Thoughts on what made Matt Mullenweg's talk so compelling


Wordpress is big. Like, quite big. If the entire web was a five-story building, websites powered by Wordpress would take over one whole floor and a cubicle or two on the next. And if Matt gets his way, that building is one day going to be topped by a giant, glowing W.

At least, that’s the impression he gave last night during his talk in Wellington. Standing in front of a laptop branded with that W instead of that apple and microphone in hand, Matt told the 100+ crowd the story of Wordpress and its mission to ‘democratize publishing’.

It was a great presentation. I found myself thinking about why I was enjoying it as much as I was thinking about what he was saying. There's a huge community of Wordpressians (I just made that word up) that have waxed lyrical about Wordpress and its nuances online. So I’m not going to tell you what they can tell you better.

What I want to explore is why I found his talk so damn compelling.

He shared punchy, personal anecdotes

A young Matt was allowed to play with his dad’s computer only if when he broke it, he fixed it before his dad got home. Matt cut his teeth on computer engineering by trading his skills for saxophone lessons from Houston’s jazz musicians. Matt thought he could build websites knowing no code and using Microsoft Publisher. Matt printed off new business cards every week with different job titles (including one that said ‘Matt’s Cleaning Co' with the tagline 'Cash is King' that he nicked off a storefront down the road). Matt went to the same college as Beyonce.  And so on, and so forth.

Personal stories are easy to listen to — they ask nothing of the listener except a casual ear. They do interesting things to our brains. They give us a glimpse behind the scenes. They’re relatable in their ordinariness. They’re usually expressed in concrete language, with lots of strong verbs and simple nouns.

Matt held his talk together with these micro-experiences, and we listened.

He tied together three experiences to explain Wordpress origins

A lot has been written about the power of three — advertisers use three points to persuade, storytellers use three acts or three characters to hang their narratives on, and designers use three elements to beautify. Matt tied together three experiences he had when he was nineteen that, together, made up a profound step in his life towards creating Wordpress.

He bought his first digital camera. He read ‘Mastering Regular Expressions’. And he started reading blogs. Thus, he created his first blog to share the photos he took on his digital camera (uploaded from a memory stick that could hold 30 pictures) and learnt from ‘Regular Expressions’ that small amounts of code could create something both powerful and beautiful.

Audiences like to know where they’re at. When Matt said he’d talk about ‘three things’, he set our expectations both for how long it would take, and how difficult it’d be to comprehend. It seems simplistic, but our brains respond to this. The (sometimes infuriating) popularity of lists on the web taps into this same human desire to know ahead of time what to expect. Maria Konnikova, in a fascinating article for The New Yorker, says lists 'simply feel better':

[A list] promises a definite ending: we think we know what we’re in for, and the certainty is both alluring and reassuring... The process is self-reinforcing: we recall with pleasure that we were able to complete the task (of reading the article) instead of leaving it undone and that satisfaction, in turn, makes us more likely to click on lists again—even ones we hate-read.’

You know you hate-read those lists sometimes. Listening or reading something with a number attached to it is satisfying, damn it. And it helps readers and audiences to remember things, which is a bonus for people trying to spread a message.

Matt also talked about his three focuses for the future of Automattic and Wordpress: Jetpack, mobile...and one he’s keeping a secret. That third one was memorable indeed.

He had a message and stuck to it

Matt’s talk had a certain rhythm to it — a ‘Matt’s Big Vision’ rhythm. He talked about his discovery of the GNU General Public license, and its governing philosophy, the Four Freedoms of open source software. He said things like ‘I’m a big believer in the power of not-for-profits’ and ‘It’s all for you excellent people’ and ‘I try to honor the past while creating the future’. These kinds of truisms can be hard to take for long periods. But actually, he means every word. I think.

All roads led back to his message, even during the Q&A. A strong-minded Kiwi journalist (flanked by other journalists nodding in solidarity) asked Matt his thoughts on the decline of available quality journalism versus the rise in vacuous, self-absorbed, and underwritten blogs. Matt cleverly (and almost imperceptibly) unpacked and repacked the topic to reinforce how Wordpress has given power back to the people to both create the news and decide on what denotes ‘quality’ — thereby removing the power from multinational media monoliths.

And when I asked him if he really wanted Wordpress to power 100% of websites (of which they currently power 22%), he fell back on his defaults as well: a win for Wordpress is a win for open source software. A win for the people. A win for freedom.

Of course, a win for Wordpress is also a win for Matt Mullenweg himself. But that's not part of his message.

In fact, it was so absent I almost didn't notice.


One thing's for sure about compelling speakers — they always make me want to know more. Next step for me on my Wordpress/Matt Mullenweg journey: read Scott Berkun's book about working for Wordpress: The Year Without Pants.

Published on Jun 19, 2014
Kathryn Reeves

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