Something is Rotten in the State of WordPress

To the vast majority, WordPress is the poster-child of the open source world.

With over 65 million sites worldwide, 52% of the top 100 blogs on the web and ~17% of the top million websites out there, it’s the ultimate tale of how a community driven project with a open source free-for-all GPL2 license can beat the big boys and take over the web.

It’s full of derring-do, us vs. them, the open internet versus the proprietary, and personal ownership vs. third party dependence – it’s a lesson in what happens if you ‘do the right thing’.

And at the heart of it there’s the true geek success story Matt Mullenweg, dropping out of college to work on the project he started while barely out of short trousers, who has gone on through founding Automattic to become ‘one of PC World’s Top 50 People on the Web, Inc.com’s 30 under 30, Business Week’s 25 Most Influential People on the Web, and Vanity Fair’s Next Establishment’, to quote from his own site.

Mullenweg looking in no way at all like big brother…

It is, without a doubt, Mullenweg who has driven and is responsible for the success of WordPress. Without the backing of Automattic (who contribute, via their staff, an immense amount of $s and hours to the project) and the consequent success of WordPress.com, which has allowed him the funds to start Audrey Capital to employ folk to work directly on the project, it’s almost inconceivable that WP would be where it’s at.

And boy, where is it at! I’d estimate that WordPress is now in a multi-billion dollar economy. In addition to Automattic (valued near Tumblr I’d guess) there’s Envato (can I tip them as Australia’s next billion $ IPO), a dozen or more highly successful theme companies (Woo, $100m anyone?), ourselves (we’re a 40 person team!) and many more… there are also tens of thousands of WordPress developers (44.6k at elance alone) and web development firms worldwide using WordPress.

Which is when things start to get serious, because we are talking thousands of peoples livelihoods here, we’re talking about the need for a level playing field, we’re talking about the danger of anti-competitive practices to that, and we’re especially talking about the danger of power, because you know what they say about power.

Power corrupts, absolute power…

WordPress itself is owned by ‘the community’, but let’s not kid ourselves, this is no utopia, let’s see what happens if you try to fork WordPress, it won’t work, it’s not a realistic option and to suggest otherwise is ingenuous, the real power resides in WordPress.org, The WordPress Foundation and Automattic.

And in full control of every one of these is Mullenweg, as Owner, President and Founder respectively. Able to dictate, to his liking and possible competitive advantage who can and can’t use the WordPress Trademark, what the policy of the Foundation is to non GPL providers, who is and isn’t allowed to present at or sponsor WordCamps, who can and can’t sell premium themes on WordPress.com and let’s face it, pretty much anything that does or doesn’t go in the world of WordPress.

While at the same time investing himself in WP companies (through Automattic), and competing directly (through, among over things AkismetJetpack, VideoPress, VaultPress) in the marketplace he controls. In fact, Mullenweg even insists that WordPress hosts he deals with install Jetpack, and only Jetpack, by default with their one click WordPress installs, but that’s a post for another time.

Which let’s face it has been annoying enough (especially if you get on the wrong end of it) and has even led the CEO of Envato to publicly stress about “where Automattic ends and the Foundation begins” (respectfully, of course ;) but felt like too much work and pain to get upset about, until today, when after quite a bit of pressure we also discovered that Mullenweg had done the ‘ridiculous‘ thing by buying up leading WordPress news sites Weblog Tools Collection and WP Tavern.

In order to:

“reboot Tavern to be a “third place” for the WP community [and perhaps] roll Jeff’s (and anyone else who is interested) work into some official news resource WP.org”

Yep, that’s right, not content with owning every aspect of WordPress, Mullenweg also wants to control the Press, the discussion and the WordPress news market. I never thought he’d have the gumption, clearly I was wrong.

Yes, I even went as far as to register http://wppravda.com and redirect it to WP Tavern :)

Regardless of what Mullenweg has been saying about being ‘too busy’ in the last few months to, for example, tweet that he had purchased the sites, or his chilled out attitude to what is happening to the site, new-member-of-staff Jeffro made their intentions crystal clear the other day, the all new Tavern is to be:

“the second largest WordPress community of users and enthusiasts on the web.”

That’s a pretty clear aim, that’s not a ‘oh-someone-else-talked-me-into-it-i-am-not-sure-really’ position, and I for one don’t buy it for a minute.

It’s yet another way in which Mullenweg can control, manage and manipulate WordPress, and something he’s already gone about by maintaining WP Tavern’s preferential treatment in the otherwise rubbish but insanely important Planet.

It’s like Apple buying AppleInsider, Microsoft buying CNET, Google buying Wired… it’s crazy.

Now I’m sure he’ll set himself up as some sort of BBC style character, saying he’ll be impartial, independent and free… but isn’t that what they all say. And unfortunately I’m equally sure you won’t be seeing any coverage of, for example, WPMU DEV or DIY Themes, or anything but love for Automattic’s work. If one of my sources is correct, Mullenweg has a record of quite seriously interfering with at least one WP company he has invested in. I wonder how long it’ll be before that happens here… or if it even has to, after all I’d be tentative about bagging out my boss in public, wouldn’t you?

It’s too much, it’s one step too far, it’s megalomania and micromanagement bundled up in one. It’s an anti-competitive, anti-trust, conflict-of-interest nightmare waiting to happen and an invitation to corruption on an epic scale.

Mullenweg should probably not be as involved as he is in every aspect of WordPress, as long as he also stands to make a fortune out of so many aspects of it, and he should definitely not be in the WordPress news and community space.

After all, as he’s too busy to tweet for months about buying up WP news sites, I don’t see how he could have time for this…

Comments (19)

  1. I’m sure when you wrote this post you prepared yourself for all the “sour grapes” and “your just bitter because…” comments, but I have to say, I agree with you. Yesterday when I read that Matt had purchased these two sites my first thought was “that is not right” and I am curious to see what happens with them. I love WordPress and have had the pleasure of meeting Matt (Super nice guy), and hope he uses the site to “evangelize” about WordPress. With that said, I do not think your concerns are unwarranted, but only time will tell.

    • It is kinda surprising, nobody has told me off for ‘just being negative’ yet, which is a new one ;) I’m sure it’ll happen in time.

      I think it could be down to being studiously ignored rather than anything else though.

      And don’t get me wrong, Matt is super nice to the vast majority of folk, his public persona is all lolz and softly-spoken-nice-guy, I’m sure he’s lovely to his mum.

      However, anyone who thinks that under that there isn’t a hard-nosed, no bullshit, massively driven business person… with a bigger agenda and an obsession for control, is either getting sucked in or too scared to come out and talk about it*.

      And it’s that which really gets to me on a personal level… the inauthenticity. Give me someone who is *real* any day, I’ll admit I can be an ahole, I’ve made lots of mistakes, and I’m as fiercely ambitious (though less successful ;) as Matt I reckon. I just wish he’d fess up, or back off, or preferably both.

      *Although I suppose, having been the brunt of his other side for as long as we have, I think we’re better placed to know about it than most, and heck we’ve got nothing to lose, we couldn’t be more ostracized if they tried.

  2. With WordPress celebrating 10 years next week and the fact it’s only going to get bigger, it’s so important to have objective news websites keeping tabs on things. So yeah, it’s not right that Matt has bought our these sites. It doesn’t matter if Matt is a nice guy and has good intentions – it’s how the buyouts are perceived.

  3. I suspect that there is a bit of inevitability about something like this. WordPress is his baby and with its rampant success it would be a miracle if his ego had not expanded along with it. It doesn’t mean however that alternative points of view are going to die, we are no longer in the days of media moguls being able to control everything we see. After all anyone can set up a wordpress site and be available to the world, don’t you just love the irony of it…..

  4. Let’s get real here – WP is open source. You are not going to wake up and read it was bought by Samsung. True Automattic could get purchased and that would change things, but then again another company could step in tomorrow and try to outspend Automattic. A $100 million investment in WP would yield a lot especially when compared to what Yahoo did. WP has existing profit models.

  5. I think there are some valid points here, but I’m not sure the worries are as significant as stated. There is an enormous open source community around WordPress, not to mention all those folks like you and I who make a living with it. If the day ever came when Automattic truly compromised the open source principles of the project, that community would create or move to something different and WordPress would get left in the dust.

    • The won’t do that though because Matt does genuinely, almost religiously, believes in OS… and as you say it’d all go pear shaped.

      Although you do wonder why WP, and especially wp.com, isn’t GPL3 – maybe something to do with not wanting to hand over their code on demand ;) Although I could be wrong there IANAL.

      Anyway, the beauty of the situ is that they don’t need to operate in any other way than as an OS product, as I’ve pointed out, you could argue that he has more control over everything that if it were a proprietary product.

      And I’m not, in any way, disputing the premise that we operate in an environment where doing the right thing pays dividends, that’s why Envato’s ‘earn and learn’ is so powerful too, just that there really is something not cool at all about the amount of power and control wielded here, and it’s an invitation to bad things.

  6. Well what exactly is lost? Most news sites and I think the “late” WP Tavern is included, bend over to any “news” from HQ. Is all wp-candy. Many WP CEOs/shops are in business relationship with Automattic already, probably even more would like to = strange silence and political correct wording when it fits :) Is a business. What to expect?

    If this post is about the symbolic move of (Matt) now ALSO controlling “press” then hmm, I guess it is true – but WAS already, heh.

    Most debate about WP I have stumbled in to are Twitter dramas! And they are amusement more than anything else, for all involved.

    I feel more annoyance and concern about all the dev/WP sheeps than Automattic or Matt personally wanting to show off and control. But I also share hinted conspiracy of selling out in 1-2 years ;) Until that happy day BUILD up the freaking NUMBERS!!! Is their job to do what they do.

    Ship has sailed :)

  7. Seeing this far from WP (I’m a French end-user, not a dev/coder)… it makes me thinking about Wikipedia real owner, his majesty Jimbo Whales :)
    But in our world, here it is : little hippie coder become great business man.
    Think B. Gates, S. Jobs…
    Beginning interessting, ending…

    By the way, lots of other things are showing some “problem” about automattic.
    For instance : akismet is purely a black shadow bag, not opensource, so if you’re banned, you’re dead on commenting 50% of the blog planet !
    Same for Jetpack : wanting Autom. to track you like Google or other known company ? Just install it !
    One day, there will be no surprise : register to download WP… pay to have a complete feature script…

    By the way, WP is GPL so, it can be possible to fork it, isn’t it ?

  8. I mean, if you want to do something about it, WPMU is in a rare position to make a difference. Decide that your top 30 plugins will all be converted to work with PyroCMS by the time they finish the Laraval conversion and you’ll give a competing platform with true MVC technology on the back end a major boost.

    It’s hard to find too much fault in Matt’s approach though since he hasn’t gone to a tiered system where all the best new features cost money but the core install is free – in spite of the fact that’s exactly where Envato is pushing things.

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