Matt Mullenweg talks about WordPress and open source: “There’s a deeper universal truth”

These are some notes I made from the talk by Matt Mullenweg, creator of WordPress, at the Dublin Web Summit. The event MD Mark Little said to begin with that he had read somewhere that Matt’s long term aim was to create a movement, and he certainly has.

Matt made a resolution last year that he would post 10,000 pictures, so he took some pictures of us and told us we’d see it on his ma.tt site some day. This served as an introduction to why he started blogging in the first place, and it began with photos. Matt visited Washington DC when he graduated from high school, and there was so much there to take photos of: museums, great public transport, cherry blossoms, and he was just blown away by it all. For these photos, the captions he had to add when uploading them online were getting longer and longer, turning into text descriptions after a while. He needed to blog rather than simply upload photos, and he started using Movable Type. Eventually he moved to B2, but the B2 projects stopped, and then he turned it into WordPress. Normally for proprietary projects, when development ends so does the project. But B2 was open source, and that became the basis of WordPress seven years and five days ago today.

Matt says that during the past few years they’ve had some lucky breaks, and attracted fantastic developers, including Donncha O Caoimh, the first employee of Automattic (before Matt himself who was employed elsewhere). One of the strengths of WordPress was that they kept up with competitors by developing importers for other major software, and through that they had to develop feature parity with everything else out there. Four years ago, he decided that he was “quite unemployable” and started Automattic. If you take an open-source model, but start a business, economic responsibility has to be aligned with the broader interests of the community.

Around this time we were seeing the beginnings of SaaS (software as a service), so Matt decided that they needed a hosted version of WordPress, where you could just click a button and have a blog within seconds. There are now 10 million blogs on WordPress.com reaching an audience of 200 million every month (the population of the US approximately). WordPress.com makes money by selling upgrades and other services: this funds growth, but also funds development of WordPress (which ironically also powers many of their competitors).

This is Matt’s fourth time in Ireland: the first time was to meet Donncha O Caoimh, the second was Donncha’s wedding, the third time was a secret trip to Sligo when they were thinking of acquiring PollDaddy and he came over to meet Lenny (David Lenehan). He said that this last one was a trip that they didn’t want anyone to know about: it was very annoying for him because it was a beautiful day, and he got the best photos up in Sligo (where PollDaddy are based) but he couldn’t post them without giving a hint as to what was going on!

Matt then offered to answer some questions for the remainder (majority) of his session about open source, open-source business models, WordPress, Automattic, PollDaddy, etc.

The first question was if he would like to comment on the iPad?

Matt says he didn’t have anything to do with it 🙂 He acknowledged that it doesn’t play Flash, but WordPress only uses Flash when they have to, e.g. when uploading multiple files at the same time, or when playing video. Fortunately, the genesis of WordPress was web standards. Matt says that he believes HTML5 will be the next wave of revolution for the web: it won’t be Web 3.0 or the semantic blah blah. It’s going to be about broadband, and HTML5 will allow us to provide full interactive applications right there in your browser that will load up in seconds. He says that he is counting the days to when they can drop support for IE8 and just support HTML5.

Another question was about libel. Somebody was fined 100,000 euro here for defamation on a blog. Given the experience with libel both here and in the US, will we see changes in the numbers of bloggers and how people use blogs?

To Matt, he said that it’s not too specific to the medium. If they’d put it in a newspaper, via signs around town, or on a bulletin board, it’d be the same action. However, Automattic avoids having servers outside the US. They often get defamation notices, and being in the middle, they try and stay out of it.

Another question was posed regarding the open and collaborative process for the UI design of WordPress 2.7. How was it organized, and how did they get quality out of the process?

Matt said that as a side task of the open-source development process, much effort is carried out via bug trackers by passionate people all around the world. The minuses are what is called the “bike shed problem”. Some people want to build a nuclear plant, so they take their plans to city council, say here’s our plan, and it’s all glanced over and rubber stamped. Someone comes in after, and says that they want to build a bike shed, but the council bring up loads of problems over colours, size, how many bikes can fit inside, etc. Everyone in open source wants their 15 pixels of fame. If you make an option, there’ll have to be something allowing red or blue, or maybe reddish-blue: purple! Every additional option is a burden for the user. On install, all options are a burden. OpenOffice has the worst options pane, it’s like a tax form with 30 pages of check boxes. Open source makes functional software, but very seldom does it make beautiful software. Matt wanted to turn this around, as he is passionate about design. It needs to be as accessible as possible: languages, localisations, and optimization for the cheapest servers it may possibly run on.

They needed to get hard data on usability, so they did laser eye tracking. When you do this, you can ask people why they didn’t push the button, and if they say they didn’t see it, you may already know from the eye tracking that they looked right at it. Maybe the button wasn’t prominent enough, or the wrong words were used to describe it, or it wasn’t where it was expected, etc. They got Jane Wells involved, and she had a huge community and usability background, so she started collecting lots of contributors. 99% of contributions to WordPress are code, and she galvanized the design community. One example was that they had a design challenge for icons in 2.7. You can get amazing data from these collaborators which wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The best people in the world aren’t working for you, they are completely spread out geographically, and may only contribute a few hours a month, but their combined contributions are the best.

Someone else asked if Matt was an accidental entrepreneur. Is building on open source a good way to get into business?

Matt says that it is not the easiest because you give everything away in open source, so you need other models that can build on that. Open source was a revelation for Matt, and the ideas of the Free Software Foundation were very inspiring to him. He stumbled into it, the idea that you can build on something that’s there and that gives you a two-year head start that you couldn’t have had otherwise. Once you learn about the philosophy behind it, there’s a deeper universal truth: the more you give, the more you get back. The majority of servers run Linux and open source software. All of us are using it every day from routers to mobile phones.

Someone else pointed out that Automattic started off with people he’d never met. Are there downfalls and success factors to this?

Matt said that the important thing was the way they’d worked together already. They had been talking and coding for a year or two, so he knew these people far better than if they lived down the street from him. This is pretty powerful. Automattic has 52 people, perhaps doubling that next year. Hiring is the number one thing that’ll affect your business. Life is short, and you want to work with good people. The trick is to try and work with people first on contract before they come on full time, maybe for three to four months. You can see how they work, find out how they communicate, examine their work ethic. A resume can’t encapsulate that. It’s only when you’re in the trenches that you can find out what they are really like.

From a security viewpoint, the more plugins, the bigger the security concerns. Is there a way to certify them or control security aspect?

The biggest shift for Matt came when he stopped thinking about WordPress as a script and now as a platform. With more code, there will be more bugs, and some will be security related. They try to ship an update to as many people as possible as fast as possible, even behind the scenes without people knowing it. WordPress has 7,000 plugins now, growing to maybe 12k or 13k next year. The core software itself is light and fast, so a lot of functionality is in the public realm. But they’ve taken a lot of inspiration from very robust auto-update systems. You should be able to click one button to update WordPress and the plugins, or at least as close to one click as they can get without Amazon suing them. Another side to aiding with security is education. The better the tools that they can give to developers and the better help or support they can offer, the better the community becomes. As he put it, “you can upgrade the community as well as the software”.

Someone else pointed out that in the past, capitalists wore big hats and ran factories and have lots of people doing the hard work for you. Now you can run a site like TripAdvisor and people make your product for you. Open source is one extreme manifestation of this shift, and there’s been enormous growth in the number of companies that make their money out of other people’s labour in a way that the fat cats with their cigars could only have dreamed of.

Matt answered by saying that the people contributing to these sites are very smart and aren’t dumb: they get something out of it. One review in itself isn’t useful on TripAdvisor; a hundred is pretty neat. On the Internet you’re a click away from your competitor, so if someone does more than you do, users will gravitate towards that. You certainly can’t build a business over 5 or 20 years with the Huckleberry Finn approach.

Someone asked what the distributed usability tool is called and can others use it?

It’s called “Distributed Usability and Testing”. It can be used by anyone, for testing a website or an iPad, whatever. The important thing when people are using it is that you shouldn’t help them using software. Matt recalled a story about his mother who was trying out WordPress, and he started writing down some points and she gave out to him saying “you’re taking notes”! (She started a blog last year.) Matt said that even if you just can get some people in a cafe to try out a system and you give them some cards to make notes, it’s a great help.

The last question was about democratizing the world of publishing. How can we increase the quality of content made by any user or help any user with finding better or more relevant content?

To create better content, the functionality of a tool often dictates the content. Blogs originally just had a text area with no title box. In WordPress, they wanted to provide really great markup and form. The usability of the theme itself is important, and blogs have nailed this format. The way blogs look hasn’t changed much over a decade: posts are in reverse chronological order, with titles, dates, etc. The most important shift was comments. Matt says that he writes not because of content but because of the comments: “did you think of doing it this way”, “here’s a link to my thesis on this topic”, etc. The 10,000 people who read his blog have almost the exact same interests out of the 6 billion on the planet.

Matt referenced “After the Deadline”, which helps to polish his writing. It will fix errors like “he was fine in the poles” [instead of polls], and it has a contextual spell checker that checks against various style guides. It can’t make you a better thinker, but a misspelling in the first sentence will often lead one to discredit the content that follows so at least it can aid with that. WordPress is about writing, creating content, so a tool like this complements this nicely. Automattic acquired After the Deadline, and they then open sourced the technology as an extension for Firefox.

Regarding how to make it easier to find better stuff, Automattic are not tackling it right now, but it is an issue. With around 2 million posts per month, the content being created on WordPress is like an English-language Wikipedia being created every month. Filters are important for geography, and search will remain number one for now, but Matt thinks that the social graph will help to filter this information, and looks forwards to developments in this area.

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