Open letter to Matt Mullenweg

Dear Matt,

I’ve been a long-time user of WordPress, clocking up well over a decade both publishing on and building plugins for it. I love it – and I even tried to get a job at Automattic (but that’s a story for another time).

Recently I’ve been really impressed with the work done around privacy, mostly prompted by GDPR. Well done for ensuring the considerable effort this required was made, and that privacy now has a much more prominent place in WordPress.

However, the trolling of privacy standards which I saw (online) at WPEU this week threatens to undermine a nascent and fragile respect of data privacy. I understand there are cultural differences between the EU and the US regarding personal data, but the WordPress community should – has to – be better than this, in the same way that we should be, and are being, better than to engage in other damaging activities (GamerGate culture, for example).

A possible immediate fall-out of these unhelpful comments was that, while 80 people were registered for Heather’s Developing for Privacy and Data Protection workshop, fewer than 35 showed up. We need *more* designers and developers to care about data protection, so anything that puts them off learning has the potential to be massively damaging to the privacy of thousands, possibly millions, of users their work will touch.

Heather has done amazing work in the UK and beyond for years, banging the drum that as a web industry we must professionalise to be taken seriously by users, legislators, and other industries. She was instrumental in the setting up of an industry body for the web in the UK. A commitment to privacy and data protection is a huge part of professionalising the web industry, in the same way that a commitment to safety is a huge part of a civil engineer’s attitude to their profession. It would be a huge shame to see WordPress further the “we got all your data, lolz suckas!” attitude shown by other big online players (looking at you, Facebook).

Please can you consider whether trolling comments like that help or hinder important work, while you continue to do a great job leading Automattic.

Kind regards, and thanks for all you’ve done for the web community.

Chris Taylor


In a moment of madness – proved by the spelling mistake – I tweeted that 2018 would be the year I go full IndieWeb.

But what is it? Basically, IndieWeb is a movement of people who want to own their own data, not have it wholly controlled by corporations. So rather than posting updates to Big Corp Social Media Website, you’d post to your own site and syndicate out to other places. If the social media site goes down, goes bust, or goes evil, you still have all your content. After all, you wrote it – it should be yours.

The syndication part is possible thanks to various clever technical bits (Jeremy Keith has a great video explaning of the building blocks of IndieWeb). So you can still participate in social media sites, for example, but still own your own content.

It’s a “have your cake and eat it” situation. And I like cake.

I, over the course of this year I intend to become independent of Twitter, Pocket and GMail. That’s not to say I’ll stop using those services – I find them all valuable – but my data won’t be owned by them. Fortunately all my websites have their own self-hosted CMS systems (mainly WordPress) which makes the job a lot easier.

And who knows, I may find that this IndieWeb thing allows me to start syndicating to new places such as this Mastadon thing I keep hearing about. The choice will be, for the first time, all mine.

Unit testing in WordPress

One of the things I really appreciate about developing in the .Net stack is the fantastic unit test support. Using mocking libraries like moq and leaning on the power of nunit to handle my dependencies means I can write unit tests that truly do test just the unit under test. True unit tests are useful for three very important reasons:

  1. That the code is doing what it should
  2. That the code handles unexpected inputs correctly
  3. That after refactoring the code continues to do what it did before

A robust, extensive suite of tests – both unit and integration tests – are crucial for good quality software and, fortunately, have been pretty common in the .Net development world for a long while.

When developing for WordPress, however, it’s not always been that way. I remember not so many years ago that test of any kind wasn’t something often talked about in the WordPress community. I guess we were focussed on getting code shipped.

Things have changed, and automated testing is now a recognised part of the WordPress development workflow. One of the problems with the WordPress Unit Test Suite, as pointed out by Greg Boone, is that it’s not actually a suite of unit tests – it has dependencies like a MySQL database, so would be more correctly called a suite of integrations tests. Pippin also calls these kind of tests “unit”, but they are definitely integration tests.

I’m at risk of over-egging this point, so please read this good description of the difference between unit and integration tests.

To ensure the large WordPress plugin I’m currently building is as good as it can be I want to build a suite of (true) unit tests. That means I need way of mocking WordPress functions (such as do_action, apply_filters and wp_insert_post) and globals such as $current_user and – crucially – $wpdb. It turns out there are a few options, which I’ve briefly investigated. I’ll be using WP_Mock and the PHPUnit test double features.

The well-known WP_Mock from the clever guys at 10up is the backbone of mocking WordPress. It allows you to mock any WordPress function with some simple syntax:

\WP_Mock::wpFunction( 'get_permalink', array(
            'args' => 42,
            'times' => 1,
            'return' => ''
        ) );

This will mock the get_permalink method when the only argument is the integer 42, ensuring it is only called once, and returning the string ‘’. Clever stuff.

There are other static methods in the WP_Mock class which allow you to:

  • Mock a method which returns the same value (a pass-through method)
  • Mock the calling of filters and actions
  • Mock the setting of actions and filters

Mocking $wpdb turns out to be pretty simple, as I can use the built-in test double functionality in PHPUnit. Sample code in the MockPress project wiki shows I can do this:

// in my test setUp method:
global $wpdb;

// whenever I want to mock a $wpdb function I set up the method to mock:
$wpdb = $this->getMock('wpdb', array('get_var'));
// and set the value I want to be returned from my mock method:

// now I can check the mock returns what I want:
$result = $wpdb->get_var("select anything from anywhere");
$this->assertEquals(1, $result);

I now just have to ensure my code is written in such a way as to make unit testing easy! I can highly recommend The Art of Unit Testing by Roy Osherove if you want to get into this deeply.

Spotlight: jQuery plugin

Recently I worked on a website help system, the main feature of which was to highlight particular elements on areas of the page. You know the kind of thing: ‘Click the highlighted search button to search your data’. The designs I was given showed the web page covered by a semi-transparent grey overlay, except for the areas that needed highlighting.

Here’s the problem. The shapes of the un-highlighted bits weren’t just rectangles; they were circles. So my immediate idea of using a bunch of absolutely-positioned <div> elements with opacity:0.6 wasn’t going to cut it.

I decided to use the <canvas> element, and after some digging found this excellent page on the Mozilla developer docs site that explains the different modes available for compositing multiple shapes in a single canvas element. This was the answer.

<canvas> is supported by IE9 and above, which was acceptable for the project I was working on. If you need support for older IEs then this looks like a good solution.

Anyway, I thought this kind of approach might be useful for others so I’ve written a small jQuery plugin called Spotlight which allows you to put a spotlight on elements on your page. See a quick demo here.

See the plugin on GitHub.

Summit Events

There’s a great little – although rapidly growing – web industry meetup in Leeds called Hey!Stac, run by the nice chaps from We Are Stac. I’m a regular attendee and really enjoy the mix of design, front-end development and deeper technical talks that are delivered each month by all kinds of interesting speakers. It’s a great event, you should come along if you can.

But it’s the big-picture talks that I enjoy the most. In February 2014 Vincent Pickering unveiled his ideas around a new type of event that is neither conference nor hack day but somewhere in between, all framed around "The Need for Conversation". The slides for that talk are here, and there’s also a blog post by Vincent here.

His central premise was that conferences are great for getting the word out; for distributing knowledge in a one-to-many information transmission. However they become increasingly less effective the larger they get in two crucial ways:

  1. Sparking conversation between the speaker – the one proposing the ideas or questions – and the audience
  2. Resulting in real change or concrete innovations

I’m no regular at the kinds of conferences Vincent is talking about. In fact I’ve only ever been to one of them – a Macromedia event at the Royal Armouries in, wow, 2000 or 2001 I think. So I’m not qualified to make judgements about the current crop of web industry conferences, but I do see the firehose of commentary about these events as they flow through my Twitter stream. According to the comments I’ve seen I think Vincent has a very good point.

It may be possible – perhaps even inevitable – to attend these kind of events and come away with more questions that you arrived with. More things you’d like to try but don’t have a clue how to get started. Lots of information but nothing practical set down that can be used to spread the ideas more widely. In the worst cases I can imagine conferences are just hot air generators.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. What Vincent proposes is a new kind of event, one centred around the conversations that need to happen to foster tangible developments in our, or indeed any, industry. Here’s the process that Vincent is proposing (with a fair number of assumptions added by me) all based around a website that captures problems which may be worked on at the event:

  1. People submit problems to the website. These could be questions that need answering, gaps in technology that need to be filled or conundrums about processes or methodology.
  2. The event organisers consider the problems submitted and choose ones suitable for working on
  3. At the start of the event the organisers assign each of the selected problems to small teams – probably around 5 people – for discussion with the aim of producing some kind of output by the end of the event
  4. At the end of the event some or all of the teams present their findings, developments and discussions with the wider group
  5. All output from the event is placed back onto the website to allow conversations and developments to continue with the wider community

This might sound a lot like a hack day, but it’s a much larger vision than just hacking around an API or modding hardware. This format is something that could be applied to non-technical problems, the events run by non-technical folk. And that, for me, is where things get really interesting.

The humble suggestion box has a long but sadly tainted history in many companies. In my experience because most suggestion boxes have no inherent feedback loop many employees treat them as nothing more than a joke; an irrelevant and shallow attempt by management to make employees feel like they have a say in the direction of the company. Which, in some cases, they are.

The problem here is that the suggestion box is a "black box". You put your suggestions in, but don’t know what happens to them and very rarely get any response. This is partly what Vincent’s suggestion is aiming to address: by making the entire conversation around the problems submitted to the website fully open and collaborative the proposers, organisers and community members have full visibility of every part of the process. If an idea is going to be rejected it will only be rejected after full consideration in plain sight.

Some organisations are already embracing online forms of collaborative brainstorming, from web-based suggestion box for Portsmouth University Library to the Town Hall sessions of WordPress the web is a platform that lends itself perfectly to discussion of ideas. Some are even making a business out of it, but all these attempts are still variants of black boxes with no guarantee of real change, innovation, answers or progress.

That’s the point of Vincent’s Summit Event. The event itself is time dedicated to fixing the problems suggested, researching and collaborating on innovations – making something real happen. The aim is to have something tangible by the end of the event to present back to the attendees which then would be put back on the website for the wider community to continue the conversation.

Even if the output could be construed as a failure, the fact that people have discussed and wrestled with the problem means it’s not wasted time and, as Vincent mentioned in his talk, will save others toiling down dead ends. So even a failure isn’t a failure, which Thomas Edison had something to say about.

Admittedly this is a bit of an abstract idea to get to grips with. Some examples would help. Here are a few, web industry-based, problems I can think of that could possibly be worked on at one of these events:

  • So what’s the practical, robust solution for responsive images?
  • Is there a right way to get Grunt working on a Windows machine?
  • Getting content from a client is always the hardest bit of a website project. How can we make that better?
  • Is it possible to maintain very high standards for page performance when the users of the CMS are, in a word, clueless?

Considering other industries, especially problems that are not technology related, shows how this format can lead to real innovation and progress. Here are some ideas:

  • Many people don’t trust solicitors. What can we do to increase trust in the profession?
  • Is it possible to make flying more secure, but without intrusive body scanners and searches?
  • There isn’t a simple way to compare houses one may be interested in buying across multiple estate agents. What can we do to make that possible?
  • Opening a standard can of tuna in oil is a very messy affair. Let’s fix it!

Some of these examples may be a bit stupid, but they illustrate that almost anything could be tackled by a suitably sized group given a tight time constraint. Let’s imagine they are assigned a really complex problem. There may not be any hope of the problem being fixed during the event but getting interested, motivated people in a room together to get their heads around it and move the conversation on is bound to be beneficial – especially when the output from that discussion is made public.

I think it’s interesting that Vincent chose the word "summit" to describe this new type of event. While summits are for heads of state to get together for a chin-wag, Vincent’s Summit Events are different because a) anyone can attend and b) they are designed to actually achieve something. Therefore they are more akin to jazz summits, where multiple performers of a particular instrument get together to produce a recording. Jazz summits are both a celebration of the instrument and an opportunity to collectively encourage and enhance the skill of the performers.

So I’m really interested to see what comes out of this idea, specifically empowering grass-roots movements to fix problems and improve the world – whether that’s new developments for the web industry or innovations for industries we haven’t even thought of.