Gutenberg and an Ascent into Chaos

Photo of a utility tool

I have embraced and come to terms with Gutenberg; it is the future of WordPress.

I’ve written my own blocks and quickly fell in love with the possibilities. A wannabe JavaScript/React dev such as myself could create their own block for the block editor and allow others to use it for their own purposes. For me, Gutenberg was gold and the Classic Editor was for lazy developers and site owners who didn’t want to embrace the change.

Despite the pushback and numerous 1-star ratings saying, “Hell no” to the new editor, 5.0 was released with this new revolutionary editor. Forks like ClassicPress formed their own community, vowing to never have Gutenberg part of their site experience.

The warnings of Gutenberg coming were plenty. “Learn JavaScript deeply” became the mantra. Some sighed like me and said, “Okay, but why? It’s WordPress. WordPress is easy.”

The Blogging Era

Even back in college, when blogging platforms were aplenty (this was around 1999), even I had a blog. It was just a static HTML site with no database, but it was my spot on the web. I’ve always had an interest in the languages behind the internet. I built my own basic CMS and photo app way before brands started throwing an R after their names.

It didn’t get serious until around 2006 when my then wife wanted a blog of her own. At that time, it was between two blogging platforms: Movable Type, and WordPress.

My hatred of Perl drew me into WordPress. I already knew basic PHP. And scanning the source of WordPress, it was very easy for me to pick up.

I created my first theme in a few days. I decided to create my own theme for my own personal blog. Then I began blogging like crazy. Any mundane thought in my head, I could publish.

Soon people started commenting on my blog posts. I was ecstatic that people actually gave a shit about the stuff I wrote. Google rewarded blogs with lots of comments. Communities were formed around the readers. RSS feeds were still a thing. Names like Darren Rowse and John Chow promised riches if you did the right things regarding your blog. It was a nice fantasy that I could actually make money from the stuff I wrote.

I ignored the noise, however. I had a full-time Government job and blogging to me was just a hobby. I never in my wildest dreams thought I could make money with this thing called WordPress.

Guest Blogging

After interacting with my readers, I began guest posting on their blogs. Guest posting led to more posts, and I landed a guest spot on a popular design blog at the time called Devlounge.

Seeing the potential for feeds, I dug up my best regular expression knowledge and released my first WordPress plugin called Feed Styler in 2007. Feeds were ugly. I hoped to change that.

I decided to write my experience of writing my first plugin and published it on Devlounge. It became insanely popular. I was offered to guest blog on a well-known blog at the time called WeblogToolsCollection. I met other writers like Ajay D’souza and Jeff Chandler, who I worshiped (and still do).

My side hobby was fun. I was able to write for popular blogs. Yes, I dreaded the comments on popular blogs, but that helped shape my writing and develop a thick skin.

Comments

Comments for a blogger at the time were just pure gold. Yes, I spammed the “I agree” and “Me too” comments, but I actually formed genuine relationships with commenters on my blog. I tried to respond to every single one. From my perspective, if someone took the time to leave a comment, they should at least be acknowledged.

I eventually grew out of blogging as my job became more demanding. WordPress was a tool I used. Blogging was how I shared my thoughts with the world. I would occasionally come back to it and post my musings, but my lack of posts and the death of RSS killed my community.

WordPress Full-Time

My Government job didn’t work out. I had/have mental issues and that prevented me from holding my security clearance. I resigned from the Army to focus on my mental health and recovery.

A small web firm at the time gave me a chance with a career change into WordPress development. By that time, I had released several popular WordPress plugins and even wrote a book on WordPress during my recovery.

However, WordPress was not yet a household name. It was tough finding clients. Hourly work without benefits was the norm. This wasn’t working out for me. I was living out of my sister’s house while she was deployed in Iraq rent-free, but could still not make enough to have a sustainable lifestyle.

But let’s skip the rest of my boring ass life story.

Custom Post Types

I would argue that custom post types landing in WordPress were the game changer. No longer was WordPress confined to just posts or pages. Developers and content creators found innovative ways to use these post types and the agency model started taking off.

Utility and app themes were starting to rise. The first e-commerce apps started to appear. If it could be done on the web, it could be done in WordPress.

Shortcode Hell

Everything was shortcodes back then. It was an easy way to wrap content and control the front-end of a site. Shortcodes are still in heavy use today even.

The block editor was supposed to change all that. Tutorial after tutorial popped up demonstrating how cool it was to make a shortcode into a Gutenberg block instead.

Page Builders

I can’t get away from this topic without at least mentioning page builders. Tools like Visual Composer were mindblowing. Of course, I avoided page builders like the plague, but I eventually grew to love Beaver Builder for its simplicity and ease of developing modules for it.

Themes like Astra and GeneratePress were designed with page builders in mind. Building full-fledged app-looking themes was easy. I even built my own module suite for Beaver Builder.

As Gutenberg grew in popularity, so did the Gutenberg suite model. Why build a module suite for a page builder when you could build blocks for over a third of the internet? It was a no-brainer.

Playing Gutenberg Catchup

With WordPress 5.0, developing for WordPress, in my non-humble opinion, became much easier. No longer did you have to code themes from scratch. You could find a reputable theme, perhaps use a page builder to lay out the pages, and use Gutenberg for blog posts. And that’s what a lot of people did: page builders for pages, and Gutenberg for posts.

Gutenberg made writing effortless if you accepted the brief learning curve that it entailed.

As more Gutenberg block suites were released, developers began realizing that Gutenberg was more than just a writing tool; it could be a site builder.

Block suites were released, and the popular ones were bought out by companies like WP Engine, GoDaddy, and a host of others. Popular block suites released their own themes to compliment the blocks.

For example, Kadence has their own theme. GenerateBlocks as their own theme. Genesis Blocks has their own theme. And yes, even WordPress has released its own theme for the core blocks available.

Ascent into Chaos

WordPress is very opinionated when it comes to blocks. There are strict design guidelines for core blocks so that themers can style these blocks in a predictable fashion.

The goal was to be able to use blocks, switch to another block-enabled theme, and not have to lose anything. In my opinion, the light at the end of the tunnel was to break free from proprietary page builders and do things the WordPress way.

However, as block suite after block suite was released, each developer had their own opinions on how blocks should behave and look. Gutenberg lacked a dimensions component, so the developers created their own. Gradients and shapes were created long before they landed in the Gutenberg plugin.

Block suites created their own color pickers, select boxes, and implementations of mobile previews. Page builder blocks rose in popularity. But this came with its own caveat as each block needed to be custom styled… you couldn’t drop a block suite or theme at whim. If you wanted to switch a design, you now had to go through all of your old content and convert the blocks into something else. It was/is incredibly frustrating.

The advice on Facebook groups is to just pick “one” block suite and stick with it. But it has always led back to core. A block suite company can be bought out or simply go out of business.

It was/is block suite chaos.

Full Site Editing

With full site editing eventually landing into core, I hope this chaos does not continue. Gutenberg started as a way to write beautiful content easily.

It quickly devolved into what I call slash hell. I need a table of contents. Block suite. I need some groovy-looking sliders, testimonials, or author blocks. Another few block suites.

The famous / command was now populated with many unrelated options. If I wanted an image, I would just type /image. No longer. If I wanted a simple heading, I could no longer just type /h. Gutenberg, which made writing easier, suddenly made it cumbersome.

The sidebar became polluted with each new block. Themers were left to define their own color schemes and font stack, but users coming from page builders wanted more. What is happening currently is just sidebar and toolbar hell. There are too many things calling for our attention.

With full-site editing, themers are again given the reins. They can create block patterns, different header modules, reusable blocks, etc. But that won’t stop others from creating their own iterations.

It’s already possible to create a landing page in Gutenberg in just under five minutes. Just drop in a pattern, or some template from a block library, change a few words, and you’re done.

I hope and pray that full site editing doesn’t move the chaos in the block editor to the actual site-building experience.

A Plea for Hope?

As long as block suites continue to be released with accompanying themes, there will be segmentation. Core blocks will be mixed with third-party ones. There will be block patterns that require a certain block plugin and theme. That is not good.

Block suite plugins appear to be reinventing the wheel. However, the wheel didn’t exist at the time of development. So custom components were written. UIs and design patterns were invented. It seems like Gutenberg development (as fast-paced as it is) has lost. No matter how fast Gutenberg development goes, there will be a developer out there recognizing the limitation and creating their own iteration of how they think a particular Gutenberg component should look.

The demands of clients will always be overwhelming, and as much as I hate to say it, coding a theme from scratch just for one site is a waste of time and money.

I’m not sure where to go from here, but you simply cannot build a site with just Gutenberg without some kind of utility theme like Astra and GeneratePress. I love the Twenty Twenty One theme, but it was underwhelming to me from a block perspective. If Gutenberg is to catch up with the block suites, it would take a monumental effort by both the hard-working Gutenberg developers and the WordPress theming community. I hope that happens.

Enough Ranting

I love Gutenberg. I love creating sites and blog posts with it. But I miss the days when I could just open up my site’s admin and just write.

Thanks for reading. And by the way, comments are most welcome. Cheers.

Ronald Huereca
Ronald Huereca

Ronald Huereca

Ronald has been part of the WordPress community since 2006, starting off writing and eventually diving into WordPress plugin development and writing tutorials and opinionated pieces.

No stranger to controversy and opinionated takes on tough topics, Ronald writes honestly when he covers a topic.

3 thoughts on “Gutenberg and an Ascent into Chaos”

  1. This is such a great recount of the WordPress history and the blogging era in general. I resonate a lot of with your experience, the value of blog comments and the communities that formed around them.

    We found WordPress easy as developers or people interested in technology because we could understand what was happening under the hood — it was simple code that could be re-used and reformatted as necessary.

    I see Gutenberg as an attempt to bring the same freedom and empowerment to the general public. Nobody probably knows how this is going to end and what compromises users will have to make when choosing to build a website with WordPress. Choosing a single block suite and a base theme might be one of the routes even though it still isn’t ideal in terms of future-proofing content and enabling design updates.

    These are exciting times!

    Reply

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