The Blog Age

Matt Mullenweg helps usher in the real information revolution, one Web log at a time

Growing up, Matt faced an obstacle that could have kept him from getting good at anything. He suffered crippling migraine headaches that forced him to miss school for long periods of time. "Light bothered me," he says. "Sound bothered me. So I was limited in what I was able to do." His mother would sit with him in the dark and hold a cloth to his head.

The problem went undiagnosed from fifth or sixth grade right up through part of high school. Matt's mom took him to so many doctors, one even implied the whole thing was psychological. It was a nurse who finally suggested a sinus CAT scan, which revealed a raging sinus infection complete with dead bone and tissue, millimeters away from penetrating Matt's brain barrier and taking his sight.

Kathe estimates that over the years, Matt underwent more than a dozen surgeries to clear up his sinuses. But he managed to do well in school anyway. At HSPVA, he even started a tech club. Thanks to his poor attendance, each year he would have to appeal to school officials for a waiver allowing him to move to the next grade.

Matt's mom says the ordeal did have a positive side effect. "He had to make the most of his time to keep up," she says. And now, "he's in the moment all the time and very, very focused. It might have ended up being a good thing."

A couple of years ago, after going on a trip to Washington, D.C., and taking a bunch of digital photos, Matt got into blogging as a way to share pictures with his friends and family. He still puts up his photos, and he also posts text entries.

In June 2002, Matt started using a free blogging software called b2, but its developer, a Corsican guy named Michel Valdrighi, got distracted and abandoned it. It was an "open-source" program, meaning the code was freely available to anyone who wanted to pick up the project where it was left off. Open-source programs are different from, say, Windows, because Windows has a team of employees working on proprietary software, while WordPress has a team from around the world, doing the work for free.

"I'm a strong believer that open-source software creates better software in the end," says Matt. "I'm a believer in democracy, and this is the most democratic form of building software. Actually, it's more like a meritocracy -- the best cream rises to the top."

At the beginning of 2003, Matt decided to take on the project. "I'd contributed some code to his latest version before Michel left. When the project was abandoned, it left a lot of people with nowhere to go. It was really the only free product of its kind, so there were a lot of people left hanging." He now spends between ten and 50 hours a week on the project he decided to call WordPress after much discussion with his pal Christine, who came up with the name.

Matt wasn't the only developer who decided to continue work on b2; there were several others out there. Most have ended up contributing their services to his project, which is by far the most prominent, though there are one or two other "forks" out there. "When I started it, it was me and a guy from England," he says. "Now hundreds of people have contributed code that makes WordPress better. We have cool contributions from France, and there's a guy in Israel who contributes a lot. A lot of people like it in India, Malaysia has a lot of users, China, Japan…It's just like a melting pot. Good ideas come from all over." But Matt and one or two others have ultimate control of the project.

WordPress now powers almost 29,000 users' sites and is getting more from around the world each week. And as it turns out, Michel himself is a fan. "When Michel came back," says Matt, "he said, 'Wow, that's really cool. This is the official branch of b2.' " Michel is now a WordPress contributor.


It's unlikely that WordPress will ever charge users. For one thing, since the coding is available, someone else could just distribute it for free. That's the biggest reason for the explosion of users in the past several months. Several months ago, a competing (non-open-source) software, Movable Type, suddenly announced it would be charging its most active users. The Web exploded with posts about its developers, San Francisco-based Ben and Mena Trott, "sucker-punching the Weblogging community." Around the same time, the number of WordPress users spiked by several thousand.

Well-known blogger Mark Pilgrim, a big supporter of open-source software, wrote about the reasons for his switch on one of his 11 blogs: "This site now runs WordPress…I've taken the $535 that Movable Type would have cost me, and I've donated it to the WordPress developers. It's not about money; it's about freedom."

Another prominent switch was made by a woman who'd just written a book about Movable Type, Molly E. Holzschlag. With Movable Type, her blog was getting so much "comment spam" that she was spending hours a day cleaning it out. Where readers can post comments responding to her entries, spammers had come in and posted them about Viagra and penis enlargement. This is increasingly becoming a problem bloggers face. Molly switched to WordPress to elude the spammers, at least for a time. And while she attributes her Movable Type spam to her simple domain name, molly.com, and the fact that she's been blogging for years, Matt and other WordPress users say it's better at blocking spam.

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