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WordPress Tip: WordPress as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Application

by Tom Johnson on Aug 30, 2008
categories: technical-writing wordpress

I'm amazed at how easily people can make sites look both professional and functional in a short period of time using WordPress. Clyde Parson, the STC-Suncoast chapter in Tampa, just redid the Suncoast STC with a new WordPress theme. It looks pretty cool.

Back when I lived in Tampa, the Suncoast STC site was already created in WordPress, but there was an initiative to migrate the site to Drupal for its password-protection capabilities (which turned out not to be so important). Drupal was too much work for the web volunteers, and now Clyde returned the site to its authentic wholeness as a WordPress incarnation (in a way much better than before).

WordPress does simplify web publishing. Find the right theme (in Clyde's case, the Branford theme), tweak and customize it a bit, and voila, it's a professional looking site with dynamic content in less than a day or two.

However, I encounter a growing number of people who also struggle with WordPress, who are seduced by the idea that it's a no-brainer to publish a site. Not true. It does take skill, knowledge, and time. Just last night  I received two questions from people about WordPress -- one person asking how to add images to the sidebar and change the font, another asking about feeds, and today I gave a tutorial to another person on customizing his site, particularly the colors. After some people manage to set up a WordPress blog, they discover they aren't able to modify it, and they tear their hair out in frustration.

WordPress is like a Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde type application. For people already a little familiar with web publishing, WordPress is the nice Dr. Jekyll that shows a friendly face. People are amazed by the functionality and flexibility of the platform. The extensibility of the plugins, themes, and open code makes WordPress a powerful partner in web design and publishing. It's the tool you always needed -- it makes everything easy.

Jekyll and Hyde
Jekyll and Hyde

For others, the less tech savvy ones who somehow managed to set up a self-hosted WordPress site either through an auto-installer or through other means, WordPress shows the Mr. Hyde face. The code is open, and as soon as they make a few naive tweaks to the loop, or remove a key div tag -- bam, the site breaks and the user becomes paralyzed with frustration. The php tags that call information from the database look foreign, and passing parameters to those tags seems like advanced programming.

Perhaps comparing WordPress to a loaded gun is more apt -- in the hands of one, it's a tool for finding food; in the hands of another, it's a quick way to accidentally shoot yourself. But I always see computers in a more biological form, either a monster that's pounding me or one that I'm pinning with one hand.

But where WordPress differs from other advanced tools or objects (such as a car engine) is that WordPress allows novice users to get not just their foot in the door, but their whole body. And as soon as they're in, the door snaps shuts and they can't find the exit.

It's not as if WordPress is immediately familiar to even experienced web publishers. But there's a key character trait that allows some to learn it while others flounder: temerity to click buttons and experiment with the unknown. Some users see an unfamiliar button and avoid clicking it because they think it may screw everything up, or execute a process they don't want.

Other users aren't afraid to click and experiment. They're used to breaking things, and then rebuilding them. They know that through experimentation, they learn. If it breaks, they can restore it. If it they open the guts, they can see how the whole digestive system works.

Another analogy -- it's like the kitchen. When I try to cook, I carefully follow a recipe and feel uncomfortable adding in extraneous ingredients or varying from the specified measurements outlined in the recipe. I'm afraid that I'll do something that will ruin everything.

Jane, on the other hand, approaches cooking with a more free form methodology -- adding in a variety of ingredients as she sees fit, changing amounts on the fly, and going with the general flow of ... her inner cooking rhythm.

Jane's attitude in the kitchen would serve her well in WordPress, and my attitude in WordPress would serve me well in the kitchen. Why is it so hard to switch approaches?

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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