Aesop Story Engine and WordPress (Why Do We Reject Our Own Innovation?)

For some time now, I’ve been a big fan of using WordPress for web application development, but I think that developers actually embracing the CMS (let alone seeing the CMS) as a foundation for something like that is still a couple of years off.

Sure, we’re going to see some people using it for things like that. I mean, we’re already seeing some out-of-the-box applications like AppPresser, but projects like that are the exceptio, not the rule. In my own experience, I’ve found that clients are very interested in using WordPress, but using it for more application-like capabilities.

This doesn’t mean that gigs for themes, plugins, and what not are slowing down, but that people are wanting web applications for themselves or their companies, but want to be able to administer it using the WordPress dashboard or using a some custom front-end work.

But that’s beside the point.

What I’m getting at is that as developers, designers, and other people end up seeing WordPress as potential foundation for web application development, the more innovative things we’re going to see entering the space.

Aesop Story Engine and Story.AM

Case in point: Nick Haskins has been at work on this plugin called Aesop Story Engine for quite sometime. The gist of the plugin straight from the homepage is as follows:

Aesop Story Engine is a collection of thirteen unique components wrapped in a plugin that can be used to tell rich, interactive stories in any WordPress theme.

Not bad, right? The ability to write long-form, self-hosted stories with front-end editing. Really cool.

Then, this week, Nick launched Story.AM which is essentially a hosted version of the Aesop Story Engine, plus a few perks. Even cooler.


Remember, this is all on WordPress.

The purpose of this post isn’t necessarily to take a look at the features of what Nick is offering (as nice as they are), but to showcase exactly the kinds of things people are able to do given the idea, enough time, and talent to build something really creative on top of WordPress, and to show how poorly the community reacts to it.

Cannibalizing Our Own

I think that the community as a whole does a disservice to our peers when we reduce things like this to “so it’s blogging from the front-end like Medium” because it completely ignores much of the finer details that have done into building a service like this.

Sure, it’s one thing to have an elevator pitch to give someone about what it is, but how many people still really know what Medium is? And yes, it’s natural to draw comparisons to products that are already available, but just because two products are similar does not mean that they are actually the same.

What’s the purpose of each product? Its vision? Its mission? When you look at the two, they are very different.

On top of that, I find this to be symptomatic of a much larger problem that exists within the WordPress development community and that’s this:

We want to see WordPress succeed, to continue to gain market share, and continue to grow into the most powerful CMS that’s available – some of us even want to continue to see it be used as a foundation for web applications (or, as Matt has said, “an operating system for the web.”), but our actions seem to contradict our words.

Sure, there are some people who release some really cool themes and plugins and they get some nice praise, but other people do something that’s completely out of left-field, that bucks the trend, and is actually really cool, and rather than offering praise, investigation into how it was built, interviews, and an attempt to generally learn more about the project, we find the closest competitor that exists, say they are the same, and then just throw our own under the bus saying it’s misplaced effort.

We can’t have it both ways.

That is, we can’t say we want WordPress to be used for all of these innovative things and then negatively critique what someone has done using WordPress then go back to waving our “WordPress all the things flag.” That hypocritical attitude is so counter-productive, yet so pervasive among some people.

It’s one thing to be consistent – if you’re not a fan of WordPress, then go ahead and continue to critique it and everything that it touches. That’s your thing and at least you’re staying the course.

But if you are a fan of WordPress – especially if you’re making a living off of it – stop preaching about how things ought to be and how things should be, stop knocking on things that everyone else is making be pushing the boundaries of what’s been done so far, and/or start creating things for other people that actually do the very things about which you’re preaching.

Otherwise, you’re just adding noise to an already loud space. No one likes that.

10 Replies to “Aesop Story Engine and WordPress (Why Do We Reject Our Own Innovation?)”

  1. Tom, well said! The Aesop and now Story.AM projects are incredibly interesting. My take would be that the community on the whole goes nuts for a cool new plugin or theme because it immediately helps them with their projects or helps them charge their clients more. Not bad things at all, just a direct benefit. Whereas, a project that build out SAAS products or hosted sites, or apps like this get an “Oh, that’s cool. But what am I supposed to do with it? How does this help me?” reaction.

    On a related note, I have also had trouble finding other devs working on projects like this because they are essentially isolated projects and there are so few of them. In a particularly disappointing incident, I approached a developer at WordCamp SF a couple years back who built a SAAS with WordPress, similar to what I have been doing. He had no interest in talking, sharing knowledge, helping each other grow. I said something along the lines of “There is enough to go around, right? We should all help each other.” and he said basically, “No. I want to own it all.” I was dumfounded to say the least.

    My only point in sharing that story is that the problem you describe might be two-fold… On one hand, these projects have little direct benefit to the typical WordPress person who is building single sites for themselves or clients. On the other hand they are also silos, where the people behind them can be reluctant to share the secret sauce.

    1.  Tom, well said! The Aesop and now Story.AM projects are incredibly interesting.

      Thanks, Marty – I agree. I’m really impressed by both the ASE and the hosted platform.

       My take would be that the community on the whole goes nuts for a cool new plugin or theme because it immediately helps them with their projects or helps them charge their clients more.

      I think that’s an astute and fair observation. We have to remember who we’re building things for – other developers, or end users who have a felt need for something.

       I said something along the lines of “There is enough to go around, right? We should all help each other.” and he said basically, “No. I want to own it all.” I was dumfounded to say the least.

      I wish I could say that I was surprised. At one point in my career, I would’ve been. Not anymore, though. Kind makes you a bit cynical, I think. Not sure that’s a good thing, though.

       On one hand, these projects have little direct benefit to the typical WordPress person who is building single sites for themselves or clients. On the other hand they are also silos, where the people behind them can be reluctant to share the secret sauce.

      True. And some are going to be that way and they have that prerogative. It’s the attitude behind it that gets me the most, though.

      1. Ditto on the astute observation that fellow devs don’t care because they don’t personally see a use for it, but that’s very short sighted of them.

        I see it and think it’s one more shining example that I can point to. When selling WP as an app platform to my own clients I can say, “look at what Nick did, we can build the app of your dreams on WordPress”.

  2. LOL I’m developing something with WordPress. Folks projected as users or competitors of my app – despite my “arrogance” that I believe I am making something better – are actually quite interested in what I am doing, whereas other WordPress developers basically ignore me.

  3. The word “community” within the WP universe is vastly overused, if not abused.

    That aside, at the end of he day the work Nick & Co are doing are over most (WP) people’s heads. That’s not intended to be critical. It’s just a simple statement of fact. In fact, I’d be willing to argue that if more people got it, then you’re doing it all wrong.

    As it’s been said…Zero to One.

  4. Tom, I couldn’t agree more with your vision of WP as the world’s most widely-used web-app platform. This has been my primary interest in WP since I discovered it. For me, this discovery came within the last year. I attended the 2014 Kansas City WordCamp and the 2014 Birmingham WordCamp, mostly looking for background and help to jumpstart me into WP plugin development. I am an experienced LAMP and database developer, so learning the ways of WordPress was the missing piece needed to accomodate myself to what I now know is your dream too. I have built one very simple unpublished WP plugin to display a photo-of-the-day corresponding to the user’s timezone.

    WP already has all the components any generic web-app platform would need…except the generic user-level ability to create complex relational databases. Plugins by the thousands use their own custom tables, but they frequently encapsulate everything within themselves and are generally targeting a single category of functionality (membership system, music library, etc). There are several plugins that enable a developer to build, display and edit records for a handful of generic tables here and there, but they are weak in the domain of managing truly relational data.

    For WP to be able to compete with things like Microsoft Sharepoint, it simply must have a UI for building and maintaining an industrial-strength relational database system as well as a host of shortcode invocations for database queries, forms, searches, custom operations and the like. The DB-Toolkit plugin was the beginning of an aspiration to fill that gap. It has a slick but not intuitive UI and a developed mechanism for displaying and maintaining data. Unfortunately, its utter lack of documentation, its brittleness and now its author abandonment leaves WP still yearning for the industrial-strength relational database engine allowing developers to build complex WP-based systems without also requiring them to be experienced PHP and WP plugin programmers.

    I am a LAMP developer whose claim to blame was my role in the development of a proprietary web-app platform for my previous employer. Its UI is dated (limited JS enhancement), but It’s a marvelous system. Beyond all the normal stuff that a CMS does (users, authentication, content formatting, templates, etc), this platform’s real strength is the ability to easily define and build very large, complex relational databases without requiring PHP, and to enable site developers to easily build pages where site visitors can edit tabular data AND THEIR RELATIONAL ASSOCIATIONS using the system’s core elements. Its list of database functionality transcends anything I know of outside of Sharepoint, including

    Human-friendly definition and display of complex relationships (without developer involvement with foreign keys and linking tables for many-to-many relationships),

    Automatic as well as microtemplate-based formatting of tabular data (which includes media files, URL links and relationally-associated records),

    Offers full DB development, testing and data population in the back end before a single user-facing page is built,

    Forms which can submit records and record associations into a DB structure, with validation and custom submission actions.

    See this CMS in operation as it hosts The ScriptSource application aspires to become Earth’s central repository for everything known about the world’s writing-systems, with a particular bent towards crowd-sourcing the creation of fonts and systems to bring all languages into the modern digital paradigm. It was built to facilitate our faith-based goals that everyone alive could ultimately access content in their own languages AND SCRIPTS on their own computers, tablets and phones.

    Unfortunately, only two dozen people on Earth know about this web-app engine, now officially open-sourced but not supported. I am one of them. This CMS is cleanly designed and documented both internally and externally. Understand, Tom, that my purpose here is not to promote this older CMS. My purpose is to leap-frog the DB-Toolkit plugin and equip WP to fulfill the dream we both share: that WP will become the web-app platform you and I know it can be.

    I have moved on from the ScriptSource dev team, but my dream of porting the DB engine to a WP plugin is hotter than ever. The creator of the CMS would be happy to see this happen, as it would insert his labor of love into the world’s most popular web platform. I am already playing around with plugin code, but for the moment this project must take a back seat to my normal work (in a mobile-technology ministry group called OneHundredFold). I was/am particularly interested in using your Boilerplate for this project, but haven’t had time to dive into that very much. I am drooling for its documentation.

    If this plugin existed already, my current team would be able to do using WP what we need done in a way that is better and easier than any of our other alternatives.

    I’m sorry this has been so long, but I would welcome contact from you or your readers (via the Contact Us page at who might be interested in this volunteer porting project. A WP plugin dev, a UI specialist and somebody who loves doing documentation would all find great fulfillment in giving WP what I believe it needs to achieve our common dream.

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