The Benefits and Tradeoffs of Decentralization

WordPress is an operating system for empowering creativity on the Open Web. With 40%+ of the web running on WordPress, WordPress is also an indicator of the health of the Open Web. The better WordPress empowers creators and the extenders and hosting providers who serve them, the better the health of the internet as a whole.

Benefits of Decentralization

WordPress’ nature as an open source operating system, lead by volunteers, and the decentralized ecosystems that have built up around it are a key source of its strength.

WordPress provides the built-in freedoms to allow anyone to do whatever they’d like with it. Of the 28,000,000+ live sites on WordPress, they’re spread out over a diverse range of hosting providers, with the freedom to do what they’d like and to move from one to another.

Decentralization offers three key benefits:

  • Shared Ownership – To use WordPress is to own it. That shared sense of ownership is why people are willing to volunteer and work together towards WordPress’ success. It means that the entire ecosystem is incentivized to care for it and support its growth.
  • Options – If a plugin doesn’t meet your needs, you can choose another. If your hosting provider isn’t working for you, you can move to another. The WordPress ecosystem offers a diverse pool of extenders and service providers to meet the needs of creators.
  • Resilience – WordPress is hard to kill. The decentralized nature of the ecosystem offers a resilience that inspires growth-contributing confidence to those who do business in it and provides assurance to creators building on WordPress.

Tradeoffs of Decentralization

The benefits of WordPress’ decentralized nature have tradeoffs. For each of the main benefits, there is a counterpoint.

For WordPress, the tradeoffs of decentralization include:

  • Decision Making – The tradeoff of shared ownership shows up in decision making. It’s hard (as it should be) to make big decisions, especially as the diversity and interests of your pool of owners continues to increase. An initiative like Gutenberg, championed by WordPress’ co-founder, is objectively positive for the project, and yet has collected thousands of 1 star reviews. A decentralized ecosystem makes decision making difficult.
  • Difficult Choices – The tradeoff of options is difficult choices. It can be overwhelming to find the right plugins in the nearly 60,000 options in the directory today. And for businesses building on WordPress, many of the most popular commercial plugins have to be purchased and installed separately. Understanding your options and making good choices with what you have available is difficult at best.
  • Stagnancy – While WordPress as an ecosystem is resilient and hard to kill, the tradeoff is the risk of stagnancy – a bunch of decentralized pools of water, with minimal inflow and outflow. Innovation can spring up anywhere, anytime, seeing the benefits of that innovation across the ecosystem as a whole, though, is difficult and stagnancy is more likely the result.

Now let’s apply those to the three primary stakeholders of the WordPress ecosystem: creators, extenders, and hosting providers.

Decentralization for Creators

WordPress has been (and may it always be) focused first on creators, the folks bringing their ideas to life on the Open Web. WordPress enabled blogging back when it was difficult and changed the face of the publishing industry. Today, WordPress empowers creativity of all types.

WordPress’ decentralized nature provides benefits and tradeoffs for creators, including:

Ownership – You can create whatever you want with WordPress. It’s yours. There are no limits.Responsibility – You’re responsible for figuring out how to create what you want. It is yours after all.
Options – You have numerous plugins, themes, blocks, hosting companies, and service providers available to help you create what you want. The official plugin repository, for example, has nearly 60,000 plugins available.Decisions – Navigating through the options can be overwhelming and, if you’re buying, you have to find the options first. Ecosystem plugins are big business, yet many of the most popular commercial plugins aren’t available in the directory.
Resilience – Your creations on WordPress are resilient, living when and where you want them to.Stagnancy – Your installation of WordPress can grow stagnant and insecure, if you’re not keeping it up-to-date.

The benefits for creators are strong and we see their impact in the growth of WordPress. The tradeoffs, though, have made renting from centralized, proprietary platforms increasingly attractive.

Decentralization for Extenders

Many of WordPress’ early creators became extenders. They built plugins and themes for WordPress to make it what they wanted and often shared what they made with others. Today, much of the WordPress economy is driven by extenders, creating plugins, blocks, and themes, and building sub-ecosystems within WordPress.

WordPress’ decentralized nature provides benefits and tradeoffs for extenders, including:

Low Barrier of Entry – It’s fantastically easy to get started in WordPress. Decentralized resources and support are readily available and you can see your code in action quickly on any number of environments.Low Standards – There are many ways to extend WordPress and it’s easy to make something that’s insecure and performs poorly at scale. For personal applications, this isn’t a problem, when you’re extending for others, though, it matters.
Autonomy – As an extender, you can make what you want in WordPress. You can do just about anything and don’t have to play by any particular set of rules.Compatibility – Just as you have autonomy, so do other extenders, and the result is often incompatibility from one plugin or theme to the next that frustrates the creator – and the extenders that try to support them.
Business Model Flexibility – A decentralized ecosystem means you can create the business model you want. Don’t like the rules of the plugin repository? Host it yourself.Limited Distribution – If you’re building a business on WordPress, your options for distribution are limited and can be mutually exclusive. You’re responsible, effectively, for your own distribution.

With so many creators building on WordPress, the business potential for extenders is vast. Tapping that potential can be overwhelming in a decentralized ecosystem, though, and often requires a successful extender to be good at a lot of different things, above and beyond their design and development skills.

Decentralization for Hosting Providers

While you can run WordPress yourself, the vast majority of creators rightly choose to work with someone else to take care of hosting for them, while enjoying the flexibility that they can change hosts if they need to. The tens of thousands of active hosting providers we have today are WordPress’ decentralized nature realized in practice.

For hosting providers, the benefits and tradeoffs of decentralization include:

Choice – Creators know they have ownership and, thus, are free to choose the hosting provider they’ll work with. A new hosting provider can offer a better choice and win business.Differentiation – Given the freedom of choice, keeping an informed customer requires a hosting provider to show unique value. Hint: saying you’re the fastest isn’t good enough.
Engagement – Creators who recognize their ownership tend to be more engaged. They interact, give feedback, and refer.Support – Creators who are engaged tend to need more support. They’ll install more plugins and themes, they’ll try things and break things – and turn to their hosting provider for help.
Investment – As WordPress grows, the number of creators who chose to invest in WordPress grows with it. Creators are increasingly willing to spend.Margins – Hosting providers have limited capacity to align with and realize value in areas where creators are investing. Accordingly, margins tend to shrink and require increasing scale to maintain.

Hosting providers play a significant role in making WordPress accessible to creators and they’ve built their businesses on the benefits of WordPress’ decentralized nature. The tradeoffs, though, pose real threats to the sustainability of the hosting provider’s business model, especially in the face of increasing threats from centralized, proprietary platforms.

The Future of WordPress

The benefits of decentralization have contributed significantly to WordPress’ growth as an operating system. Creators have a sense of ownership, recognize their options, and contribute to the resilience of the ecosystem as a whole. Creators also feel the tradeoffs, though, as extenders and hosting providers overwhelm them with options, leading to difficult decisions, and the growing threat of stagnancy as creators stop creating in WordPress.

What if there was a way to keep the benefits of WordPress’ decentralized nature and mitigate the tradeoffs? What if we could offer creators better choices and help them make better decisions? What if we could offer extenders a way to build better software for WordPress and enjoy more sustainable business models? What if we could offer hosting providers a path to better margins through reduced support costs and increased lifetime value?

I believe there is a way and the key is in thinking about WordPress as an Operating System. It’s time to create a better “App Store” for WordPress.