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If you’re worried about the Wordpress news, read this first

If you’re worried about the Wordpress news, read this first published on 9 Comments on If you’re worried about the Wordpress news, read this first

Regrettably, the CEOs and the AI bros are At It Again.

And since a lot of webcomic folks use the Wordpress software, we’re starting to get bad rumors and misinformation batted around in the community. So I wanted to put together an overview. With some general info that works for everyone running a Wordpress site, and some specific details that are relevant to comic creators.

(This is part of the “how do I webcomic?” series, with useful information on all kinds of comicking-related topics.)

Starting at the top, to make this as comprehensive as possible! If you’re following this mess already, feel free to skip any sections you already know.

1) Wait, what happened THIS time?

The company Automattic Inc. just made news for selling a bunch of their user data to Midjourney/OpenAI, for use in “generative AI” models.

The generative AI companies are famous for mass-scraping the art and writing of human artists, without getting their permission or compensating them in any way. Which makes it all the more exhausting that, hey, apparently they will make deals and offer payment to some people! Just, still not the people who actually created it.

1b) “Haven’t these companies scraped our data already anyway?” A lot of it, yes! Whistleblowers have confirmed that, when preparing the data handover, Automattic included a bunch of private unscrapeable content, such as locked posts, direct messages that hadn’t been posted at all, and posts from deleted blogs.

So, that sucks.

Automattic currently owns the blogging platforms Wordpress.com and Tumblr (those are links to their Wikipedia entries). Users of both platforms are, understandably, mad.

2) I host my own website that runs Wordpress…am I screwed too?

No.

Not at all.

Automattic doesn’t own the Wordpress software. All they have are the specific blogs they host on the wordpress.com website.

Think of it this way: Saying “I heard wordpress.com was doing sketchy things, should I stop using the Wordpress software on my own site?” is like saying “I heard Burger King was doing sketchy things, should I stop making burgers in my own kitchen?”

Even though the brand has “burger” in the name, Burger King is not responsible for every burger in existence! They don’t somehow get royalties for every burger, either. If you stop going to Burger King restaurants, sure, that affects them. But if you’re already cooking at home in the first place? The Burger King company has no power over your burgers. And it will make 0.00% of a difference to them if you start making tacos instead.

So, okay, one (1) caveat: Automattic also makes a lot of individual plugins for the Wordpress software, including the wildly-popular Jetpack, WooCommerce, Akismet Anti-Spam, and WP Super Cache.

(In the analogy, this is “Burger King sells their own brand of ketchup, and lots of people who make burgers at home will still buy the Burger King ketchup to put on top.”)

On a technical level, it is possible that, for example, the Jetpack plugin could be modified to siphon private data from Wordpress sites Automattic doesn’t host. If anybody ever breaks news about that actually happening, I’ll spread the word!

But there’s no indication that’s happening now. And, I mean, the Jetpack source code is completely public. It’s not like people can’t check.

4 panel comic in the style of Leif and Thorn (4)
Wondering how effectively my comic has been scraped? This was a robot’s take on “4 panel comic in the style of Leif and Thorn”

3) Why do people need Wordpress at all? Can we just code our own websites from scratch? Is that still a thing?

Okay, this gets complicated, let’s take it in stages.

Good news first: Yes, you can still code a website from scratch! Basic HTML (the code you use for each page’s content) and CSS (the code you use for making it look pretty) are genuinely easy to learn. There are lots of great references and tutorials — here’s W3Schools on HTML, and here’s them on CSS, those are probably my favorites.

You don’t need fancy editing software to create/edit HTML or CSS files, either. You can do these things in Notepad.

And you don’t need anything else to make a site! It can be that simple, and still look nice, and work just fine. (This intro to Leif & Thorn is a hand-coded HTML page.)

The reason those aren’t popular anymore is, most of us want advanced features that aren’t easy to code by yourself. Like “queueing posts to go public on a future date.” And “comment sections.” And “text search of your site’s archives.”

It’s possible to cobble together every feature you want, one at a time. You’ve probably seen “comments section by Disqus” or “site search provided by Google” on a site before? Those are examples of individual site functions that the creator has outsourced to third-party services.

But you can see how it would be easier to have a bunch of them at once, a single software installation with the code to handle a ton of functions, bundled together in one big package.

(…please, hold all “that’s what she said” jokes to the end.)

That’s a content management system, or a CMS. Wordpress is one of those.

If you’re launching a new website in 2024, you almost certainly want to be running a CMS.

(It will come with some default templates. That’s where you break out your HTML and CSS skills, to customize them so they look like your site.)

4) Okay, I’m starting my own site, I want a CMS. Does it have to be Wordpress?

Not at all! Here’s a Wikipedia list of notable CMSes.

You’ll want to find one that’s designed for the kind of site you’re trying to make. I used DokuWiki to make the Leif & Thorn wiki, and Piwigo for the Shine gallery, because those are a wiki CMS and a gallery CMS respectively. (Wikipedia uses another one, called MediaWiki.)

Wordpress is a blogging CMS — you can expand it to do other things, but blogging is the core function it’s designed for. This is very reasonable for comics, given that a webcomic is basically “a blog where most of the updates are pictures.”

That said, there are a couple of CMSes that are specifically designed for webcomics! I haven’t used these, but I hear good reviews of both Grawlix and ComicControl.

Fellow webcomic creators, if you have an independent site that uses any non-Wordpress CMS, please comment with a link and tell us which one it’s running on — I want to see more of them in action.

Advantages of Grawlix/ComicControl (from what I hear): more straightforward, less of a learning curve. Optimized for comics out of the box, you don’t need to research and install extra plugins.

Advantages of Wordpress: lots of features, lots of options for more features. The popularity means it’s easy to find tutorials on how to do new things, and support if things go wrong.

In either case, if you’re running open-source software on a web host you paid for, don’t panic about the CMS siphoning private data for Automattic, or any other company. You’re not eating in their restaurant. You’re cooking at home.

4 panel comic Erin Ptah art style (1)
Click through to appreciate all the horrifying details in the robot’s take on “4 panel comic Erin Ptah art style”

5) What about [other thing I’ve heard of] that you didn’t mention? Is that a good CMS?

When it comes to the webcomic community, a lot of the common Things You’ve Heard Of are not Wordpress alternatives — they’re Wordpress add-ons.

These can either be themes, which adjust the layout, and plugins, which add extra functionality. Either way, they’re not standalone pieces of software! Wordpress is the burger, these are the ketchup.

Wordpress themes designed for webcomics include Inkblot, ComicPress, and Toocheke.

Wordpress plugins designed for webcomics include Webcomic 5, Comic Easel, and Toocheke Companion.

I’ve used most of these, and I’ve heard good things about all of them. Just keep in mind, any time someone recommends them, they’re recommending “a specific configuration of Wordpress.”

6) Say I want to do paid subscriptions, tips, that kind of thing. Is that a CMS, or a plugin, or…?

This deserved a section of its own.

For most features, if you really want, you can find a way to just run them from your own website. Not connecting with any third-party services, not integrating with any other company, not sending requests to an external server, nothing.

If you want to let people send you money, though? You need to deal with a licensed payment processor. There needs to be a company, or more likely several, following Anti Money-Laundering regulations about you. Somebody needs to be responsible for verifying that you are not collecting money on behalf of the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

(Not a joke. Cryptocurrency, which is frequently set up to dodge AML as much as possible, is a major funding source for the North Korean nuclear weapons program.)

On this website, I run a couple ads from Comic Ad Network. My own site hosting doesn’t track those profits at all — it’s all comicad.net, measuring the hits and adding up the dollars. And then, if I want to withdraw those dollars, I have to connect ComicAd to PayPal, which is responsible for verifying my legal ID, and then PayPal processes the transfer to my credit union, which is also responsible for verifying my ID.

Same with the subscription-locked posts, which are linked to my Patreon page. The Patreon website tracks who’s actually paid for them; all my site has is a plugin that lets it hear that info from Patreon. Then Patreon is connected to Stripe, and Stripe processes the transfer to my credit union.

My Ko-Fi page is connected to PayPal. My Kickstarter and BackerKit accounts are connected to Stripe. (If you’re in the US, PayPal and Stripe are the major payment processors; if not, look into who yours are.)

…What I’m getting at is, if you want to get paid, it involves getting in touch with at least one company (more likely several) whose core business is Handling Money, and sending them a variety of legal documents. The CMS you use to run your website is generally not relevant.

anime style man curly brown hair dark skin pointing at someone above him 4
Trying to recreate a specific Leif & Thorn panel, I prompted “anime style man curly brown hair dark skin pointing at someone above him”

7) Anything else I should know?

This covers everything I’ve found myself wanting to tell people in the past few days! If anything new comes up, maybe I’ll swing back in and edit.

Automattic is being sketchy af. They don’t own your self-hosted site, though. Keep making burgers. Or tacos? It won’t be sticking it to Burger King, but hey, maybe you just like tacos better.

Finally: If you want to actively make your stolen data less valuable for generative-AI companies, the way to do it is “slip AI-generated images/text into the blogs you know they’re scraping.”

Have I mentioned that I do, in fact, have a blog hosted by Automattic on Wordpress.com?

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9 Comments

Typical. That last AI art failed hard at dark skin.

It seems that AI have problem with racism. So far, it either defaults to white, or insist that even German soldiers in Second World War were Black and Asian like Google’s Gemini. Almost as if it didn’t actually understand the context! 🙂

Note that you CAN connect to Stripe / Paypal directly, handle subscription info yourself and only let Stripe / Paypal handle the actual payments. Using some plugin for it is probably better idea but you can. You can even make it so users don’t ever leave your site to pay! … well, as far as they know. If they look closer, they will notice that the credit card field is actually small iframe. Because if that field would be on your site, you would need to fill out long form about Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard and promise that every change of your software goes through security review. And if you actually want to store credit card data, it must be in database which requires two people to unlock, like those nukes from Bond movies. Yeah … you don’t want to ever touch credit card data, really better to leave it on Stripe / Paypal.

Exactly! When I referred to “getting in touch with at least one company (more likely several) whose core business is Handling Money”, the “one company” option was using just Stripe, or just Paypal.

That said…I had direct-to-Paypal donation buttons back in the day, and they’ve been used by 0% of readers since the rise of services like Patreon and Ko-Fi. So that route wouldn’t be my top recommendation.

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