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Matt Mullenweg may be underage, but he knows how to get into a bar. Just slip in while it's still light outside and order some food. That way, by the time the bouncer sets up at the door, he's already safely at a table, joking with the waitress. Which is exactly what he does this Saturday night at the Flying Saucer on Main Street, where a group of Houston bloggers is meeting for drinks. He sits peering into his tiny silver laptop, using wi-fi and sipping a soda.
The bloggers, most of them women and a good ten years older than Matt, start arriving. The group's catching up -- on who broke up, who's back together, who's going to Vegas. Matt dishes about his girlfriend's upcoming move to Boston, and what the long-distance thing will be like. The other big topic is, of course, blogging. Some people here have been maintaining online diaries for years, before they exploded into the public consciousness, and before people who didn't know a thing about computer programming or HTML were able to easily maintain blogs. At least one has been spouting her opinions on politics, culture and what she had for lunch since Clinton was in office. They met through htownblogs.com.
The group gets together most months at the Flying Saucer for what they call a Tiara Happy Hour. Writing a blog might be a solitary endeavor, but these bloggers aren't antisocial. They're all wearing tiaras; Matt has a big gold one sticking out of his bag.
A yell comes from across the bar. "Matt, why don't you answer my e-mails?" He looks up, unperturbed. Christine, in a turquoise sweater set, charges toward him with an accusing look. She plops down and starts describing a technical problem with her blog, bigpinkcookie.com. She sent Matt a request for help and never heard back. "That's why I brought my laptop," he says amiably.
Matt receives hundreds of e-mails every day; he can get behind but prides himself on eventually answering them all. Besides maintaining his own blog, photomatt.net, which gets thousands of readers each day, Matt is lead developer of a kind of free blogging software called WordPress. Lots of people here use it, and they're constantly going to him for help.
At the last Flying Saucer event, a large bouncer spotted Matt and turned him away for being underage. But tonight, having avoided the sentry, Matt seems completely comfortable. "Kathy and Elaine are good examples of people whose blogs I read regularly, I know personally, and who I see on a semiregular basis," he says, mentioning a couple of the women at the bar. "And we have nothing in common at all. They're both married; they're about a decade older than me. Kathy blogs a lot about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and stamping, and Elaine blogs about what she does on the weekends. That's totally 180 degrees from where I am."
Matt's been into computers since he was a kid. His father is a computer programmer, and his equipment was off limits. "The reason I got into computers is that I wasn't allowed to be on them when I was very young," he says, "so that's what I wanted more than anything." His parents relented when he was about three. "He started out with a little bear game and went on to role-playing games," remembers his mother, Kathe. "And then, when Chuck [Matt's dad] would build computers or work on computers, Matt was always watching. He always asked a lot of questions, and Chuck always answered him like he was talking to an adult."
Matt spent a lot of time taking the machines apart and putting them back together again. Before he knew it, he was making a little money. "The early stuff I did when I was very young was helping people fix their computers," he says, "and putting computers together from parts."
Though he plays down the financial aspect when you talk to him, Matt's been interested in it from day one. "When Matt was little, he played business," says his mother. His company was called Matt's Cleaning Co. The motto: "Cash is king."
Matt also has played sax since he was young and went to the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. He made his first Web site around age 11 or 12. Four years ago, he designed a site for local musician and jazz teacher David Caceres, and before he knew it, he'd done about a dozen sites for musicians around town. At 20, Matt is a computer geek with a cool apartment, lots of friends and a stylish girlfriend. And he can talk to anyone. "He can tailor his conversation to whatever level works for you," says fellow Houston blogger Christine Selleck Tremoulet.
To Matt, jazz and coding are similar. "The way most jazz musicians get better," he says, "is from transcribing, looking at something someone has done and breaking it down to its pieces, studying the different parts of it, seeing how they did it. It's like learning how they do certain graphic effects, or why they use a certain code. That's how you learn; that's how you get good."