Maybe the WordPress origin story isn’t as legendary or contentious as Mark Zuckerberg’s. And maybe won’t be made into a movie written by Aaron Sorkin, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fascinating tale filled with community and conflict.
In her book, The History of WordPress, Siobhan McKeown shows the difficulties and triumphs of creating and maintaining an open-source software. It covers everything from Michel Valdrighi’s disappearance to the creation of Automattic.
If you’re new to the WordPress community, it is a great way to become familiar with the platform’s roots, and for those who have been here a long time it pays homage to the thing that brought us all together.
You can access the first draft of the book on GitHub, but McKeown has stopped taking suggestions for change and will be moving forward with the book in the near future. Until then, you can download a free PDF and begin your journey through the history of WordPress.
McKeown began researching the origin of WordPress when Matt Mullenweg hired her to do documentation at Audrey Capitol. This was around the time of WordPress’ 10th anniversary, so it seemed like a good idea to compile all McKeown’s findings in a book.
The research process was extremely involved, more so than McKeown expected. The project began by sifting through b2 archives, WP Tavern archives, forums, and mailing lists. Then there were the thousands of blog posts about the creation of WordPress that can’t even be found online anymore.
“This involved going down many many rabbitholes in which one post would lead to another would lead to another and another, not to mention the comment threads which often extended to up to 300 comments,” McKeown told Torque in an Interview.
Alongside the documents, she conducted more than 60 interviews. To say this is a complete history is an understatement. The book comes with links to old blog posts, photos, and tons of footnotes elaborating on the text.
The story begins as many in the tech industry do: innovative people realizing something was missing and figuring out a way to fix it. In a time before WordPress, there was only the blogging software Moveable Type, and while it was a great option for people who wanted to write online, there weren’t many ways to customize the blog unless you were a developer.
B2, Bloggers, And The Beginning Of WordPress
In 2000 in Corsica, a mountainous island of the coast of France, a blogger named Michel Valdrighi wanted to make a way for creators to make something worthwhile and beautiful without having to know how to code. He used PHP to create b2, the precursor to WordPress. Because of his inexperience as a developer, the software was very basic, which made it accessible to more people.
Valdrighi managed to create a community of bloggers around the project. People began contributing ideas, asking for technical support, and even checking in on his well-being. It was the very beginning of the WordPress community as we know it today. Unfortunately in 2002, Valdrighi went through a series of tough times and disappeared, abandoning the project. A lot of people felt left in the lurch and couldn’t continue the project as it was.
Lucky for us, and many bloggers around the world, this isn’t the end of the story.
From different corners of the world, Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little weren’t ready to let the idea of an open-source blogging software fall by the wayside. After meeting online, the two figured out a way to fork the existing b2 of Valdrighi’s project into something new and exciting — WordPress!
Though it took a few months to get started, more people started getting on board with the project. In 2004, Ryan Boren developed the plugin system, which changed the platform forever, and shortly after a Wiki was made to start documenting the plugins.
In the early days of the project, developers and hackers would email patches directly to Little, who would then institute the changes. As more people began to show interest, it was clear Little wouldn’t be able to single-handedly make all of the changes. The team needed to find a way to make the software completely open source forever.
That is when they discovered the GNU General Public License (GPL), and announced that WordPress would be entirely free and can only be distributed if the freedoms are also passed on. With this freedom come the four main pillars of what any good open-source software should have:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others.
In 2007, Moveable Type was purchased and would no longer be available for free. Mark Pilgrim, a well-known developer and writer, wrote about why WordPress was the best option and the software saw a surge in users, and, like that, the community began to form.
It took a lot to get WordPress to the place we recognize today. From the creation of Automattic to the first WordCamp in 2006, it wasn’t always easy to offer a collaborative, free open-source product that works.
McKeown’s book follows all the twists and turns that led to a product that manages over 48 percent of blogs and dominates 25% of the Internet. The book is written as a non-technical narrative that is easy to understand even if you haven’t heard of WordPress and have no formal understanding of code.
It is accessible and a good read for anyone interested in the tech world! For the rest of the WordPress narrative, you can download the full pdf for free here.