Matt Mullenweg Is a Very Dangerous Man

Matt Mullenweg is a very dangerous man.

At the inaugural WordPress for Government and Enterprise meetup on May 6, the co-founder of WordPress & founder & CEO of Automattic, discussed the amazing journey of WordPress from a home-spun blogging tool to the world’s most successful enterprise content management platform.

Mullenweg believes in democracy. He believes in competition. He believes in open-source. All dangerous notions in Washington, DC, a city devoted to closed-systems, insider deals and imperial government.

WordPress is free. Government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on complicated content management systems that don’t work. “Why is the free thing better than what your agency spent $5 million on?” Mullenweg asked.

WorePress LogoFor him, users drive software. They are always right. Users will decide whether WordPress survives or fails – and he accepts that. “You win because you’re the best,” he said.

I asked him how government could avoid debacles like He called for more transparency, imagining a world in which hackers could fix the doomed health care site and develop their own, better vision.

No one got fired for Why should they? The project managers at HHS followed all the policies and procedures for government procurement and contract management. You can’t blame the contractors either – they were just doing what the feds told them to do, as crazy as it must’ve seemed at the time. was built according to all the regulations and was a $1 billion failure.

The world is moving in Mullenweg’s direction. We, as consumers, pick winners and losers – not the government. Yet, we have a federal bureaucracy designed for the 1930s.

Walter Russell Mead calls this “the blue model“. He writes:

The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore. The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.

Big Government doesn’t work in a world that’s become small, dynamic and user-driven. For example, Mullenweg works with a distributed team that gets together once a year. He doesn’t even know what some of his employees look like. In contrast, government spends millions on buildings it doesn’t use and struggles with implementing even the most basic of telecommuting policies.

Working in government, I have an old Dell wired to an ethernet jack. We don’t even have a working copier. Office supplies are locked away. Wi-fi is forbidden.

At home, I have a MacBook Pro, wi-fi, WordPress, a digital camera, Dropbox, an iPad and a host of other tools – as well as better coffee. The consumer market provides me better tools than a billion-dollar bureaucracy.

If government is to survive, it must be reformed. We can no longer afford a massive, unresponsive federal state that’s tied down by endless rules and regulations.

Government must become responsive to citizens. It must adopt the WordPress model that users are always right. Citizens pay for government and they deserve better.

If government does not reform, debacles like are not only likely – they are inevitable.

Governments like China fear WordPress for the openness and free expression it provides. The American government should fear it too. WordPress demonstrates a new, more democratic and more user-driven way of working together. It’s impossible to go back to the blue model. Matt Mullenweg is a very dangerous man.

You Do Not Need an Expensive SEO Consultant

SEO Consultant. $2k a month minimum.

This advertisement popped up on top of my Gmail. I saw this and thought: I am in the wrong line of work. Apparently, search engine optimization is so much in demand that you don’t need to state your qualifications or the benefits of your service – you just tell customers what they’re going to pay.

As someone who has worked on web sites for more than 15 years, I’m going to tell you a secret:

You do not need an expensive SEO consultant.

The practice of search engine optimization is based upon the belief that you can optimize web site content so that it shows up higher in Google’s search engine rankings. This is correct. There are simple things that you can do to improve your rankings, such as clear writing, good page titles and being consistent in how you describe your content. Most of the SEO practices that work revolve around words – the content of your site. Why is that?

You cannot outsmart Google.

Over the years, a variety of discredited practices have been employed by unscrupulous SEO consultants and shady web site operators to improve their site rankings. In the beginning (the 90s), this meant hidden text, where you hid a bunch of text in your site, visible only to search engines. Later on, it was the manipulation of meta-information, the descriptors of your site. Then, most maddeningly of all, it was keyword stuffing – where you repeated the same keyword over and over again in attempt to convince Google that your site was the authority on that keyword. For example, “The Acme Hotel is the best hotel in South Beach among all South Beach hotels, all South Beach hotel experts agree.”

A whole industry grew up around this practice called content farms – they produced low-quality, repetitive content that succeeded (for a time) in garnering top search engine spots on almost every topic.

But then Google changed their algorithm, killing off this industry.  Their mission is provide searchers with the best content. They don’t want to send people to crap. They employ some of the smartest techies on the planet, much smarter than a content farm owner or a slick SEO consultant. There is only one way to beat them:

Write content that people want to read.

This is a simple idea that’s rarely practiced. Instead of investing in good writing, organizations post dry reports, self-serving press releases and jargon-choked product descriptions. They end up with a web site no human would want to read and then wonder: how come we’re not #1 in Google? It’s an outrage! We need an SEO consultant!

You don’t need a consultant. You need a writer. You need someone who knows your customer, someone who can look at your organization from the outside and determine what it is that people want. This information can be found in your site’s analytics – what are web site visitors searching for? It’s probably not your annual report but is instead something simple, like a price list or store locator or if a widget comes in blue.

Start there, with this unsatisfied need that visitors have expressed. Write pages that answer these questions. Skip the SEO consultant and, instead, write content that people want to read.


First Post for Medium: We Need a Facebook for Failures

I am profoundly ambivalent about Facebook. It’s an interesting peek into the lives of others. But it’s also a source of much angst and drama, an extension of our high school lives into adulthood. I really hate it at times.

Which is why I wrote We Need a Facebook for Failures. In this short article, I call for people to be honest on Facebook rather than showing only the best of all possible worlds.

I wrote the piece for Medium, a new blogging site by Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter. It’s a collaborative blogging environment with a distraction-free design that lets you focus on words.

DCist Exposed: Who Are These People?

Opening night at DCist Exposed
Opening night at DCist Exposed 2013

What does the brave new world of photography look like? It looks a lot like the DCist Exposed show wrapping up this weekend at Long View Gallery.

In an era when digital images are ubiquitous, and everyone has a cellphone camera, what does it mean to be a photographer? Is a photographer someone who has expensive gear? Someone who works for pay? A person who understands ISO and exposure?

We are all photographers now. This is liberating and terrifying all at once. It’s liberating for millions who can now use inexpensive cameras and free apps to pursue their artistic vision. And it’s terrifying for anyone who hopes to make a living at this trade.

You can see the results in DCist Exposed. I’ve been in the show twice myself and think it’s a great celebration of photography. You can learn a lot from the show. It offers the opportunity to look at familiar landmarks in a new light.

I’ve seen the Capitol a million times but never from the terrace of the Newseum like this photo from Victoria Pickering. Another familiar landmark is seen in Memorial Day by Gary Silverstein.

But the show also offers off the beaten path looks at the city like the abstract lines of Hockney by Jim Darling and river speed by Bryan Bowman.

Running Around the Tree by Eric Purcell is my favorite from the show.

What fascinates me about DCist Exposed is that it’s done by ordinary folks. The show is not curated by a Gallery Director and populated by the obscure work of pierced art students. It’s a scene unknown to local art mandarins, leading an Atlantic magazine columnist to sniff, “Who are these people?”

Instead, the curators are people who have day jobs in government and the photos come from lawyers, web developers and other prosaic professions.

And that’s why the show is such a success. Like the DC Shorts Film Festival (which I’m also involved with), DCist Exposed is a show open to all with a populist sensibility.

Organized, curated and promoted by amateurs with cameras, the future of photography looks a lot like DCist Exposed. Go see it.

DCist Exposed: March 25 – April 7, 2013
Long View Gallery
1234 9th St NW
Washington, DC 20001
Wednesday-Saturday 11-6
Sunday 12-5

My Instacanvas Gallery – Photos from Washington, DC

Instacanvas is is a marketplace allowing users to buy and sell Instagram photos as canvas art. This Southern California company has gotten tons of press and has been featured in TechCrunch, Forbes and elsewhere.

And I’ve joined in the fun, opening up an Instacanvas gallery at

Now you can buy my Instagram shots of city life in Washington, DC. My interests include bikes, beer and soulful black and white. I definitely have a thing for black and white iPhone shots.

Included in the gallery are photos that have appeared in the InstantDC and Fotoweek gallery shows, as well as local blogs such as DCist, We Love DC and Prince of Petworth.

Canvas prints are as inexpensive as $39.95 and shipping is free. Here are some of my favorites:

little girl in art gallery
little girl in art gallery *First Place, Fotoweek DC Mobile Phone Image Competition*
paddling on the Potomac
paddling on the Potomac
squares on F Street
squares on F Street *featured in We Love DC*
black and white bench
black and white bench
morning commuter on 14th Street
morning commuter on 14th Street *featured on DCist*
early cherry blossoms at the Jefferson Memorial
early cherry blossoms at the Jefferson Memorial

Check out my complete gallery and get some inexpensive art for your bare walls!

How to Get People to Write Content for Your Site

The biggest challenge in being a Web Content Manager is not learning HTML or dealing with the complexities of social media. It is a more prosaic one – how do you get people to write content for your web site?

I’ve worked in web content for organizations large and small, in government and outside of it. The same problem comes up again and again. An organization wants a web site that contains timely, accurate, relevant and (hopefully) engaging content. But they are dependent on people with various levels of interest to actually write the content.

Web sites rely on these subject matter experts (SMEs). They produce program descriptions, product pages, explanations of government procedures, “about us” pages, executive bios, instructions on how to fill out forms and everything in between. This content is the vital core of the web site; without it, you have an empty shell.

Most of the time, these people don’t work for you. They’re in some distant department, charged with updating their section of the web site. They have differing levels of comfort with writing. They may, in fact, hate to write and look at producing content for the site as some onerous chore.

How do you get SMEs to write content for the web site?

Sell Them

How much traffic does your site get? Has it won any awards or received recognition? Do you have a file of nice comments from readers? Share this information with your SMEs. Let them know how much the web site matters and how important their content is to it. I suggest reporting web metrics to your SMEs. Give them numbers that they can share with their bosses and brag about.

Tip: Put all your web metrics, awards and nice comments into a fact sheet or web page that you can easily share.

Respect Their Time

Make the content submission process as painless as possible. Have an editorial guide to share with SMEs, as well as quick description of how the publishing process works. State what you need from them clearly and concisely, with word counts and deadlines. Don’t inundate SMEs with information that they don’t need to know, like esoteric web technologies that they’re not going to see. Give them deadlines that are doable but not so far in advance that they seem theoretical. I like deadlines in the 2-4 week range.

Tip: Create an online editorial kit for contributors, with everything writers for the site need to know.

Peer Pressure

You think such childish tactics don’t work on senior staff? You’re wrong. Telling a GS-15 that all of his peers have updated their sections of the web site but he hasn’t – that really works. Someone should write a research paper on the use of playground tactics in the office.

Tip: Hang a chart in your office listing sections of the site and if they’re up to date.

Write It Yourself (Not Really)

Early in my career, I wanted a designer to help me design a new section of the site. He said he was too busy. So I built a rough layout myself. After I showed it to him, he took one look and said, “This is terrible. I’ll do it.” Problem solved. Sometimes, people just need something to respond to. Put your ideas on paper and show them to your “too busy” SMEs. They may find it easier to work from something that you’ve started.

Walking Around

The content published to the web site is just a fraction of the content produced in your organization. As a Web Content Manager, your job is tell the story of your organization online. You need to know what’s going on in different departments, what they’re working on and what’s coming up. In a nonprofit I worked for, I did this by walking around. I’d talk to the press people and magazine editors and writers that I knew. Dropping in on them, I’d find out if they had anything good that I could put up on the web site.

Tip: Formalize the “walking around” process by having a SME group that meets regularly. Though this isn’t as fun as walking around.

Web technologies come and go. Policies, procedures and government requirements change. But the one constant in web site management is the problem of getting people to write content.

Stating the Obvious: Internet Anonymity Matters

Can you imagine what the Internet would be like if you had to register with the government? If you had to use your real name every time you left a comment on a web site? And if companies and government agencies could haul you into court over something you wrote online?

Anonymity is part of the Internet’s DNA. It’s what makes it such a vibrant, raucous and ever-growing community.

You’d think this was obvious but lawmakers in New York want to change all that, forcing online commenters to use their real names or remove their “offensive” comments. I’m quoted in this AOL Government article on the madness of this idea.

We might not like what we read online. We may be offended, outraged or just annoyed. But that’s the nature of the online beast that we’ve all come to love.

Free Yourself from the Tyranny of Sharepoint

Sharepoint is a plague upon the American workforce. This ubiquitous piece of collaboration software has taught millions of people that Intranets are destined to be places where you can’t find anything.

It doesn’t have to be this way, despite what Microsoft may have you believe. There are alternatives to Sharepoint that actually work in ways that ordinary humans can understand.

One of these alternatives is WordPress. You can set up your own Intranet using WordPress with a minimum of technical knowhow.

It’s certainly better than learning the maddening intricacies of Sharepoint, as developer Ben Balter discovered. Given the dreaded task of updating the Sharepoint site, he instead decided to spend three hours to see if he could come up with an alternative.

The result was WP Document Revisions. This is a WordPress plugin that allows teams of any size to collaboratively edit files and manage their workflow. In other words, the core of what you probably would use Sharepoint for if it was actually usable.

Ben wasn’t done. He’s since gone on to craft additional plugins, as he described in WordPress as a Collaboration Tool, a talk he gave at the monthly WordPress DC meetup. The tools he created essentially improve upon all the functions of Sharepoint, but in WordPress, so you don’t need expensive licenses or pricey database experts to keep the whole thing from crashing.

By using WordPress, you turn “add this information to the Intranet” from a frustrating task into something as simple as blogging. And just think how good your Intranet could be if people actually wanted to contribute to it.

Improving internal communication does more than just lead to happier employees. It contributes to the bottom line by saving the time of staff. Do you want people spending hours trying to figure where their document disappeared to on Sharepoint or do you want them to do, well, something productive?

Most of us, however, have no control over what software we use at work. I asked Ben what to do in this case. He replied with the truism that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. He also demonstrated what WordPress could do and developed internal support for it. When presented with a credible alternative, rational decision-makers will make the right choice, if they can.

There’s a lot of caveats in that last sentence. I know. Big organizations choose big software for reasons that defy reason.

But life’s too short to use bad software. Investigate the alternatives. Anticipate objections. Present your case. Just something is ubiquitous doesn’t meant it’s right or destined to last forever. The way we work is changing, and software should change with it.

Update: I cross-posted this to GovLoop, which prompted a great deal of discussion from govvies.

Washington Post, What Happened to You?

Washington Post, what happened to you? You’re the paper of Woodward and Bernstein, a beloved local institution and a veritable fourth branch of government.

Coming home after a Saturday night carousing, I used to love to see the trucks lined up outside your building on 15th Street. Back then (the 90s), the paper was printed right next to the Post’s HQ. Blue trucks would be double-parked along the street, waiting to deliver the news to the region.

And if I stayed out late enough, I could pick up the fat slab of Sunday’s paper while it was still technically Saturday night. There was a weird thrill to this, getting the news ahead of everyone else. The Sunday paper was an event, something everyone read.

This is all gone now. Where once stories were reported, fact-checked, edited and edited again before the presses rolled, news these days emerges in electronic form, often-rushed and incomplete. This is a good thing. I am for more news, more information, for the great cornucopia of the web. No more gatekeepers, let the public decide what matters.

But the Washington Post is an institution. It is a brand expressing journalistic quality and integrity. When they publish something, I expect it to be true.

I don’t expect the Washington Post to be running a digital sweatshop, where young journalists are expected to churn out regurgitated news items in the mad pursuit of impossible traffic goals.

How does this fit into the great tradition of the Post? The strength of the paper is its ability to really delve into issues. Why are they trying to be like some smarmy blog?

And getting a few hits on your site – what is that really winning you? Traffic rushes in to click on a link and then rushes off to some other site.

At the What’s Next DC conference, I watched Katharine Zaleski, the paper’s digital news director, give a presentation on the strategy. Coming from the Huffington Post, she brought a relentless focus on metrics. News was to be measured. And the measurement was site traffic. She had charts showing how traffic to the site had increased as the Post increased its “buzziness,” with efforts like news aggregation and blogging.

Does the Washington Post really want to emulate The Huffington Post? Do they want to “surf the trend waves on the Internet”? Shouldn’t the paper be making waves rather than trying to catch them?

And are ephemeral bursts of web traffic the right metric to follow? If so, why not just turn your site over to cat videos? But the Post is more than that, isn’t it?

Stay true to your mission – quality journalism. It’s what you do best. Stop trying to be cool. Don’t go for viral. Avoid “buzziness” and all its advocates.

Instead, simplify. Be the Apple of newspapers. Don’t add more web gimmickry to your cluttered and unusable web site. Focus on what you do best.

Don’t measure web hits – look at engagement. How long do people stay on the site? How many stories do they read? Try to duplicate the loyalty readers once felt toward the paper that they lovingly held in their hands. Better to have 100,000 devoted readers than a million casual followers.

No more second-rate social media. It’s beneath you, Washington Post. Simplify, focus on your strengths and pursue engagement with readers to be true to your news-breaking legacy.

I Wish I Had Tweeted More: Confessions of a Social Media Skeptic

SXSW 2007I was there at the beginning.

In 2007, Twitter leapt into geek consciousness at SXSW Interactive. Monitors had been placed in the halls of this tech conference, displaying what people were tweeting about. I thought it was an interesting curiosity, like watching telegrams in real time. Little bursts of text scrolled across the screen, as people shared opinions about the workshops that they were in.

Imagine, prior to this epochal event of just five years ago, we had no easy way of getting real-time information from our friends, unless of course we talked to them. And when we went to events, we were fully present, listening to speakers without constantly checking our electronic devices. We paid attention, more or less. Or nodded off. Or wandered away, in search of something more interesting, guided only by instinct. Continue reading “I Wish I Had Tweeted More: Confessions of a Social Media Skeptic”