Matt Mullenweg Addresses Controversies Surrounding Gutenberg at WordCamp Portland Q&A

Matt Mullenweg joined attendees at WordCamp Portland, OR, for a Q&A session last weekend and the recording is now available on

The first question came from a user who tried Gutenberg and turned it off because of a plugin conflict. She asked if users will have to use Gutenberg when 5.0 is released. Mullenweg said one of the reasons Gutenberg has been tested so early is to give plugin developers time to get their products compatible. He also said that it has been the fastest growing plugin in WordPress’ history, with more than 600,000 installations since it was first made available.

In response to her question he said users will have the option to use the Classic Editor and that the team is considering updating it to include per-user controls and the possibility to turn it on/off for different post types.

Subsequent questions went deeper into recent controversies surrounding Gutenberg, which Mullenweg addressed more in depth.

“The tough part of any open source project – there’s kind of a crucible of open source development which can sometimes be more adversarial and sometimes even acrimonious,” he said. “Working within the same company, you can kind of assume everyone is rowing in the same direction. In a wide open source ecosystem, some people might actually want the opposite of what you’re doing, because it might be in their own economic self-interest, or for any number of reasons.

“I liken it much more to being a mayor of a city than being a CEO of a company. I’ve done WordPress now for 15 years so I’m pretty used to it. It might seem kind of controversial if you’re just coming in, but this is not the most controversial thing we have ever brought into WordPress. The last time we had a big fork of WordPress was actually when we brought in WYSIWYG the first time. Maybe there’s something about messing with the editor that sets people off.”

Mullenweg commented on how polarizing Twitter can be as a medium and how that can impact conversations in negatives ways. He said people tend to read the worst into things that have been said and that has been a new challenge during this particular time in WordPress’ history. WordPress tweets are sprinkled into timelines along with politics and current events in a way that can cause people to react differently than if the discussion was held in a trac ticket, for example.

One attendee asked, “With Gutenberg there’s a lot of uncertainty. Where do you see the tipping point where you see people become more favorable to Gutenberg than the Classic Editor?”

“Part of getting these two plugins, Gutenberg and Classic Editor, out early, was that it could remove uncertainty for people,” Mullenweg said. “Months before they were released you could kind of choose your path. The hope is that the 5.0 release day is the most anti-climactic thing ever. Because we have over a million sites that have either chosen to not use Gutenberg, which is totally ok, or have already opted in and have been getting these sometimes weekly updates. We have hosts that have been actually been pre-installing, pre-activating Gutenberg with all of their sites.”

Mullenweg said hosts that have pre-installed Gutenberg have not reported a higher than normal support load and that it has basically been “a non-event.” It’s the users who are updating to 5.0 after many years of using WordPress who will have the most to learn.

“Gutenberg does by some measures five or ten measures more than what you could really accomplish in the classic editor,” Mullenweg said. “That also means there’s more buttons, there’s more blocks. That is part of the idea – to open up people’s flexibility and creativity to do things they would either need code or a crazy theme to do in the past. And now we’re going to open that up to do WordPress’ mission, which is to democratize publishing and make it accessible to everyone.”

Gutenberg’s current state of accessibility has been a hot topic lately and one attendee asked for his thoughts about the recent discussions. Mullenweg said there is room for improvement in how this aspect of the project was handled and that WordPress can work better across teams in the future:

Accessibility has been core to WordPress from the very beginning. It’s part of why we started – adoption of web standards and accessibility things. We’ve been a member of the web standards project for many many years. We did kind of have some project management fails in this process where we had a team of volunteers that felt like they were disconnected from the rapid development that was happening with Gutenberg. Definitely there were some things we could do better there. In the future I think that we need – I don’t know if it makes sense to have separate accessibility as a separate kind of process from the core development. It really needs to be integrated at every single stage. We did do a lot, as Matias did a big long post on it. We’ve done a ton of keyboard accessibility stuff, there’s ARIA elements on everything. One of their feedbacks was that we did it wrong, but we did it the best that we knew how to and it’s been in there for awhile. There’s been over 200 closed issues from really the very beginning. We also took the opportunity to fix some things that had been poorly accessible in WordPress from the beginning. It’s not that WordPress is perfectly accessible and all WCAG AA and it’s reverting. It’s actually that huge swaths of WP are inaccessible – they just might not be considered core paths from the current accessibility team but I consider them core.

In response to a question about the future of React in WordPress, Mullenweg went more in depth on the vision he had when he urged the WordPress community to learn JavaScript deeply in 2015. At that time he said “it is the future of the web.” He described how each block can be a launching point for something else – via a modal, such as updating settings, doing advanced things with an e-commerce store, zooming in and out of those screens from the editor. This was perhaps the most inspirational part of the Q&A where the potential of Gutenberg shines as bright as it did in the early demos.

“The other beautiful thing is that because Gutenberg essentially allows for translation into many different formats,” Mullenweg said. “It can publish to your web page, your RSS feed, AMP, blocks can be translated into email for newsletters, there’s so much that the structured nature of Gutenberg and the semantic HTML it creates and the grammar that’s used to parse it, can enable for other applications. It becomes a little bit like a lingua franca that perhaps even crosses CMS’s. There’s now these new cross-CMS Gutenberg blocks will be possible. It’s not just WordPress anymore. It may be a JavaScript block that was written for Drupal that you install on your WordPress site. I mean, hot diggity! How would that have ever happened before? That’s why we took two years off; it’s why we’ve had everyone in the world working on this thing.”

JavaScript is what makes this cross-platform collaboration possible and it’s already evident in the work the Drupal Gutenberg contributors are doing, as well as the platform-agnostic Gutenberg Cloud project. When Gutenberg is released in 5.0, it will enable more for WordPress and the web than we can predict right now.

“This is not the finish line,” Mullenweg said. “5.0 is almost like the starting point. Expect just as much time invested into Gutenberg after the 5.0 release as before – to get it to that place where we don’t think it’s just better than what we have today but it’s actually like a world-class web-defining experience, which is what we want to create and what you all deserve.”