WordPress Ghost Project Sparks Discussion on the Future of Publishing

In his State of The Word this year, WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg stated that two thirds of WordPress users take advantage of the platform as a CMS – not as a blog platform. Certainly, WordPress is the most popular open source content management system in the world. But users often turn to Blogger or Tumblr and the like, when they only want a simple, basic blogging experience. It is true that WordPress is no longer JUST a blogging platform but the myriad options, plugins and possibilities have complicated the experience for users who simply want a way to quickly and easily publish their thoughts online.

Introducing Ghost: A Minimalist Concept Of WordPress Just For Blogging

Ghost is a fictional concept project that parses WordPress back down to one simple purpose: blogging. The brainchild of John O’Nolan, a self-described fan of WordPress, Ghost seeks to reinvision WordPress in a much simpler and more intuitive way. He has taken a hard look at how to change the concept back to a blogging platform. You know, just for blogging!

O’Nolan brings a few significant UI ideas to the table to make a slick and focused blogging experience. For example, he describes a dashboard that pulls traffic, social media stats and top content with a drag and drop interface. Ghost also presents a split-view screen so that users can easily preview and manage posts through the admin panel without having to “edit” each one.

Another interesting concept is a split-screen for post editing that shows markdown on the left and a preview of the post on the right, giving authors the ability to focus on writing without having to write manual HTML or refresh previews to make sure the formatting is coming together properly.

Ghost would seek to strip out some of the fancier, more complicated CMS elements to make a lean platform with fewer options, no native commenting system, fewer required plugins and limited backwards compatibility.

Given that the Ghost idea has a very well-designed concept page, it has attracted quite a bit of attention in the WordPress community as well as on Hacker News. Matt Mullenweg commented on the HN post about Ghost:

I really like some of the things John has done in his mockups here, especially on the write screen, and contrary to what he thinks ideas like this are more than welcome in the WordPress community. (For example check out the dramatically revamped media or the dozens of eliminated options in trunk right now.)

The one big mistake in his premise, however, is that only 34% of WordPress users are blogging, the actual percentage is much higher. The survey he quotes me talking about was of mostly people who make their living building WordPress sites (over 20,000) and mostly WordPress.org users. This community naturally focuses (and contributes) more on the CMS and application framework side of WordPress.

There are millions of people blogging on massive hosted WordPress blogging networks such as WordPress.com and Edublogs, as well as many smaller communities. Joining a hosted blogging platform is a much easier entry point for new bloggers.

O’Nolan replied:

I don’t necessarily doubt that WordPress users are blogging, it’s just that WordPress(.org) isn’t focused on those users any more.
That’s fine, as mentioned in the post, but there is a reason that Svbtle (etc) is suddenly the flavour of the month, and it’s not just cause Dustin is the coolest kid in San Fran.

Truly, people are looking for simple solutions and are attracted to the minimalist look and feel of newer blogging platforms. O’Nolan believes that WordPress, or rather a fork of WordPress, can provide that simple solution with a good number of features cut out of the core.

Forking WordPress vs. Creating a New Application

The discussion on HN revolved primarily around whether or not O’Nolan should consider building a new application from scratch, instead of forking WordPress. I grabbed a few quotes from the hacker news post that should summarize this discussion. Those who believe that the problem would be better solved by creating an entirely new application, are convinced that WordPress is not a decent starting point for a simplified blogging platform. ck2 writes:

The whole page is images, and it’s a non-existent product, it’s just a theory/proposal. Buried in the text is it would be a fork of wordpress. Net is filled with that sentiment, but it never takes off. If you want to replace wordpress you need a modern rewrite, not a fork. The #1 problem of wordpress (among many) is it loads every darn thing on every darn page and it’s now a godzilla of a program so it’s becoming a huge nightmare. A cache miss in WordPress on a busy server is a horrible, horrible thing. You cannot escape that problem by a fork.

O’Nolan explains his reasoning for going the route of forking WordPress:

Perhaps one thing overlooked in the argument for fork vs new build is that there aren’t a huge number of developers with the skills to make this happen who would do it entirely on an Open Source contribution basis as opposed to, say, a startup basis. Appealing to existing WordPress developers, businesses and users, as well as cutting down time to ship first working concept, are (in my mind) some important arguments in favour of a fork.

However, there are some serious drawbacks to forking. The huge responsibility of maintaining the forked software to improve as WordPress improves is not a task I would envy. The vast majority of high quality, innovative WordPress devs are already strapped for time. If they do have time, they’re far more likely to contribute to the WordPress core. Not to say that the Ghost project wouldn’t be able to find any contributors, but rather, the momentum required to inspire contribution to a forked application may be a serious hurdle.

I would encourage you to read the Hacker News discussion that ranges from which programming languages are better for building a new application for the largest audience, to whether the definition of a blog by default includes comments. Users also weighed in on the efficiency and performance problems with WordPress, the relationship between the WordPress Foundation and Automattic and a few of the finer points of the GPL.

While this discussion has been continuing on, O’Nolan has had a chance to speak with many people interested in his project and has decided upon creating a plugin first, as proof of concept, and then considering a standalone version of Ghost later on down the line:

A WordPress plugin will act as a proof of concept and a working prototype, initially, because it’s easier to leverage the existing WordPress ecosystem to create it than to go into a cave for 6 months trying to build this amazing thing that everyone will have forgotten about.

The plugin will not be perfect. It will add the Ghost UI/UX and as much functionality as we can cram into it. It will completely remove /wp-admin/ and replace it with /ghost/ – effectively using WordPress core as a basic foundation to build on top of. It will give people who don’t want to switch away from WordPress access to the Ghost UX which they want to have, and it will give people who want the full Ghost platform a taste of what’s to come.

This part is step one in O’Nolan’s exploration of the Ghost concept. Step two would be conditional upon the success of the plugin:

Assuming the plugin is actually used by people – it would then justify exploring building the standalone version of Ghost from the ground up. The plugin would subsequently serve as a great marketing tool for the platform.

I love this idea and believe the O’Nolan has struck upon the best way to include the community in this new concept. Make sure to check out his full response to the all the people who have been talking about Ghost over the past few days.

There’s no doubt that WordPress is already on the road toward a more simplified UI in the future. But for many this is not soon enough and WordPress inevitably will include more features than your average blogger requires. What do you think about the WordPress Ghost concept? Would WordPress benefit from the realization of Ghost? What changes, if any would you like to see to enhance a pure blogging experience with WordPress?