Jazz turned Matt Mullenweg into a ‘computer guy’. He loved the jazz saxophone and, as a schoolboy, discovered a novel way to get free lessons from the saxophonists of Houston, Texas: he built them websites. ‘I would barter websites for music lessons,’ he says. ‘The websites were pretty awful but, for Houston, the jazz musicians were pretty good.’
Five years ago, Mullenweg still hoped to become a professional jazz musician. Then he discovered blogging. It enabled him to ‘reach my tribe, and that was really powerful for me as an awkward teenager’. He began tinkering with freely available, open source software to develop new blog-building tools. The result was WordPress, a set of free, self-publishing software with clean typography and clever functions that soon attracted a blogging elite.
Mullenweg dropped out of university, where he was studying politics and philosophy, to work for tech firm CNET in San Francisco. Less than a year ago, he launched his own start-up, Automattic. Still, only 22, and passionate about the power of open source software, he is now helping usher in a new generation of blogs. He has also put himself at the heart of the fight to curb splogs, a catchily named new menace that threatens to smother the blogosphere. Like green algae on a pond, splogs – or spam blogs – suck the life from blogs. Mullenweg estimates that nine out of 10 comments posted on blogs are spam. We’ve always thought of spam as unwanted emails for expensive watches and large penises, but unscrupulous online marketeers are creating computer programs that generate nonsensical blog comments, tricking innocent users to click on fake blogs stacked with advertising.
Mullenweg has created a service he’s called Akismet, which enables bloggers collectively to block splogs. It is penance, he says, for ‘a stupid mistake’ he made 18 months ago. Then Mullenweg was exposed and denounced by fellow bloggers for signing a contract allowing WordPress secretly to host search engine spam – tens of thousands of articles containing hidden keywords to help companies get a high ranking on search engines.
‘I was raised Catholic and I can get incredibly guilty about mistakes,’ he says. ‘Creating an anti-spam service that’s blocked hundreds of millions of spam for hundreds of thousands of bloggers is, in some ways, my penance.’ Akismet has repelled more than 225,000 spam comments on his own blog (photomatt.net) alone.
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Running Automattic from his apartment in San Francisco, Mullenweg is deliberately keeping things small with 10 employees. As well as developing new tools to build blogs (there have been 1.1m downloads of WordPress’s latest 2.0 release), he also directly hosts more than 300,000 blogs through WordPress.com. With $1.1m of venture capital he raised last year virtually untouched (‘I’m pretty cheap, to be honest’), Mullenweg is bubbling with ideas to make blogging even more accessible.
His professional zenith, so far, was when his idol, Jeffrey Zeldman, an influential web designer, adopted WordPress for his personal website. ‘It’s like being a guitar maker and having Jimi Hendrix jam out to something you made.’
Even if ‘Hype 2.0’ goes bust, he believes ‘regular folks’ have now got a taste for what control feels like. ‘I hope that feeling of control and transparency will start to leak into other parts of life, like politics. That could be very exciting. Hopefully it will happen in my lifetime.’
What is Web 2.0?
People who would never, ever publish online are now doing it. The promise of the early web was that everyone could have a website but there was something missing. Maybe the technology wasn’t ready. Now you see people with no technical ability creating really amazing sites reaching audiences they would never have imagined reaching.
What is your big idea?
I don’t have big ideas. I sometimes have small ideas, which seem to work out.
What is the next big thing online?
The rise of broadband and growing ubiquity of internet access excites me the most. The world changes a lot when, no matter where you are – in the middle of a deserted highway or in a bustling city – you can get high speed broadband access. The faster the computer gets and the faster broadband gets, the more exciting things folks like me are able to do. Five years ago, running WordPress.com would have been a million-plus dollars a month. Akismet started on a $70 dollar-a-month server. Anyone can scrape together $70.