The Blog Age

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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."

And where is that, exactly? If you Google the word "Matt," the 20-year-old comes up before Matt Drudge and Matt Damon.

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."

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.

Another reason for Molly's switch was personal, as she writes on molly.com: "Not only did they help me, but Matt himself took time out of his busy life to restore my damaged data and figure out a way to export it."

Matt says Movable Type is WordPress's main competitor. According to salon.com, Movable Type is "widely considered to be the world's most powerful blogging tool," but WordPress is catching up. For one thing, it's known for being faster than Movable Type. Molly notes that WordPress has "a huge fan base, people very involved in its creation, and it creates enthusiasm." As for other popular free blogging software, it's out there -- in the form of Blogger, Greymatter, Movable Type (for limited use) and others -- but aside from its competition with Movable Type, WordPress is ahead in terms of "features," that is, ways to personalize a blog and make it stand out.

Using more advanced blogging software is also something of a status symbol on the Web: While Blogger is as easy to set up as Hotmail, installing WordPress requires a few more steps, so its users tend to be more Web-savvy.

In September, Linux Journal did an extensive review of WordPress. Its conclusion: "Over the past few months, we have looked at a number of different types of Weblog software. [WordPress] has a full list of features, many of which have to do with the clean, easy-to-use user interface. Even novice computer users and Webloggers can publish regularly with this software. Although the underlying code and technologies used…are not my favorites, the set of features, growth of the platform and the large community all make WordPress a winning choice."

For Matt, Word Press is a hobby, a way to gain recognition and get consulting gigs. Even though he doesn't get paid for working on the software, his contacts have led to contract work with companies around town. He says he pays his own bills.

He recently had a consulting gig with a company called Aptia. "It's a Houston company, and the CEO heard of me because of WordPress -- he's a WordPress user. And I [was] doing something not at all related to WordPress." He picks and chooses which jobs to take and throws some to other people. "There's a girl in, like, Singapore or something," he says, "and she'll do WordPress installations for, like, $4."

Despite the opportunities WordPress has afforded Matt, it's hard not to believe him when he says that the main reason he works on the software is ideological. He believes useful, free blogging software should be available to the public.

"I'm a strong believer in blogging, sort of giving people an easy way to let their voices be heard on the Web," he says. "It's like the pamphleteers from the revolution, you know; it's putting the power of the press into a lot of people's hands. And I don't think we're going to understand the ramifications of the 'revolution' until later. It's changing a lot of things."

One of the biggest headlines from the Democratic National Convention was the fact that a couple dozen bloggers had gotten press credentials. "Wonkette," a D.C.-based blogger, acted as a correspondent for MTV. And the Philly Daily News used "Riot Grrrl" at the later Republican National Convention. According to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, blogging "has begun to deliver on some of the wild promises about the Internet that were heard in the 1990s. Never before have so many passionate outsiders…stormed the ramparts of professional journalism."

So it's not surprising that blogging has caused much debate among "real journalists." In June, TV journalist and documentary producer Ron Steinman wrote about blogs on digitaljournalist.org. "The Internet with its freedom is in some ways the Wild West, lawless and unkempt, the Deadwood of what passes for new journalism," he wrote. "It is not for me. Reputedly, there are more than a million blogs and still counting. It is scary." Scary or not, bloggers -- many of whom call themselves citizen journalists -- are here to stay. And many have a huge readership: Political blogger "Instapundit" has claimed he gets almost as many hits as slate.com.

But blogging isn't just for political wonks. For example, along with instant messaging, it's become popular among middle and high school students. And not everyone's happy about that -- there's a lot of name-calling happening on the Internet. "I think it's easier to be mean when you're not afraid of the consequences," says Matt, "whether it's an anonymous slam book or the Internet or a prank phone call." The Internet creates its own reality. "Certainly the buffer of not actually looking at the person or talking to them," says Matt, "it sorta creates, like, a separation between you and what you're talking about."

The Houston scene is dominated by what-I-did-today, stream-of-consciousness blogs. The most popular ones (aside from Matt's) get hundreds of readers each day. Bigpinkcookie.com gets up to 500 hits daily; she discusses things like the Astros, TiVo and the fact that the Cincinnati airport is actually in Kentucky.

But there are also some more structured, focused local blogs. "Houston Calling," for example, is about on the music scene here. It lists upcoming shows and includes entries in the journalistic "ten questions" format; the guy who runs it, David Cobb (a Houston Press contributor), has interviewed Tom Foolery and the Mistakes, Stiff Little Fingers and the Methods. A local sports blog, "Throws Like a Girl," focuses on the Astros. A recent entry includes this admission: "I couldn't sleep last night and kept awaking from feverish dreams about Roger Clemens giving up seven earned runs in the third inning." And there are a few popular political blogs. Charles Kuffner, a Democrat, does offthekuff.com (named best local blog by the Press), and says he gets from 1,200 to 1,500 hits per day. All in all, htownblogs.com links to more than 190 blogs. Twenty of them were added during the past month, and there are, of course, more that aren't listed there.

And in a clear attempt to stay up with the times, the Houston Chronicle has a blog called "MeMo" on its Web site. Writer Kyrie O'Connor seems to blog about whatever pops into her head, be it a popular thong or an owl loose in the Chron offices. The paper sent O'Connor to both the Democratic and the Republican conventions. A sample musing from the RNC: "Are Republicans -- as we suspect, irrespective of stances on key issues -- significantly more fun than Democrats?"

Photomatt.net is a mix of information about WordPress, other techie information and Matt's personal ramblings. It gets somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 hits a day; according to technorati.com, he's No. 3 in the entire "blogosphere," which ranks bloggers by how many people link to them (lots of people link to him because of WordPress). He certainly uses the blog to give WordPress good PR, pointing out when prominent bloggers switch to WordPress and linking to online talk about it. He quoted one blogger who wrote, "I'll have you know that WordPress is sexy." Among his personal observations: "I didn't realize how fast time passes until I started buying milk." That observation got seven comments from readers.

Matt believes WordPress could have 100,000 users by the end of the year. The source of such a huge spike, if it occurs, won't be individuals but companies. They're interested in WordPress because the cost of using blogging software that charges would most likely be prohibitively expensive. He's in talks with dating sites, media sites and search engines that are considering using the technology. Lycos Europe recently expressed interest in using WordPress to offer a blogging service to its users. "They have a pretty significant penetration in Europe," says Matt, "so that could be very, very cool."

Matt took this semester off from the University of Houston, where, for the past two years, he's been studying philosophy and political science (he's not interested in their computer classes), to concentrate on his consulting gigs and a book he's working on about Web development. He insists the topic and the publisher -- which contacted him about writing it, not vice versa -- remain hush-hush, because the project hasn't been announced.

For a long time, Matt's been fielding job offers from tech companies. He recently considered taking a job with a San Francisco search-engine start-up, but ended up turning them down. "They have a ton of money...But it would be 50- or 60- or 70-hour weeks, a lot of work, and I wouldn't have time" to do WordPress. That was definitely a deal-breaker for Matt, because he won't be abandoning his baby anytime soon. "A personal requirement," he says, "is that I wouldn't want to work anywhere that would prevent me from working on WordPress."

But as of last week, it looks like Matt's time off from UH could be indefinite. He finally signed a contract with San Francisco-based media company CNET, which has agreed to allow him to work on WordPress for 15 percent of his time on the job. CNET runs sites including gamespot.com, mp3. com, search.com, download.com and news. com. "The idea is that they're a media company and not a software company," he says. "They don't need their software to be proprietary for it to work for them." So Matt will spend much of his time working on open-source software for CNET in San Francisco. He plans to go back to school eventually, but he doesn't know when.

Several weeks before accepting the job, Matt goes to Bad Art Night at Tropioca Tea and Coffee Bar in Midtown. The H-town bloggers have commandeered a large table, and construction paper, glue, scissors, crayons and markers litter the table. Kathy Ratliff, the blogger who loves stamping, is taking up a lot of space with her plastic boxes of materials. Matt's at the head of the table, paying little attention to making art and a lot of attention to his laptop (the coffee shop, of course, has wi-fi). It's forgivable, considering that he's checking on a TV program that aired a segment on WordPress.

This is another social event for bloggers, along the lines of Tiara Happy Hour, but much tamer. Like bloggers in other cities around the country, Houston bloggers really seem to have a sense of community. "We've probably got a core group of 20 to 30 socially active members," says Elaine Mesker-Garcia, who founded htownblogs.com and has a personal blog at cybertoad.us. "We meet for coffee and happy hours." There's even been a blogger wedding: Christine recently married a man she met at a coffee event in 2002. "Matt went to the wedding," she says. "He posted a photo gallery of wedding photos. Our wedding was very interesting. Probably half the guest had blogs." There were big pink cookies instead of groom's cake at the wedding.

When he puts down the laptop, Matt starts teasing Kathy about her suitcases of stamping supplies and goes to get some green-tea ice cream with his girlfriend. Sarah's been giggling and cutting up construction paper with her friend from high school who has streaked hair. With their funky appearance, both girls definitely look like HSPVA grads. Sarah soon will head off for her first year of college. When people start packing up supplies, she hugs the other bloggers, who she won't see again for a while.

Less than a week after Bad Art Night, Matt's blog shows that Sarah's left town. "Late last night I heard the screen door sway," it reads, "and a big yellow taxi took my girl away. Taking a break." If readers clicked on the entry, it pulled up a box that downloaded "Big Yellow Taxi" by Counting Crows. Then, three days later -- a rare lapse for Matt -- he posts again: "Just needed a few days off. Feeling a lot better now. :)" He gets several notes along the lines of "He's back! Hooray! It's good to have you back, man." But one, from blogger Randy Peterman, is particularly insightful. "Welcome back!" it says. "Hope you feel rested and take precautions to prevent any burnout that might have been caused by 1) Being a major WordPress pillar, 2) Being a very popular blog 3) Being a person involved with 'the rest of life.' "

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