Part 1/Chapter 1

Hello World

It was February, 2002 and Matt Mullenweg (matt) was in Houston, Texas, home from school. Sitting at his homemade PC, surrounded by posters of his favorite jazz musicians, he downloaded a copy of Movable Type, installed it on a web server, and published his first blog post.

I suppose it was just a matter of time before my egotist tendencies combined with my inherit (sic) geekiness to create some sort of blog. I’ve had an unhealthy amount of fun setting this up. This will be a nexus where I talk about and comment on things that interest me, like music, technology, politics, etc. etc.

A few months later, and nearly five thousand miles away in Stockport, England, Mike Little (mikelittle) sat in the converted cellar that served as his home office. Surrounded by hundreds of books and CDs, he sat at a desk swamped by a 17″ CRT monitor and spent his Sunday installing a free and open source blogging platform called b2. His first post is similar to Matt’s. Mike tells the world about his blogging platform and his plans for his blog: “There will either be nothing here,” he wrote, “or a collection of random thoughts and links. Nothing too exciting. But then again I’m not an exciting person.”

These two unremarkable blog posts, testing new system and welcome, are like hundreds of first blog posts before them — a tentative first step, a software test, a pronouncement “I am here” with a promise of writing to come. What sets these two posts apart, is that they don’t just mark the beginning of two blogs, but a blogging platform that supports a community and an economy, that enables millions worldwide to write their “hello world” posts, too, and publish online.

Matt and Mike published their first posts at a time when more and more people were getting online and using the internet to express themselves. Blogging, while not quite in its infancy, was still maturing. A few years earlier, in 1998, there had only been a handful of weblogs. These early blogs were often curated collections of links accompanied by snarky or sarcastic commentary. These collections were web filters; the author surfed the web for readers who could then browse through links on weblogs they trusted. One of the earliest bloggers, Justin Hall, collected links to some of the darkest corners of the internet, but in addition to sharing the weird things he found, Hall poured his personal life online, and was a key figure in the transition from link log to personal diary.

As Rebecca Blood noted in 2000, blogs evolved from “a list of links with commentary and personal asides to a website…updated frequently, with new material posted at the top of the page.” It was this type of blog that brought Mike and Matt online, a format with established conventions that we’re familiar with today. Blogging software publishes content with the most recent post at the top of the page — the first thing a visitor sees after landing on a site. This self-publishing premise has been a blogging feature from the earliest online diaries, to weblogs, to tumblogs, and even microblogging sites such as Twitter.

Many of the first bloggers were those already involved with the web: software developers like Dave Winer, designers like Jeffrey Zeldman, and technologists like Anil Dash. As a result, much of the earliest blog content was about the web and technology, interspersed with more diffuse thoughts and commentary about a blogger’s life. With this tendency toward meta-commentary, bloggers wrote about the tools used to publish their blogs and the improvements they made to their sites. While blogging grew steadily, the community was still considered geeky and insular. Journalists disparaged bloggers, and rarely took their reporting seriously.

In 2001, blogging started to permeate the public consciousness. American political blogs became popular in the wake of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Blogs such as Instapundit and The Daily Dish saw a massive surge in popularity. Andrew Sullivan, the blogger behind The Daily Dish, said that people didn’t come to his blog just for news; “They were hungry for communication, for checking their gut against someone they had come to know, for emotional support and psychological bonding.”

This was one of the first indications of the power of blogging — it gave people a voice online, providing a platform where people could come together to grieve. In his book Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why it Matters, Scott Rosenburg talks of how, despite the dot-com bubble burst, blogging increased in the last quarter of 2001. “Something strange and novel had landed on the doorstep,” Rosenburg writes in his introduction, “the latest monster baby from the Net. Newspapers and radio and cable news began to take note and tell people about it. That in turn sent more visitors to the bloggers’ sites, and inspired a whole new wave of bloggers to begin posting.” Since that time, blogging — and later social media — has played a pivotal role in politics, public life, and even revolutions.

As blogging evolved, so did blogging tools. Services like Geocities and Tripod allowed anyone to create a website, but these sites had little in common with the dynamic stream of content on a blog. The earliest blogs were manual, using HTML and FTP. On his blog, Justin Hall had a page titled Publish Yo’ Self, which taught people how to write HTML and publish online, claiming that “HTML is easy as hell!” But writing and publishing HTML got in the way of the actual writing process; the dream was to create a tool for writing content and publishing it to the web with one click. Dave Winer, whose popular Scripting News was one of the earliest blogs, set up UserLand Software, which developed Frontier NewsPage, a tool that enabled people to create news-oriented websites like Scripting News.

In 1998, Open Diary, a community where people wrote diaries online and communicated with other diarists, launched. Then came LiveJournal, Xanga, and in 1999. In the same year, Pyra Labs launched Blogger, the tool often credited with popularizing blogging. Blogger automated publishing a blog to a web server: the user wrote their content, and Blogger uploaded the page to the server after each post.

Movable Type, the platform which, at one time, was one of WordPress’ biggest competitors, launched in 2001. As with so many popular platforms, Moveable Type came about as a result of developers scratching their own itch. While Blogger was easy to use, it was limited in its functionality — it lacked post titles, rich text editing, and categories. For reasons like these, Ben and Mena Trott created something different for Mena’s blog. When they launched Movable Type in October 2001, it quickly became the most popular blogging platform, used by many of the major blogs at the time, including Instapundit, Wonkette, and Boing Boing. In many ways, Movable Type raised the bar for blogging platforms. It was not simply a publishing platform, but a publishing platform that people wanted to use. “I thought it was beautiful. I think in a lot of ways it foreshadowed the web 2.0, not the gradients and things, but the beauty and the white space,” recalls Anil Dash. Now, “all of a sudden my blog posts had titles and I could have comments and I could archive things by month and I could do all manner of really interesting things. And all mostly with just HTML. Pretty much as easily as Blogger, but with just so much more power.”

The tools got better. Soon publishing content wasn’t enough. Communities grew around different types of blogs. An author’s blog became a way for them to connect with people around the world. A blogger’s first, lone “hello world” quickly evolved into a series of posts that interlinked with other bloggers across the internet. Sidebars were embellished with “blogrolls,” lists of blogs that gave “link love” to favorite sites. Movable Type created Trackbacks to allow bloggers to track discussion on their articles across the internet.

It was into this arena that the nascent WordPress platform first said “hello world.” It did so quietly, not in Texas, nor in Stockport, but in the French island of Corsica. It appeared, first of all, not even as WordPress at all. In June 2001, months before Mike or Matt had even published their first blog posts, a developer in Corsica created his own blogging platform. He touted it as a “PHP+MySQL alternative to Blogger and Greymatter.” He called his PHP blogging platform b2.