Abandoned WordPress Plugins – an open letter to Matt Mullenweg

For those who don’t know, Matt Mullenweg is an online social media entrepreneur and web developer best known for developing WordPress.

Dear Mr Mullenweg,

I love WordPress – I have to say that up-front. Since discovering it a number of years ago, I’ve turned my love of code development towards this fabulous platform, developing a number of sites (mainly for myself) and, eventually, spending time working on and supporting a number of plugins, all available via WordPress.org. And it’s plugins that I wish to talk to you about.

Plugins are one of the big things that really make WordPress what it is – and, particularly, the many thousands developed and maintained by people, like me, who do it for the love of it. Not Automattic employees, but users who contribute their times and energies for free.

You may notice that I said “thousands” of plugins rather than, say, the 21 thousand that WordPress.org currently states. That was on purpose. Do a search of plugins today and you’ll often come across a yellow box that warns you that the plugin is wildly out-of-date and may not be compatible any-more…

The box is a recent addition to the site but is highlighting a problem – people fall out of love. Either with development, a specific plugin or maybe even WordPress itself. Then a plugin becomes abandoned. The result of this is a repository full of broken and un-supported plugins which looks pretty poor, if the truth is known. And if you started using one of these before their abandonment, you may later be left with a broken site after a core update, a desperate scrabble to find the cause, a realisation that a fix for the plugin is not likely and then having to find time, but quickly, to seek an alternative. It’s not much fun.

How big an issue is this? This infographic helps (click for the full graphic)…

36% of the plugins in the repository (nearly 8000 of them) are showing the 2 years or older message.

All of this has come to my attention recently when I spent some time trying to reduce the number of errors being reported by my site. In all cases, I contacted the plugin owners to let them know so that they could look at fixing them in later releases. It was only then that I found plugins that hadn’t been updated for 2 or 3 years.

As a fellow developer I thought I’d look at taking them over – I’m sure I’d read in the forum somewhere that you could. So I contacted WordPress support and asked to be given access to what were, blatantly, abandoned plugins. The response, though, was not what I was expecting…

We don’t hand over plugins at this time (we may in the future, but we have a no-consensus on it today).

We suggest you fork the plugin (i.e. make a request to host your own) with a new name.

For something that makes WordPress looks rather un-professional this appears to be a glaring over-sight. In the case of the particular plugin that I initially contacted support about, it was already a fork from an existing abandoned plugin, so creating a third version in the archive would, well, look rubbish (but inflates the number of plugins by 3) – it would also mean starting the user base from zero, leaving behind all of the existing users.

As it turned out, I was able to get hold of the developer but he didn’t want me to take it over as I was a “stranger”, instead adding it to Github where other “strangers” could contribute instead. I later contacted another developer who had also left one of his plugins (he works for Automattic) but he didn’t even bother responding.

Of course you don’t want people taking over plugins’ when, rather than abandoned, the owners has simply not had to update it for a while. Some checks and measures do need to be put into place, but I hardly think this would be difficult . Here, for example, is my suggestion…

  • Once the “2 year” message is generated, send an automated email to the developer. This would ask them to confirm that they are still supporting the plugin – a link to a form would allow them to confirm this or mark it as abandoned.
  • If there is no response after,say, a month a reminder mail would be sent. If this is not responded to, the plugin would be automatically marked as abandoned.
  • Once abandoned, the plugin will no longer appears in the plugin  lists (or statistics!). However, they can be viewed separately so that developer can request to take ownership. Once another developer takes over it will return, seamlessly, to the lists so that users will be able to upgrade their existing version.

There is a lot of great stuff in the archive and there is no need for duplication or old, broken code. A smaller repository of quality plugins will always reflect better on WordPress than something larger but of variable quality.

Can I also make another request on behalf of the plugin developer community? Could WordPress.org look at promoting our work a little better? The plugins front page lists “Featured Plugins”, a great opportunity for you to help those people creating free plugins for your system. It’s such a shame that every single one is authored by a member of WordPress.org or Automattic.

There is a “Most Popular” list but this is dominated by similar plugins and hardly helps promote the “up and coming” developments.

Considering the vast number of WordPress installations that have some lovely “feature sliders”, this is sadly lacking from a page that could really do with one. Can I suggest that promotion of non-internal plugins would be helpful, along with a scrolling slider? At the very least, the former suggestion would be gratefully appreciated, I’m sure.

Thank you for reading.

David Artiss.
WordPress plugin developer.

8 responses

  1. I think “56% of the plugins in the repository” should actually be 36% (7849/21834)

    1. You are correct (I was looking at the wrong figures). I’ve updated the article now.


  2. You know what we need? A plug-in that checks your active plug-ins and tells you if any are ‘abandoned’ (i.e. have not had any updates in 1 or 2 years).

    Right now, WP site owners think their sites are “updated” (thus secure) if they have the core, plug-ins and themes updated. In reality, they could have any number of abandoned, vulnerable plug-ins installed. Having everything “updated” provides a false sense of security.


    • Scott
    1. Damn you. I’m going to have write one now 😉


  3. An open letter to fix abandoned @WordPress plugins, as mentioned by @ArtissTheGeek at http://t.co/80P80k0CnQ. I second this motion.

  4. Good motion @ArtissTheGeek. Sound reasons behind your proposal. I support it too. Though I was just wondering about plug-ins that may not have been updated for a few years because they still work fine and there’s nothing to fix – they shouldn’t carry warnings, nor be deemed abandoned should they? Perhaps WP/Automattic could have a routine way of testing (and confirming/approving) plug-ins with the latest WP versions. After all WordPress and the WP community has as much to gain from these well written ‘extras’ as the developers do – whose contributions are often freely donated.

    1. David Artiss avatar
      David Artiss

      True. But they’ll never be able to automate a check fully so I wouldn’t want them confirming compatibility in that way. I don’t think updating it, if only to update the README to confirm the latest compatibility, once a year, say, is too much of an issue.

  5. TonyGravagno avatar

    I think about this topic a lot. Thanks for your original post. Unfortunately, here we are five years after you wrote this with the same problem unresolved.

    I wonder why we haven’t seen an entrepreneur with an assembled team of hungry and eager WP developers, updating apps for a small price. Developers lack adequate motivation to continue development of their own FOSS, or to steward and curate existing code. People want to write something new and cool, not maintain someone else’s mess. Though I suspect that might change if they could earn some cash doing such maintenance.

    This WP industry (and the FOSS world in general) is now so used to the idea that their software will go stale within a couple years, and they seem to have no problem going through this plugin search and re-implementation cycle. Rather, I think web devs accept this as the norm and their company doesn’t know or question the periodic expense. Major site re-development is to be expected as companies strive to dangle new shiny objects before their audiences – they don’t know or care that old plugins are no longer maintained because they’re probably going to move to something different anyway. Compare this “bazaar” model to the “cathedral” model where companies expect their investment in software products to last for years, and in my niche industry it’s decades.

    Of course, this isn’t unique to WordPress – I think project abandonment in general is about the same across all FOSS. Just look at GoogleCode, CodeProject, CodePlex, the Visual Studio repo, SourceForge, GitHub, and BitBucket. These are all vast graveyards of dead code, and zombie / “walking dead” forums with users who continue to ask questions with little hope of getting answers.

    The locust mentality of FOSS users contributes to the apathy of developers. Aside from easily cited anecdotes of hugely popular FOSS like cURL, Mono, or Yoast, users generally have very little dedication to individual authors or offerings. When a developer announces that they’re growing weary of demanding users and little community support, the general response isn’t to offer a few bucks/quid to keep up the effort, there’s often a mass exodus on to the next naïve developer who is eager to please an audience at no cost. The lack of motivation from the user base contributes heavily to project abandonment. People are fixated on the F in FOSS being “free lunch/beer” and not “free libre/collaboration”. That lack of understanding or appreciation for the model is a key factor in what is ultimately a high cost for the model (frequent replacement of valued components). Or as a colleague of mine says “FOSS is only free if your time is worthless”.

    So coming full circle on this, on one hand I agree that code abandonment by developers is a huge issue that can and should be addressed. On the other hand it’s possible that users might abandon some plugins with a similar frequency. We need better metrics with WP so that the repo doesn’t just show the number of installations, but also shows the number of active sites over a period of time through current. This data is easily obtainable with a counter on unique hits for plugin updates. Unfortunately WP.org is the gatekeeper for all such data. If it’s not in their interest to gather or publish metadata, or to do anything else, they simply won’t. WordPress is not as open as we’d like to think when the community is at the mercy of the desires and/or resources of Automattic or other entities. We like to think we’re in the bazaar but this is as much a cathderal as any other. I have little hope that the scenario will change.

    It would be nice if Mr Mullenweg had something different to say about this.

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