WordPress: Paving cow paths

A few days ago WordPress users got a letter from Matt — Matt Mullenweg, WP’s founding developer — reporting on the growth of his baby. In the course of his presentation (“State of the Word 2011”), he spoke of WP’s reliance on “Desire Paths” to determine the company’s direction. He likened it to paving cow paths, something anyone who has ever been on a college campus recognizes immediately. Campus designers can build all the pretty sidewalks they want, but students will create their own paths along the routes they want to use, regardless of where the sidewalks go. Wise planners pave the paths created by the students.

Anyway, it prompted me to compile this post and add my two cents’ worth to the nearest cow path.

Stuff I look for when choosing a theme

I like custom headers where I can include my own art and title in whatever font I might have chosen as my “trademark.” This header must be instead of, not in addition to, some default title. I must be able to turn off or hide the default title without hiding my blog from search engines. And while we’re on the subject of headers, why does everyone think a header needs to be a couple of inches high? That’s often just wasted vertical real estate. One reason I like the Enterprise theme is its shallow header. I was able to “make it mine” within that space. I saved even more space by eliminating one of the menu bars. Big, deep headers are nice if they are functional, if they contain live links, a search box, menus, etc. But I’m not a fan of a big static header. Of course, all this depends on the design of the theme and how the various design elements are incorporated.

I see no real use for footer widgets except for copyright information. If widget information is important, put it on the side where it’s obvious and accessible. If it’s not important, why show it at all? I see no point in making readers scroll clear to the bottom of the page looking for something that might or might not be there.

I want a full dateline — including the year — on each post. And I want the date at the top of the post. No reader wants to read an entire post, thinking they are getting current information, and discover at the end that the post is two years old. Or worse, not discover that the post is two years old  — because the complete date is either missing or so inconspicuous as to be overlooked. True, on a relatively young blog, this may not be a major concern. But on a blog like this, that spans years, I think it’s very important.

Custom backgrounds are a wonderful feature. Next to a custom header, nothing helps more in establishing a unique look than a custom background. Vigilance makes it very easy to change the background colors, and that’s a great option for someone who doesn’t want to do a lot of custom tweaking. Ideally, though I’d like the option of adding background images. I may not do so, but I like having the option. Transparent elements are a nice touch in conjunction with custom backgrounds. They really add a lot of depth.

The main column should be wide enough to show off a big picture or design options like block quotes. The sidebars should not compete with the main column for attention.

The front page layout should be functional and attractive, not busy and cluttered with too many bells and whistles. Of course, one person’s bells and whistles may be the next person’s functionality.

That said, I’m a sucker for cool stuff like dynamic menus and horizontally scrolling posts. Beautiful typography, beautiful colors, grunge designs. Sure, I might not be using them today, but come back tomorrow or next week.

My wish list

On the list of CSS revisions (CSS stylesheet editor), provide a way to label the revisions to assist the blogger in locating a specific older one. And although I’m sure someone’s storage is at stake, I’ve wished more than once there were more than 25 revisions available. Also, as I fine-tune this post, it occurs to me that a more robust revisions list for posts could be useful.

Provide a toggle to keep my comments/replies from appearing in the “Recent Comments” widget. My thinking is the “Recent Comments” widget exists to show (and therefore publicize) the different visitors who have commented and the posts they have commented on. Including my comments in that widget serves no purpose; in fact, I think it can leave a negative impression when my comments start to dominate (particularly if I’ve replied to a number of comments in one sitting). I’d much prefer my comments not be listed. In the past I’ve gotten around this by using my edit privileges to enter my reply directly under the visitor’s comment, in the same box. This also keeps my comments from being added to the comment total in the WP stats — good if you want a raw number of comments not including your own, bad if you think a higher count per post draws readership. This approach gets tedious since I have to enter edit comment mode, then use rules, bold, ital, indent, etc. to set my text apart from the comment above it. And it wrecks the nice thread structure.

Personally, I’d love to have a big red warning message saying “Are you SURE you want to PUBLISH this post?” before I can do so. I am far too likely to click “Publish” when I intend to click “Preview.” I can scramble fast and take it down (from WordPress AND Facebook AND Twitter!), but by then all my subscribers (all three of them) have been notified and come looking for a new post — which is no longer there.  Perhaps the default setting for a post could be “Private” and/or have a toggle for this. Or provide a “Notepad” setting as a default, that would have to be toggled to “Publish.” This is the one time I’d like a good ol’ nagging Vista-style interface asking me three different times, in three different ways, if I’m absolutely, positively sure I want to publish a post. I should have a fail-safe system, where I need another person with a second key before I can launch …

Love all the WP stats. I’m sort of a stat whore. It seems like it should be possible to provide Total Words Published, since WP already provides Total Posts and a word count for each post. How hard would it be for WP computers to total everything? It would be fun to know if I’ve completed my first bestseller or am half way through the third one.

On all themes, we can specify the number of posts per page to display. I prefer to keep the number fairly low so as to keep attention on the most recent post(s) and not create a long scroll down for the reader (particularly important if I happen to have included some worthwhile footer widgets. (I realize some readers might prefer a long, single-page scroll just to see what sort of stuff I’m posting.) Unfortunately, the number of posts per page also determines the number of items per archive/category page. Limiting a front page to 3 posts seems like a good idea; limiting an archive list to 3 items gets pretty ridiculous with themes that only list titles or excerpts instead of complete posts (eg, Vigilance, zBench). And in those themes that show the entire posts, having to click “Older posts” after scanning just three titles gets annoying in a hurry. It would be great if the number of posts per page and the number of posts/items per archive page could be set independently.

Since every theme is different, there’s probably no universal fix, but it would be nice to have a simple way to add my one-line copyright notice (Copyright © 2011 PiedType.com} to any footer. Not wanting to disturb the designer or WP credit. Just want to add mine, since the footer is the customary location for a copyright notice. I know I’m not the only user who hasn’t figured out the “position: absolute” workaround.


I’m in awe of the WordPress folks, knowing that they have developed and maintain some 130 different themes, all of which must be coded to work properly on at least three different operating systems (in all their various versions) and at least five different browsers (with all their many versions). Oh, and that’s only for us bloggers on WordPress.com. We are but a small part of the WordPress empire.

Thanks, WP, for giving me my favorite toy and hobby. (Not so much for turning me into a couch potato, but at least I’m keeping my brain cells active.)


P.S. to my wish list: Give commenters a way to edit their comments, for a limited period of time (maybe an hour or two). I’m sure there isn’t one among us who hasn’t wanted to adjust a comment, correct a misspelled word, fix a broken link, etc., usually within 60 seconds of posting the original comment. It hurts to post a well-thought out reply, only to notice a moment too late that there’s a glaring error in the middle of it.

25 thoughts on “WordPress: Paving cow paths

  1. It looks like Matt is trying to reinvent himself, as well as WordPress.

    I’ve had a few conversations with Matt in the (almost) five years I’ve been using WordPress. The old Matt was much more involved in the Support Forums, and responding to emails and in comment threads. Old Matt was willing to be rude, and even threatening if he thought you were questioning too much.

    I told him, in one comment thread about the introduction of “Re-Blogging”, that there were pieces of the feature that were just wrong, after a bit of back and forth he told me if I didn’t like it I should find another service.

    But he also listened once or twice, and made some minor changes because of it. Like, when the “Related Posts” option was introduced, it was a total surprise, and no one knew they could opt-out of it. A bunch of us raised hell, and eventually WP put its announcements on our dashboards.

    So Matt has some experience following the cow paths that we leave, but really most of his time with WordPress has been about not listening to its users. At least not to the ones who want to modify his decisions. Which is, in my opinion, the better business strategy.

    Basically, WordPress mostly ignores us bloggers, but has decided it will follow larger trends / cow paths set by “social media”. Which, again, rarely actually responds to their users (re: Facebook privacy issues).

    WordPress is definitely in the process of reinventing itself. We have “Happiness Engineers” now, WP is adopting the Blogger dictionary — we used to “Add To Blogroll”, then we “Subscribed to Blogs” and now we “Follow” blogs. For some reason WP has decided the Blogroll is being phased out, and now they’re changing how the Tags / Categories system works.

    My biggest pet peeve with WordPress, and all of the blogging platforms, is bloggers remain unpaid content providers for their advertising systems. Without us, they don’t exist, and yet they do nothing to protect our work.

    I wrote this a while back, if you’re interested:

    “…currently these [social media] company’s are stuck in the “love it or leave it” mentality. There’s always another platform, they’ll warn, for your content. If you don’t like our newspaper, there are twelve other ones right there for your letters to the editor. Newspapers used to believe their readers were not part of the process. Reader feedback was ignored. But now with declining readership, newspapers and magazines are making the same ‘mea culpa’ New Media will eventually have to make.”


    1. You make a lot of excellent points here. I realize we bloggers are only a small part of the WordPress empire, even though it would never have gotten off the ground without us. But now it’s all grown up, with great big commercial customers who pay money, and dreams of glory. It figures we freeloaders would be getting less and less love. If Matt wants to sell his soul to be like Facebook, I suppose there isn’t anything we can do about it.

      That “Related Posts” option really ticked me off, too. With no control over what links got listed, and knowing they only encouraged readers to leave my blog, I turned them off right away. I’d never even thought about the sort of thing that happened to you.

      The most recent bone I had to pick with WP was their ads. My carelessness, of course. But I resented it. And I resent having to pay to keep that random garbage off my blog.

      No, WP isnt’ perfect, but I do like it better than any alternatives I’ve come across. If I weren’t so lazy, I’d take my son up on his offer to host a blog for me. But so far, WP is the line of least resistance.

      1. Well thank you for acknowledging my genius. One of my earliest reporting “beats” was writing about tech start-ups. My favourite was some blue-sky researchers who had discovered a gene in a carrot that had cancer fighting capabilities in mice. So they took the cash from a government research grant and used it to lease a downtown (Ottawa) office, then they hired a secretary because nobody had told them not to. Their idea was to sit around in suits and entertain offers for their gene secrets. So they ended up burning off their research cash on rent, and had to go back to working their day jobs at university.

        WordPress has done very well for itself, the product is way more efficient and shiny than it was just a few years ago. It’s by far the superior blogging platform, and the speed and quality of tech support in the Forum is probably the best on the web. I still believe it’s being built to be sold, but what Internet company isn’t? I also believe that who ever buys WP is going to fuck things up for everyone.

        Anyway… I promised myself a few months ago I wouldn’t rant about the faults in WordPress. The last time was during the introduction of the Like and Reblog features, and I feel like I got into a bit of trouble during that one…

        Thanks for taking a look at my post. Maybe, someday, bloggers will realize WP, Blogger, Live Journal and the rest can’t do anything without us, so maybe our concerns over content theft and privacy should be listened to with a bit more respect. Just saying.

        1. I wandered through a lot of that discussion about Likes and Reblogs earlier this evening. I was here then, but I guess I wasn’t paying attention. I should have. I got scraped once (that I know of) and was furious about it and got no help at all. Had to resort to my own devices back then. I do try to protect my copyright.

          WP better look out for us. They won’t have anything to sell if we leave. I like WP because I’m a writer and closet designer. I have no use for social networking and I wish Matt would stop trying to do that do us. If we wanted to be Facebook, we’d have left WP a long time ago.

    2. I agree on the footer widgets, they always seem not important and if they are important, they don’t seem in the proper place. Who wants to scroll all the way down there?

      And hold on…how are they changing the tags/cats?

      1. Until a few days or weeks ago, when you clicked on the tags under your post, you ended up in the “Global Tags” page for that tag — http://en.wordpress.com/tag/photography/ . If you wanted to find everything in a persons blog tagged under a specific topic, you clicked in the category widget in their sidebar. Now everything points to the blog archives.

        According to the WP Forum this could be permanent. I really, really hope not.

        1. Did they announce this change? If so, I totally missed it. But I like it. I’ve never appreciated that clicking on my tags and categories takes my readers to other blogs instead of around mine. Or am I misunderstanding something? Wouldn’t be the first time …

          1. No announcement, that’s why there’s some confusion in the Forum. Nobody knows if it’s a mistake, or a new direction, or something else. I sent a support request about it a few days ago, but no reply as of yet.

            Before, when we clicked on the tags under the post, we went to the WordPress tag page where we could find other like-minded blogs and bloggers. When we click on the categories in the Category Widget, a list of that blogs posts would come up.

            I liked having the choice, so having both options, to me, was a good idea. Now, if we want to link to the WordPress pages, we actually have to insert the links either into the post or into our sidebar.

            So far the general consensus in the Forum is on your side. But, to me, if a blogger is going to click away, they’ll click away. Maybe making the choice more explicit, so people know if they click on PiedType-Photography it’ll take them someplace different than if they clicked on WordPress-Photography. Until recently it was really just a crap shoot.

    1. That happens to me sometimes, and I never know if it’s the video’s fault or if there’s something on my computer that needs updating or tweaking. I’m not the sharpest crayon in the box when it comes to videos. But hey, there’s only so much any one person can know about the Internet, right?

      1. I’m thinking it’s my computer because I haven’t ran into anyone else that has this problem with the video. I just don’t know what the issue would be with my computer though, it’s the only video I’m not able to view.

  2. Gabriel, hmm, don’t know why there’s no “reply” clicky on some of the comments above … anyway, in which forums have you been reading all this good stuff? I only visit the WP forums, and only when I have a specific problem to ask about, usually in the CSS or Theme sections. I’m not seeing what sound like good discussions that you and others have been having.

    1. Try going to your discussion settings and seeing what your ‘enable threaded comments’ setting is at. It’s possible it’s only set at 3 and that would explain the no reply button.

      1. Bats is right, you can set the thread count as high as you’d like but, I’m pretty sure, the comment boxes get narrower and narrower, and I find it looks a little goofy. The thread count on my blogs is set at four. If you ever shut off the ‘threaded comments’ option the comments just revert back to normal.

        The support Forum is a great place to get caught up on WordPress gossip:
        http://en.forums.wordpress.com/topic/did-you-notice-this (this is the thread about the tags issue).

        I used to volunteer in there, but it started to take away from the time I needed on my own blogs. I still go in every day just to stay in touch. If you go in there the Users to pay attention to are Wank, Sacred Path, Raincoaster, Panos, JustJennifer, TimeThief and Tess.

        It’s a great way to learn about how WP works.

      2. I had the thread count at 5, which I never reached. But this bunch of comments was getting so narrow, I cut it back to three or four. I like the nesting/threading thing, but having a comment an inch wide running clear down an otherwise blank page looked absurd.

        You mention all the folks on the forums who are there promptly to help me when I need it. Love those guys and gals. They don’t get nearly the recognition they deserve. I guess I need to hang out there more just to see what’s shakin’, not just when I have a problem.

  3. My only thing with THE CHANGE (HA) of the cats/tags is that was a big way people found my blog, by the global tag page. So I’m wondering how much of my reader base is going to change.

    1. Guess I’d feel differently if my traffic had been coming in via those tags/cats. But I hadn’t noticed they were … until I started talking about WordPress this week.

... and that's my two cents