This website is built using WordPress software, which can be downloaded free from www.wordpress.org.
When I started using WordPress last spring, I had no idea that it was co-founded locally.
It was just a pleasingly intuitive free piece of software, which I was relieved to be able to use without too much effort, apart from the initial set-up. (To avoid this pain, get an instant WordPress site off-the-peg from www.wordpress.com.)
In February, I went to my first Manchester WordPress User Group Meeting at MadLab in the Northern Quarter, and was astonished to find the session being led by an original founder of WordPress, Mike Little, who is still based in Stockport.
This was like attending a Microsoft Word night-class at a local adult education centre, only to find Bill Gates running the course; I couldn’t believe it, although the other group members seemed to take it very much in their stride.
Mike Little co-founded WordPress nine years ago with Matt Mullenweg (based in Texas), when the blogging software they were both using (B2/cafeLog) stopped being updated by its creator Michel Valdrighi (based in France.)
Michel disappeared off-line for the whole of 2003, without explanation, leading Mike and Matt to decide to fork the B2/cafelog code, which means, to take a copy of the source code and make it the focus of a new development effort.
Under the title The Blogging Software Dilemma, 19-year-old Matt Mullenweg wrote on January 25th 2003:
“This site is beginning to grow and grow, and forward compatibility has lately been in my mind… My logging software hasn’t been updated for months, and the main developer has disappeared, and I can only hope that he’s okay.
What to do? Well, Textpattern looks like everything I could ever want, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be licensed under something politically I could agree with. Fortunately, b2/cafelog is GPL, which means that I could use the existing codebase to create a fork, integrating all the cool stuff that Michel would be working on right now if only he was around…
To which Mike Little replied:
A GPL is a ‘General Public License'; WordPress differs fundamentally from Microsoft or Apple products because it is ‘open source’ and free to use.
Open Source is a philosophy which promotes free distribution and open access to design and implementation, i.e. no secret recipes (hidden code), plus an alternative attitude to copyright, sometimes called copyleft.
Open Source Software has been around for years, but it has tended to be overlooked by the general public, who are used to being spoon-fed information by brands with big advertising budgets and a profit-driven agenda.
Linux is a well-known example of free and open source software collaboration. While Microsoft and Apple conducted their Operating System battle within the global market-place, Linux slowly but surely took over behind the scenes, becoming the OS of choice for servers and mainframes. Consequently, Linux now lies behind many systems we access via the internet, but many people use it every day without knowing its name, history or significance.
But while Linux is a professional tool, WordPress is intended for use by ordinary people – anyone who wants to self-publish using the internet. So far, over 60 million websites have been built using WordPress and the number keeps rising.
The human story behind WordPress is very intriguing: a young developer disappears in France, kick-starting a trans-Atlantic collaboration between two other developers who have never met in person, one of whom is only 19. None of the three are motivated by profit but never-the-less, as individuals, they could not be more different.
“Matt Mullenweg is one of PC World’s Top 50 People on the Web, Inc.com’s 30 under 30, Business Week’s Most Influential People on the Web, and Vanity Fair’s Next Establishment.”
Matt has somehow managed to build a business empire and influential public profile on the back of WordPress, even though the software is free; he boasts a list of press articles about himself as long as your arm at ma.tt/about/, with titles such as Power Magazine’s The Blog Prince and Slate’s ‘The Son Of Gutenberg’.
By contrast, the Corsican Michel Valdrighi’s website intraordinaire.com/ states unexpectedly “Michel V mange les enfants” – “Michel V eats children”.
The text doesn’t appear to have been altered for a couple of years but some pictures were added in 2011. Another entry on his home page reads (via Google Translate):
interview anagram: France Forte
This interview is a fiction. Each answer is an anagram of the name of the guest.
(The concept comes from Davezilla.)
For this interview we will go to Nicolas Sarkozy as the “France Forte”, he intends to personify.
There are other anagram interviews, including this one with Matt Mullenweg.
Michel seems to be a mercurial character; his older blogsite http://zengun.org/, written in English, is an almost Holden-Caulfield-style monologue… with techie references, auto-biographical details and descriptions of theatre projects mixed together… making his Salinger-esque disappearance all the more tantalising.
He began the blog in May 2000 using Blogger. Then in 2001 he wrote:
2001 06 30
Today is my last day on Blogger, folks. Thanks & congrats to Pyra… But now’s the time for my own coding to take over the place.
2001 07 29
Sad fact of the day: I’m the only Corsican blogger. So, whenever I walk, I’m followed by none other than myself, the whole community of Corsican bloggers. Oh, and we dine together every day ! And I’ll be preparing food for us now.
Sometimes, I wish humans could just divide and create two identical humans. If not in the appearance, if not in the mind, at least in the interests.
2004 11 29
to blame and regret
Blame is a potato that gets hotter and hotter. Regrets are a fucking puree.
Mike Little is very different again. Not a self-publicist or empire builder like Matt, nor a contrary artistic soul like Michel… but straight-forward, practical, approachable and personable; Mike is generous with his time, and supports other WordPress developers free-of-charge, while running his own business zed1.com.
Here he is being interviewed by Siobhan McKeown at WordCamp in Portsmouth 2011:
The fact that Mike Little is actively involved in helping and encouraging WordPress users of all abilities is very impressive; we’re extremely privileged to have him leading our local user group.
I asked Mike if he could answer some more questions about the history of WordPress and he very kindly agreed:
Did you originally specialise in a subject other than computer science?
I didn’t attend university and I am completely self taught (to a very high level).
…You were already involved in open source coding before you became involved with WordPress. What kind of open source coding projects were you involved with?
I had made minor contributions to the MySQL project, CVS (a version control system), and the DJGPP project (a port of GCC to MS-DOS). Mostly bug reports, and contributions on the mailing lists of each of those.
WordPress is now described as the ‘official successor’ to B2/cafelog; were you a user of B2/cafelog ‘content management system’? What was B2/cafelog exactly? Who was using it and what were they using it for?
Yes, I used B2 for my own and several family member’s blogs. I also contributed to the software with patches and add-ons. I was also very active on the support forums. B2/cafelog was blogging software created by Michel Valdrighi. It was written in PHP and used MYSQL. There were estimates of approximately 2000 users of the software towards the end.
It was almost exclusively used for blogging — it only had the concept of posts with categories. However, I wrote an extension for B2 called B2 Links which was used by a number of people. I had one user who used it to create a commercial Directory site with tens of thousands of entries. B2 Links eventually became the Links manager in WordPress.
What did you understand to be Michel Valdrighi’s motivation in developing B2/cafelog?
I would presume it was frustration with the existing blogging solutions out there. Plus I don’t think there were any popular blogging packages written in PHP at the time (they mostly seemed to be Perl).
Was he a coding prodigy or a visionary or neither?
I couldn’t really say. His code in B2 was criticised at the time (not without reason, it was rather typical of a single person project – no real architecture, typical PHP coding style), but there were some good ideas in the code, and it was simple enough to understand and add to.
How did his work come to your attention?
I evaluated a number of blogging platforms at the time and B2 seemed to be the best for a number of reasons: GPL, good features, the code was reasonably understandable, good write-ups on the net, PHP (I was interested in extending my PHP skills)…
Michel disappeared in 2002… Did anyone discover what happened to Michel during 2003?
Yes. He came back onto the scene, and as far as I recall, he had been made redundant and had to move from his flat.
How were you and Matt Mullenweg in touch originally, given that Matt was studying political science and philosophy, (according to Wikipedia.)
I first communicated directly with Matt via his photomatt.net blog. I’d asked him what gallery software he used for his photos (it was Menalto’s Gallery http://gallery.menalto.com/).
Although I didn’t know it at the time, Matt was also a regular on the B2 forums, but under a pseudonym I didn’t connect with his photomatt.net site. It is likely I probably first found photomatt.net via the B2 forums!
You and Matt Mullenweg decided to ‘fork’ the software in Michel’s absence… What were your main aims when you forked the code?
Yes. That comment of mine can be regarded as the exact birthplace of what was to become WordPress. Our first aims were to fix the bugs, enhance the setup and administration, and add some new features.
How much time and commitment did you and Matt devote to the WordPress project, having taken it on?
Originally, I probably spent around 20 hours a week on it. I’m not sure about Matt, maybe something similar; maybe more.
If Michel hadn’t disappeared in 2002, would the story be completely different, or would you and/or Matt have ended up working on something similar?
I’m sure it would have been very different. Though the first new features we added were things we would have tried to contribute to B2 anyway.
Michel got involved with the WordPress development effort after reappearing… was he cool about the fact that you’d forked the B2 code?
Yes. He’d proclaimed it the official successor (there were at least two other forks at the time).
Did you/Matt/Michel all have similar aspirations for WordPress?
Originally yes, I think we did. I have to say though, that even in the early days Matt made most of the suggestions.
How long did you and he remain directly involved with the WordPress development effort?
I was still contributing code regularly at the beginning of 2005, though I still continue to contribute in some ways (bug reports, patches, forum contributions, etc.) to this day, but nowhere near as much as I used to. I’m not sure about Michel. Matt is still a lead developer.
Who is now leading the WordPress development effort and how does this work in practice?
Matt is still the leader, but it is very much a meritocracy with a number of key players: http://wordpress.org/about/.
Did you consider joining Automattic?
(Matt Mullenweg’s company which provides services for WordPress users.)
Very briefly. I was also asked by Matt to do some work for Automattic a couple of years ago, but I was too busy at the time.
Matt has built a business empire based around WordPress; does this affect the direction of the development effort?
Many would say it does, with most assuming that it must do so in a bad way. But I believe in Matt’s vision, and understand when he says that WordPress.com’s biggest contribution to the development of WordPress is the millions of testers that it brings to the table.
Matt has made a number of moves in the past to separate the development of WordPress from the progress and commercial needs of Automattic, including establishing the WordPress Foundation, and employing developers independently from Automattic to work on WordPress.
You are obviously very committed to collaboration and enpowering ordinary people through WordPress… what other aspects of WordPress do you find most exciting/inspiring?
I love the fact that WordPress really has empowered people to have a voice on the internet, to share their stories with the world and to do so with an ease that I believe is unparalleled. I love the fact that WordPress’ ability to give people a voice has moved repressive governments to try to ban it in their countries.
I also love the fact that WordPress is a massive success story for Free software, not just Automattic of course, but the thousands of people earning a living from WordPress everyday, myself included.
My collaborative background comes from my history of working with software, from my being involved with open source for so long (from before the term open source was coined in fact), and from the inspiration of the early pioneers of open source software, especially Richard Stallman, Larry Wall, Linus Torvolds, Monty Widenius and many others.