Restaurant vs. meal kit vs. grocery shopping (or, WordPress.com vs. Jetpack vs. WordPress.org)

Ryan Sullivan posed a challenge/trick question that got me interested because I like trying to come up with compact plain language explanations. So here’s mine:

This is, of course, not a complete analogy for all aspects of all of the above. It’s all of seven words, come on. It also assumes cultural knowledge of these methods of having a meal, which seems fairly likely for people looking for this delineation. But I think it’s a solid way to start understanding what these three entities are and what they aim to provide you. It does not explain where your stuff lives or how you pay for it (people use rent vs. buy sometimes for this), and I don’t intend for it to do so. Analogies are helpful in providing understanding where knowledge is still considered specialized. They also center references in ways a given person might understand – this analogy probably works well for a relatively-privileged American, but would need adjusting to make better sense to somebody in, say, France (localization, anyone?).


Think of the process of spinning up a website as how you go about acquiring, oh, some dumplings. (Pretend this is cacio e pepe or tacos or a hot dog or whatever kind of food fits into your norm.) Don’t think too hard about what exactly that building process is – most analogies aren’t made to be that specific 🙂

You could go to a restaurant, look through a menu, put in your order, and eat whatever they give you, perhaps customizing your meal slightly with some dipping sauce. Your choices are which restaurant you go to and which dumplings you pick, assuming they even offer a variety at all and that you didn’t pick the restaurant based on the dumplings to begin with. This is like choosing to use WordPress.com for your website – they have curated products that you pick from and you pay them somewhat of a premium for what you want, you don’t necessarily know what exactly is inside, and your customization options are very limited.

On the other end of the spectrum, you could make the dumplings yourself and put all the work into acquiring the ingredients you need. You get way more choice and the accompanying amount of work in having choices follows. Focused on a crunchy ideological farm-to-table approach? Well, you could grow/raise everything yourself, or maybe get some things from a CSA, or find some gluten-free dumpling wrappers, etc. Most people will buy what they need at their preferred grocery store (having already put the effort into finding a grocery store), substituting ingredients rather than going to another store entirely to find what they need, and frequently abandoning the effort entirely in favor of some pizza. If you really know what you’re doing, you’ll head to the Asian supermarket. Oh, and also, written recipes aren’t common practice for dumplings. This is like making a website using the WordPress software itself and its surrounding ecosystem. There’s a lot more knowledge you need to either already have or work to build: which grocery stores/software/hosts have what, what kind of ingredients/themes/plugins you need and what places carry them, reading endless reviews and trying things that don’t work very well along the way. It’s typically a lot more effort and not necessarily all that cost-effective, but you have a better shot at getting exactly what you want. If you can figure out how to put it all together, anyway.

Jetpack is like all these meal kit start ups (think: Blue Apron) – they aim to allow you to have that DIY experience on your own terms, but with a lot more curation and guidance. If you’re not familiar with these meal kit services, well neither am I, but the idea is you get shipped a box of ingredients for a specific meal and then you make it at home with your own pots and pans and salt and whatnot. You have more opportunity to customize since you’re doing things yourself, but it does require that you understand the basics of cooking in order to achieve a desired result. Experienced cooks roll their eyes at the idea that people would need or want such a thing, and yet here we are. Jetpack is something like that: it ships a bunch of stuff you will probably need to get a website going in an attempt to demystify and simplify the process. Developers frequently deride it and have a hard time understanding why it’s helpful or how. Oh, and you know, the whole start-ups-love-personal-data-and-subscription-models thing.

Making a website is complicated and confusing, in no small part because there’s so much terminology and it’s not a part of what we consider a part of a typical routine the way going to a grocery store is. However, chances are ever-higher that something you do or will do will involve or significantly benefit from having a web presence. There’s something to be said for gaining literacy in this area early on in school – learning to code is not what’s important, but rather what is the web and how does it work. (We should be teaching more practical literacy in general like managing personal finances but that’s not a topic for this blog.) I hope this is a helpful perspective and jumping-off point for teaching and learning as we try to make the web a little more approachable for all, and I’m sure people will come up with interesting extensions to this analogy.

Somewhat related: I bet it’s not a coincidence that so many front-end developers get into bread making.

Restaurant vs. meal kit vs. grocery shopping (or, WordPress.com vs. Jetpack vs. WordPress.org)

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