I had the privilege of keynoting WordCamp Rochester this weekend. My talk, WordPress for All, was a reminder of how the web — and WordPress — came to be.
Here’s the companion essay/post to my talk.
Hi. I’m Andy. I started using WordPress in 2007 or 2008, and I’ve been a vocal advocate for WordPress ever since.
WordPress came about in 2003. It started as a tool for blogging, but it’s become so much more than that in the sixteen years since.
WordPress is versatile. It’s the IKEA of website builders. It’s affordable, reliable, and modifiable.
So, if you’re new to WordPress, welcome. I hope this little presentation of mine will give you the motivation to jump right in.
And if you’re a longtime WordPress user, I hope that I can help you think about WordPress a bit differently.
This is a presentation in three parts:
- First, I’d like to cover how the web came to be, and how we got to where we are today.
- Then we’ll dig into the history of blogging.
- And I’ll wrap up with a look at the past, present, and future of WordPress.
Let’s get into it.
Part 1: How did we get here?
To understand WordPress, it’s important to get some context about how it came to be in the first place.
Let’s back up.
1958. President Eisenhower creates the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). It’s a response to Sputnik and the Soviets. The agency funds a bunch of research projects, including computer networking.
1969. ARPANET, aka the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. It’s an academic project, a network connecting Stanford and UCLA.
Early 1970’s. Another ARPANET network comes online. This time on the east coast, connecting Harvard and MIT.
1973. New ARPANET-like networks emerge in Europe. The University College of London makes the first trans-Atlantic connection.
1974. There’s a proposal to form a decentralized “inter-network” connecting ARPANET-like networks together.
1975. The first email client comes out. It adds “Reply” and “Forward” capabilities to email messages.
1977. The first PC modems sold to computer hobbyists.
1978. The first public dial-up Bulletin Board System (BBS) comes online in the Chicago area. That same year, the first batch of email spam gets blasted out in California.
1979. Usenet. Users around the world can post public messages to newsgroups organized by topic. This is a big leap ahead from the BBS because it’s global, not local.
1980. Tim Berners-Lee creates ENQUIRE at CERN, a program for organizing information using hyperlinks.
1983. ARPANET systems switch over to the new TCP/IP protocol.
1984. The domain name system emerges, along with Domain Name Servers (DNS). The system makes internet addresses readable and memorable.
1985. Virtual communities emerge. In particular: The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link). It was for the Whole Earth Review, a short-lived publication about tech and culture. The WELL community outlasts the publication.
1987. The global internet reaches 30,000 hosts.
1988. IRC – Internet Relay Chat – goes live, enabling real-time chat and instant messaging.
1989. The launch of AOL, and Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for the World Wide Web.
1990. ARPANET shuts down while the global internet carries on. The first commercial dial-up ISP goes live. Standard web protocols emerge: HTTP, HTML, and URLs.
1991. The first web page goes live. It’s an “About” page for the World Wide Web (WWW). In that same year, we get our first search protocol with Gopher.
1993. Mosaic, the first web browser for the masses. The White House and UN get .gov and .org TLDs. CERN moves the World Wide Web project into the public domain.
1994. Netscape Navigator launches. Tripod and GeoCities set up shop as free services for creating web pages. WIRED magazine launches “hotwired.com”, the first commercial online magazine.
1996. Hotmail launches as the first webmail service. Microsoft buys FrontPage. Books on web design & graphic design come out. We get the Web Accessibility Initiative. More WYSIWYG site editors hit the market. We get CSS for the first time.
That’s one hell of a timeline from the 1960’s to the 1990’s. We went from the military to academia to a global information network.
But it wasn’t all at once. It was incremental. Iterative. A community effort.
From the late 1960’s to the mid-90’s, the internet pushed forward with open technology and open standards.
That’s the world WordPress emerged from, and, I’d argue, what WordPress continues to represent.
Now, I’d like to stop here and zoom in on blogging.
Part 2: Enter the blogosphere
A domain, an email address, and a personal homepage. This was the trifecta of a personal online presence.
In these early days, your homepage was raw HTML. You could build it from scratch, writing the code by hand, or you could use a WYSIWYG editor to do it. Then you’d upload your HTML file to a web server, or through a service like GeoCities.
1994. Justin Hall launches Links.net, one of the first personal home pages, while he was a college student.
1997. The Robot Wisdom Weblog – the first weblog – goes live.
1999. The term “weblog” compresses to “blog”. In that same year, Netscape releases the RSS format. LiveJournal introduces blogging to non-technical users, followed soon after by Blogger.
2000. The dotcom bubble bursts, but the web carries on. This begins the heyday of blogging, thanks in large part to Blogger. Niche blogs emerge, covering topics that were otherwise ignored by mainstream media publications.
2001. The blogging platform b2 releases under open source. It’s built using PHP and MySQL. Moveable Type launches the same year. They’re both self-hosted alternatives to Blogger.
Moveable Type is the dominant force here. It was the platform for serious bloggers. Six Apart forms as the parent company for Moveable Type.
2003. Google launches AdSense, bringing an easy monetization service to bloggers. The Mozilla Organization within Netscape becomes the standalone Mozilla Foundation.
Meanwhile, Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little create WordPress, a fork of b2.
2004. This is a crucial year for WordPress. It’s picking up steam. Development charges ahead at a frenetic pace. And the timing here is important.
On May 12, 2004, Six Apart changes the licensing for Moveable Type. They start charging more money for commercial licenses.
The shift is not taken well. Users revolt and abandon the platform. WordPress embraces the opportunity, building importers to help users migrate from Movable Type.
May 22, 2004. WordPress 1.2 launches. It includes user & password encryption. An overhauled plugin API. Content importers. Update services to ping blog aggregators. Robust comment moderation. It’s a major release that lays groundwork for what’s to come.
In the months that followed, the WordPress and blogging community take off. Bloggers start turning their hobby into a money-making business. Meetups and conferences come together.
2005. Blogging hits the mainstream. Established publications teamed up with bloggers and launch blogs of their own. They’re ideal platforms for churning out editorials and opinion pieces.
This is also around the emergence of “Web 2.0” and the new wave of social media companies that come with it. Built on closed software, they make money by selling ads against user data.
2005 is when TheFacebook.com became Facebook.com. This is the final year that Facebook limits membership to college students. A year later, in 2006, they open the doors to everyone.
WordPress, in a way, is a legacy of Web 1.0. It’s software created in the open and released for free. It’s supported by a global community of users, developers, and companies.
Take, for example, WordPress.com.
WordPress.com is a central platform built with WordPress. But WordPress.com doesn’t make money off user data. Instead, WordPress.com makes money by selling upgrades and features.
With that money, WordPress.com pays some employees to work on the open WordPress software.
That’s the model other WordPress-dependent companies should follow, too. Use the free software to create a product or service that makes you money. In turn, contribute back to the software.
That’s how WordPress sustains itself. It’s how WordPress grew from a small blogging tool into an open platform powering over 30% of the web.
But that didn’t happen overnight.
Let’s jump back into the timeline at 2004, following the release of WordPress 1.2.
Part 3: WordPress past, present, and future
October 2004. CNET hires Matt Mullenweg to help run their blogs. He’s there for a year, leaving in October 2005 to work on Automattic, WordPress.com, and WordPress full-time.
December 2005. The release of WordPress 2.0, “Duke”. The admin interface is completely overhauled. WordPress gets the TinyMCE WYSIWYG editor. Built-in spam and backup plugins. Addition of functions.php. Caching. Theme preview images. It’s a big release.
January 2007. WordPress 2.1, “Ella”. Autosave, tabbed editor, XML import and export, spell checking, search engine privacy, setting another page as your home page.
May 2007. WordPress 2.2, “Getz”. WordPress widgets, a Blogger importer, hardcoding URLs in wp-config.php.
September 2007. WordPress 2.3, “Dexter”. Adds post tags, update notifications, improved URL handling, “pending review” post status, and advanced WYSIWYG options.
March 2008. WordPress 2.5, “Brecker”. New dashboard UI created by Happy Cog; dashboard widgets; tag management; post & page search; concurrent editing protection; built-in galleries; custom taxonomies; security enhancements. Another big update.
July 2008. WordPress 2.6, “Tyner”. Post revisions; improvements to the “Press This!” bookmarklet; theme previews; bulk managing plugins; littany of other quality-of-life improvements.
July 2008. The Theme Directory goes live.
December 2008. WordPress 2.7, “Coltrane”. I think this was around the time I started using WordPress. It introduced a redesigned dashboard; every screen is customizable; and one-click core updates.
June 2009. WordPress 2.8, “Baker”. It features one-click theme installations from the admin area, and an overhauled widgets UI.
December 2009. WordPress 2.9, “Carmen”. Global undo “Trash” feature; built-in image editor; batch plugin updates; easier video embeds; a bunch of developer updates.
June 2010. WordPress 3.0, “Thelonious One”. This is another major milestone release for WordPress. It includes a new default theme, Twenty Ten. This kickstarts the annual tradition of a new default theme each year. For developers, there’s a ton of new APIs, including ones for rolling custom post types and taxonomies. WordPress MU merges into core as WordPress Multisite.
July 2010. WordPress hits 100 million plugin downloads.
February 2011. WordPress 3.1, “Reinhardt”. Adds the admin bar; redesigned linking; refreshed admin colour scheme; new CMS capabilities; “Network Admin” role for multisite.
July 2011. WordPress 3.2, “Gershwin”. We get a refreshed admin UI, major performance improvements, the Twenty Eleven theme, distraction-free writing, and admin bar tweaks.
June 2012. WordPress 3.4, “Green”, introduces the theme customizer.
December 2012. WordPress 3.5, “Elvin”. Includes the Twenty Twelve default theme and a new flow for adding media to WordPress posts and pages.
August 2013. WordPress 3.6, “Oscar”. Includes the Twenty Thirteen default theme, post locking, improved autosaves, a built-in HTML5 media player, and a new menu editor.
October 2013. WordPress 3.7, “Basie”. Introduces auto-updates. For core development, this was the first release following a new “plugin-first” development process. In other words, new features are built as plugins before rolling into core.
December 2013. WordPress 3.8, “Parker”. Includes the Twenty Fourteen theme and a total redesign of the admin area. It’s clean and responsive. The theme management screen got a significant overhaul, too.
September 2014. WordPress 4.0, “Benny”. Adds a gallery view to the media library, easier 3rd party embeds, a responsive editor, and an overhaul to the plugin browser.
December 2014. WordPress 4.1, “Dinah”. Includes the Twenty Fifteen default theme, a new distraction-free writing mode, language options during setup, new plugin recommendations, and “log out everywhere”.
April 2015. WordPress 4.2, “Powell”. Improves the old Press This bookmarklet for sharing content. There’s extended character support for more languages. The ability to switch themes in the customizer. One-click plugin updates.
August 2015. WordPress 4.3, “Billie”. Adds menus to the customizer; site icons to your options; a password strength checker; and more performance improvements.
December 2015. WordPress 4.4, “Clifford”. Includes the Twenty Sixteen theme, adds support for responsive images, special treatment for content embedded from other WordPress sites, and adds core infrastructure for the REST API.
April 2016. WordPress 4.5, “Coleman”. Adds inline linking, new formatting shortcuts, responsive previews in the customizer, and custom logos.
August 2016. WordPress 4.6, “Pepper”. It improves one-click updates and replaces Google Fonts with native fonts. The editor now checks for link issues and saves content to the browser.
December 2016. WordPress 4.7, “Vaughan”, was a huge release. It included the Twenty Seventeen theme and support for starter content.
There were a bunch of improvements to the customizer in this release, too. Shortcut links; improved menu management; and custom CSS. You can also see PDF previews in the media library. Users can switch their dashboard language.
For developers, 4.7 adds new goodies: REST API content endpoints, post templates, and theme API enhancements.
June 2017. WordPress 4.8, “Evans”. Added new widget types for images, video, audio, and rich text. Local WordPress events were added to the dashboard.
November 2017. WordPress 4.9, “Tipton”. It adds even more features to the customizer. Design locking; revision controls; scheduled design changes; and CSS syntax checks. It also adds pre-emptive error checks in the code editor.
December 2018. WordPress 5.0, “Bebo”. It adds the new block editor (aka Gutenberg) to core. The new default theme, Twenty Nineteen, puts blocks front-and-center. For users who didn’t want to use the new block editor, they could install the Classic Editor plugin.
February 2019. WordPress 5.1, “Betty”. This release focuses on performance improvements to the block editor. It also adds the first batch of new Site Health features to help flag and troubleshoot PHP issues.
May 2019. WordPress 5.2, “Jaco”, continues to improve on the Site Health features added in 5.1.
September 2019. As of September 30th we’re in the release candidate cycle for WordPress 5.3. It includes a new default theme, Twenty Twenty. This one comes from from Anders Noren, one of my all-time favourite theme designers.
Now, I know, that’s a lot of stuff we covered. A lot of updates. Over a decade’s worth. So, to sum this up, we can see three phases here:
- Core features, responding to early user feedback
- UX changes and performance as the platform matures
- Dramatic pivot to chase new users
WordPress in the future: Everything is an iteration
The internet started as a military research project. It morphed into academia. The web came after, creating greater demand for internet access.
We came to the web to consume, but also to create. First by writing code, then by using tools and services.
As the web commercialized, it moved from creation to commerce. That’s the path we’ve been on since the early 2000’s.
WordPress, springing out of the early 2000’s and growing in the decades that followed, took that same path. It commercialized as an ecosystem of businesses popped up around it.
But community is still an integral part of WordPress. That’s the thing with open source. It’s more than software. It’s a community. A global mesh of enthusiastic volunteers, hobbyists, and professionals working together.
Users, designers, and developers; artists, educators, and entrepreneurs. How we use WordPress, and what we make with WordPress, moves it forward, bit by bit.
Progress is incremental. Everything is an iteration.
Is WordPress right for you?
Alright. So far, most of this talk has been pretty high level. It’s a history lesson with some rah-rah zeal – so let’s zoom in and talk about WordPress at a practical level.
At the end of the day, WordPress, the software, is a tool. And as with any tool, we need to understand how it works:
You can’t “set it and forget it” with WordPress. It needs hands-on maintenance. A WordPress hosting plan will do a lot for you, but you still need to look after the installation. Or hire someone else to do it for you.
That said, if you’re looking for more flexibility than what a website builder can provide? WordPress could be the right fit. Thanks to its extensive library of themes and plugins, you can do a lot with WordPress, even if you can’t write code.
What can you create with WordPress?
You can build a simple website. It could be for yourself, a hobby, a business. You can start out small, a handful of pages, a blog, a contact form. You don’t need to write any code to do that.
Add a few more plugins and a few more users and you could turn it into a publication. Enable registration and your readers can become subscribers with their own accounts.
You could even have a lot of users. Contributors, authors, editors, administrators. WordPress is good at dealing with all that. You could even take donations with a plugin like Give. Or set up a content paywall with Pigeon. Still, no code required.
You could also build an online store. You could do something lightweight, like dropping a PayPal button on your site. Or you could embed products from Shopify or BigCommerce. Or you could go all-in and use WooCommerce to manage everything within WordPress. Still no code!
Or maybe you’re a web developer who wants to chop the head off WordPress? Sure. Run a headless WordPress installation, lean on the REST API and use GatsbyJS.
How can WordPress help you grow your idea into something bigger?
Start a side hustle building websites. You don’t need to be a developer, you don’t need to write code. Your service is building the website. Get paid to use WordPress.
Turn a single website into your side hustle. Publish content, sell ads, sell memberships. Launch an online store. Create an online course. Point is, you can use WordPress as the platform for all these things.
Test your idea with quick tests and gradual changes. I love the theme and plugin ecosystem in WordPress. You can add features by installing a plugin. If you have an idea, look for a plugin that can help you make it happen.
Tweak WordPress and make it your own. This one’s for the developers. WordPress, the software, is free and will always be free. If you don’t like the direction the core development team is going in, you can fork the software. ClassicPress, for example, was a fork that removed the block editor.
You’re not locked in. Unlike other site builder tools, you’re not tied to one company. If you don’t like the host that you’re with, you can move your WordPress site somewhere else.
You own your data. If you want to move to a different platform, you can export your content. You can do it as an XML export within WordPress. You can do it through your hosting as an SQL database export. Or you can use a plugin for even more options.
How can you give back to the WordPress community?
Sponsor & support WordPress businesses
If you’re building sites with WordPress, pay for the stuff you use. Especially if you’re building sites for clients.
I know people who’ll go out of their way to avoid paying for plugins. Then they’ll turn around and charge for their services. It’s ridiculous. It’s not sustainable. It’s not ethical.
Plus: If you’re a large enough organization, consider hiring a full-time contributor. This is someone paid to work on contributing to WordPress full-time.
Speaking of which…
Contribute your code to WordPress & open source your work
If you’re a developer, look into contributing to WordPress core, or releasing some of your work under the GPL.
There are other considerations here, like if and how you plan to support any code you release. But it’s worth considering. Who knows? A plugin you put out in the repository could have a premium version that nets you some new business.
Share what you’ve learned through blogs, docs, other content
If you’re not a developer, you can still give back to WordPress.
Write blog posts about what you’ve learned, how you’re using WordPress. Record video tutorials and post them on YouTube. Offer to write documentation for a plugin you like using. Jump into the WordPress.org support forums and help other users.
Community – Volunteer through Meetups and WordCamps
Here’s another way to give back to WordPress without writing any code. And this is how I’ve done it for the last ten years.
Volunteer to host or speak at a local WordPress meetup. Or volunteer to help organize, volunteer, or speak at a local WordCamp.
Not only will you be giving back to WordPress, but you’ll also meet all sorts of interesting people.
Join a Make WordPress team
If you’re a real keener, you can join a Make WordPress team. These are the official groups responsible for different aspects of the WordPress experience. There are volunteer groups for core, design, docs, support, community, accessibility, and localization.
Use WordPress to make the web you want
WordPress has come a long way from its humble blogger beginnings. The official WordPress mission is to democratize publishing. But WordPress represents much more than publishing.
WordPress represents an alternative. An alternative to closed platforms. An alternative to centralized networks. An alternative to behemoth corporations.
It’s a free choice, an open choice, a responsible choice. It’s free for all to use, and free for you to make what you want of it.
So press on.
And thank you.
Related links & further reading
- DARPA (Wikipedia)
- ARPANET (Wikipedia)
- Brief History of the Internet
- History of the Internet (Wikipedia)
- History of the Web – Timeline
- The history of email
- 30 years of the international internet (BBC)
- TCP/IP history
- History of the Web (World Wide Web Foundation)
- Robot Wisdom and How Jorn Barger Invented Blogging
- A brief history of blogging
- The evolution and history of blogging
- The Evolution of Blogging
- Ten Years of Automattic
- The History of WordPress (WordPress.org)
- The History of WordPress (Kinsta)
- WordPress through the years (Cloudways)
- WordPress.org news releases