I’m pleased with the result as a reflection of myself.
Then Gutenberg was inflicted on us.
I tried it for about fifteen minutes, and the next thing I did was disable it on all sites. It is not in any way useful for creating a post that is simply a couple of thousand words of text – in fact, it makes what should be a simple task far more complicated than necessary.
The big trend when major sites decide to do massive changes against the protests of users (Flickr comes to mind, offhand, but I’m sure we can all think of many examples) is to dismiss it as “resistance to change.” “Oh, you just aren’t open to something new and innovative. This will be better. You’ll stop hating it and grow to love it. You’ll see. Just stop being so close-minded and resistant just because it’s different.” My response to that is: may I suggest an orifice into which you can stuff your patronizing and superior attitude, followed by a cactus? I know what works for me. You do not. You see, I have a lot of experience being me, and you don’t even know me. So kindly stop telling me that you know what I need better than I do, and listen to what I am telling you I need. I would immediately end any personal relationship if someone persisted in bringing home double-cheese pizza (I’m allergic to milk proteins) even though I specifically requested a cheese-free sub sandwich, because they know what I really wanted them to get. That is not healthy behaviour. And so, once again, I am walking away from a site that made a deal-breaking change while totally ignoring its users.
I was going to go back to b2evo, to tell you the truth. I was dreading the need to re-learn, and the days of effort in setting things up again to a presentation I’m happy with. However, there’s no Gutenberg and it’s been around for a long time.
Then, thanks to a tweet in which I complained and someone passed on a suggestion, I found out about ClassicPress.
Am I going to try to sell you on all the features? Nope. But I am going to tell you what sold me on it.
ClassicPress is a fork of WordPress. It’s still in beta, not an official full release yet, which made me cautious despite being interested. Very interested.
There is no Gutenberg. There will never be Gutenberg. If you want to know exactly what they’re promising and doing, go take a look. There’s no point to my repeating it all here. What it boiled down to for me was this: they’re aiming for simple, light, and old-school, which is exactly what I need. The big concern, however, was about the long-term. If I hop to a different raft, is it going to come apart under me and leave me floundering? Would it be better to grit my teeth and learn how to adapt to Gutenberg somehow, sacrifice convenience and simplicity for the sake of sticking with something that’s at least sort of familiar and has a history of reliability? After all, there’s the Classic Editor still, at least temporarily – if you trust WordPress to keep their word. What about plugins – will they remain compatible with ClassicPress in the future? If I get stuck, who am I going to ask, if I’ve gone off the reservation and can’t get any support from WordPress?
This stuff is big and scary and confusing as hell when you’re just a user. Will you feel worse if you did something and your site breaks, or if you did nothing and your site breaks? Do you stick with the devil you know, or gamble on whether the angel over there is real or a mirage? And if you’re feeling betrayed and angry and not terribly trusting, because (possibly not for your first time) a big company has charged ahead and changed things, singing “La-la-la” with their fingers in their ears while users try to make themselves heard… how do you feel safe enough to take the chance?
I lurked in the forums at ClassicPress. I read everything on the site. I watched the conversations. I read the founder’s philosophy, I read the history, I read the goals. I read about the way they’ll decide what changes to make: by petitions, that anyone can make and vote on. I watched the founding committee members answering basic questions, clearly and simply and without impatience or superiority. I read about people being banned on WordPress’ support forums for asking calm reasonable questions about plugin support for ClassicPress, and the take-the-high-ground approach to the issue that the ClassicPress team is encouraging (but that didn’t exactly increase my faith in WP). What I saw was a genuine community, determined to keep this going and to support the project and each other. I don’t have the skills to evaluate the technical side – but I know people.
And so, I jumped.
It’s surprisingly easy, for most. They’ve created a lovely plugin you can download, install with a few clicks, and (once you’ve backed up your site, of course, just in case!), it’ll run a brief scan and give you one last button to push. Presto – your site is now running ClassicPress. No more nagging to update to 5.0.1. No more need for the Classic Editor plugin to restore essential usability. All my plugins still work, and that includes Jetpack and Akismet, at least for the moment. No rebuilding my sites, or scrambling to do repairs. Despite being beta, it works seamlessly.
Now, I’m not entirely done. I still need to do the decade-old cats/RL blog that’s been hauled around multiple times. I still need to do one unrelated six-year-old community website that I run, a monster that is probably bigger and messier than I should be trying to maintain but there’s no one else to do it. I’m going to do those on a day when I’m feeling brave and confident and I have plenty of time to pick up the pieces in case something breaks. I need to find the place in the theme I use where I can change the footer to say “Powered by ClassicPress” and little details like that.
But you know something? When I posted in the forums about the progress so far, and my anxiety about the ones that are left, the response was, “Welcome to the family. We’re here if you get stuck.”
Fed up with Gutenberg? Feel like no one at WordPress hears your voice?
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