Update March 27, 2020: Yeah actually, Gutenberg really is horrible. Don’t @ me.

First, watch this engaging Periscope by Chris Pearson, where he argues that Gutenberg is forcing a fork in the road for everyone. It’s well reasoned. But here are some counter-thoughts, from the perspective of an outsider.

  • Something is missing from Pearson’s narrative, the true meaning of which we often forget: simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. That doesn’t mean that things that appear simple are in fact truly simple. It means that things that appear simple require a lot of what Pearson would call “bloat” under the hood. While Gutenberg’s underlying architecture introduces greater code complexity, the resulting UI looks simpler. Gutenberg’s value proposition is to make things easier for the writer, in the same way that the original Gutenberg printing press introduced greater complexity but made book production easier. Making things easier (simpler) often requires added layers of underlying complexity (sophistication).
  • We’ve come to expect this sort of increased complexity in operating systems. macOS is infinitely more complex than it was when it debuted in 2001. So is iOS today compared to 2007. Does anyone really think that the original versions of these operating systems were superior compared to today’s? The “tell” in knowing where people stand on this is whether they upgrade. You can virtue signal all you want about the good old days, but when it’s all said and done, if you upgrade, you’re admitting that the latest is better overall. Are the rules of engagement that we set for operating systems different than what we expect from WordPress? If so then why?
  • I don’t agree that Gutenberg is more complex than what it’s replacing from a UX standpoint. That’s only the case if you have heretofore been creating simple blog posts and you’re now wanting to create more complex ones, and that isn’t a fair comparison. If you’re always doing simple, Gutenberg provides a simpler UI. If you’re always doing complex, Gutenberg provides an abstraction from the HTML. In either case, it’s better for people who don’t want to get into the HTML.
  • It’s not a winning strategy to avoid change simply because of the mere potentiality of it causing problems tomorrow. First you have to quantify the likelihood of those problems. What’s the probability that embracing Gutenberg today is going to cause debt tomorrow? In order to answer this, we have to look at Pearson’s concerns:
    • Using Gutenberg locks you into a complex, opinionated system. That’s fair. But we buy into new things all the time. I don’t have an elegant exit strategy if I ever want to move away from Apple’s walled garden. I’m ok with that. I don’t view that as debt. It’s a lifestyle choice. Sometimes the best things in life are strongly opinionated and locked down.
    • Pearson has high confidence that projects that rely on Gutenberg are going to break in a few years. But WordPress is here to stay, and Gutenberg is here to stay. Do I think individual implementations will get top-heavy? Sure they will. But that’s true of any technology. Your mileage with Gutenberg will be defined by what you make of it. You can ruin an ice cream cone by insisting on having 5 scoops of ice cream. Does that mean that the ice cream cone concept is fundamentally flawed?
    • “But Gutenberg makes your site load slower.” If that’s really true, I have confidence that the community will address it. In reality, I have a feeling that Pearson’s threshold of “unacceptably slow” is simply lower than the community average, and that Gutenberg is “good enough” in speed for most people and situations.1 And regardless, the way most people use WordPress is already slow. The low hanging fruit to making a WordPress site load faster is by reducing your JS and CSS footprint, and changing how those resources are loaded.
  • Clearly, Chris knows a lot of people who are not reaching their goals with WordPress, and Gutenberg is providing confirmation bias that the technology is the problem. I’m skeptical here. It makes a nice scapegoat, but technology is only one piece of the puzzle. Human factors are the primary make-or-break. You can have the greatest site in the world, but if you don’t have eyeballs, it means nothing. You can have the greatest technology in the world and have eyeballs, but if you don’t understand human psychology and marketing and you don’t have a stellar value proposition, it means nothing. The meta involved in how your website is served up is important, but it’s a detail in the big picture. It’s the process, not the product.
  • WordPress is moving where the puck is headed. Medium has made WordPress’ pre-Gutenberg editor interface look arcane and cumbersome. It’s time to move forward. This is what that looks like. Welcome to the future.

This saga reminds me a bit of the recent fallout some people had with Twitter. There was a small vocal minority that deleted all their tweets, and went to their blogs to whine about it. And there will be a similar minority of site owners that fork WordPress or switch to Ghost / Jekyll / Hugo / whatever. The terrier barks, but the semi keeps moving. Whether you view this as “the herd running off the cliff” or “that terrier is getting on my nerves, I wish I could run over it,” depends on whether you’re in the semi or not. Both viewpoints have merit, and only time will tell who is directionally more accurate. Either Pearson’s Periscope won’t age well, or it’ll be an uncanny prediction, a “told you so” moment. We’ll see.

  1. And after all, we wouldn’t want websites to get so fast that Google AMP is no longer useful, would we? 😜 ↩︎