Most WordPress Users Don’t Care about Free Software or Community

5 minute read

(They Just Want Their Website to Work)

Or at least that’s what I understand from the 2015/2017 WordPress users survey results.
I was under the impression that WordPress’ key to success was its embracing free, unrestricted software and its huge community, but it seems those features aren’t a priority for 80% of it’s users.

Why Do We Use WordPress?

Because it’s easy or customizable, according to 81% of respondents (49% said “ease of use” and 32% said customizability, to be precise). Only 11% thought software freedom was the most important aspect, and only 9% thought the huge WordPress community of volunteers was the main reason for keeping them.
That sounds like very shallow commitment to me. What happens when the 49% of users who prioritized “ease of use” discover there are actually many easier ways to build and maintain a website? (It’s almost objectively easier to use a hosted solution like weebly than to find hosting, setup WordPress, install plugins, and verify nothing gets broken by the near-daily upgrades). Or what about when those who prioritize customizability discover another more customizable system? (Developers love Drupal and Joomla, whereas most belly-ache about WordPress) It seems like a matter of time before they realize that, if they only care about those things,  better alternatives exist.
That’s part of the point Brian Krogsgard made when he interviewed Matt Mullenweg at WordCamp Europe 2016 (jump to 11 minutes in): WordPress used to be the easiest solution out there, but easier solutions have come up. But Matt responded by asserting that WordPress’ real success was more because of its “flexibility and community”. Does the survey data support that? Yes and no.

Is Flexibility a Priority?

Does flexibility matter to WordPress users? Very much so. 60% of respondents said their sites are so customized that you wouldn’t even know it’s WordPress (at least when visiting the site, site administrators can tell). 28% of users said plugin/theme issues were the most frustrating thing about WordPress, (the next most frustrating thing was security, which only got 11% of the votes). So most users have a very customized site, and they care more about those customizations working than security. But it’s also the most frustrating part about WordPress.

Is Community A Priority?

Survey respondents said only 5% of companies involved in WordPress contributed or attended WordCamps. Only 4% contributed bug reports or patches. That doesn’t sound like a lot of involvement.
While 25% of WordPress professionals have written their own theme, less than 10% have attended a WordPress meetup, submitted a bug report, attended a WordCamp, contributed to documentation, or submitted a patch. Imagine how much better WordPress would be if they all did!
Having said that, WordPress’ community is alive and well, even if only no more than 10% of users are involved. There are still over a thousand official meet ups globally and almost a half million members of those meetups.
And to be fair, it’s likely that if respondents don’t prioritize community involvement, they surely all appreciate that community’s work: the code, the documentation, or help forums, etc. So community probably matters, but it’s certainly not a top priority, even for WordPress professionals and companies.

What About Freedom?

Only 10% of respondents reported their favourite part of WordPress was that it’s free. It’s not a priority, but it should be.
First, by “free” I don’t mean just free of charge, but that you can use the software for whatever you like (ok there’s a big exception relating to the GPL). So you can use WordPress to make money in whatever way you please. And no company can surprise you by changing their terms of service, or suddenly increasing prices.
That’s not the case if you have a website with weebly or any other restricted software. In fact, that’s how WordPress got it’s start: there was a very popular blogging platform called Movable Type that suddenly changed its pricing structure, which led to a mass exodus from it to WordPress’ haven of freedom.
That story continues today, with companies like EventBrite raising rates and changing terms on users, which reminds them of the value of software freedom.
What’s more, with WordPress you own your data and are free to do what you wage with it. This means you’re also free to stop using WordPress and take your data with you. Many web sites running non-free software allows this too out of a bizarre self-disinterest, but they have no requirement to do it. If you have a website on weebly, “your” website data actually belongs to them. If you want it back you need to ask very nicely, and make sure you ask for it before they go out of business (or are acquired by another company and then shut down) and all that data is lost.
Running your website using free software on your own server is the digital equivalent to owning your own house, whereas using restricted software on someone else’s site is more like renting. If you rent, be aware the rates may change, and they may ask you to leave at any time. (Actually, in most jurisdictions, there are laws protecting home renters, but rarely are there any for software “renters”).
So free, unrestricted software can be critical, but usually we don’t appreciate it until it’s too late.

Is Software Maintenance a Priority?

Respondents were less concerned with updates breaking their sites than I thought they’d be. Only 6% thought updates were the most frustrating thing about it. And though 27% said updates make them nervous, an equal portion said they’re not nervous.
So updates make many users nervous, but there doesn’t seem to be a strong tendency towards liking or disliking them.

Incentivized Respondents

In 2015 there were 45,000 survey respondents, but during the two subsequent years, 2016 and 2017, that number dropped to about 16,000. I wonder what caused the 66% reduction in respondents two years in a row?
One probable factor was after the survey results stopped being published. Folks asked themselves “whats the point in responding if I won’t be able to see the results?” We didn’t care about providing information just to the WordPress Foundation to help them make better decisions– we wanted access to the information ourselves so we could make better decisions. Once again, it seems 66% of us just want the end results, we don’t care too much about giving back to the community.
(Given that the results were just published, we’ll see if I’m right, or if it was another factor at play, in the 2018 survey results.)

Ironic, Given Our Age

94% of WordPress users are over 20. That means many of us are parents, or have lived in this Earth long that we’ve learned and earned something that we want to share with future generations and the world. But it seems despite all our criticism of the rising generation being selfish and unaware of what’s going on around them, all of us old timers are actually also still looking out for #1, not the community.
(And why are there so few young WordPress users? I find that statistic disconcerting.)


I think despite the active WordPress community, there is a lot more that could happen, and a lot more WordPress users could benefit from participating in it more actively.
Users also don’t too aware of the dangers of non-free software, and more education on the subject could be good (I for one took a while to come around to it).
On caveat: it’s hard to draw any real conclusions from this survey, because there’s always the possibility that there was self-selecting bias in the respondents.

Follow-Up Questions

The answers provided by the survey results have given rise to new questions for me:

  • What part of using plugins/themes is the most frustrating for users? (Compatibility? Configuration? Usability?)
  • How can we get more young users?
  • Why do only a tenth of users attend WordCamps or meet-ups?
  • Why don’t more users contribute to WordPress? Conversely, what motivates those who DO contribute?

If you have more answers, let me know in the comments!

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