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Matt Mullenweg: Reinventing the Internet, One Blog at a Time

WordPress has evolved far beyond blogging into the world's dominant open-source publishing system.

Anyone who has hung around the blogosphere—as reader, writer or both—probably has a passing familiarity with WordPress, one of the world’s most popular blogging platforms.

What most people don’t realize is that WordPress has evolved far beyond blogging into the world’s dominant open-source publishing system. Among a welter of impressive statistics is this stunner on its founder, Matt Mullenweg’s blog: WordPress now runs about 12 percent of all Web sites on the Internet today, including those of many companies and media organizations.

Blogs and open source
WordPress’ ascendancy on the Web is the product of the two passions of Mullenweg. One is for blogging; the other for open-source software, which can be modified and used freely by anyone.

Over the past eight years, without attracting the media attention of figures like the late Steve Jobs of Apple or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Mullenweg has been quietly changing the face of the Internet.

“Software can become a loss of freedom, ...a loss of transparency if it’s a black box,” Mullenweg said to his hometown newspaper, the Houston Chronicle. “If it’s open source, it becomes a source of freedom.”

Mullenweg, 27, caught the blogging bug at the University of Houston, where he joined friends in developing the source code for WordPress, which launched with little fanfare in 2003. A year later, he quit school and moved to San Francisco, California, where he worked for the Internet technology firm, CNET. In 2005, he founded Automattic, a company that runs a variety of Web ventures—Internet polling and creating online avatars, among others—along with its flagship initiative, WordPress.

Automattic, although a giant on the Internet, is one of its smallest and most geographically dispersed firms, with only 90-plus full-time employees in 62 countries.

“Hire the best people anywhere in the world,” Mullenweg told the technology Web site Steppin’ Off the Edge. “We don’t need the factory model anymore.”

WordPress community
WordPress operates on two tracks. WordPress.com is a free, integrated Web publishing service providing a range of features from a selection of different templates or themes to support more than 120 languages.

Wordpress.com now operates more than 53 million Web sites around the world, with two-thirds of its current growth coming from outside the United States.

WordPress.org offers the identical open-source software, which users can download and install on their computers and servers to run independently, whether for commercial or other purposes. They can also modify, or “fork,” the software however they please. The only restriction—which is the heart of the open-source model—is that they can’t restrict anyone else’s use of WordPress software.

WordPress.org usage has soared in recent years. When WordPress version 2.9 was released in December 2009, it averaged about 47,000 downloads per day. Version 3.0, released in June 2010, initially recorded 235,000 daily downloads, according to the WordPress Foundation.

Mullenweg, a skilled photographer and jazz enthusiast, stresses the need to stay as closely connected to his users and customers as possible. “We’re trying to set up a community that will be around 10 to 30 years from now, one that’s independent from the whims of the market,” he commented on his blog.

WordPress averages three major releases a year. “It’s the broader WordPress community that gives us this kind of speed of development,” he said.

Mullenweg travels constantly, often to increasingly popular WordCamps that are held around the world, attracting bloggers, Web developers, and WordPress users in the hundreds and even thousands. In February 2009, India held its first WordCamp in New Delhi, with Mullenweg as the featured speaker.

“I’ve noticed more and more people coming up to me and saying that they’re making a living using WordPress,” he said. “There’s no better feeling than knowing you’re providing jobs and supporting families with your product.”

WordPress, founded before the era of Facebook and Twitter, is hardly a youthful start-up anymore. With the relentlessly changing online world, it now faces competition from a new crop of social networking sites—notably the free-form microblogging site, Tumblr.

When asked to compare the two, Mullenweg said that if you wanted to collect and post images, or reblog, Tumblr might be the best choice. “But if you want to build your voice, your own domain, it would be WordPress.”

For Mullenweg, the focus remains on building large online communities through open-source software.


Howard Cincotta is a U.S. State Department writer and editor.