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 Akismet, Jetpack, 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…