When Verizon announced earlier this week that it was selling Tumblr, the blogging platform Yahoo acquired in 2013 for $1.1 billion, most of the attention focused on the price: according to Axios, the communications conglomerate sold Tumblr for just $3 million (Vox says closer to $2 million). In other words, Yahoo vaporized about 99 percent of the platform’s theoretical value in the six years it owned the company. But apart from this massive bonfire of value, one of the most interesting things about the Tumblr sale was the acquirer: Automattic, the parent company of WordPress. If Tumblr was the Coney Island freak show of the blogosphere, WordPress is the more dependable cousin—the one with a steady job. Could the combination of the two bring back the glory days of independent blogging? Some are clearly hoping that it will, and if anyone has a chance of pulling it off, it’s probably WordPress.
More than 35 percent of the world’s 1 million most popular websites run on the company’s publishing software (about ten times the number that use its nearest competitor). That list includes many leading publishers such as The New Yorker, TechCrunch, the BBC and Variety magazine. But the software behind all of these sites isn’t the product of some massive corporation: founder Matt Mullenweg cobbled it together in 2003, when he was just 19 years old. Even more surprising, the core of WordPress is still open source, meaning anyone can help develop it, and any user can download, install and run it for free. Automattic helps manage the free version, but also sells a for-pay version and related services to large publishers. The company is valued at over $1 billion.
In an interview with The Verge on Tuesday, Mullenweg—who is now CEO of Automattic–makes it clear the purchase of Tumblr wasn’t just an attempt to cash in on a Verizon fire sale. Part of his motivation, he suggests, was to try to bring back some of the magic of the old days of blogging, when the web seemed to be mostly made up of individuals writing on their own websites instead of posting to a Facebook news feed. And Mullenweg clearly sees the open-source, do-it-yourself ethos of Tumblr and WordPress as an alternative to the centralized control of a social-networking behemoth like Facebook. “I would love for Tumblr to become a social alternative,” he says. “It has the fun and friendliness of some of the other networks we use, but without that democracy destroying…” The sentence is left unfinished, but it’s obvious who Mullenweg is talking about.
More than just about any other piece of software, WordPress helped fuel the blog revolution in the mid- to late 2000’s. Although many early bloggers used a variety of tools, including Moveable Type and Blogger (founded by Evan Williams, whosold it to Google in 2003 and went on to become a co-founder of Twitter), WordPress quickly became the go-to for anyone who wanted to publish their own writing. And as media companies like The New York Times started to dabble in the web, WordPress also became the default platform for many of their blogs as well. TechCrunch started the technology blog boom and was eventually acquired by AOL; The Huffington Post built a blog empire before it was also acquired; and blogs helped start the careers of some notable journalists, including Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept and CNN’s Brian Stelter, who got his start with a self-published blog called TV Newser while he was still in university.
As Twitter and Facebook rose in popularity, blogging—which took more time and effort—declined, to the point where you could count the number of independent bloggers on one hand. Tumblr continued for a time, powered in part by porn. Verizon banned pornographic content after it acquired Yahoo, a decision which many believe killed the service. But Mullenweg told The Verge that Tumblr still has a significant number of loyal users, and that he’s hoping to offer them monetization features and other services. Whether WordPress + Tumblr can create something that goes head-to-head with Facebook and Twitter—and whether independent journalists would take to such a thing as an alternative to social networks—remains to be seen.