WordPress Wizard | Matt Mullenweg interview
Blog star Matt Mullenweg offers an exclusive insight into the motivations and origins behind web publishing’s most prominent force.
In a modern society obsessed with celebrity, there becomes very few actual stars blessed with the power to light up our lives. It seems that just about anyone can ascend to iconic status by merely appearing on TV as themselves or by being written into the tabloid headlines for all sorts of scurrilous misdemeanors. When Andy Warhol uttered his famous quote in the early 1960’s, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” – he surely couldn’t have known how prophetic this would become. Although television shows such as Big Brother and earlier examples of ‘docusoaps’ like BBC’s Airport have been hugely influential, we now find that the web is just as furtive for establishing real-world personalities on a global scale. A lethal combination of freedom, a perceived lack of control and an ability to define new rules for reaching an audience has yielded a YouTube generation with the potential to become an overnight sensation. Probably the most powerful tool on the modern web is blogging and in terms of redefining content publishing online it has opened the floodgates for those who were once inhibited by the complexities associated with building the necessary infrastructures. Those with something to say can simple type it out and post it without first becoming a master in HTML, CSS, PHP etc. Current darling of the geek glitterati Twitter is derived directly from this culture, in the same way Facebook’s wall and status updates can make you a legend within your own friendship network. If full-blown blogging was defined by market share however, then the undisputed star would surely be WordPress. Propelled by an open approach to the platform that anyone with a hosting account can setup, coupled with a devoted developer community and you have a decent formula for success that others have indeed followed.
An Open Approach
The real story behind WordPress begins with a young man named Matthew Charles Mullenweg. He was born January 11, 1984 in Houston Texas – which eerily enough makes him exactly 26 on the day this piece was written. He then went on to work for CNET Networks in San Francisco before founding the startup firm Automattic in August 2005. It was from here that WordPress evolved, along with projects such as the spam-killing Akismet, universal avatar creation tool Gravatar and a few more initiatives that all support the Open Source philosophy so integral to Matt’s initial vision. “The website says WordPress is “a state-of-the-art semantic personal publishing platform” but more importantly WordPress is a part of who I am”, as his official blog at http://ma.tt explains. “Like eating, breathing, music, I can’t not work on WordPress. The project touches a lot of people, something I’ve recently begun to appreciate. I consider myself very lucky to be able to work on something I love so much.”
Although it’s worth underlining that Mullenweg didn’t create the blueprint for WordPress alone, credit must also go to co-developer Mike Little, he has been recognised since as one of the web’s most influential people operating today. So we see it as something of a coup to present an exclusive Q&A session with the man who made web publishing go pop – offering his own view of the past, present and future on blogging’s rise to superstardom…
MATT MULLENWEG TALKS TO WEB DESIGNER…
Q. First off, there can be very few web designers that haven’t heard of WordPress. But how and when did it all come about?
WordPress started about 6 years ago because I wanted a simple blogging tool that was easy to install, easy to modify, and friendly with web standards. I teamed up with a fellow Open Source contributor Mike Little (in England) and we started hacking on the first version. It’s come a long way since then, with some key improvements being the creation of the plugin and theme systems. We got the current logo about4.5 years ago when Jason Santa Maria got involved to work on a redesign and rebranding. I’ve considered changing the logo before, but earlier this year a very dedicated WordPress user in Hawaii actually got it permanently tattooed on his arm, so we’ll probably stick with the current logo for the foreseeable future.
Q. What was the original vision for WordPress and were you/are you surprised at how successful the platform has become?
As growth started to pick up and it began to look like this thing had legs, we started to think more about vision and possible impact. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could democratize publishing and make it available to a wider audience?” That idea of making it easy and hassle-free for anybody to publish online has stuck with us.
The first time I was really surprised by the community was when some users in Japan downloaded the software and then replaced every English string with a Japanese translation. I installed it and it was surreal, all of the layout and buttons looked the same but there was this beautiful, exotic script gracing everything. It was like a dream where everything is familiar but all your friends are speaking a language you don’t understand. The idea that someone halfway across the world would contribute so much time and thought to the project was very humbling.
Q. If you had a crystal ball would you have given more thought to the commercial aspects that WordPress has to offer?
No, I wouldn’t change a thing. The GPL license that WordPress is under enables a large amount of commercial innovation while still protecting the rights and freedoms of users.
Q. Automattic began life as small startup and has grown into a massive online presence. What have you learnt along the way and what advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting up their own online enterprise?
On the commercial side Automattic has definitely been a learning experience as our sites have grown to more than 260 million unique visitors and our team has grown to over 50 people located around the world. With a distributed company model like Automattic has you rely a lot on your colleagues, so hiring is paramount. The most important thing one does as founder is hire the right people and set the company culture.
The best method I’ve found for hiring is to avoid fancy interview-type questions or put people under a lot of pressure, instead I just to get to know them and see if they are someone I would want to be in the trenches with. I check out their work to see if it is the level I am looking for and if it is we do a trial project (paid, of course) where I can actually see what it’s like to work with them over the course of a few weeks. There is no better barometer of what someone is actually like, how they communicate, collaborate, and manage their time.
Q. After nearly 15 years of service GeoCities was finally closed down this year by Yahoo. Do you see any similarities between WordPress and GeoCities? Do you think WordPress is the modern day equivalent of GeoCities?
I actually had a GeoCities site back in the day. In fact I just paid the ransom to have it redirected to a domain so the old links don’t break. I think they did a fantastic job at whetting people’s appetites for having a web presence but much like early social networking sites, once you set it up there really wasn’t any reason to go back and the pages weren’t terribly engaging for visitors. Blogging added a little bit of structure in a format that has proved resilient for a decade.
Q. What is your current involvement with WordPress?
This year a lot of my time has been spent bouncing around the globe to attend WordCamps, which are one- and two-day conferences organized by the WordPress community. I love meeting WordPress users and when come to a WordCamp I typically do a town hall-style Q & A session to try to answer as many questions as possible and spread the gospel of Open Source, open standards, GPL, and WordPress.
On the product side I try to take what I have learned back to the rest of the development team and that influences the direction we take the product in. I don’t need to personally write code much these days because we have so many talented folks involved but I am jumping back in on bbPress and will be hacking around in there.
Q. As WordPress reaches the web masses new markets and opportunities i.e. Themes, have been created around the platform. Is this something you encourage and do themes have to go through a vetting process.
Themes are incredibly important and I think the diversity of themes available for WordPress has been part of the success of the platform. In the past we had some trouble with the quality of themes available on different directories and such, so when we decided to make an official one on WordPress.org we decided there would be a vetting and mentorship process. We check themes for the obvious stuff like malicious code but also for WP feature support, browser compatibility, and even API compatibility so if you get a theme from our directory you can be sure that it will be safe now and in the future.
Q. The WordPress developer community plays a huge part in the WordPress lifecycle. How does the community work and how can designers get involved?
The community is very collaborative. People from all different backgrounds are involved and we are joined together by a shared philosophy – Free Software – and a common passion – creating websites.
Developers usually join some of our mailing lists, like wp-hackers (http://lists.automattic.com), or peruse our Trac instance (http://core.trac.wordpress.org), where we keep track of bugs. Writers contribute to our documentation, called the Codex, which runs Mediawiki software like Wikipedia. Designers used to have a hard time getting involved but that has changed since version 2.7 when we did the dashboard redesign. Now we experiment with things like distributed usability testing and we also have a budding Open Source Design group (three people so far).
My dream is to grow the design group so they can help out with different plugins in addition to core work. Many of the plugins are written by people with a passion for development and could benefit greatly from some help on the visual side.
Q. Do you think that WordPress is removing the technical element> involved in the web design process? Or, alternatively do you think it is encouraging a new generation of web designers?
Absolutely. I have been to twenty or thirty WordCamps this year and at every one I met several dozen folks whose entire businesses, all the websites they have built, are on WordPress. It’s where they start and end every project and they are bending and stretching it in ways I could have never imagined. It’s something with the power of any other CMS out there but that doesn’t intimidate their clients or require recoding their site every 16 months because compatibility broke.
WordPress started with very modest ambitions as just a blog tool, but we have always listened closely to our user community and we have grown together into something much more flexible.
Q. WordPress for the iPhone is already available at the iTunes App store. What features are you looking to put into future editions and how do you think the app compares to the standard version?
Our app is better than it used to be, but still sucks in a lot of ways. As a WordPress user I want to see my stats, get a push notification when there is a new comment, search my archives, visit people linking to me, respond to comments, take and upload video… we still have so much to do!
Q. There are thousands of WordPress sites across the Net. What do you think are great examples of the publishing platform and why?
We made a whole site for exactly that. :) Check out http://wordpress.org/showcase. Some of my recent favorites are hypebeast.com, ilovetypography.com, icondock.com, grainedit.com, pro.gigaom.com, and gigaom.com. (My site, of course: ma.tt.) WordPress.tv is a great example of WordPress powering a Hulu-type site and also a great way to learn about WordPress itself.
Q. What does the future hold for WordPress?
A number of things. On the interface side I think that you will see WordPress become more streamlined in the future, as we balance ever-increasing functionality with cognitive load when using the interface. [re-write please: You will start to see more customization options for the back-end so people can tailor it to the things they use and also perhaps see some of the functionality move into plugins so people can optimize their site for exactly what they want to use.]
Performance-wise I’m not worried because we already run some of the largest websites in the world and solutions like wp-super-cache and Batcache have already been shown to scale to tens of millions of visitors per day.
A lot of plugins today are solo enterprises and I think you’ll see these become more collaborative just like WordPress did in the beginning. It’s not unheard of for a plugin to get half a million users, and that’s hard to support on your own, so they’ll start to turn into little mini-WordPresses with their own documentation, support forums, developer teams, and everything else.
Themes are going to evolve to include more functionality, almost like little mini-applications. A good example of this is the P2 theme we released — it’s a theme but it adds a lot of functionality to the front end of the blog so you actually never have to visit the dashboard. You can write, edit, upload images, comment, everything right on the home page, and everything new comes in real-time to anybody that has the page open. This type of model will be used for more than just blogs, you’ll see a theme that perhaps provides address book-type functionality (I already saw one of these called RoloPress) or something for managing a vinyl collection. (I want the latter. :)) Because the front-end presentation and the back end functionality are tied together you will be able to create very rich experiences and bundle and distribute them through WordPress’ existing networks.
WordPress provides a robust content model with post types, taxonomies, custom fields, threaded comments and moderation, everything you need to build almost any website you can imagine.