Blog Interviewer: Alright, here we go. Welcome to BlogInterviewer.com’s featured interview for the week of September 16, 2007. I am Matt, your host, and I am pleased to be joined by another Matt, a much more famous Matt than me, Matt Mullenweg, founder of the wildly popular blogging platform WordPress and chief barbecue taste-tester at Automattic. Welcome, Matt.
Matt Mulleweg: Hi!
Blog Interviewer: Could you tell us a little bit about your blog photomatt.net?
Matt Mulleweg: Sure. I had gone to visit at Washington DC when I think while I was still in high school, and I have just gotten a digital camera and I was using this software called Gallery, actually which I used to this day to post all my photos and my friends would go online and check them out and leave comments. It was kind of like my personal photo sharing site before Flickr existed or anything like that. So that is how I got started. It was just photos and eventually, I started writing longer and longer things about the photos and I figured I needed some sort of blog to sort of capture all my writings.
Blog Interviewer: Yes. You know, I think back in 2005, Philip Kaplan at BrightBlog wrote: “I got into a discussion with a guy last night who was telling me how great he thinks blogging is and how much it has changed the web. He was saying how because of publishing solutions like Blogger, Movable Type and WordPress, anyone can easily publish their own site. I agreed. Blogs? Back in my day, we called them websites and we use Geocities, damn it. These kids and their fandangled Myspace.” Do you find it amusing that basically, all writing on the web is now called blogging?
Matt Mullenweg: All writing on the web is now called blogging? Yes, I think that is kind of cool.
Blog Interviewer: It seems that whenever we will see a forum or something like that and call it blogging. Even if it seems like a new site or a column, they will say that is their blog even though it may not fit the traditional definition.
Matt Mullenweg: I remember when I was at CNET, even the blogs, the actual blogs they had, they were scared of calling blogs because they thought there was some sort of negative association with the word or that people didn’t know what it was. But I fly a lot now and I always sort of talk to the person next to me and I find that now, 90+% plus of my random sampling of travel mates knows what a blog is. I mean, far higher than any time that I can remember. So I think there is a lot of public consciousness about what it is.
Blog Interviewer: It seems maybe, having gone from a perceived juvenile activity to something that large businesses will do to stay in touch with their customers and communicate in that way, I guess.
Matt Mullenweg: So that is why I never really bought into the stuff where people mock calling a blog. If you look at AOL Journals or MSN Spaces, that is because a giant company did a focus group and they thought the name word “blog” was bad yet the biggest of them all is called blogger.
Blog Interviewer: That is funny. Tell us about your thoughts on Open Source and why you have become its biggest evangelist.
Matt Mullenweg: I do not know if I would say I am its biggest evangelist but it is certainly something that I strongly, strongly believe in. I just think Open Source development is the future of software. Just like 50, 60, 70 years ago, I do not know particularly, but scientists started sharing a lot more of their data. They found out if they collaborated together, they could advance the realm of science far faster than when they were trying to keep everything proprietary. And there are still ways for scientific conventions doing companies lots and lots of money and inventors to be rewarded. But there is this culture of openness, an academia as well. People write papers, they document what they did, and they share their research and software, that is open source. The code that I write to, for example curl the quotes on a blog should be available for anyone to use. There is no reason for anyone to reinvent that wheel because someone has already done it, and as they make an improvement on it, my users should get that as well. It is just sort of makes sense to me. It is very natural. Now, proprietary development feels very strange to me so it is almost its opposite.
Blog Interviewer: Why do you think blogging has been such a disruptive technology?
Matt Mullenweg: That is a good question because I think there was always a lot of demand for people to have their own websites and for people to publish on the web, but there was not enough structure to it. So Philip Kaplan talks about Geocities. I had a Geocities page too and then I created a page, I put some pictures on it, probably my cat, and then I did not really do anything else. I mean, there was no sort of clear path for something else for me to do. And also, there was no reason for anyone to visit that page twice because the next time they came, it would pretty much be the same. So maybe I changed the background colors or something. Now blogs, they allow you to have that sort of personal space on the web but it is always fresh, it is always new. It gives you something to do. You have a blank box which is expecting you to write something into it. And that sort of, I think, momentum is what makes blogs interesting.
Blog Interviewer: WordPress was certainly not the first blogging software on the scene but what factors do you think have allowed it to eclipse other blogging scripts like Movable Type?
Matt Mullenweg: If I had to look at why WordPress has been successful to the extent it has, I think it is mostly due to that we listen. We are users of the blogs ourselves. I mean, every WordPress developer is a pretty active blogger, and we listen a lot to the people using the software. Our assumption is that we cannot and will not know the best stuff for the next version of WordPress, so I do not even try to make predictions of where WordPress is going to be in a year or two because frankly, I do not know. If you asked me two years ago if we would be where we are now, I would have said something completely different. Our users are very smart because they use WordPress obviously and they are not shy, so they are very willing to share their opinions about where things can go. So our role and my role as sort of their lead developer is very much taking in all these inputs and trying to synthesize where we should go with the project and balance out what is often a silent majority with a few very passionate users who might be on the leading edge, and those few passionate users might out weigh the majority sometimes because they are where everyone is going to be a year from now, and sometimes we say the majority might out weigh them, and so just sort of navigating those waters is, I think, a big part of what I do.
Bloginterviewer: Do you think the inclusion of WordPress in Fantastico distributions has made a big difference for you?
Matt Mullenweg: Absolutely. The idea that because it is open source, you can do pretty much whatever, wherever you want to put WordPress, and it is just sort of natural. Open source helps distribution a lot.
Blog Interviewer: You have seen blogging pick up speed in places like China. Do you think that it has made a big difference in those areas that may be technically isolated?
Matt Mullenweg: Yes. A week or two though there was a WordCamp in Beijing which was entirely organized by the folks there and it sounds like that they were 300 something people there, so that would have make it as big as the one we did in San Francisco which totally blows me away. I think obviously, internet access is something we all take for granted but there is a huge barrier in these places, and even in some place like China where it might be more ubiquitous but there are a lot of limitations on internet access. There is not a whole lot that we can do to get around that. It is just sort of a fact of life. But I think the trends are all going in the right direction. I would not bet money against 5 years from now that there would be more broadband. There would be more people on the internet. There would be more users of blogs. So it just seemed like a sort of inevitable shift to me. Just like more people having cell phones was sort of an inevitable shift 10 years ago even though it was still in the early adoptive stage.
Blog Interviewer: Being one of the WordPress’ lead developers, what type of roadblocks have you run into now as far as trying to make it appeal more to other groups like podcasters and other groups of publishers who have taken on WordPress as their publishing medium of choice?
Matt Mullenweg: I think most of the burden there is not providing a feature for every single niche audience but rather the writing of framework where people can develop plug-ins that really adjusts to us. So WordPress podcasting support will never ever be as good as PodPress just because it is a smaller, independent-focused thing that is entirely focused on podcasting, and there are other niches like that as well. There are event managers so we have got a plug-in that is entirely for managing a record label. There is a very, very small audience for that but I bet of that people using blogs to manage a record label audience, they are probably all using that WordPress plug-in. If we can keep the core small and fast and light and sort of focused on what we do at our most basic sense which is make it easy for people to publish and fast and secure and provide a really rich framework for this plug-ins to build on top of, I think that is the most powerful way to go. It is sort of like a little WordPress operating system that you can run lots of programs on and customize it to however you want.
Blog Interviewer: I heard a previous interview you did with Wall Strip where you said between 300 to 500 a people a day switch from Blogger to WordPress. A lot of bloggers use Blogger or MovableType. Probably many of them are fairly content with it and they become used to their respective back ends. Why should the established bloggers take the time to switch their blogs to WordPress or what would you say to convince them to take another look?
Matt Mullenweg: I usually do not try to convince people to switch. People usually switch. You can lead the horse to the water, right? The reasons people tell me is that they say they are having lots of spam problems. Their host is mad at them because a Movable Type comment script is using too much CPU resources. They are frustrated with the interface with the lack of innovation, lack of plug-ins, and lack of themes. So the strengths of WordPress is not really available in a whole lot of other platforms just because of these network effects of the ecosystem around WordPress. Those are good reasons. A lot of the larger bloggers, like you see I have a Khaki or a Daring Fireball, these guys have been blogging longer than WordPress was around, and so they figured out the systems that they are using, and I do not really expect them to ever switch. It is kind of like once you have customized something or learned a lot about something, and got networking, just like you want. You have probably worked around all those problems already. In fact, if you look at the Technorati100, the old blogs, the blogs that started in 2001 and 2002, those are probably going to be on some thing like Movable Type because that was what was the best software at that time. But I think we have about 30 blogs now, 30% of the Technorati wonders is on WordPress. And if you look at them, it is the new guard. I mean, it is the bloggers who have risen to the top recently. It is Tech Crunch. It is Mashable. It is GigaOM and those sorts of folks. And I hope that next year’s entrance to the Technorati 100 will also be using WordPress.
Blog Interviewer: With WordPress and Akismet, and to some degree WordPress.com, there aren’t any ads. Everything is free. Like I said, maybe a few exceptions on WordPress.com. Where does the money come from? Have you considered putting ads in the back end dashboard? What am I missing?
Matt Mullenweg: Yes, we would never, ever, ever put ads in the back end dashboard. That would be pretty dumb. So there are some ads at wordpress.com like you alluded to. We do small ads on a small portion of the pages. Also on wordpress.com, we have upgrades that you could buy. So you can buy more storage space or a custom domain name. Basically the idea since wordpress.com and WordPress are basically the same platform, we can use the revenue from these sort of services on the side to sort of fund the development of WordPress as a whole. For my company Automattic, that is what sort of funds the company. We now have 16 people and the majority of those are working on WordPress itself. It has worked well so far and I like that because it is a sort of a separates out the different parts. So with wordress.org there is really no need to ever monetize that because it is already self-supporting. Its costs are very low. It is Automattic donated servers that run everything and the developers are getting paid by a separate company which makes money on some add-on services like hosting and domain names, so we are able to sort of align both the economic and the social interests together, and I think that creates something far more powerful than if it was purely nonprofit.
Blog Interviewer: That is great. PC World named you the 16th most important person on the web ahead of Jerry and David, the founders of Yahoo! who are #19, ahead of Meg Whitman, the CEO of eBay, who is #28, and even the inventor of the internet, Al..errr I mean Vinton Cerf, #35. You certainly have risen fast in these circles. Are cocktail parties cold places for you these days? Do you get the cold shoulder from these folks who have been around a long time?
Matt Mullenweg: I can’t say I have ever met any of those people. I guess we just travel on different circles.
Blog Interviewer: Where is the most unusual place someone has recognized you?
Matt Mullenweg: The most unusual place someone has recognized me, that’s a good question.
Blog Interviewer: You are a bit of a celebrity.
Matt Mullenweg: It has happened before. It has happened once or twice in the airport. I will just be sort of sitting there minding my business. I would say in San Francisco, there is a big tech maze so if you see someone you know or someone who is a WordPress user, it is not that unusual. But I was at someplace I think in Canada and someone had stopped me. And that was probably the most surreal thing that has ever happened to me. I was either in Vancouver or Toronto which are the only two places I have been in Canada. But honestly, it doesn’t happen very often. Ideally, if myself and the WordPress team do our jobs well, you would never hear of WordPress and you never think of WordPress. It is just sort of in the background, a tool doing its job happily chugging away. The focus is really on our bloggers, the people who are creating the content and doing the really amazing things just with the basic tools that we give them.
Blog Interviewer: You witnessed firsthand and really participated firsthand in the blogging revolution. What is going to be the next big thing do you think?
Matt Mullenweg: Certainly in my time, I will admit it, I have not seen any radical shifts or things that happened overnight. It seems to me like there is just sort of trends that pick up steam overtime. Blogging was one of those trends. Video was one of those trends. It sort of picked up steam overtime. If you look at the growth of YouTube, YouTube in particular seemed like it was just instant. It was like a year and a half, it went from nothing to a phenomenal traffic. It was really part of a longer curve. It has been going on I think for 3 or 4 years since broadband really became available to a significant portion of US audiences. So I think that the things that are going to be really big, we are starting to see the first hints of now. I think blogging is going to continue to be huge because the written word is not going anywhere. It has not gone anywhere for a thousand years. I do not expect it to go anywhere in the next thousand years. The rich media of blogging with video and with audio like we are doing now, those sorts of things need to become much, much easier because I know there is a lot of production involved and the skills we are doing that aren’t as easy. Finally, I think that there is going to be a lot more out. To me, the thing that keeps me blogging is the interaction. So it is the comments, it is the traffic to be honest, those sorts of things which are very rewarding. You are not on a deserted island. You are not throwing a bottle out hoping someone finds it. You have people listening too and it is really a conversation. Things that enable a little closer connection to that conversation, I would be personally pretty interested in. Like I would love to have maybe an RSS feed of the blogs of everyone who has left a comment on my blog in the past month. It would be kind of interesting so I could sort of keep up on these people who have taken the time out to leave a comment on my blog. So sort of things like that, things that can connect people more, I think it would pretty interesting. I do not know of anyone working on that including myself right now, but it would be neat to see.
Blog Interviewer: You do not seem driven by money I guess in speaking with you and hearing other things you have said in different places but if Google or Yahoo! came knocking with checkbook in hand, would you answer the door?
Matt Mullenweg: Yes, but not to Google or Yahoo! They are both great companies, right? But I am not really interested in working at another multi-thousand person company again and being an ultrasmall cog in a very, very big machine. Also both of those are public companies so I think it is a lot harder to align the economic and social incentives in a public company because you have public shareholders and quarterly earnings and things. On a private company, as long as you pay your bills and the taxes, you are fine, right. I mean there is no real public onus on you to show crazy growth every quarter or focus on short-term growth versus long-term which we do at Automattic, focus on long-term and not vice-versa. Yes, that particularly wouldn’t interest me. If there was a way to sort of leverage wordpress.com and the media property that we have created there and sort of take that to the next level, it might be interesting, but I do not think it would be at Google or Yahoo! or Amazon or Microsoft that could do that.
Blog Interviewer: Matt, thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with us for a few minutes. I encourage everyone to visit Matt’s site at www.photomatt.net, and thanks for joining us. I appreciate it.
Matt Mullenweg: Hey, my pleasure.