A chat with the creator of the platform that powers nearly 19 percent of the web.
If you glance at Wikipedia to determine what WordPress is, you might come away with the impression that it’s a tool for creating and maintaining a blog. It is. But that’s an increasingly insufficient way to describe it: 18.9 percent of the web now consists of sites that run on WordPress’s software, from blogs created by newbies to big-media operations with millions of readers. (Such as the site you’re reading right now.)
According to WordPress’s creator, Matt Mullenweg, its mission is both simple and wildly ambitious: It wants to democratize the web. Mullenweg was a 19-year-old college student when he began work on the platform in 2003, originally as an offshoot of an existing open-source blogging tool he liked called B2. Today, his official title is Chief BBQ Taste Tester of Automattic, the 185-employee for-profit company that runs the free WordPress.com blogging service, helps corporate customers such as TIME with their WordPress-based sites and spearheads development of WordPress.org, the open-source, endlessly customizable version of WordPress.
I chatted with Mullenweg on Saturday at WordCamp San Francisco, the largest of the local events — 72 have been held around the world so far this year — for WordPress developers, content creators and other interested parties.
Over a thousand people registered for WordCamp SF, which was also streamed live on the web. You could tell simply by scanning the folks in the audience that the WordPress community is remarkably diverse. “Compare the percentage of women here to any other tech conference you go to,” Mullenweg said. “It’s night and day, including on stage.”
The San Francisco WordCamp is the largest, most comprehensive and influential of the bunch; I ran into one developer from Brazil who’d made his first trip to the U.S. to attend it. “I’ve spoken hundreds of times now,” Mullwenweg told me. “It’s about WordPress, which I know pretty well, but I still get nervous. I know it’s an opportunity to shift the community, but it’s also like a family. I know hundreds of people out there.”
I asked Mullenweg how WordPress has managed to remain relevant over a decade of radical change for the web. “I’ve given that a lot of thought. It’s not any one feature, but about how we do things — the community, being inclusive, always changing. We try to keep some of the agility of the best startups while also building things in an open-source fashion.”
“We’ve been working on the same thing for a decade now,” Mullenweg said. “We plan to work on it for another decade. With that sort of commitment to democratizing publishing — you get better at it.”
Back in 2003, when WordPress was new, it was easy to identify its competition. There were already several well-established ways to create a blog, such as Movable Type and Blogger. New blogging options have come along since, such as Tumblr and Squarespace, along with build-your-own-site services such as Wix and Weebly, and industrial-strength content-management platforms like Drupal and Joomla.
Most of these rivals have carved off a specific niche for themselves: Tumblr, for instance, flourishes as a means of quick self-expression, but nobody would attempt to use it to run a conventional news site. WordPress alone aims to please just about anyone who wants to put any sort of content on the web. “It’s more efficient to put people into a constrained box…but WordPress has always been about choice and flexibility,” said Mullenweg. “Sometimes it looks like major media, sometimes it’s weird and ugly. It’s both, because it represents people.”
Increasingly, some of the things WordPress competes with don’t look anything like WordPress. As Facebook and Twitter rose in popularity, for instance, it became fashionable to declare that they posed an existential threat to blogs. The obituaries keep getting written.
I assumed that Mullenweg didn’t think that social networks had displaced blogs as a form of personal communication, but felt obligated to ask him anyhow. “You can’t do the same things on both — they’re complimentary,” he said. “Just because someone uses Twitter doesn’t mean they shouldn’t use WordPress, and vice versa. It turns out that social networks drive a heck of a lot of traffic to blogs.”
Even if other forms of web activity are encroaching on WordPress’s turf, it’s also broadening its goals. During his State of the Word keynote, Mullenweg showed a brief video of an ambitious commerce tablet app used by the Houston Museum of Art, with features like the ability to let users hold their membership cards up to a camera to scan them. It wasn’t recognizable — at least to me — as having been created in WordPress.
WordPress isn’t trying to be all things to all creators, though: The web apps it has in mind will still be content-focused ones. “If you were building a real-time game like one of Zynga’s games, the WordPress model wouldn’t work well for that,” Mullenweg told me.
During the State of the Word speech, one significant bit of news came up only in response to a question from an audience member: Mullenweg is personally leading development of WordPress’s upcoming 3.8 release, returning to a hands-on management role, which he had passed on to others for other releases. (Toni Schneider has been CEO of Automattic since 2006; Mullenweg typically spends much of his time traveling, attending WordCamps and advocating for WordPress’s mission on a grand scale.)
“I’m going to have fun — it’s a little bit selfish,” he told me. “We all do different things, and one of the talents I bring to WordPress is working with people, working with designers and developers.”
“It’s like being a conductor. People think you’re crazy if you just wave your hands in the air. But with the right team in place, beautiful things are made.”