Freemium and Fencing

March 14, 2010

Freemium mashes up free and premium:you can use a freemium service, such as WordPress.com, at zero cost; you can pay for premium features. I pay to add two such features for this blog. One of the features maps the domain changingway.org to changingway.wordpress.com.

The other paid feature I use is custom CSS (see one of this blog’s first posts for an account of how I use it).

The fence between zero and any positive cost is perceived as high. So some users of freemium services seek means of effectively getting a premium feature without paying the price for it: these “loophole-lookers” seek holes in the fence.

The WordPress.com custom CSS upgrade seems particularly prone to attract loophole-lookers. I base this mainly on posts in the WordPress.com support forums, some of which include arguments such as: some other hosted blogging services don’t charge for CSS; I only want a little bit of CSS, so why should I be hit with the full charge?

One particular forum thread started about a week ago with a question about changing the background color of a theme. Responses so far include:

  1. You need custom CSS to change the background color.
  2. No you don’t. Here’s some code you can include in a text widget to style the background color of the whole blog.
  3. That loophole is going away soon.

The 3rd response is particularly interesting because it’s by Matt Mullenweg. He does use the word loophole.

This raises the question of how WordPress.com will change with respect to inline styling. And indeed, that question has its own forum thread.

I hope that WordPress.com will not, as one response in the thread suggests, use the blunt instrument of stripping out all inline style attributes. I think it would be reasonable to allow the occasional use of inline styling for things like using a font or image positioning appropriate to a particular post.

It would also be interesting to watch. The fence between free of charge and paying for custom CSS would see a fencing match. WordPress.com will plug the loophole of style code in a widget to style the whole blog. The riposte might involve putting similar code in a sticky post.

What do you think WordPress.com will do? What do you think it should do? I’d welcome comments addressing either or both of those different questions.

13 Responses to “Freemium and Fencing”

  1. timethief Says:

    I am admitting to being “disappointed” in public places but like many others I am very angry. The differences between the push button background color and font changes, as well as, the ability to hack a theme free of charge at Blogger and the inability to do sweet muck all without paying wordpress.com money and then begging for help on the forum is glaring.

    On a blogspot blog one can learn to code – at wordpress.com we can’t. The little bit of code we could use may be gone if all style tags stripped. If that’s what happens then there will be zero doubt about how bloggers on both blogging platforms will view this – mean spirited penny pinching.

  2. Andrew Says:

    TT, thanks for your comment, even though its first sentence seems to imply that this blog isn’t a public place.

    Interesting contrast between blogspot and wordpress.com, in terms of a place to learn coding.

    I don’t think that all style tags will be stripped, but perhaps I am being over-optimistic.

    It’s hard to charge for any online service without being accused of mean-spirited penny pinching. Well, I guess you can charge so much that no-one mentions pennies any more…

  3. timethief Says:

    Hi Andrew,
    You make a good point about the language I used in my first comment. I ought to have said: “I have been admitting to being ‘disappointed’ in public places like this blog, but like many others I am very angry.”

    I’m not making an accusation in my comment above. I’m sharing an observation and my opinion. Perception is very powerful and I believe that many will perceive the decision to be mean spirited penny pinching.

  4. Andrew Says:

    TT: no offense, I knew what you meant.

    I agree that cutting out more code will reinforce one of the negative perceptions some people have of WordPress.com. I’m sure they Automattic knows that, and I think that Automattic see it as a fact of freemium life.


  5. I get the impression from that first thread that Matt knew nothing about the absolute-positioning background workaround and would have blocked it long ago if he had.

    If this was about money they’d be actively marketing and supporting the custom CSS upgrade, but they never have. I personally think that restricting inline CSS, having a financial barrier to custom stylesheets and discouraging newbies from buying that upgrade is primarily a branding decision. Automattic clearly want wordpress.com blogs to have a fairly uniform, professional look, with a colour palette heavily biased towards blue, white and grey, rather than the kind of messes you get when you give total control to the users. Think Facebook rather than MySpace.

    It will be interesting to see whether wordpress.com gets the 2010 theme, with its support for custom backgrounds. Since it sticks to the standard colour scheme, they may be able to get away with offering that without sacrificing too much uniformity.

  6. Andrew Says:

    Thanks for the comment. I hope you’ll also post about this on your own blog, where there has been only one post in 2010.

    Interesting take on Automattic’s motivations for offering custom CSS as a paid upgrade.

    As for 2010: the theme, I think that WordPress.com will get it. I expect it to become the default theme in v3.0, and to become the default at WordPress.com at around the same time. There’s already a lot of inconsistency between themes, and I don’t see 2010 as an outlier in terms of how it’s different from other themes.

  7. Panos Says:

    Hi Andrew!

    In “its own forum thread”, the question got this staff answer (tellyworth):
    I don’t know exactly what will be filtered, but things like absolute positioning will certainly be blocked from within style attributes (not from custom css). I don’t believe the intention is to stop simple styles like colour and font settings from style attributes.

    Reason offered:
    Because bad guys use it to do bad things.

    Candid response (timethief):
    I don’t buy that.

    I don’t buy it either; twice so after these (devblog):
    The only “malicious” thing I can think of right now is using inline CSS to redirect visitors to other sites (linked from the header image).
    Those who have the CSS upgrade would still be able to use _that_ kind of code… Now, I wonder, if the bad guys have “maliciously” use inline CSS to do their bad deeds, how’s wp gonna stop them if they decide to fork the $15.00 upgrade and keep doing it?

    “What do you think WordPress.com will do? What do you think it should do?”

    My opinion was, and remains, what I said to tellyworth: “The impression we’re getting is that you just want to kill code that allows us to do something for free instead of having to buy the CSS upgrade.” If that’s the real reason, then a) it gives a very bad impression – especially when the owner of the company himself storms in to announce it, and especially when he does so before he’s figured out what it’s called and what exactly is going to go away, b) it’s almost futile – who would buy the upgrade for no more than changing bg color or placing a link or an image outside the sidebar?

    So, to answer your questions: I think WP should continue to allow whatever they’re thinking of blocking. But I think they’ll block it (when they figure out what to block) because the boss said so.

  8. Panos Says:

    @tga: I agree that Matt probably had no idea about that workaround till now. Note that the workaround has appeared several times in the past, but this was the first time it was given as an objection to a staff response.

    As for the rest, interesting, but I doubt they are the case.
    • For “professional”, check Rounded.
    • For “uniform”, check themes like Girl in Green – or the next-to-last addition, Motion.
    • In some themes you can change colors without the CSS upgrade (via Appearance > Theme Options): most notably Vigilance, P2, Duotone (can change bg color), Garland, and Toni (can change bg color of header and sidebar – in Garland text color as well).

    The heavy bias towards white bg with grey dividers is a fact, of course, but I don’t think it’s a branding decision; I think it’s because dark text on white bg is supposed to be more readable, and because such neutral designs can better accommodate variable content.

    And, apparently, “the kind of messes you get when you give total control to the users” is absolutely acceptable to WP provided users pay for it. I don’t share your impression that WP “discourages” users from buying the CSS upgrade. When we volunteers tell a member that the CSS upgrade is needed for what s/he’s looking for, we are usually careful to add remarks in the vein of “you’re on your own with this” or “don’t buy the upgrade if you have no experience in CSS editing”; staff responses usually don’t include such words of caution.

  9. Andrew Says:

    Panos,
    Thanks for your contributions to the discussion here.

    I do see where Automattic and Matt are coming from. They want to make enough money to more than cover the costs of running WordPress.com. But every time they charge for anything, or run ads, there are howls of protest.

    But that leads into a wider discussion, which deserves its own post/topic.

  10. timethief Says:

    Well, Tellyworth has confirmed that the addition of background colors to posts and pages is not likely to be removed. That makes me feel better because I could not fathom how the same could provide any threat to security.

    And today we have another announcement of an announcement that’s yet to be made from our new theme czar. The response I got indicates the option will be a free one. http://en.forums.wordpress.com/topic/get-rid-of-theme-1?replies=10#post-444313

    I’m thinking that we will be seeing the 2010 theme rolled out soon http://2010dev.wordpress.com/

  11. Panos Says:

    @tt: Check Dark Wood, the latest addition – allows you to upload a bg pic.

    (Move sounds a bit like: here, get a couple of themes with that option and stop nagging us about codes and “loopholes”…)

  12. timethief Says:

    @Panos
    Yes, I have changed the background on Dark Wood in my test blog a couple of times. Unfortunately there is a tan colored transparent/translucent overlay. I uploaded a aqua colored background image that tiles and what happened in the main body of the blog is the overlay made it into a sickly green. :( I then uploaded a white square and tiled it and now have a tan colored overlay that looks gawd awful. :(


  13. [...] the freemium model and how it is implemented. So are others, if the excellent discussion on my recent post on freemium at WordPress.com is anything to go [...]


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