What in the Word?: Why WordPress is Considered ‘the’ Content Management System

Everyone is expected to be an expert in the job market. If you’re an editor, you’re expected to have design skills. A finance aficionado? You’ll probably have to have some marketing skills. One skill that has become even more integral to every field is the ability to create, manipulate, and develop web content.


Fig. 1: Devious Media, n.d.

Luckily, along with the demand for this skill has come a plethora of content management systems (CMS) that allow the users to execute tasks like creating a basic (or even technologically advanced) website without a degree in Computer Science or a passion for coding. Platforms including WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla all assist in building websites, which ultimately act as a place for online publishing. Though they all streamline the process, WordPress has established itself to be the leader, at least in terms of recognizability, usability, and community.

Started in 2003 as WordPress.org (Winning WordPress Editorial, 2013), an open-source software program, WordPress has transformed from a content management system to a household name, and even a brand. Though other free CMSs, like Drupal and Joomla, came before it, WordPress has managed to carve out a niche for itself and take on a large portion of online real estate.

Adding to its success, WordPress.com was later launched to reach a wider audience as more of a blogging tool. A commercial website platform where users did not have to buy a domain or have their own server, WordPress.com expanded its realm of users from developers to those looking to make a basic site without much background in web design. Functioning as an ‘What You See is What You Get’ (WYSIWYG) editor and builder, WordPress caught on in the blogosphere.

WordPress has moved passed being a platform restricted to blogging. Now, 14.3% of the top 1 million websites use WordPress (Boney, 2013). Perhaps due to the commonality of WordPress as a website builder, it is chosen by users without even being searched for.

In an analysis of Google Trends (Mark, 2011), it was surprising to see that based on WordPress’s market share of top blog and news websites as well as non-blog websites (Mark, 2011), it was not searched for significantly more than Drupal or Joomla. Rather, Joomla was searched for at a similar rate, with Drupal being searched for less by almost one quarter. This shows, Mark claims, that people are choosing WordPress more often, even without searching for it. This cements the fact that WordPress has become a recognizable name associated with more than web development.

Though there are an abundance of free platforms to websites, WordPress has managed to carve out a niche for itself as more than that—it has become a go-to place for all types of projects. WordPress’s ability to avoid being pigeonholed as either a blogging software or, alternatively, solely a CMS is especially apparent as sites ranging from individual bloggers to corporate sites, such as Time Magazine (Boney, 2013), use WordPress. This demonstrates that it has found a way to balance the needs of start-ups and the demands of the “big guys” (McMillan, 2011). This is a distinct difference between WordPress and both Joomla and Drupal, which both function solely as CMSs. This has allowed WordPress to capitalize on both markets and extended their audience.

WordPress’s reach is further corroborated by the vast array of on and offline literature surrounding it. Even when researching facts to defend claims made in this essay, it was difficult to find information on WordPress’s history and model without running up against documentation comparing platforms. Along with this, searches delivered plugins, help forums, and WordPress or blogs about WordPress, rather than delivering facts.

The amount of user generated content around WordPress is astounding and speaks to the fact that this CMS has gone beyond a set of tools and forayed into “brand” territory. Communities supporting the WordPress platform as well as other users are created within countless forums where users interact.

The community-like feel is further validated by the large social media following WordPress possesses with over 320,000 followers on Twitter and 797,000 likes on Facebook. This engagement with social media shows that users value WordPress as more than a place to host their web content—it’s also a brand worth interacting with virtually and an information provider.

Another aspect of community is demonstrated through the over 14,000 plugins available (Boney, 2013). This shows the desire of individuals to improve the CMS. Likely, they see the potential of WordPress and have invested in the community of the site to help it grow and increase its usefulness and status as a web tool.

This kind of community of developers and other web professionals can be described as a community of practice (CoP) (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Their theory states that communities of practice are generally formed organically and defined by the knowledge of members, in this case, knowledge of CMS and web technology. They form naturally as practitioners of craft and skill-based activities (developers) meet to share experiences and insights, though these meetings can take place virtually, as explored by Chris Mantas (n.d.) in Communities of Practice and Web 2.0. Mantas notes that there is still a need for sharing specialized and useful knowledge within a community to strengthen it, which is proliferated online.

Based on the expertise of members, CoPs exist when members share. This is something that is inherent within online communities. With the ease of the built in help functionality, it’s almost as if WordPress allowed for these CoPs to establish naturally to perpetuate the brand and to allow the site to become self-sufficient in the way of support and user-generated expertise. Essentially, the members of this CoP are able to learn something through interactions, in this case, interactions mediated virtually.

Much like an imagined community (Anderson, 1983), users of WordPress feel connected through these shared experiences. This is especially seen in forums where more than one user is struggling with an issue, and a member of this CoP is able to help. Through this shared experience, and mediated by communication, a community is formed, though it seemingly only exists within the internet.

Though many interactions within this CoP or imagined community take place online, this active and dedicated community has transcended the screen and established itself offline. WordPress meetups take place in Vancouver, and many other cities globally, with one in Vancouver totalling over 3,000 members. This shows that this CoP is able to exist virtually and within traditional contexts.These meetups are a space for people to connect with like-minded individuals and share ideas, perpetuating the WordPress “lifestyle” and adding a tangible component to the WordPress brand and overall community.

Community organization and meetups also exist within other CMS communities. For example, Drupal has a meetup every month in Vancouver. This demonstrates that though there is an established WordPress community apparent, other CMSs have cemented themselves in certain social circles or workplace environments. This differentiation is likely due to the differences in both the CMSs usefulness and its users.

Perhaps the difference in the amount of users or websites built with each CMS is not based on quality or ability of a platform, but rather the usefulness of each platform in certain areas. For example, Drupal may be used by knowledgeable developers due to the more complex nature of the system. Thus, Drupal would not be able to have widespread uptake unless more advance tech skills became the norm.

Though communities for WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla exist, there are also groups opposed to each CMS. Often encouraged by the anonymity of the web, individuals voice their opinions on certain programs, and more specifically CMSs, based on experience or issues. Even these shared dislikes can create bonds and communities (Kix, 2011). Based on a mutual frustration, users may band together to support each other in choosing a new CMS.

In this case, it can often come down to personal preference, but as Michael Kowalski noted, it’s often easy to convince people to adopt a new platform once they’ve had a bad experience with another (Kowalski, 2014) .

That said, WordPress still has its flaws, like security issues, customization difficulties, and frequent updates breaking plugins. This may mean that people will eventually migrate away from this platform, but at this point, this user friendly WYSIWYG platform with an easy to use backend and aesthetically pleasing front end, seems to be the go-to platform.

All considered, WordPress has established itself as a recognizable key player in online, open source CMS software. With usability at its core, along with a strong following and ever-growing community of practice behind it, its continued adoption seems inevitable. By serving players both big and small, WordPress has found a way to differentiate itself and reach the largest audience possible while still maintaining quality and customizability while unitentionally building community, both on and offline.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. 1983, Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread   of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Devious Media. (n.d.). Junk in the Trunk: Which Open-Source Backend Platform Will Suit Your Needs? [Infographic]. Retrieved from: http://www.webnethosting.net/wordpress-vs-joomla-vs-drupal-cms-popularity-war/.

Kix, Paul. (2011, March 27). Hating the Same Things. New York Magazine. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/news/intelligencer/shared-dislikes-2011-4/?mid=twitter_nymag

Kowalski, Michael. (January 27, 2014). Practical Digital Magazines [Slides via Skype]. SFU Master of Publishing Program, PUB802 Lecture. Lecture conducted from Shoreditch, London, England.

Lave, Jean & Wenger, Etienne. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mantas, Chris. (n.d.). Communities of Practice and Web 2.0.–Moving from the classical paradigm to Virtual Communities of Practice. Retrieved from: http://www.academia.edu/1658065/Virtual_communities_of_practice_and_WEB_2.0.

Mark, Jason. (2011, November 29). How WordPress Took the CMS Crown From Drupal and Joomla. Smashing Magazine. Retrieved from: http://wp.smashingmagazine.com/2011/11/29/wordpress-cms-crown-drupal-joomla/.

McMillan, Robert.  (2011). WordPress Founder: ‘Enterprise Software Sucks’.  Wired.com. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/wiredenterprise/2011/11/wordpress-founder/.

Winning WordPress Editorial. (2013). A Brief History of WordPress [Blog post]. Retrieved January 26, 2014 from http://winningwp.com/a-brief-history-of-wordpress/.

One Reply to “What in the Word?: Why WordPress is Considered ‘the’ Content Management System”

  1. Good job on your research on why WordPress is considered the content management system. Surprisingly, I have never thought about that. I support the assertion that web development is one skill that has become a more integral to every field. IT skill is dominating in most professions now. It is also interesting to read on how word press has become the leading content management system. Nice info graphic to support your points too.

    It’s good to know that WordPress’s reach is corroborated by the vast array of on and offline literature surrounding it but I don’t see how difficulty in attaining factual information cements the fact that WordPress has become a recognizable name associated with more than web development. Nevertheless, I do agree that WordPress is increasing significantly in terms of recognizability, usability, and community.

    WordPress has been able to develop a good strategy in extending its audience with the introduction of the free blogs. I developed one a couple of months ago and it was absolutely free. What could be the possible threats for WordPress if it exists as both a content management system and blogging software?

    I love the idea of the active and dedicated community who transcend the screen and have established itself offline to help support WordPress. Do these individuals of WordPress community belong to other CMS communities and what are some of the measures put in place to prevent conflicts or movement of individuals from one community to the other?

    If the amount of users or websites built with each CMS is not based on quality or ability of a platform, but rather the usefulness of each platform in certain areas, what other areas can WordPress noted for apart from it being user friendly. Also, what is WordPress putting in place to remain the leading content management system in spite of its flaws? I believe the quality or ability of a platform also counts in generating large amounts of users.

    All said, great research on WordPress being not just a content management system, but “the” content management system.

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