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In response to Justin Tadlocks’s project – “ThemeForest: An Experiment”

Renowned WordPress developer, Justin Tadlock of ThemeHybrid fame, has posted a description on his blog of a very interesting project he’s recently launched codenamed “ThemeForest: An Experiment“.

The basic premise is to try and make a difference to the large number of discrepancies in code and development practice that renders some of the WordPress (WP) themes on ThemeForest (TF) sub-standard.

To be sure, there are a lot of high quality themes on TF and a lot of conscientious developers. However, there is also a general sense that quantity before quality or profit before end user is all too often the order of the day. So in the interest of doing something constructive and positive, Justin has set himself the task to release a quality WordPress theme on the marketplace called the Unique Theme and to help other developers (via TF forums) improve their code and knowledge of WP.

One of the responders in the comment section for that blog post is Japh Thompson, Envato’s WordPress evangelist or in his own words:

I contribute code to WordPress core, I do my best to ensure quality content is published on Wptuts+, and I champion the WordPress community within Envato.

In response to a comment he left on Justin’s post in which he praised the experiment and offered to help out, remarking that it was “in everyone’s best interests” that the project should succeed, I asked him two questions:

1. Exactly whose interests was he talking about when he says “everyone”. He makes it sound like a level playing field, when clearly the top tier of the Envato company ultimately reaps the rewards.

2. Why is is not part of Envato’s basic theme evaluation criteria to single out poor code bases and dubious WP hacks – unnecessary plugin code integration and so on?

Japh was kind enough to write a lengthy reply which you can read in full here. What follows is my counter-response to his claims. I’m reposting the comment in full here in the hope that it might help widen the debate and raise awareness to the issues Justin and others raise in that post.

As far as

(a) making conscious efforts to improve the WP code base, be it the WP core or its peripheral properties such as themes and plugins,

and

(b) raising awareness within the WP community to the importance of coding standards and respect for the liberties that WP’s GPL license affords,

I wholeheartedly agree that that is in everyone’s interest. Which is why I say Amen to Justin’s project on both a semantic and cultural level.

I also agree with your point that we all need to eat and have the opportunity to make an “honest living”. Or to put it another way, I’m not simply a cheap anti-capitalist.

I think one of the major issues with regard to Envato – which let’s not forget is widely recognized for running the largest premium theme and plugin marketplace on the Web – concerns the distribution of revenue, or wealth differential, across the marketplace as a whole.

More specifically, what is the proportion of profit minus time generated by the sales of themes and plugins that the top tier of Envato management and stakeholders receives versus the sum total of profit minus time that each individual developer devotes to the production of his/her digital goods?

Access to that sort of data might reveal a good deal about just how equitable the entire operation is. I think for a lot of people (myself included), it’s quite hard to see Envato as anything more than a landlord raising rent on other people’s intellectual property; cornering the market as they say; and as a result forcing more and more independent developers to either join or perish.

Now of course that’s an entirely legal operation and one that’s replicated the world over across myriad marketplaces, but there comes a point when the operation grows so large, so all pervasive, that it begins to undermine the core values of the very platform it derives its profit from. I think it’s only right that we ask ourselves, as WordPress users, developers, designers, educators and so on, whether this is really the sort of WordPress we want. More than that, I propose a critical debate that brings the key people from all areas of WP together to assess the situation, including the top tier of Envato management.

What about products and standards? Well, Envato’s model relies on product volume, and without a large increase in the provision of staff to properly vet each theme for defective code, hacks and other dubious practices, those sorts of sub-standards will remain an integral part of the system. It doesn’t matter how much effort you put into trying to make a difference, if it is not addressed at a systemic level, this sort of degradation will continue to perpetuate itself and will only increase as the scale of the TF marketplace increases.

Now, let me add some thoughts on what Envato does well:

Yes, ThemeForest and CodeCanyon provide a framework that a small group of power sellers benefit handsomely from (you mentioned Orman Clark for example) and that a rather large group of average to low sellers try hard to benefit from.

Yes, it provides users across the world with a wide selection of themes and plugins at competitive rates.

Yes, in some cases competition within the marketplace drives developers to innovate.

Yes, it provides spaces for people like yourself to raise WP standards and kudos to your for doing that.

And yes,, I’m sure that Envato HQ would happily reel off a long list of philanthropic projects that it’s involved in and that open source is part of its core ethos etc. etc.

That’s all brilliant.

But when all said and done, does the capital it generates, the rent it receives, not far outweigh the contributions it makes to the WP platform and community as a whole?

So my question finally repeats itself. What sort of “honesty” are we talking about? And exactly whose “interests” does Envato have at heart?

Written by Will Ellington

Originally from the UK, I currently live in Osaka, Japan, where I work in higher education. I’ve been a WordPress user since 2004 and have developed numerous projects with it over the years. Wpliving is a place to share things i've learnt along the way, and to explore innovations in WordPress too.

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11 Comments

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  1. Hi Will, as I mentioned in the comments over on Justin’s post, I’ve read over your comment and blog post, and I felt it would be good to get Collis’ thoughts on this. So he’s writing a post now, and we’ll be publishing it soon.

  2. Thanks Japh, I appreciate it. Feel free to hack away at discrepancies. I look forward to reading Collis’ take. Please do forward or post the link once it’s up and I’ll retweet etc.

    • Hi Will, in case you’re no longer monitoring the conversation on Justin’s original post (I don’t think he has comment notifications), Collis’ post has now been published on WPCandy. It’s titled The State of WordPress Themes and ThemeForest.

  3. I find it interesting that quite a few of the bigger names in the WordPress space, be it Justin Tadlock, Theme Forest or even outfits like WooThemes have a tendency to come off as pompous and self congratulatory in regards to their status, motivations and contribution to the WordPress community. They are all adding value, they do raise the level of WordPress, it’s something I’m definitely grateful for (I got Justin’s book which is really, really good and have been happy with my Theme Forest purchases as well), but some of their statements make me puke in my mouth a little bit.

    It’s kind of funny to want a slice of the theme forest pie after being a critic for so long and you justifying joining it by making it sound like you’re doing it for the higher good.

    • Thanks for the input Peter. I’m not entirely certain your last line was directed at me, but in case it was, and without wanting to get ahead of myself, I would argue that I remain a vehement critic of TF, for the simple reason that as the dominant force within the community, its practices should be continually critiqued so that it doesn’t lapse into complacency. That being said, I don’t quite see how I’m vying for a slice of the pie as you put it. Perhaps you could elaborate a little. I’m more than happy to be corrected.

    • Never mind that I said in my article that my motives were “not entirely altruistic.” I’ve been pretty upfront about what I’m doing.

      I already have a well-established theme/plugin business. Don’t get me wrong; it’s always great to make extra money. However, I could’ve released my theme on my site and most likely generated more income from it than on TF. I could be wrong about that, but it’s all part of the experiment.

      If I didn’t join in and actually write the code, do you realize how many critics I would have? If I’m just complaining and writing blog posts about it, people would be telling me things like “put your skills where your mouth is.” It’s all about establishing myself as someone who’s willing to do the work and be a part of that community rather than an outsider slinging mud in.

      • @Justin
        Up to now, I believe you were one of the ‘mudslingers’. I think it was one of your comments or blog posts years ago that I first heard of Theme Forest being put in a negative light in terms of the quality. I didn’t really get it at the time, since I had no experience with the themes there, I just assumed it must be crap quality then. I’ve since heard other sources criticize the quality of the themes but not in quite the same way as your sentiments. Regardless of the validity of the criticism (there’s a lot of bad code out there yeah), it’s those kinds of comments that have already created a stigma for the entire marketplace on TF. You could say that is deserved, by the way it is managed. And I don’t want to excuse theme authors who are there just to make a quick buck and are putting out irresponsibly coded themes.

        But if I was an existing theme author there I wouldn’t enjoy being generalized or associated with criticism lunged at theme forest authors. In fact I’d take it to be pretty disrespectful.

        Because you’ve been running your own business and have been vocal about the competition, well let’s just say it shouldn’t be confused with as impartial criticism. Now you are taking it up on yourself to raise the bar at Theme Forest, at least to me, that comes across as someone who looked down on other theme authors, is now going to ‘educate’ others to do things better. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disputing your skill nor do I think the idea of making it a better market place isn’t a good idea. In fact I think you’re a great fit because you are a quality educator. But, at least to me personally, the way you come off is somewhat condescending toward other theme authors.

        It will be interesting to see if your theme gets traction on Theme Forest and if people will buy into the idea of getting a theme that is built to purpose, rather than equipping it with a millions bells and whistle.

        In my first comment I made an observation based on my perception of some of the more prominent commercial parties in WordPress. Maybe being a bit high on ego is a competitive advantage. I wonder it helps drive success or is a side effect of having some success. As a consumer it’s a turn off. As a developer it gets the competitive juices going.

  4. Ah, my observations were solely about JT and TF, not regarding you at all, sorry for the ambiguity. In fact I completely follow along with you putting the spotlight on Theme Forest’s position. It’s just that I found Justin’s position equally dubious.

    WP users and the theme authors themselves only stand to benefit if the code quality rises at the largest marketplace and it, as your post highlights, especially when dealing with a commercial company, there’s going to be conflicts of interest at play. It would be naive to interpret statements by these parties without taking into account where their actual self-interests lie.

    I’m not anti-Theme Forest but I would love see them make changes as well. Their pricing, licensing and refunding philosophy are actually my main gripes. I think those things are as bad for the ecosystem as poor coding practices are. If you can’t get a refund, for example, you essentially reward theme authors for doing a good sales job (hence the nuclear arms race) over creating the best user experience.

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