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Is Automattic Evil?

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November 18th, 2009
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WordPress

automatticlogoStick around the WordPress community for a period of time and you’re bound to come across a few folks who say Automattic is an evil company or Matt Mullenweg is evil in the way in which he runs WordPress.org. The more time I spend talking to Matt and with other employees of Automattic, the more I don’t understand where these thoughts and feelings of evilness come from. Sure, there is a decision made from time to time that a vocal group of people disagree with but you can’t make the right decision 100% of the time. Let’s take a closer look at Automattic as it relates to WordPress.

When I interviewed Matt at WordCamp New York, one of the things I asked him to address is the notion that Automattic commercially benefits from those who work for free. This indeed happens but on the flip side, Automattic gives a ton back to the project and to the community. For example, I think there is a lot that can be said for the progression of WordPress thanks to the resources that Automattic has been able to provide due to their funding. It’s also worth mentioning that Automattic pays a couple of folks to work on WordPress the majority of their time such as Ryan Boren who is always slaving away committing code and Jane Wells who works on the usability front.

It’s not like Automattic hoards the contributions to the project and gives nothing back. Matt said something during the interview that really stuck a chord with me and that is “Automattic is just one member of the WordPress community. We are a huge contributor. Myself, Jane everyone involved tries to give as much back to the WordPress community as possible.” So far, I can’t see anything that portrays the individuals or the company as evil.

Throughout the history of Automattic, they have developed and released a number of WordPress plugins to the community. They have also taken some of their paid offerings such as VideoPress and released those to the public as well. The entire VideoPress framework to be exact. They don’t have to do this but they do so because Matt wants Automattic to be an excellent example of an Open Source based company. Not everything is open because hosted services do not have to abide by the GPL since there is no distribution taking place. It’s also worth noting that Automattic has a system in place now so that when they build in a cool new feature for WordPress.com such as Geotagging they also build a plugin to release for the WordPress.org side of things granted, the release isn’t always immediate.

Verdict:

It’s my opinion that neither Matt Mullenweg or Automattic is evil. They don’t have evil tendencies and they are not out to screw people. If that were the case, I can’t see how WordPress could become the piece of software it is today. So my question to you is, do you think either is evil and if so, why?

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Comments

  1. Jared Spurbeck (1 comments.) says:

    I've never thought that they're evil, but I think it's inconvenient that a lot of their hosted services (like this IntenseDebate comments form) aren't GPL-ed.

    I asked Matt about it and his answer satisfies me that he's not being a hypocrite, and he has in fact thought these things out. I just think that he's reached the wrong conclusion.

    Any service that only Automattic can provide (Gravatars, Akismet, IntenseDebate) is going to have to be ripped and replaced. The only question is when.

    • @carlhancock (1 comments.) says:

      Hosted services don't have to be GPL. The source is closed, you don't have to distribute it. They are doing nothing wrong. Do you get the sourcecode to Flickr? How about Twitter? It's a hosted service for a reason.

      They do, however, provide plugins for IntenseDebate, Akismet, Gravatar, etc. that are GPL plugins.

      If you have a hosted service and you create a plugin to interact with it, only the plugin need be GPL. The hosted service has nothing to do with the GPL. It's a HOSTED service. You don't get the code.

    • @joelgoodman (1 comments.) says:

      Are you kidding? Automattic could have chosen to go the way of TypePad an locked down everything, but instead they open a lot of their projects up for the community to have. This "all or nothing" mentality doesn't make sense in the case of separate entities under a company umbrella.

      No one is obligated to give their assets and hard work away to a community. And, IMO, even less obligated when they have been generous enough to do that with some of their projects.
      My recent post As Of Late

  2. JJJ says:

    I like how you actually tagged this post as "evil" haha!

  3. StrangeAttractor says:

    I think the worst thing you could say about Matt M. on the moral front is that he’s arrogant.

    However, I think a little arrogance is pretty forgivable for a guy who has spearheaded the invention of one of the most widely used and best open-source, and became one of the most important developers in the internet world before the age of 22.

    (And anyway, it’s a geeky kind of arrogance — anyone who has spent a lot of time around computer geeks can testify that on the whole, it’s an arrogant community. They are the magic-makers, the wizards of arcane knowledge that make all our technology dreams come true.)

    Automattic and Matt both deserve to grow financially from this project, and I think that as they do, WordPress will benefit from better organization of the whole community.

    There are lots of people who contribute for free, and I’m not involved enough to say who deserves more financial compensation, although it’s worth pointing out that just because you don’t get directly paid for doing something, doesn’t mean you don’t get a lot of intangible benefits (reputation, connections) that can ultimately translate into indirect financial benefits.

    The group of developers I would most like to see get better financial compensation are the plugin developers and the theme developers.

    As I’ve said in another comment thread on this site, I think WordPress should really push the idea of donating just ONE dollar to the developers of plugins / themes that you use regularly. Some of these plugins get downloads in the 6 figures, and yet get very few donations.

    (And no, I am not a plugin developer or a theme developer, and to be perfectly honest, although I have made donations to some plugin developers, I haven’t done so as often as I should, not by a long shot.)

    Everyone loves “free”, but those of us who benefit so much from open-source and GPL-licensed software should get it through our heads that there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you like this stuff, donate to its development, otherwise it won’t be maintained for long…

    • Jeffro (20 comments.) says:

      There are those who contribute to the cause because they want to with no financial benefit. Those that do this for financial benefit shouldn't be developing for free but rather charging for their time or work. Pushing donations to developers I guess is a good thing, but if those developers are in it for the money, just charge upfront and never rely on donations as a financial support model.
      My recent post New York Matt Mullenweg Interview

      • StrangeAttractor says:

        I respectfully disagree with the statement:

        “those that do this for financial benefit shouldn’t be developing for free but rather charging for their time or work. ”

        Speaking as someone in the arts (whose primary practice is usually NOT specifically for pay) — people do things because they love to do it and/or they are good at it. Not everything worthwhile has a wage attached to it… but that doesn’t mean that worthwhile efforts shouldn’t be rewarded.

        Some of these plugin authors may well have dayjobs doing other things, or even programming. But I bet they would love to make enough money to write plugins all day.

        My point is that even if they would write plugins whether or not they got paid, they would be more likely to write and maintain plugins if they were receiving decent compensation from their user-base.

        It’s a lot like the arts. There are a lot of actors with dayjobs, who will keep on acting for free because they love to do it. But if they got paid enough for their acting to live on, they would happily devote their lives to it, even if they could make more money doing something else.

  4. fail says:

    Would you consider him evil if he teamed up with Microsoft?

  5. @carlhancock (1 comments.) says:

    Automattic benefits greatly from ongoing WordPress development, but so do all the premium theme and plugin developers out there. Myself included.

    But the fact is plenty of people benefit from WordPress financially. Every web designer that builds a client site using WordPress as the CMS… benefits from WordPress. The majority of those web developers don't contribute anything back to the community. Automattic contributes plenty to the community.

    Calling Automattic or Matt evil is absurd. They may do things or make decisions that some people don't agree with, but that doesn't make them evil. People disagree, you can't please everyone.

  6. David (1 comments.) says:

    Not to be mean, but in the grand scheme of things, isn't saying Automattic and Matt aren't evil equivalent to a slow news day or something? I mean, most people here will say, "duh, of course they aren't".

    Also, I find it interesting that you lump the company and the man together. That's like saying Microsoft and Bill Gates are the same, and so as long as Bill is a nice guy, Microsoft can do no wrong, and the reverse (Microsoft does wrong and that makes Bill evil?)

    Anyways, just my two cents.
    My recent post My Thoughts on the Current State of the WordPress Project

    • Jeffro (20 comments.) says:

      I was actually hoping for those that stand by their claims of either or being evil and then telling me why they feel that way. I'm about sick of hearing it so I wanted them to come out of the woodwork so I could chat with them.

      My recent post New York Matt Mullenweg Interview

  7. @moosetoga (1 comments.) says:

    I'll make the Automattic folks a deal: If they stop releasing updates 20 times a frigging day that require me to update the two dozen or so active installs I have running for various clients every single time (lest I get worried calls about the "Tell your administrator to update WordPress" warning), I'll cast my vote in the Not Evil category.

    I keed. WordPress is awesome software and I have nothing but gratitude for all the work they put in.

    • Jesse Friedman (5 comments.) says:

      WordPress is so ubiquitous that it attracts hackers and evil doers. Their constant updating is to fix holes where they have seen hackers take advatage. Be happy for those updates they keep you safe at night.

    • Jeffro (20 comments.) says:

      Automattic doesn't release updates, WordPress.org releases updates for WordPress. Don't take this the wrong way but if you're a consultant with clients that pay you to upgrade their sites when it's needed, I see no reason to complain since you are being paid to do it. Just imagine if WordPress had an automatic upgrade so you could make money without the whole upgrading shindig!

      My recent post New York Matt Mullenweg Interview

  8. James Farmer (1 comments.) says:

    Jeff, I reckon you are confusing 'criticism' with making out they are 'evil'… I'm not alone in thinking (and feeling the pinch of) some of the less desirable elements that make up Matt (for example, removing Edublogs because people think it's a WP product… ha!) but at the same time I've got a lot of admiration for him as a businessperson and for what he's achieved.

    As he said in your interview though, he owns the wordpress.org site and leads automattic… so what he says has to go, inspired by some fictional and non-quotable 'community' or not… and that's something – at the end of the day – the rest of us just have to live with, or remove ourselves from, it's a fact of life.

    Clever, believing his own hype, a bit blinkered yes… evil, no.

    Anyway, put far better than I could manage here by David: http://brandingdavid.com/blogging/my-thoughts-on-
    My recent post WordPress.com and Automattic join forces with Microsoft Azure

    • jane wells (2 comments.) says:

      To call the WordPress community "fictional and non-quotable" is an arrogant slap in the face to all the people who contribute to decisions about the development of WordPress. I haven't met all the regulars from the IRC dev chats in person, but I've met enough of them at WordCamps (including Australia) to know that they are not fictional. Please: show some respect, man.
      My recent post Busy

    • Jeffro (20 comments.) says:

      Nah, I know criticism when I see or hear it. Even if it's tough criticism. But when it consists of bashing, consistent bashing, there is no criticism achieved. Plus, I've heard people just refer to both as evil with no criticism. That's just the way they think of either Matt or Automattic.

      He doesn't lead Automattic, he is one heck of a BBQ taste tester though. Toni Schneider is CEO of Automattic and handles the decisions their. I'm sure Matt has input, especially with acquisitions but I'm sure Matt doesn't pull all the weight at the company.

      I'm part of that fictional and non quotable community. So are you, and everyone else using the WordPress software. I have no problem with the way the project and the site is run. The stuff between you and him is not personal, just business related. Personally, I think his two requests have merit. He has not demanded that you stop your business but rather change a few things because of the reasons he outlined. Considering that this was all over a few links being removed from a website, not sure it's such a big fuss.

      My recent post New York Matt Mullenweg Interview

  9. Jesse Friedman (5 comments.) says:

    I <3 WordPress and can't even conceive a world where WP is evil. They're a free service open to the public and has improved the web communit in a great way. How can you offer a popular and ubiquitous platform free to the public abeaneaters viewed as evil. If you don't like them or WP use Joomla or one of ten quadrillion other cms' out there.

    It's like saying that the nice kid on the block who mow's all the elderly peoples lawns for free evil. It ridiculous and stupid because if he was evil you'd stop him from your lawn but you don't. You rake the free service and you don't even tip the kid and when he goes off to college and there's no one left to mow your lawn your going to wish that kid was still around.

    • MikeMike says:

      I believe Matt is a genius. And he is protecting and building the project. And I'm thankful that he offers it all open and free. Many open and free projects get bought out (and how can you buy open and free code??). Consider MySQL getting bought out and now another company owns that company. The product is no longer completely open nor free. And there are worse examples out there.

      I'm a user and I'm glad for Matt and WordPress. And I look forward to watching it grow. And hope to be able to contribute to it some day. Keep up the good work Matt and the WordPress team. For now, I'm just glad I'm able to share in your success. And you haven't asked me for a dime.

      @Jesse F… This is a wonderful analogy for WordPress. And I hope the day never comes when Matt "goes off to…" somewhere else. I wish Matt and the company the best and I am glad that they are able to profit off of this project. While at the same time, doing a great job a protecting the project. by keeping it free and open. And also attracting wonderful developers to continue to contribute absolutely amazing code. This effort is absolutely amazing. And this simply wouldn't happen if the project just simply grew in the wild.

      How can you call a guy who give so many users all of this free code and support evil. Evil people don't give anything for free. They may give you something once, maybe even twice. But never week after week after week.

      Thanks to Matt, WordPress, the developers and the entire community.

  10. zota says:

    No one is actually quoted or referenced as saying Automattic is evil. So is this post in fact just a lump of cheap linkbait? (aka: "evil")

    • Mike (1 comments.) says:

      Nope. It's creative copy writing and got you to click on it ;-)

    • wank says:

      This. I could probably point them to a couple of links arguing for the evilness of Automattic, if they wanted it to look as if the article were founded upon a genuine debate, but then I wouldn't want to inflict the inevitable flood of indignant fanboys upon anyone ;)

      Evil's a strong word. I have serious reservations about some of Automattic's business practices: charging for commercial use of their own plugins whilst effectively banning other plugin authors from doing the same does seem to me strangely at odds with the central ideals of open source, and the dictatorial 'your code MUST be free because WE say so' attitude is something I still find very hard to reconcile with the concept of… well, freedom. GPL wasn't designed as a tool to maintain monopolies and keep down potential rivals — pretty much the opposite, in fact — but Automattic are not above using it as such. It's not evil — they have a duty to their investors to make as much money as the can, and, let's face it, when did the 'community' ever give them thirty million dollars? — but it's often disappointing.

      • Jeffro (20 comments.) says:

        Would love to see those links pointing towards evilness. The more examples the better. I want to understand why people would think the company or the person to be evil.

        Correct me if I'm wrong, but the last time I checked, no one was banning anyone for charging for their plugins. Matt has stated he has no problem selling themes or plugins. He thinks some models are better than others but to this day that I'm aware of, he has not demanded anyone take down a plugin or theme that is for sale.

        I mentioned in the article that Automattic is a huge contributor to WordPress and they have turned alot of their commercial services into free, GPL plugins. Pretty stupid of a company to do from a common sense standpoint because you are releasing code to enable others to compete directly against you, with your own code. What is the evilness in that?

        What is your point with Automattic receiving venture capital funding? They have been able to pay people to work full time on WordPress and contribute resources to the project with that funding.
        My recent post New York Matt Mullenweg Interview

        • that girl again (2 comments.) says:

          Correct me if I’m wrong, but the last time I checked, plugins hosted at wordpress.org had to be GPL, which means that they’re not allowed to charge for commercial use. I’ve yet to see a test case where somebody’s tried to go down the same ‘we’re charging you for the use of our servers rather than the code’ defence as Automattic have used with charging for commercial use of Akismet and After The Deadline; it would be interesting to see whether they’d be prepared to allow that. Sure, you can host your plugins somewhere else, but you’re not going to get anything like as many downloads if you’re barred from the official repository and its auto-update feature.

          It does sound like the MU version of wordpress is being ‘discontinued’ precisely because Automattic (or perhaps their backers) are worried about people directly competing with their hosted offering.
          (As matters stand, not all wordpress.com-related code is released by any means, and I don’t think anyone would expect it to be.) That said, it would be very difficult for anyone to compete directly with wordpress.com because they wouldn’t have the resources of Automattic, both in terms of publicity and server space. Livejournal have been open-sourcing their code for years without it significantly impacting on their business. It’s not ‘pretty stupid'; it makes them look good without taking any real risks.

          And my point about VC funding is that once you take their money, those are the people you are ultimately answerable to. Not the community. He who pays the piper, calls the tune.

      • Jeffro (20 comments.) says:

        Would love to see those links pointing towards evilness. The more examples the better. I want to understand why people would think the company or the person to be evil.

        Correct me if I'm wrong, but the last time I checked, no one was banning anyone for charging for their plugins. Matt has stated he has no problem selling themes or plugins. He thinks some models are better than others but to this day that I'm aware of, he has not demanded anyone take down a plugin or theme that is for sale.

        I mentioned in the article that Automattic is a huge contributor to WordPress and they have turned alot of their commercial services into free, GPL plugins. Pretty stupid of a company to do from a common sense standpoint because you are releasing code to enable others to compete directly against you, with your own code. What is the evilness in that?

        What is your point with Automattic receiving venture capital funding? They have been able to pay people to work full time on WordPress and contribute resources to the project with that funding.
        My recent post New York Matt Mullenweg Interview

  11. Dana (27 comments.) says:

    Yeah, agree with you that Matt and automatic is not evil. At least, not yet because i do not know the future. :D
    My recent post Get Benefit from FeedBurner

  12. Hicham Maged (36 comments.) says:

    This calling is a baised one because many people already benifit from WordPress; like freelancers who are paid for designing and customizing a blog for client(s) and/or having paid themes.
    My recent post Egypt under Cambyses II

  13. Ahsan (1 comments.) says:

    Well I think Matt and WordPress are GOOD.
    Not evil.

    Matt you are doing a great job.

  14. tapirul says:

    I've got only one thing against Automattic, and that is Akismet.
    I'm touching holy ground here, for many of of you, but for me, this is the story: I host three blogs, two of which having pretty good traffic. When I enable the Akismet plugin, I get thousands of spam comments "blocked" by Akismet. However, when I disable the plugin, I get none. Or, maybe, one once a month. I've been staying without Akismet for over two years now – first thing I do after an update is to delete the plugin altogether.

    Why is that so? Why Akismet claims to block comments that actually don't exist? There could be a very legitimate explanations (Akismet blocking all attempts, including those that don't make it past my CAPTCHA), but still, I find it strange.

  15. Call Center Services (1 comments.) says:

    WordPress helped me with my business. "Evil" and "Wordpress" are situated at opposite ends of the moral alignment spectrum.

  16. Jan Dembowski (1 comments.) says:

    It's a shame that Automattic is clearly understood for what it is: a service company that uses an opensource product to provide that service. Instead many detractors focus on them making money and insist that that somehow screws WordPress as an OSS project.

    Bizzare; when they start keeping their modifications to themselves (they don't) or make exclusive software licensing deals with companies (ha! Not going to happen) then they'll earn the "evil" tag. Until then they'll just continue to use the "successful" tag.
    My recent post Ice cream anyone?

  17. donnacha | WordSkill (1 comments.) says:

    Anyone who thinks that Automattic is evil either hasn't been paying attention or has a selfish agenda of their own.

    I am not easily impressed but I am impressed and intensely relieved that Matt has stuck to his guns and stayed true to the community, despite all the FUD that a small handful of malcontents have been throwing around. I am also impressed by his patience in repeatedly explaining what the GPL is and why WordPress, and all the advantages it gives all of us, could not exist without it.

    It is astonishing that some people cannot grasp the simple logic of what he is saying, that they keep rising up again and again, like zombies, to piss and moan because they think that WordPress owes them a living, and don't have the imagination to see how much the GPL is offering them on a plate.

    But the anti-GPL zombies don't matter, they can be ignored – in Matt, we've got a guy who really gets it, who isn't going to be swayed by shrill voices and is going to keep doing the right thing. WordPress is an incredible project, Automattic is a wonderful contributor to the project and we all benefit as a result.

  18. mark prep (1 comments.) says:

    Matt Mullenweg is somewhere between Austin Powers & Dr. Evil; I just can't tell which….maybe he is actually Mike Meyers.

  19. jeffjonez (1 comments.) says:

    A shame really… I could really use a few more evil corporations working for me. Evil or not, I benefit from Automattic, Matt and the WordPress community, so I wish them continued success. (@David – I do think that corporations and their officers are linked morally, and Evil actions on Microsoft's part would rub off on/darken the soul of Mr. Gates, should such actions occur)

  20. @leogermani (1 comments.) says:

    Its silly to criticize automattic for having comercial benefits from WordPress. I have comercial benefits from WordPress when I professionally develop WordPress based websites to my clients. And the more people who earn money selling WordPress related services, the better the software will be.

  21. John says:

    Personally, I think automattic is evil. So I will go and build my own blogging platform and create my own plugins and build my own community and it will be good because I'm not evil.

  22. goofydg1 (6 comments.) says:

    I don't understand how people could characterize them as evil with all the WordPress has brought to the digital world. Its been a very good relationship.
    My recent post Twitter Updates for 2009-11-19

  23. Brian Carnell (15 comments.) says:

    Not sure if WP is evil, but this article was definitely stupid. Not a single example of someone calling WP "evil." As other posters have said, I suspect you think vociferous criticism of this or that decision is the same thing as calling WP "evil."
    My recent post MacLeans on Albino Killings in Tanzania

  24. MattAlgren (1 comments.) says:

    This post is disappointing. Why didn't you just ask why Automattic is so awesome and get it over with? It would be more honest than suggesting that people who don't have WordPress-certified knee pads are big meanies who think Mullenweg is evil.

    And the response, of course, is predictable. Rather than honest discussion about what Automattic is doing right or wrong, people have been led (quite well) to just label the company as "good", which is some jim dandy positive buzz for Mullenweg and his crew. I suppose that's what happens when 95% of your posts are WordPress-centric.

    Personally, I think WordPress is a great product. I'm not a fan of putting all my security eggs in one basket, so I stay clear of Akismet, and I have no use for most of the other properties. I use Disqus rather than Intense Debate mostly because of personal preference, but a little bit of the original decision was because I'd rather encourage Disqussion than the flame war evoked by Intense Debate's logo.

    Anyway, I hope you'll approach future posts with a bit more honesty.

  25. bubazoo (213 comments.) says:

    The only thing I ever hear about, in regards to wordpress and automattic, is that wordpress is badly PHP coded. I have no idea if thats true or not, I don’t know enough about PHP to make that kind of determination, but from what I’ve heard from alot of people, wordpress is one of the top worst PHP open source programs to date. From too many joins in mysql, whatever that means, to how its programmed in general, thats about all I ever hear. I think wordpress’s popularity stems from the fact that wordpress is next to the last open source decent alternative left, ever since six apart, and their moveabletype product turned paid. THe thing that gets me about that, is MT is still a free download, so I never did understand what the big fuss was about to start with? I kept using MT 3.x when everyone else switched to WordPress, until I got tired of having to mess with .cgi scripts, but I think typepad is what killed six aparts reputation in the market, because people don’t like to depend on a 3rd party site to keep their blogs online. my brother inlaw still uses MT, and really they’ve come a long way since the 3.x days, but I never looked back to MT as soon as I switched to WP, its just so much easier then messing with cgi scripts and having to ‘reload’ every time you make a change to your template.

  26. bubazoo (213 comments.) says:

    but as far as automattic as a company, I really don’t care about that, I don’t work for them, so I don’t have an opinion about what their like as a company, I’ve heard nothing but good things asside from their PHP coding, and really thats not much of a complaint in my view, thats why I’ve always sticked with wordpress, it works for me, and its better then MT. period, and the other self-hosted solutions aren’t free.

  27. bubazoo (213 comments.) says:

    I mean, as far as “too many joins” or badly coded, Computers are so fast these days who really cares if your site takes 1 milisecond slower to load because you used a join here when you could have done without it? ya know? its like, who freakin cares what the code looks like, we’re talking about a milisecond savings at best even if it could be optimized better. lol



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