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Does WordPress Help or Hinder Self-Expression Online?

While many view WordPress as an adaptable and creative tool, one researcher views WordPress as a technology that constrains self-expression, thus fostering internet homogenization.

In WordPress: A Content Management System to Democratize Publishing, Jordi Cabot tells us that there’s a lot to like about WordPress—the most popular content management system (CMS) in the world. When Cabot’s article was published in 2018, WordPress powered nearly one-third of all websites. By 2022, WordPress was powering 64% of websites with a known CMS, and 43% of all websites in the world.

What makes WordPress so vastly popular? Cabot notes the following:

  • WordPress is based on open-source software (so it can be used, studied, modified, and shared by and with anyone)
  • The mission of WordPress is to democratize publishing, ensuring that any nontechnical person can create a website
  • Unlike its competitors, WordPress strives to never break backward compatibility (by making sure a new version keeps working with the current version)
  • There’s a large and dedicated WordPress user community, who engage with each other both in real life and online
  • Anyone who is able can build and provide WordPress plugins and themes—free, paid, and freemium—allowing users to substantially customize their site’s look and feel
  • WordPress.org—a non-profit organization—maintains the open-source code
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Variation vs. Standardization

In May of 2023, the WordPress.org website featured 10,851 free themes and 60,472 free plugins. It would seem that such a vast array of tools would provide virtually unbounded options, giving rise to a broad range of websites of varying styles and designs. However, Elisabetta Adami, a researcher who has studied online self-expression, disagrees. In her article, Styling the self online: semiotic technologization in weblog publishing, Adami maintains that WordPress technologization tends to produce standardization, not variation.

“End users…draw from the platform afforded themes, i.e. afforded ‘latest,’ ‘popular’ or ‘featured’ preferences in semiotic patterning (which, at present, prioritise values of professionalism, cleanliness and minimalism)”

—Elisabetta Adami

Professional, clean, and minimalistic themes are what many WordPress users gravitate toward, and to Adami, that “mainstreams” individual tastes and websites.

To illustrate her point, Adami provides a case study of a family food blog built on WordPress. An early version of the blog had an amateur, homemade look that communicated “a joyful and chaotic low-budget authenticity.” As the blogger grew in popularity, she became an influencer, started working with advertisers, and hired an expert to redesign her blog with a new theme that offered a professional look. Thus, the blogger adopted a popular and dominant aesthetic for web design. However, while the food blogger’s new site looked more professional, the blogger’s writing still appeared “spontaneous and unplanned, with informal lexicon and phrasing.” Adami sees it as problematic when professional foregrounding pushes a blogger’s authentic voice to the background. 

“Regardless the purposes for blogging, everybody tends to (want to) look professional, with professional being equaled to certain layout/font/colour/image combinations. In this, the innovative potential of the participatory character of webdesign production in WordPress is disempowered, because the platform-as-a-semiotic-technology conceals difference and foregrounds mainstream uses and taste”

—Elisabetta Adami

A Matter of Taste

Adami is undoubtedly correct in her assertion that many bloggers gravitate toward the same popular WordPress themes. But clean page layouts, ample white space, readable fonts, and understated color palettes are not just “professional.” Those design elements are aesthetically pleasing as well.

Further, bloggers who favor a popular site design are not unlike teens who buy the same style of jeans, kids who play the same video game, or Gen Xers who covet the same model of SUV. Most of us tend to gravitate toward what’s appealing and (therefore) popular, in many aspects of our lives.

If the internet does in fact have a homogeneous look, I’m not sure that WordPress is to blame. Perhaps it’s less about the limitation of the medium, and more about deference to what’s “in.”

Further Reading

Adami, E. (2018). Styling the self online: semiotic technologization in weblog publishing. Social Semiotics, 28(5), 601–622. https://doi.org/10.1080/10350330.2018.1504713

Cabot, J. (2018). WordPress: A Content Management System to Democratize Publishing. IEEE Software, 35(3), 89–92. https://doi.org/10.1109/ms.2018.2141016

Cosper, J. (2022, June 1). WordPress Market Share: 2022-2023 & Beyond. DreamHost. https://www.dreamhost.com/blog/wordpress-market-share/

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