Retro WordPress Bonanza!

If you’re reading this–yes, I’ve switched out the Scratchpad theme. I originally scraped something “unique” together with mini.css, my favorite CSS framework, but it was never really complete and I was never particularly attached to it. A lot of what I wanted to do with it (namely custom WordPress settings and a lot of code cleanup), I just didn’t give enough of a shit about to pull off with it. A change was in order, really.

And like so much else I deal with day to day, I found what I was looking for in the past. I see a new mini-project on the horizon as a result of this, so let’s get to the story.

Pop Songs 07-08
I might steal this for Otherwhere when I bring it back. Maybe.

This all started when I was digging around R.E.M. fansites and found Pop Songs 07-08, a WordPress blog that hadn’t been updated since 2008. These old WordPress blogs are always a bit of a time capsule, in content, tone, and in theme, and this one was no exception; God, they don’t make themes like that one anymore. I had to know which theme Pop Songs was using!

Now normally, the name is directly on the page, but this one’s wasn’t, so I started to datamine. It took a bit, but I eventually came across the name: “Simpla”. Two issues immediately cropped up when I went looking:

  1. There’s another (far shittier) WordPress theme called Simpla around these days that shows up in the searches instead
  2. We do our damndest to bury older WordPress themes

The unfortunate part about WordPress is that, like every other piece of software these days, people try to make it do what it was never meant to do. WordPress is blogging software; I don’t buy the bullshit about it being a general CMS, or that it has pages therefore it can make for an entire site. As far as I’m concerned, shoving stores and random junk into a WordPress blog is the highest abuse of the software there ever was.

And far too many WordPress themes at this point play off of that.

While I was busy scouring the internet for a working copy of this theme, dcb happened across an archived theme gallery from 2007 that was like stepping into a goddamn alternate dimension. None of them were Simpla, granted, but they were almost as good, and they all put into perspective just how downhill web design has gone in 13 years:

wordpress.net's Theme Viewer
wordpress.net’s Theme Viewer, archived

Every WordPress theme gallery at this point caters to ugly, whitespace-overdosed, identikit “responsive” themes that, even if they’re still for blogging primarily, make you look like every other douchebag hipster Silicon Valley-chic startup on the planet. Seriously, have a peek through the official theme gallery, I’ll wait.

Meanwhile, the themes from this gallery were infinitely more varied, fit more on screen, were cleaner than the “cleanest” modern themes, and just plain looked more inviting. Yet none of them are in WordPress’ official gallery. You look up “wordpress themes”, they’re not there. All the search results now emphasize the current year. It’s 2020, baby! It’s the now, so be a whore like everyone else. Humble little blogs? Pfft. Fuck you think this is, 2004? I bet you still have wired headphones too, you fucking boomer.

Colibri WP, a "modern" theme
Are you not impressed by object-fit: cover, you fucking luddite? Fuck you.

Anyway, at long last, I managed to find an archived copy of OG Simpla (the “widgetized” version floating around of the original absolutely refused to work and simply returned 500 errors whenever anything tried to access index.php), but by this point, my interest in old themes was piqued. Why had they all disappeared?

As far as I can tell, the answer is “because we felt like it”. Oh sure, you might hear “they’re a security risk” thrown about. “You should really keep your WordPress themes updated,” we’ll say. But in reality? It’s all a load of fucking horseshit, and I’ll tell you why.

People will tell you WordPress is insecure, but that reputation doesn’t really come from Automattic’s work, but from the idiot site owners who use their stuff. PHP 5.x is still woefully common (Somnolescent is on 7.4, no worries), and plugin vulnerabilities accounted for most of the rest of the exploits. Of the data on “theme exploits” that I’ve seen, I need more specific information to really make a call there. Are people somehow exploiting deprecated WordPress functions? Can wp_list_cats() be used for XSS or something?

Perhaps they mean “only install themes from trusted sources”, which is fair enough and I agree. Thing is, it’s not like a plugin where you toss around new ones like dice. Installing a new theme tends to be a major undertaking that radically alters the look and feel of a site. Is installing compromised themes really that lucrative of a security risk? I’d love to know.

NodeThirtyThree's NonZero
Still with the 2006 copyright date intact, which yes, I am keeping.

In any case, I decided to take the plunge and try a retro WordPress theme for the Scratchpad. I pretty immediately fell in love with someone’s port of NodeThirtyThree’s Nonzero. It’s a three column design using two sidebars, which I got to rearranging to my liking. I’m still tweaking it and I’d like to port it to HTML5, but right now, I’m very happy with it. It’s the exact feel I want for the Scratchpad–a seemingly-old blog you stumble on and spend a few hours skimming through for no apparent reason other than you’re peeking into something unusual and curious. This is the theme for that.

(As an aside, NodeThirtyThree now goes by ajlkn and runs both carrd.co, which Caby uses for her Twitter bio, and Pixelarity, another collection of identikit modern WordPress themes, sadly. Still, small world.)

So getting back to the rest of the themes. The download links still seem to work (two pages in and I’ve yet to get a 404), but since browsing the often-broken and tiny previews is kind of a pain, I thought about resurrecting and rehosting them. Themes are tiny; my folder for the downloaded ones hasn’t even reached 5mb yet, yet they all still work perfectly fine with WordPress 5. Granted, “perfectly” is probably short-lived (I already know these use a few deprecated functions), but as of right now, they’re good and worth having available, especially since looking up “old wordpress themes” just returns more hipster garbage.

I’ll probably get back to that tonight after Caby goes to bed. For now, have a few shots of my favorites from the gallery. (In order, these were made by a wamen, a Lebanese man, and a Chinese man…I think. Diversity!)

"Purple Sky" by Kristin K. Wangen
“Purple Sky” by Kristin K. Wangen
"Enlighten" by Ibrahim Faour
“Enlighten” by Ibrahim Faour (sushi’s now using this one on his blog, funnily enough)
"Akon" by Terry Ng
“Akon” by Terry Ng

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