WordPress: The 15 Year Revolution

Tuesday May 27th, 2003 is a significant marker in the history of the web. On that day 15 years ago, in a tiny corner of the internet, a new software package titled “WordPress” made its debut. It’s goal: Make this thing called “blogging” possible for anyone and everyone.

Just three years earlier I sat in a lecture hall at the University of Oslo where a professor explained how open source software was a dead-end; the fever dream of anarchist software developers with no footing in the real world. “Free software,” he proclaimed (I’m paraphrasing here), “is a waste of time. Ten years from now we will look back on this whole movement in shame.” The same professor also wrote off JavaScript as an irrelevant experiment in useless application design soon to be extinguished.

Looking back at these statements from today where open source software powers much of the internet and JavaScript is eating the web it is hard not to scoff at his seeming ignorance. But back then Open Source really was a fringe movement in an industry still in its infancy, and it was hard to imagine how giving software away for free and allowing anyone to copy it and turn it into whatever they wanted would be a good idea.

All things to all people

Today WordPress powers more than 30% of the top 10,000,000 sites on the web. It is the engine driving your friend’s dog blog, the website of the flower shop down the street, the membership site for your gym, the fundraising site for your favorite charity, the newspaper you read every morning, and the sites of your local, federal, and international governments. If you spend any time on the web today, you are almost guaranteed to encounter a WordPress site. Though you probably would never know unless you inspected its code base. From its roots as a “blogging platform”, WordPress has evolved into a full-featured Content Management System and web publishing platform.

GPL or bust

The key to WordPress’ success, what turned a tiny blogging application into the go-to publishing application for the web, was captured in the last sentence of the announcement post published all those years ago:

“WordPress is available completely free of charge under the GPL license. Enjoy!”

The GPL, or GNU General Public License, is one of the most radical “copyleft” licenses software can be published under. It embeds in the software itself the “four freedoms that every user should have:

  • the freedom to use the software for any purpose,
  • the freedom to change the software to suit your needs,
  • the freedom to share the software with your friends and neighbors, and
  • the freedom to share the changes you make.

The GPL is also passed on to any derivative work meaning anything built on or with WordPress (which is GPL) automatically inherits the same GPL license.

The use of GPL in WordPress is not unique. What makes WordPress special is how fiercely and literally the GPL is enforced by project leader Matt Mullenweg. Over the 15 years of WordPress’ life, Mullenweg has entered the fray numerous times to protect and uphold what he sees as the absolute freedoms of every user of WordPress. And though this has caused no small amount of controversy, it is in my opinion one of the main reasons for WordPress’ success and its transformative impact on the web and the web and internet industries.

Democratize publishing

With Mullenweg’s vision as its foundation, a thriving world-wide community of content creators, software developers, and community organizers have made reality of the project mission, to mission of the WordPress project is to “democratize publishing through Open Source, GPL software.” Thanks to WordPress, anyone with an internet connection and access to basic web hosting can create their own website to publish their ideas, creations, products, and communities. And thanks to the GPL embedded in WordPress, anyone can contribute back to the project in any way they desire. Around the world, more than 1300 Meetups and hundreds of WordCamps bring users, administrators, designers, and developers together to learn about and share their knowledge of and build the application and its community. Around the world thousands if not millions of people make a living thanks to WordPress. And around the world, millions of people leave their mark on the web through their WordPress sites every single day. No small feat for a bunch of files you can download for free.

WordPress Next

As we enter the 16th year of WordPress, much of what made the application unique has been adopted by its competitors and companies including Mullenweg’s own SAAS platform are offering WordPress-like features with extended management options for a premium. Where WordPress goes next will determine not only its future success or whether it reaches the lofty (and in my opinion irresponsible) goal of powering 50% of the web, but whether it will continue to push the web forward and keep web publishing democratic and accessible to all.

With a 30% market share WordPress has the potential to drive the web forward through participation in web standards bodies and by simply implementing its own opinions of how the web and the internet should work. So far, the application and its community has been agnostic to the point of riding the back seat in these conversations; a consequence of its roots as a tool built by the people who show up with no clear management structure or long-term strategy. This inaction has not gone unnoticed, and large influencers like Google have realized WordPress can be used as a vehicle to bring us to the future of the web faster. One of our major challenges as a community will be to navigate this new reality and find ways to make decisions about how WordPress should wield its power to democratize publishing beyond its own borders.

The challenges facing the application are also internal. As I write this, the WordPress project is in the midst of its largest and most revolutionary evolution to date. Project Gutenberg, announced some 18 months ago, reimagines the very nature of content creation treating each piece of content placed in a post, or page, or view as an individual block with its own unique properties. The WordPress block concept is a fundamental transformative departure from the core feature of the application itself – the content blob – that may carve a new path into the future for web publishing as a whole. The question yet to be answered is whether this new vision for the web will bring another generation of users to the WordPress table. Only time will tell.

WordPress and me

I published the first post on my own blog a late summer evening 11 years ago. At the time I’d transitioned from table-based layouts through Flash and DWTs and ASP.NET to Mambo and Joomla! and Drupal and eventually WordPress. What I found in the little blogging engine that could was an end-user experience for my clients that allowed me to build what they needed and them to manage it without running the risk of destroying everything in the process. Over the years I’ve transitioned from WordPress user and implementer to theme developer, educator, and project contributor. I’ve met some of my closest friends and collaborators through WordPress. I attribute much of my career to the success of WordPress. And I have every hope that 15 years from now my son will be building his own web experiences using software that traces its roots back to the application I write this article in today.

We have proven the democratization of publishing is possible. Our next challenge will be using that power to bring democracy to every corner of our shared world. I invite you to join us.

By Morten Rand-Hendriksen

Morten Rand-Hendriksen is a Senior Staff Instructor at LinkedIn Learning (formerly specializing in AI, bleeding edge web technologies, and the intersection between technology and humanity. He also occasionally teaches at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. He is a popular conference and workshop speaker on all things tech ethics, AI, web technologies, and open source.