The Wal-Mart of WPMu

Seems like every time James Farmer comes up with a new way to package WPMu, it’s just another attempt to break it big monetarily.  That’s all fine and good, but in my mind the power behind this application, or any other, has far more to do with the specific communities it grows out of and the possibilities of experimentation and play that builds from it.

Image Credit: Toban Black We Sell for Less

Image Credit: Toban Black "We Sell for Less"

In fact, the point is that it’s hard to provide such a service and be able to cater to so many folks when numbers is what you’re after.  You make things cheap, but the system itself necessarily becomes limited and effectively stagnant. Bottom line is that this stuff does not cost a lot money, what is expensive is the  money invested in people and possibilities not necessarily WPMu. When it all boils down to a “Ning-like service for blogs” as we have with it just feels like Wal-Mart as powered by open source tools.  It’s all about volume, a warehouse for blogs, another box-store website online.

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10 Responses to The Wal-Mart of WPMu

  1. Ron says:

    The unfortunate thing is that in many places in Canada and the US, Wal-Mart has put all of the locals out of business. So, the only thing left for most folks is Wal-Mart. Kind of a sad direction for an open source “community” to head in.

  2. Zach Davis says:

    The open source community isn’t headed in the direction of wal-mart. There will always be a market for those people who want the functionality of open source but don’t necessarily require the flexibility. We’ve seen this for years – you’ve always been able to get a hosting account with an auto-installer for a number of open source packages. That’s good enough for a lot of people, and I suppose somebody out there is making some money reselling opensource as a packaged, no-worry solution.

    However, those sorts of offerings also tend to remove the key element that makes open source so attractive to so many people. When the consumer purchases open source that’s been repackaged as software as service, they generally give up the ability to hack, to modify, to fix, to contribute, etc. In many cases, that ability isn’t needed, especially when we’re talking about really small, low-budget users that can’t invest the time or money in really customizing open source packages.

    On the other hand, larger institutional users and developers will continue to rely on open source software precisely because it’s NOT software as service. I guess I think that people like Farmer make open source software generally more accessible, and that’s not a bad thing – he’s tapping into a low-cost, low-investment market that just isn’t going to be met by most out-of-the box open source solutions. But that’s definitely not the market that drives open source development or that makes it possible to make a living as an open source developer. In the end, I don’t see this sort of thing as a huge threat to open source.


  3. James Farmer says:

    Dude, you could at least link to 😀

    Not doing so smells a bit wrong, in a post about it.

    And what, precisely, is wrong for trying to offer people something that they would like to use and hoping to make some money outta it… is your only qualification for respect that you should be working for the public service or a nonprofit?

    You say ‘fine and good’ but you don’t really mean that, I can tell 😉

    And complaining that we’re making previously difficult and tech specific tools available to people without the tech knowledge / facilities to use them themselves is more Edulame than Edupunk if you ask me.

  4. Ron says:


    I didn’t say “the”. I said “an”. There’s a difference. Open source itself will not go the direction of Wal-Mart. However, the particular OS community that I’ve been working in has moved a long way in that direction in the last year.

  5. Reverend says:

    Ron and Zach,
    I really think the Wal-Mart analogy is more appropriate than I even first imagined. I mean what we have is a move towards monolithic services, where everything is cheap, easy, and plastic. No time spent, no thought exerted, and those that suffer are the moms and pops. And, by extension, the community. It eats away at the fabric of the very spirit that provided for the conditions of possibility. And that, for me, is the issue. Not whether someone can or cannot make money on open source, I know people can and I have seen many folks do it with integrity and the community in mind, Bill Fitzgerald’s Open Academic is a perfect example of this in the educational field. He practices what he preaches. And there are many, many folks out there making a living developing with open source apps, while at the same time volunteering the time they can spare. I’m all for it, and I even develop on the side for cash when I can. The real issue I have is with the impulse towards the monolithic one-stop shop logic of these open source Wal-Mart solutions that do more to destroy community than foster it. It becomes all about the one “entrepreneur,” the single figure moves beyond the community and rather than some trickle down bullshit myth of wealth and capital, it just further fosters a breakdown in community, possibilities, and the very fabric of sharing and collaboration that made the community possible in the first place.

    I firmly believe that a service like is more destructive to the community that enabled it than beneficial or “neutral” because it becomes about volume, quantity, and every person for themselves. It mystifies the technology and returns us to invidious competition, and it is premised on the fortune of a few at the expense of the many. And that is bullshit and needs to be challenged, for in my mind it’s diametrically opposed to the power present in an open source community that depends upon people making a good living while at the same time collaborating and sharing as the wealth and recognition is evenly distributed. Open Source and capitalism are incompatible as I understand them, and we will see that increasingly over the coming years. Orcale’s purchase of MySQL will be the first and most telling example of this prediction in the coming years.

    Sorry, and no link to Wal-Mart either, what was I thinking? Oh, I remember now, I figured I would help you keep the anticipation of your big Robert Scoble-like teaser post for your throngs of fans (talk about lame?). Anyway, just trying to do my part for the common cause I guess.

    I’m actually surprised you didn’t mention somewhere in the comment that you “have kids to feed.” That’s always an effective bit of rhetoric. And, as you might be able to discern from my post, I don;t have a problem with folks making money on this stuff, I just hate the impulse towards the monolithic service for open source tools like WPMu that are community driven and reduce the hard work and effort of so many within that community to the benefit and promotion of so few. You did all that work by yourself did you? Did you link to all the folks who helped you build this? I know a lot of good folks who make money on their open source development, the only difference between them and you is that they aren’t trying to voraciously dominate the playing field for making money with promotion and gimmick after gimmick. it becoming annoying, and your presence in the community is increasingly one of developing using GNU licensed work and finding a way to make others pay for development, the majority of which is not your work. You’re re-introducing the middle-man to all this, and that makes you a liability.

    As for EDUPUNK, well given that you invented the idea years ago, as you were so quick to point out while at the same buying up soon after it broke—so telling—I guess I should be asking you what’s EDUPUNK and what’s not. But if you ask me, re-imagining this space as a empty, self-promotional logic and taking credit for everything and anything for a buck isn’t all that EDUPUNK, in fact it is it’s very antithesis. And it is everything I stand against!

  6. James Farmer says:

    Ahh Reverend, more simmering range and repressed anger than fire and brimstone today by the looks of things. Still, always good to get things out in the open.

    However, to murder the metaphor, you do a great job of painting me as the devil incarnate – or at least a lieutenant of sorts as doubtless you’d see Matt as the no. 1 monolith around here.

    But no, actually you wouldn’t, because he’s a ‘developer’ while I’m just a ‘middle man’ – which is really the crux of your whole argument… that OS developers (i.e you) should inherit the earth while voracious (LOL) evil marketers, designers, business people etc. (i.e. me) need to rot in hell.

    That you should manage in small, highly specialized and controlled pieces this sort of thing – rather than it being simple for anyone and everyone to use.

    With a sprinkling of annoyance that I might have dared to trespass on your sacred, yawnable, meme – which you’ve no doubt got plans to trot out at every conference for the next 10 years, with the same self-righteous sanctimonious zeal.

    You’re not standing against anything, you’re just standing for yourself.

    And, as you asked, being ‘punk’ is not he same as being a ‘twat’ – it’s not a license to spout crap on topics you know little about with impunity.

  7. Reverend says:

    I spoke my peace, congratulations on, good work! 🙂

  8. Zach Davis says:

    With all due respect, I think you missed the crux of Jim’s argument, James. He makes it pretty clear that he’s not against monetizing open source software, per se. Rather, I think he’s taking issue with the idea that you can take something that requires real work and thought to do well — like setting up a WPMU installation for a group of users and doing it in such a way that it addresses the particular and unique needs of those users — and instead approaching it as a packaged item on a shelf, in which developers are not encouraged to do the tough thinking about how the tool is used and applied in the real world that goes with development.

    I guess I tend to agree with Jim on this point – the better the software is, the better it represents a domain model of the real business challenge (in this case, blogging). The more prepackaged the software is, the more it tends to force the users to re-model the domain to meet the requirements of the software. So, you might be right in suggesting that Jim is a purist — he probably is, just not in the way you think. The dichotomy to look at here is not open source idealism vs for-profit pragmatism. No, I think the better discussion that could be had here focuses on whether or not we should value the complexity, difficulty, and possibility that total ownership and access of software offers over the ease and speed that we get from SAS.


  9. Mikhail says:

    In the interest of getting my head around what is at issue here, here’s a question:

    I agree with Jim’s argument. One-size-fits-all out of the box solutions created to generate revenue are woefully limited in their usefulness for facilitating community interaction and genuine, transformative teaching and learning. Yet, might it be possible to create a viable hosted platform which enables communities to interact and experiment in precisely the ways Jim talks about? Can’t this be driven more by the will to fully realize the potential of a tool like WPMu for enabling dynamic interactions within a community of teachers/learners/creators, rather than the will to monetize?

  10. Barry says:

    @Zach – “But that’s definitely not the market that drives open source development or that makes it possible to make a living as an open source developer.”

    How many WordPress developers are out of business now that is available? Just because WPMU has always needed a technical mind to set up, doesn’t mean it should always be that way.

    “in which developers are not encouraged to do the tough thinking about how the tool is used and applied in the real world that goes with development”

    There was a lot of tough thinking and development in the making of and in how the “tool” was to be used and applied for it’s target audience and that development was done by developers who happen to contribute a lot to the open source community.

    And as I’ve said on other site, there is nothing stopping users of exporting and moving to a self hosted MU install should they outgrow it, just as people move from to a self hosted blog.

    On the opposite side, if someone with a self hosted MU site finds the hassle of maintaining a server, databases and supporting users then they (just as some heavy traffic WordPress sites have moved to they can import.

    This isn’t an all or nothing solution. Surely encouraging people who were put off by the complexity of setting up such a community should be accepted if not welcomed. Not everyone who starts with is going to stay there, and those that leave with a successful community are going to need support and development and help. But would they have existed as potential customers in the first place if they couldn’t “try before they buy”? I honestly doubt it.

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