Watching Gutenberg from the Trenches

On my first full-time gig managing a university’s web presence, the head of the Criminal Justice department grumbled about a photo on her site of the building where the program was located. She didn’t have a specific criticism; whenever the subject came up, she just said it looked funny.

Months later she showed me a set of images she wanted to use for new pages and I finally realized: Criminal Justice. When she sees pictures she evaluates them solely from the standards of her profession, meaning crime scene photos. When she said the picture looked funny, she was trying to convey that she didn’t understand photography optimized for aesthetics rather than forensic use.

Since then a central principle of my work has been to approach web content and architecture as a window into the minds of the people who maintain them. By understanding their mindset, providing useful tools and setting up guardrails to keep them on track, I try to make their jobs easier and guide them toward providing content users need.

I can tell you that a Biology department is all about listing and classifying content; a History department will try to publish its own history; an English department is obsessive about format but produces terrible substance; and Fine Arts wants image galleries.

By reading through a site’s content I can tell if the key provider is a hoarder, has obsessive-compulsive traits or could be ADHD. Sometimes I can sense who has anger management issues.

Coming from this background, I’m worried about what Gutenberg means for my ability to serve the content providers and, in turn, the visitors.

Gutenberg is all about tools to configure posts and pages, which is great for bloggers and small commercial enterprises. But for a university? Not so much.

Universities are paper-based operations. For them it’s less about producing engaging content and more about quickly and accurately publishing office documents: policies, instructions, handbooks, the course catalog, the schedule, the dean’s list.

The ideal interface for the bulk of higher education web content is one that expedites copy-paste-set-headers-spellcheck-publish. The intuitive tools are the ones that most closely look and work like a Word document, because that’s where the content starts.

My gut tells me this is also going to be true of any paper-driven operation: schools, government at all levels, law firms, medical operations, financial institutions, engineering firms — pretty much anything driven by audits, accreditation and any other document-based process.

I sense a huge disconnect between the people who embrace WordPress with Gutenberg as an end in itself and those for whom a CMS is a tool to perform a task. I’ve seen exchanges along the lines of:

Developers: Please try out Gutenberg and tell us what you think.

Users: Tried it. Don’t like it.

Developers: Tell us how we can make it better.

Users: Remove it from WordPress. We don’t want or need it, and it makes our jobs harder.

Developers: We’re looking for meaningful feedback. You’re being negative and unhelpful.

Gutenberg’s trajectory reminds me of New Coke, but in this case the potential impact is so much more significant. The question is: if this launch is equally disastrous, will the development team be able to see and address the error?

I’m not a core contributor. I recognize that far more intelligent and experienced people than myself have been working on this. Yet I still can’t reconcile assurances that Gutenberg is brilliant with my actual experience with it or my concerns.

Better-informed people have already voiced the reservations I share about Gutenberg’s impact on data structure. I worry about how we can dedicate more of our limited staff to development in JavaScript. And I’m concerned about the possible black eye for WordPress just as I’m realizing three-fourths of a decade of effort moving the campus away from Drupal, which has been a drag on our web presence. I have to face the possibility that after so many years of investment in WP, we may need to jump ship.

All I can do at this point is install Classic Editor and wait.