Bay Lights Darken Matt and WP Community Relationship 

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A few months back, the WordPress community was up in arms against Matt Mullenweg for plugin search results in the .com page ranking higher than the .org page. The ensuing public showdown between Matt and WP Marketing Team co-rep Sé Reed, ended in Matt blocking her on Twitter and her filing the WP Code of Conduct Violation Report against him. Now Matt is again facing criticism – this time for using WordPress Twitter handle for crowdfunding his favorite project – The Bay Lights.

Matt & the Bay Lights Project

“Bay Light – Pier 14” by davidyuweb is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

The Bay Lights is an LED light sculpture on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in California, USA. The Hemispheres magazine listed the artwork as the number one thing to see in the world in 2013. 

Matt had always spoken up for the Bay Lights project and was one of its major donors. He has revealed that he found the money mortgaging his own apartment, thus messing up his finances for years. Later in 2013, he donated $1.5 Million

Matt turned 40 last week and had requested the community through his birthday postto give the smallest possible donation to the Bay Lights and encourage others to do the same so that we can all share in feeling that together, we can build things. And every time you see the light or bridge or think of San Francisco, you’ll think of that sacred hidden part of your heart that yearns for more, wants to leave everything better than you found it.” 

He posted about it in the Announcements Slack channel too.

But things took a sharp turn when the same request was made through the Twitter handle

Katie Keith (Co-Founder & CEO of Barn2plugins) wondered how lighting up a bridge is relevant to Matt’s birthday or the average WP user living outside San Francisco. Tia Woods (WPGirls) and Daniel Schutzsmith both wondered why the bridge lights need $11 million. Daniel tweeted “I swear the drama that surrounds WordPress almost always centers around its benevolent dictator. It’s just wild..”

Sé Reed tweeted “This post, specifically using the official WordPress account to crowdfund for a completely unrelated campaign, is both offensive and inappropriate. I’ve requested in the MakeWP Slack marketing channel that the @Automattic employees who posted it remove it immediately.” 

Automattic sponsored Marketing member Nicholas Garofalo quickly verified that it was not an employee but Matt himself who tweeted it. 

Jenni McKinnon (Founder and CEO of acknowledged “it’s a clear violation as written in the Marketing Handbook” and messaged Matt to delete the post only to be told “I can post anything I like to, the various channels connected to it, etc. The guidelines are good to keep for people on the marketing team, and I agree no one from there should have posted anything like this.”

The debate continued with Jessica Lyschik asking “Why is the post still there when everyone seems to agree it should not be there?” Matt replied “Who is the “everyone” you think is agreeing? The policy is about what the team should do, it does not say what I should do or not.”

On being asked why he does not want to follow the rules, Matt had this to say:

Jenni shared on Slack what she had messaged Matt including “Please remove that post immediately. If the post isn’t removed soon, I’ll formally escalate the issue with our community.” 

Other Opinions

Aki Hamano, from the Japanese WordPress community, felt the tweet was inappropriate, and there are other more serious issues, like the earthquake in Japan at the start of the month. Satyam Vishwakarma agreed that Matt can do anything, but the concerns raised should be addressed and any charity tweets should go through a survey on the Marketing channel.

Bernard Meyer,  a new contributor, offered two solutions – either delete the tweet or update the policy to include that Matt is exempted from all rules. Rodolfo Melogli, Founder of Business Bloomer tweeted “Imagine donating $1M USD to fund underrepresented WordCamp speakers, or WP contributors, or WP startups… 🙂”

Cameron Jones (Founder of Mongoose Marketplace) asked “What’s the point of having rules if they only apply selectively? It’s beyond time for governance.” while Andrew Palmer (cofounder of Bertha.AI) tweeted “I can post anything I like to w org’ says it all really.”

“I wondered if any of my followers would be interested in a crowdfunder to pay for the electricity in my home?” joked Ben Townsend of LayerWP while Hendrik Luehrsen (CEO of Luehrsen // Heinrich) dubbed him Benevolent Dictator for Life. Jeff Chandler (WP Mainline) had this to say “I don’t think the Matt M of 10 years ago would have said or done such a thing. Something has changed within the past two to three years. This is terrible. We all knew he could do it, we just didn’t think he would.”

Tom Willmot (CEO & co-founder of Human Made) and Aaron Jorbin (WordPress core committer) both tweeted in support of the Bay Lights project. 

Matt and the Marketing Team

Matt has a history of misspeaking and has been at loggerheads with the Marketing Team earlier too. As mentioned earlier, the previous one ended up with him blocking Sé Reed. 

The current Marketing Team Rep Nyasha Green said, “I agree with my fellow marketing members and co-reps. I get it, you have a higher say than us but at least listening to others about the optics of this is worth it. San Francisco was just in national news because a food blogger refused to eat there because of the homeless crisis. If we (appear to) piggy back off this to raise fund for this, bridge lights, how does that make ALL of the community look?”

The discussion again turned to Matt following rules and Jeni held back no punches when she said:

And this is a gem!

Jeni was persistent: “If you want the community to keep going, it stands to reason that you should keep it open and everyone should follow the same rules.” Finally Matt promised “I will consider how my actions affect our community. I will meditate on it for five minutes with no devices or distractions” 

And guess what was the result of the controversial tweet?

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Matt has no doubt done what few people could do – as a teen, he forked an abandoned software and has made it to a CMS ruling over 43% of the internet today. But that success was also fueled by thousands of volunteers who devoted their spare time to WordPress. Every WordPress release is the sweat and blood of countless people. 

Do we hold Matt to different standards? Yes! His decisions become the direction of WordPress and his actions reflect the community at large. He is no longer that teen of 2003 but a CEO who cannot afford to throw public tantrums and bend the rules when he cannot get his way. The community expects a lot from him and he may not be able to appease everyone but the least he can do is act like a dignified and sophisticated human being. 

At the time of publishing this post, Jenni McKinnon has aptly summarized the situation and expectations the community has from Matt “You set the tone for our community; your words and actions matt-er whether they are personal, private, business, or public — it’s one of the unfair parts of being a leader, but you are a leader nonetheless. You chose and choose to be the leader in a community you love. If you don’t choose to follow the rules, it opens the doors for others to follow suit. Please be mindful of the tone you set while we all try our best to do the same.”

An update

Josepha Haden Chomphosy Reacts

Josepha Haden Chomphosy finally entered the discussion saying it’s important to acknowledge the feedback from everyone and the marketing team’s access to the site and the Twitter account is based on a system of delegated permissions. “As a leader, I understand that we are held accountable by our community, but there is a limit to what any single human being should be asked to bear. Some personal attacks and general misinformation I’ve seen around WordPress/Matt (each used as a proxy for the other) are outrageous and, in some cases, harmful.”

Matt clarified twice that this indeed is an ultimatum. Josepha continued “I’m always open to constructive feedback, but not all feedback is actionable. A left field example is the copious feedback I’ve gotten about not having anymore nonbinary/women led releases. I received that feedback, spent time considering the viewpoints that were shared, and ultimately decided to continue with the releases as planned.”

Proposal for New Marketing Team Guidelines

Sé Reed opened a new ticket in GitHub (#347) proposing updating the Marketing Team guidelines to create exceptions for Project Leadership: “As the project leadership has direct posting access to the various official WordPress accounts, I suggest we amend the Marketing Team guidelines to specify that posts directly from project leadership are exempt from the Marketing Team guidelines. I also suggest we request that whatever the channel, direct posts by project leadership are written in the first person and are signed by the poster, i.e “Support the Bay Bridge Lights in honor of my birthday! – Matt” or “Support the Bay Bridge Lights in honor of my birthday! – MM”. ”

Automattic sponsored Chloe Bringmann felt “That both Matt and Josepha are in this very thread shows their commitment to this project and hearing from its contributors. The call for adjusting the marketing team guidelines is a constructive means of finding a middle ground.”  

Zoom Call With Ben Davis of Illuminate

Matt, Paul Clark and Devin Walker (GiveWP founder) got into a discussion with Ben Davis of Illuminate. Unfortunately, the meeting did not have a great turnout.  “My only regret about the meeting is that the spicier questions like Jenni’s were not raised, either people who want to ask those didn’t show up or those who attended didn’t feel like going there. I would have liked for Ben to have the opportunity to address that, and that was the idea.” Matt said.

Still More Opinions

Alex Stine (WordPress Accessibility Team Rep) disagreed with Matt’s stand but does not think it calls for leaving WP. But he cautioned “I can do what I want sounds a lot like how the Linux Foundation ran into severe trouble.” He also said “All we really need to establish here is Matt and his leadership have these rules and we as the community have those rules. The solution is not a hard one. I think Make sites likely complicate a lot of this and there just needs to be one project-wide page that talks about leadership structure and leave it at that.”

Jono Alderson advocated “The best possible outcome would be for us to explore and reconcile our differences and conflicts. To evolve, through continual scrutiny and iteration of who we are, what we do, and how we work.” Nyasha Green too agreed with Jono. “No matter how this is framed I would rather say I got to work through tough ideas and issues with leaders of WordPress than fought or even left.  I won’t speak for others but I think it’s a common thought.  Nobody wants to fight and stress out when we could be bragging about all the good work we have done together!”

Daniel Schutzsmith tweeted “Ethics and even greater responsibility when handling official channels of communication are expectations given to any leader in a public setting.” James Welbes tweeted “I thought this was a pretty silly thing to get upset about. It’s his company he can do what he wants and if some guy sharing a link to a fund raiser gets you that mad you’re going to have a very stressful life because there are much worse things happening”. 

Robert DeVore will “continue building WordPress products and ignoring everything I don’t like because my sanity is too precious 😂”. Chris Lema (CaboPress) had this to say based on his experience: “It’s not immoral or unethical to state that a set of rules don’t apply to you. Sometimes it’s just reality. It doesn’t mean you stop making rules. Instead it just means you have to have context and scope for when the rules apply and when they don’t. And positional authority can always have an impact on when which rules apply.”

Dustin Snider was quite brutal and declared “Matt explicitly sold his control over WordPress and it’s community to his VC investors… The community needs to just stop putting this man on a pedestal.” Matt was obviously hurt by this.

Jenni was sympathetic: “It’s definitely incredibly difficult to sift through attacks vs actual feedback, and to receive personal attacks all / a lot of the time. It’s not conducive to any one’s well being, and certainly not to yours. I certainly empathize with you and I’m sorry you’re having to deal with things like this. “ She suggested: “Perhaps one solution (as a step forward) could be a feedback form designed for constructive communication for leadership. That way, if someone has an idea or issue, they feel that they have a way to actually provide their insight, rather than bottling it up until it comes out on social media or other outlets because they don’t feel they have a voice any other way.”

Automattic-sponsored Annie McCarthy reminded everyone that “These are hard, interconnected problems and won’t be resolved with just a few solutions in a short span.” Jeff Chandler (WPMainline) hoped that “cooler heads will prevail, processes will change, and these human problems will be solved until the next ones crop up. It must be said that each time events like this happen, there are many, many people who become collateral damage.” 

“Like other people in the public light though, you have to distinguish what is private Matt and what is the face of WordPress Matt and no matter what the “Face of WP Matt does/says” there will ALWAYS be people who are against you. You should not let those “get to you” or affect your outcomes as that is their opinions of you. There is a great mantra going around that is simply “Let them” and it is something that will give you more inner peace and peace when dealing with the hateraid.” Michele Butcher-Jones (CantSpeakGeek) said.

Gus Austin (OpenProducer founder) advised “there should be clear/consistent guidelines for all teams.” Nicholas Garofalo shared that Sustainability team is already working on this.

Matt – “I’m not okay”

Matt expressed his frustration “being rejected or attacked by the community I thought I was trying to help.” 

His two major worries are the Code of Conduct investigation and being banned from WP Watercooler Discord. There has been no verdict after 4 months on the WordPress Code of Conduct filed against him as it’s “complex and messy” (Josepha Haden Chomphosy). He does not know if he should book tickets for WC Asia or if he will be asked to leave.  Even his sister had to face questions when she joined Discord.

Jenni reminded him that “there are a lot of people in our community that care about you, even if it doesn’t always seem like it. I’m sure there are resources out there for you, and I hope you can muster the courage to ask for help.” Jeff Chandler and Courtney Robertson also offered to help him. 

About the WP Watercooler Discord, Jenni had this to say “it’s my understanding that some people don’t feel safe having you there because you hold all the power and the keys; if you decide you’re unhappy with someone, you could easily and unceremoniously eject them from the community, potentially, or else ruin their reputation easily, which is terrifying. It creates a power dynamic that automatically makes people feel unsafe, whether or not you’re being kind”. And Jeff had this to say:

This is Matt’s reply:

He also hopes the Marketing team will do campaigns to bring attention to donating to WordPress Foundation and reminded “if y’all wanted more power in something I don’t control, that is literally the WP Foundation, where I am just 1 of the 3 board members, and it’s an actual non-profit, etc” 

Matt tweeted “The marketing team made up rules for marketing team members, I did not join the marketing team or agree to them. If it were global rules then I would have had to have agreed to them, and then it would be perfectly fine to have a consequence for breaking that agreement.” 

“I should acknowledge that I consider the tweet a mistake and wouldn’t do it again knowing what I know now. But I’m glad that it surfaced conflict and people who clearly have lots of bigger issues with me and the structure of the project than just the tweet or my ability to tweet represents. It is also helpful for the Bay Lights project to understand some of these concerns about the project itself and address them up front.” he said in Slack.

At this time, the controversial tweet is still visible on Twitter. 

Timi Wahalahti (Community Team Program Manager (deputy) had this to say “As we say in Finland: things can fight, people shouldn’t.”

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  1. I recall a situation where Open Source Matters, the legal arm of Joomla!, underwent a restructuring process that involved the implementation of new bylaws. One thing that I found concerning was the lack of easy access to governance documents for the WP foundation and dot org.

    1. Sorry Matt. We would have definitely included this information if we had come across it earlier. Could you please share the link where you discussed this? Will update that to the article.

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