Democratizing the Internet with WordPress and .blog: NamesCon 2017

"Our core philosophy is to make things that unlock the internet," said Matt Mullenweg, CEO and founder of Automattic, Inc., a web-development company worth over a billion dollars. In 2003, Mullenweg co-founded WordPress, a content-management platform that powers over a quarter of the internet. In conversation with Braden Pollock at NamesCon 2017, Mullenweg shared his stories of coming up as the web evolved, as well as what he’s up to next.

"That's our mission, to democratize publishing," said Mullenweg. Tying ourself to Facebook or Twitter or whatever works against that, he argued. Having your own domain makes your web presence truly yours. The goal, he said, is for "every man, woman, and child to have a domain at some point." "We don't want the entire web flowing through a couple dozen domains. That kind of defeats the purpose."

Since WordPress has always been about blogging, Mullenweg said, it seemed natural for them to get hold of .blog; even though Google wanted it as well. The larger goal, he said, was to normalize the experience of seeing something after the dot besides .com. 

Around 40 thousand people a day are going to WordPress.com, and many of them are buying .blog domains, said Mullenweg... and people are actually using those domains for active web projects.

This year will see roughly a $40 million marketing push as well. "We're starting to get more prominent people on .blog," said Mullenweg, including Tim Ferris, author of "The Four-Hour Work Week".

WordPress has been maintaining its growth, despite some chatter about blogging being dead. "We feel we have a good formula," said Mullenweg, for creating tools that are easy for customers to comfortably use, but can also power the largest websites in the world. (If you get your tech news from Wired.com, you're experiencing a WordPress-powered site.) Automattic has also brought us Akismet, which battles comment spam; and Gravatar, which gives us persistent avatars across our web identities.

WordPress has done three major releases per year over the past five years, but Mullenweg felt it was important to take a step back: they're stopping releases to focus on customization and the writing experience. "We started a moonshot project on a next-generation editor," he said, that his team expects will be better than Medium, that minimalist darling of the bloggerati. Mullenweg will be personally leading the releases around these projects; the first time he's done so since WordPress 3.7.

Around the same time Automattic won the auction for .blog, they also acquired WooCommerce, a popular e-commerce plugin that powers nearly 40% of online stores, and around 1.8% of websites overall. Amazon, eBay, and Etsy have an overwhelming share of online commerce, said Mullenweg. While not disclosing the price paid for WooCommerce, Mullenweg described it as their biggest ever. "Larger than $20 million?" asked Pollock. "That would be logical," replied Mullenweg with a smile. [$20 million was the reported cost of .blog.] The WooCommerce acquisition was in line with WordPress' overall ethos of democratizing the Web. 

"It's an interesting day and age we're in right now, because the news cycle has shortened," said Mullenweg. That means there's a bigger opportunity for longer-form writing on the Web, he said. The attendant problems of trolling and fake news are complicated ones, though. The problem isn't verified versus unverified online identities, he reckons: it's how incendiary or misleading posts get spread. Junk news just spreads faster now, and we have to figure out how to develop antibodies to it, which includes "antibodies to the distraction of our smart devices."

Still, Mullenweg is more excited than ever about providing ways for everyone to experience true online freedom. "That starts with a good name," added Mullenweg.

[Note: "WordPress" can be a confusing noun. WordPress itself is an open-source content management system. WordPress.org is where that software is developed. WordPress.com is a for-profit company that brings WordPress and its associated tools to customers ranging from bloggers to mega-companies.]