Category Archives: Essays

The Four Freedoms

Eleven months before the U.S. declared war on Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said “As men do not live by bread alone, they do not fight by armaments alone.” He articulated four fundamental freedoms that everyone in the world ought to enjoy:

  1. Freedom of speech.
  2. Freedom of worship.
  3. Freedom from want.
  4. Freedom from fear.

Fast forward 72 years: technology has advanced at dizzying rates and permeated every aspect of our lives, from how we are born to how we die and everything in between. In this co-evolution of society and technology, what it means to be truly “free” is no longer about just the country we live in, or even its laws, but is shaped by the products we live on.

As Marc Andreessen says, software is eating the world. It’s a creative gale of destruction that irreversibly changes every industry it touches, and if you don’t control the software, the software controls you. It mediates how and with whom you communicate, what news you see, and what other software you’re able to run. It influences the very way your brain works, as you process the creative gale of distraction that interrupts us all hundreds of times each day. With every ping, software burrows deeper into our lives.

In the early nineties, a prescient hacker named Richard Stallman — working at MIT, where today’s future had already happened — recognized this shift. He proposed a set of four freedoms that were fundamental for software in an enlightened, tech-dependent society.

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions, giving the community a chance to benefit from your changes.

(Aside: I originally thought Stallman started counting with zero instead of one because he’s a geek. He is, but that wasn’t the reason. Freedoms one, two, and three came first, but later he wanted to add something to supercede all of them. So: freedom zero. The geekness is a happy accident.)

This is our Bill of Rights. Stallman called it Free Software. The “free” doesn’t have to do with price, as you’re still free to charge for your software, but with freedom to create. Or as we geeks often say: not free as in beer, free as in speech.

People are scared of free software, and I understand why. You’re taking the most valuable thing you have, your intellectual property, and granting the freedom you enjoy as a creator to anyone who downloads your work. It’s terrifying, actually. It’s releasing your ideas, and letting anyone build on them — in a way that might be better than your own work. It’s releasing your traditional understanding of ownership, and your fear of being out-developed.

The most experienced entrepreneurs can cling to the concept that your idea is something precious that must be protected from the world, and meted out in a controlled way. Lots of us hang on to the assumption that scarcity creates a proprietary advantage. It’s how many non-tech markets work.

Open source abdicates your flexibility as a developer to better serve the people who actually use your products. You can see that as a constraint… or you can see it as a door to iteration, innovation, and constant progress.

I’ve spent a third of my life building software based on Stallman’s four freedoms, and I’ve been astonished by the results. WordPress wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for those freedoms, and it couldn’t have evolved the way it has.

WordPress was based on a program called B2/cafelog that predated it by two years. I was using B2 because it had freedoms 0 and 1: I could use it for whatever I wanted, including my zero-budget personal blog, and the source code was open. It was elegant and easy to understand, and anyone could tweak it.

B2 was ultimately abandoned by its creator. If I’d been using it under a proprietary license, that would have been the end — for me, and all its other users. But because we had freedoms 2 and 3, Mike Little and I were able to use the software as a foundation, giving us a two-year headstart over building something from scratch, and realize our own vision of what blogging could be.

We were just consumers of the software, volunteers in the forums, and occasional contributors to the codebase, but because (of the GPL) we had the freedom to build on B2, we were able to continue development as if it had been our own creation.

Ten years later, those freedoms are still embedded in every copy of WordPress downloaded, including the 9.2 million downloaded in the past month or so since our 3.8 release.

I believe that software, and in fact entire companies, should be run in a way that assumes that the sum of the talent of people outside your walls is greater than the sum of the few you have inside. None of us are as smart as all of us. Given the right environment — one that leverages the marginal cost of distributing software and ideas — independent actors can work toward something that benefits them, while also increasing the capability of the entire community.

This is where open source gets really interesting: it’s not just about the legal wonkery around software licensing, but what effect open sourced software has on people using it. In the proprietary world, those people are typically called “users,” a strange term that connotes dependence and addiction. In the open source world, they’re more rightly called a community.

The core features of WordPress aren’t rocket surgery. A handful of smart people in a room for a year could create a reasonable approximation of the software, and undoubtably improve some things — I see other startups do this three or four times a year.

What they miss is that WordPress isn’t a checklist of features. It’s over 29,000 plugins created by the community, from the in-demand things like SEO to niche features like using your 404 page to help adopt homeless dogs in Sweden. Every WordPress site looks different, because of the thousands of themes available. Instead of one event to outdo, there are more than 70 volunteer-organized WordCamps on six continents (and there’ll be more in 2014).

WordPress marketing has nothing to do with its website or logo, it’s the tens of thousands of people who make a living building WordPress sites and receive so much value from it that they proselytize to anyone that will listen, spreading the flame one site at a time. It works — as of December 2013, 21% of websites are powered by WordPress. One-fifth of the web is built with a tool that anyone can use, change, or improve, whenever and however they want (even more when you count other open source projects, like Drupal).

This approach to building isn’t an abdication of developers’ and designers’ responsibility to build beautiful, functional software. Design and forethought are more important than ever when every change sends millions of independent actors down a new path. Changes to WordPress have consequences today, tomorrow, five years, and ten years down the road, but the passion and talent of the community helps ensure that it always moves forward in a positive way.

The four freedoms don’t limit us as creators — they open possibilities for us as creators and consumers. When you apply them to software, you get Linux, Webkit/Chrome, and WordPress. When you apply them to medicine, you get the Open Genomics Engine, which is accelerating cancer research and bringing us closer to personalized treatment. When you apply them to companies, you get radically geographically distributed, results-based organizations like Automattic. When you apply them to events you get TEDx, Barcamp, and WordCamp. When you apply them to knowledge, you get Wikipedia.

William Gibson is attributed with saying “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The world is changing faster than any one person or organization can keep up with it. Closed off, proprietary development creates closed off, proprietary products that won’t keep pace in the long run. Open source provides another path — one that’s open to everyone, and can take advantage of the skills and talents of anyone in the world to build software that helps everyone.

As Bill Joy said, “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” Good ideas aren’t the sole province of groups of people behind high walls, and software shouldn’t be either.

This was adapted from a talk I gave at the Life is Beautiful festival in Downtown Las Vegas. Thanks to Michelle, Ben, Davide, and Paul for help with this.

Matt 3.0

As in WordPress, the X.0 release is just the one that came after (X-1).9 before it, so while it seems more significant, it’s just another iteration in the steady march of progress, a job never done. I’ve now managed to stay alive for three decades, thirty rotations around the sun, and I woke up this morning a little hungover (there’s a lot of tequila in Mexico) but with a huge grin on my face.

In many ways life accumulates complexity as you get older, but the things that are most important are simple and universal: friends and loved ones, health, and working on something you enjoy and has an impact. I’m happier and finding balance more often than at any period I can remember since I was a young child.

This was another year in motion, traveling 345,211 miles to 78 cities in 13 countries. I’m still really enjoying being on the road, and it’s very intrinsic to how Automattic works, so I expect that to continue or even pick up pace.

Every generation feels this way, but it also genuinely seems like we’re at shift in how society works, with technology accelerating change, and navigating and more importantly creating that change is one of the most interesting challenges I can imagine working on.

Finally I’m humbled and amazed by the support for the charity: water campaign, which already is going to bring close to 2,000 people clean water.

Tomorrow I’ll wake up a little sunburnt, but hopefully with that same grin and ready to take on the years of my life that start with 3 and hopefully end with a bigger impact than my 20s had. It was a decade when I failed a lot, tried even more, and most importantly learned how to say yes and how to say no, something that gets easier as you learn about yourself.

My twenties: 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, and 29.

The Intrinsic Value of Blogging

Blogging is harder than it used to be. We’ve gotten better at counting and worse at paying attention to what really counts. Every time I press Publish the post is publicized to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Path, and Google+, each with their own mechanisms for enumerating how much people like it.

pathNone of those services except Path have a clickable way to dislike something, so if something isn’t great it’s usually met with silence. But sometimes something that is great is met with silence too if it doesn’t drop at the right time, have the right headline, or have the right tone to invite interaction. There is no predictable connection to the effort and thought you put into something and the response it receives, and every experienced blogger has a story of something they spend a few minutes on and toss out casually going viral, a one-hit wonder that makes your stats in future months and years puny in comparison.

Stats systems, like Jetpack’s, have gotten very good at telling me which post got how many visitors and where they came from, but it’s all anonymous and the numbers don’t really mean anything to me anymore. This is very discouraging, and at its most insidious causes people to deconstruct the elements of what makes something sharable and attempt to artificially construct these information carbohydrates over and over. (Visit that site and try not to click through any headlines — it’s tough.)

The antidote I’ve found for this is to write for only two people. First, write for yourself, both your present self whose thinking will be clarified by distilling an idea through writing and editing, and your future self who will be able to look back on these words and be reminded of the context in which they were written.

Second, write for a single person who you have in mind as the perfect person to read what you write, almost like a letter, even if they never will, or a person who you’re sure will read it because of a connection you have to them (hi Mom!). Even on my moblog I have a frequent commenter who I’ll often keep in mind when posting a photo, curious to see her reaction.

This post might be ephemerally tweeted by dozens of avatars I might or might not recognize, accumulate a number in a database that represents the “hits” it had, and if I’m lucky might even get some comments, but when I get caught up in that the randomness of what becomes popular or generates commentary and what doesn’t it invariably leads me to write less. So blog just for two people.

Brands Everywhere

louis-vuitton-monogram-canvas-dog-bag-40-brown-women-softsided-luggage While brushing my teeth this morning, which is usually when my mind wanders, I noticed that just on the counter everything I was looking at had a brand or logo of some sort on it. It’s usually invisible to me but once I noticed it became garish as Times Square.

I counted 11 brands on the counter at that exact moment: Dr. Hauschka, Orabrush, Common Good (soap), Kohler (sink), Bongio (faucet), Philips (toothbrush), Rembrandt, Royal Velvet (toothpaste), Sonos, Neorest (toilet), and Tom’s of Maine (mouthwash). My iPhone was on the counter but the Apple was covered in a WordPress iPhone case, I guess a 12th brand, but the only one I chose to be there.

None of these labels are easy to remove either — the Common Good, a liquid soap dispenser, looked like it was going to be easy but as it started to peel off lots of sticky residue was left behind. I’ll try soaking it later. For most of the others, including the sink and faucet, the brand was embedded in a way that would be impossible to remove without switching the contents to a different container (toothpaste, mouthwash, or moisturizer) or sanding something off (toothbrush, Sonos…).

Earlier this year I attended Burning Man for the first time, and one of the things you notice after a day there is the complete absence of brands — it’s considered gauche to have visible branding there, some people even cover up small logos (Patagonia, the Polo horse) on their clothes. As much as the rest of the experience was bizarre, living a few days in the absence of brands and advertising makes it as alien as anything else.

I don’t think you can call it a trend, but it is interesting that brands like Muji or high-end fashion like Bottega Veneta distinguish themselves as much by the absence of branding as their product quality, the visual antithesis of Louis Vuitton luggage. It’s like the first level of affluence is about broadcast, and then the ultimate level is about (apparent) minimalism.

But for regular, everyday goods, how can we get all of the advertising off them? I don’t need my sink telling me who made it. If there’s a brand around me, I want it to be one I choose. I think this is one reason people appreciate the ability to 100% customize WordPress, and counter-intuitively why most choose to leave the “Powered by” somewhere on the site, because they have the choice.

Take a look around you, how many visible brands or logos can you count?

Update: Om writes on An Unbranded Life.

Fifth Estate

Here’s the post I wrote on a dinner I attended while at Davos for their forum blog: Online we can act as a fifth estate.

The common thread that kept coming up at a dinner, and discussions centred around the idea of “online power”, was equality of access. Before the widespread rise of the Internet and easy publishing tools, influence was largely in the hands of those who could reach the widest audience, the people with printing presses or access to a wide audience on television or radio, all one-way mediums that concentrated power in the hands of the few.

Now an audience of more than 1 billion people is only a click away from every voice online, and remarkable stories and content can gain flash audiences as people share via social networks, blogs and e-mail. This radically equalizes the power relationship between, say, a blogger, and a multibillion dollar corporation.

I heard stories of companies such as Dell shifting the direction of their products in response to online outcry started by a single blog post, authors who have millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook and able to speak to their audiences directly for the first time, a Twitter hashtag (#f***washington) becoming a rallying cry for hundreds of thousands of frustrated citizens, and how a blackout of Wikipedia to protest proposed SOPA/PIPA legislation overloaded phone systems in Congress. I shared how a community of volunteers around the world collaborated on Open Source software (WordPress) that eventually overtook all its proprietary competitors.

All of these stories shared a David and Goliath character – a seemingly unmovable force swayed by a single voice that quickly multiplies online, but they also gave me pause. We spoke about this multiplying of online voices being used for things we’d all generally agree were “good”, but that was probably largely a function of the people sharing the stories and our similar world views. You could easily imagine a viral story spreading online with malicious intent, and just as many if not more examples of untrue rumours spreading at the speed of Twitter. One table shared a fictional account of a world where online voting was ubiquitous in a country, but it had the unintended side-effect of making voter coercion easier because you could see how someone voted.

There is no moderator or ombudsman online, and while the transparency of the web usually means that information is self-correcting, we still have to keep in mind the responsibility each of us carries when the power of the press is at our fingertips and in our pockets.

I am an optimist, and I believe that people are inherently good and that if you give everyone a voice and freedom of expression, the truth and the good will outweigh the bad. So, on the whole, I think the power that online distribution confers is a positive thing for society. Online we can act as a fifth estate.

I had a really wonderful time at the Forum, it was a really unique experience.

Culture of Distraction

From the Hacker News discussion of my Silicon-Valley-is-destroying-the-world remark I came across a Joe Kraus talk on We’re Creating a Culture of Distraction. (I’m a huge fan of Joe and excited to see he’s on WordPress now.)

It’s also important to read Paul Graham’s Acceleration of Addictiveness where he compares addictive technology to alcohol and cigarettes, society developed “antibodies” to the danger of cigarettes, but it took about a hundred years, and technology is changing much faster than that now.

The most prescient here is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, originally published in 1985. It’s long, but I’m going to quote the foreword in its entirety because it’s worth reading a few times over:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Oh, and we just launched new comment push notifications for iPhone and iPad. It’s one of those days. 😉

On the Evolution of Investing

Today Y Combinator announced they are adding two new partners, Garry Tan and Aaron Iba. This announcement is unique because it does not list their academic credentials, their previous investments, the boards of companies or non-profits they have sat on, how many years of experience they have, or any of the usual badges of honor investors parade in their biographies and Crunchbase profiles.

Instead we get accolades of “rare individuals who can both design and program” and “best hackers among the YC alumni.” Take note of this moment.

I was part of a dinner conversation the other night that included institutional and angel investors, entrepreneurs, and someone who was part of the YC program. The group circled with alarming intent on grilling the YC entrepreneur: “How much time did you actually get with PG?” “It’s a cult of personality.” “The average quality of the companies has really dropped as they’ve broadened.” “I can’t wait for this bubble to pop.” I believe it was mostly in jest — few topics were spared that night — but there was some truth in the defensive undertone.

The hackers and engineers of Y Combinator are doing what hackers and engineers do to any industry, they’re efficiently and ruthlessly disrupting the traditional model of venture capital and are going to destroy far more more wealth for their contemporaries than they create for themselves, as broadband did to entertainment, Craigslist did to newspapers, and Amazon did to traditional retailers. This is what outsiders, by definition, do.

The dark humor in this is that the same people who delight and celebrate investing in disrupting other industries are blind or in denial about it happening to their own.

The question then becomes if you’re an investor with a traditional LP model (and expectations), or a more financial background than an operational one, or an operational background more in management than in design or coding, what should you do to stay relevant through this shift?