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How Does WordPress Work?

Wordpress logo surrounded by rainbow cloud

Most of us have assorted beefs with WordPress, but do we know who we’re actually annoyed at? Not necessarily. WordPress is complicated, with a lot of different things going on. The more I find out, the more confused I get, but in this post, I’ll try to tease apart how WordPress works, including how it’s organized and who’s doing what.

Automattic

Automattic is the parent company to:

  • WordPress.com: provides WordPress hosting on free/personal/premium/pro/business/etc. plans
  • Tumblr: apparently people still use this – who knew?
  • Day One: for private journalling
  • WooCommerce: an ecommerce plugin
  • Jetpack: handles behind the scenes nuts and bolts like backups, stats, and security, connects self-hosted sites to WordPress.com (I’m not clear on how exactly this works, and it seems like one of the behind-the-scenes differences between the WordPress.com free/personal and pro/business plans has to do with Jetpack)
  • WP VIP: enterprise-level content management platform
  • Akismet: spam filter
  • Longreads: magazine-style, publishes long-form content and pays writers
  • Gravatar

Automattic also contributes to WordPress.org and the WordPress apps for iOS and Android. They say they “proudly dedicate 5% of our time to the open source WordPress Project.”

If you’re familiar with the term Happiness Engineer (sometimes non-fondly referred to as crappiness engineer), they’re employed by Automattic. Happiness Engineer isn’t a developer role; they’re tech support for users of Automattic’s services.

WordPress.org

WordPress.org is the home of the WordPress software, which is open source. According to their homepage, “43% of the web uses WordPress, from hobby blogs to the biggest news sites online.” It’s built using the languages PHP and MySQL, in case you cared (which you probably don’t). Want to see the codebase for yourself (again, you probably don’t)? Being open source, anyone can take a look—you can find it on Trac.

WordPress “core” is the core functionality that everyone gets, and then themes and plugins are layered on top of that. Want to get involved in WordPress core? Anyone can do that (even you), and participation can range from testing to reporting bugs to writing code. You can find the Core Contributor Handbook here, and you can read about reporting bugs here.

WordPress.org has a Test Team that, well, tests stuff. You can find out what they’re up to on their section of the WordPress.org site. I have a feeling that the things that they’re testing and the things that I’m doing as a blogger don’t have significant overlap.

Then there’s the block editor/Gutenberg project. You can see the (many, many) identified issues that developers are working on and report new issues on Github: https://github.com/WordPress/gutenberg/issues

WordPress.org is a very large beast. There’s a whole lot going on, and it looks kind of chaotic from an outsider perspective.

Leadership

According to Make WordPress Core, “The WordPress project is led by the core leadership team, which consists of WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg (who’s also the CEO of Automattic), five lead developers, and a number of core developers.” There are also lots of volunteer core contributors, and “With every version, hundreds of developers contribute code to WordPress.” Anyone can contribute, but only certain people have the authority to actually bring changes into effect, so some random Joe Doofus can’t swoop in and break the whole thing.

The WordPress Foundation

The WordPress Foundation is “a charitable organization founded by Matt Mullenweg to further the mission of the WordPress open source project: to democratize publishing through Open Source, GPL software.” It owns the WordPress trademarks.

WordPress software is freely available under the GNU Public License. Freely available means anyone can download, install, and modify the code; it doesn’t refer to whether or not anyone can get free managed hosting.

WordPress apps

The WordPress apps for iOS and Android are both open source. Want to get involved in testing? You can do that here: https://make.wordpress.org/mobile/

If you want to see where the developers hang out and report an issue to them (or see what bugs have been reported), you can do that here:

The big picture

Does any of this matter to us blogger folk? In terms of details, no. In terms of seeing what the big picture is, maybe. If WordPress is powering 43% of the web, those of us blogging on WordPress.com are just a few fish in the sea. There are a lot of different people working on the WordPress.org code, and many of them are volunteers. According to the WordPress Foundation, WordPress has about 346,509 lines of code. That’s one massive creature.

I think it feels like sometimes WP as a broad entity doesn’t care about us bloggers, and realistically, they (“they” as in Matt Mullenweg?) probably don’t really. We’re just one segment of a whole lot of people all using the same WordPress core, and decisions are going to be made based on that entire chunk of people who are using WP, not just us. It’s hard to know how much core decisions are influenced by money. WordPress.org is not profit-generating, although it’s headed by the same guy (Matt Mullenweg) who is making money off of Automattic.

Being on a WordPress.com plan is limiting because they’re making choices about certain features to bundle together with WP core to give people on the different plans. The WordPress.com plan situation is different from the WordPress core situation. If you’re self-hosted and using your own installation of the WordPress.org software, the WP.com bundling situation doesn’t apply to you; you’re just using WordPress core and whatever plugins you choose to add (and people have written all kinds of plugins to serve all kinds of different functions).

What this means for us

I’m not sure where I’m really going with this, but I think the main point is that WordPress is a far bigger beast than our little corner of WordPress.com bloggers. It doesn’t make the bugs any less obnoxious, but recognizing that it’s a ginormous open-source project makes it easier (for me, anyway) to see why bugginess is an issue.

Because of the community open-source aspect, any of us can get involved in testing and bug reporting. Whether we want to is a whole other question. I’ve reported a few things on Github, but it can easily get pretty overwhelming to poke around on there given how many issues there are on the go. So I will continue to complain about WP being a pain in the ass at times, while recognizing that the option is available to me to actually be at least somewhat more proactive rather than just complaining.

Did you have any idea how big and complicated this whole thing is? Do you have any inclination to try to be proactive and get involved with any of it?

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25 thoughts on “How Does WordPress Work?”

  1. Wow! I did not know most of this information. Thank you so much Ashley Leia great information well written. As far as getting involved in the WordPress tree, as a former geek, I am tempted but I am not sure if any of my little efforts would have a lasting impact. An enjoyable and informative read. Thanks again.

  2. I’m grateful for the info and there were one or two points that clarified questions I had, but like Paula, I’m happy to grouse now and then (or rant more accurately). I know that does no good, it’s not engaging them (which ever team in which ever hat they’re wearing). But frankly most of it is over my head. I know (intimately) my little corner and wish the mass changes at least were tested or a poll taken to see who even wants the change (like blocks). I realize I may not understand the significance of what the change does too.

  3. I knew Jetpack and WordPress were affiliated, but I had no idea all those other ones were, too. They all seem to have their little problems. I hate Akismet with a passion because it thinks everything is spam.

  4. I used to self host a long long time ago. Been looking into that, but I’d need to upgrade my free site to a paid one to get some of the tools needed to do that… If I ever get some more money, I might take a paid version of the site to open some options. And have my own link 😉.
    I’m not geeky enough to contribute anything. So I’ll just complain when it doesn’t work 😂. The issue I had a while ago seems resolved, which is so much yay! 😂 Sorry for the weird words haha, I was just happy it works again.
    Thanks for sharing this. Always nice to get some insight. I use WP diaky so definitely fun to read about it.
    Have a fabulous day 🌸

      1. Yes I’m very happy about that as well. It was very annoying… I kept losing bits that I had written…

        Thank you ☀ wishing you a fabulous day as well 🌻

  5. Interesting post, l am happy enough to stick to plug and play and point and click WordPress activities only, l don’t have the time nor inclination to get involved with other aspects 🙂

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