I attended and enjoyed WordCamp Fayetteville this weekend. I had the opportunity to hang out with people I often work with only online, I won a fine book, and I learned about some useful WordPress plug-ins. I plan to volunteer next year.
But I also found the myth of WordPress everywhere.
The myth of WordPress is this: you, or anyone with no particular technical skills, can easily build and/or update your site yourself, if it’s a WordPress site.
This is not entirely false. WordPress is designed differently from a typical website. It keeps all the different parts — the sidebar, the header, the footer, the main content, etc. — separate. The content lives in a database, and you can use the system of themes and templates and plug-ins to change the look and feel of your site without losing the content. Equally, you can update the content without disturbing the look and feel.
I’ve been blogging at WordPress for various companies for years, so I can tell you that it’s easy to use as a CMS — about the same, from my point of view, as Blogger or Joomla or any other CMS. I’ve never met a CMS that I couldn’t make friends with.
But let’s not pretend that you can actually build and customize exceptional sites with WordPress if you don’t have the skills to do it otherwise. All the WordPress sites that I use are custom built. Attendees on the blogger side of the building at WordCamp were asking how to get similar effects at their own blogs. One woman, toward the end of the day, was persistent enough to boil it down to the real question people had been asking all day: “I get that I can go to the editor and tell it what I want. But what do I tell it to make it do the things I want it to do? How can I get it to do the things you’re describing?”
The answer, and the honest answer to all the similar questions we’d been hearing all day: “Learn HTML and CSS, and possibly also php.”
And yet we persist in behaving as though WordPress were a completely intuitive tool that everyone can use without any particular skill or training. One of my clients now builds all his clients’ sites on WordPress and frequently says things like “Since it’s on WordPress, we can all update everything.” Our Basecamp is often cluttered with clients begging to be allowed to send Word documents and requests to change things. When I want to change things, I can — but sometimes I have to go into the files and use FTP — and I always have to use HTML and CSS. Sometimes I have to poke around in the php, too. Often I break things and have to fix them, and occasionally I have to ask for help from the developers. If that sounds like fun to you, then you’ll be fine with WordPress.
Josepha was able to migrate her Blogger blog over to WordPress easily enough after attending WordCamp and getting inspired. She uploaded her custom header and changed her theme around a few times and installed some plug-ins, without ever touching the code.
Then she tried to make it look the way she wanted it to. That’s when the complaining started. The cries of “Aargh!” The muttering: “How come they say it’s two column and then they just squish everything over into one column?”
Speaker Mitch Canter probably said it best at WordCamp. When you’re using HTML in the usual way to build a site, you can structure it any way you want and put things wherever you like. The more you customize WordPress sites by changing up the code, the less you can mess around with the easy changes — but the more it looks and works just the way you want it to.
Another attendee, Eric Huber of Blue Zoo Websites, sets clients up quickly and cheaply on WordPress — and tells them to budget for hiring designers and copywriters and developers in the future. Again, that’s honest.
You certainly can use WordPress to do whatever you want — if you’re a developer. You can make it look just the way you want — if you’re a designer as well. You can change the content yourself — if you’re willing to learn HTML or to tolerate being unable to control most aspects of the content.
That’s not something wrong with WordPress. It’s something wrong with the way we’re propagating the myth of WordPress.