The WordPress linkfarm furore – symptomatic of a wider problem

There’s been a lot of discussion about the way that Matt Mullenweg has been trading‘s Google PageRank for cash, hosting unrelated articles on his server in order that they rank more highly in Google. discusses the issue at length, Shelley, as usual, gives a great overview, Jonas Luster adds his thoughts as someone involved with WordPress, and Jason Kottke is short and to the point.

I don’t think there’s all that much to be said about the pros and cons of the case – it was probably a mistake for Matt to enter into an agreement with a company in which he assists them in gaming Google for money. It doesn’t just run counter to the ‘spirit’ of the blogosphere, where we are constantly fighting against spammers and gamers, but more importantly it has created a lot of ill-will, and open source projects like WordPress depend on goodwill. But the furore will die down, and Matt and WordPress will survive, and maybe Matt will be a wiser person in the future.

To me, though, the important thing here is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but which I haven’t blogged because I haven’t been able to come to any solid conclusions. I had a conversation at lunch yesterday about this with Saul Albert, Possum and Javier Kandinski and despite the high calibre of the conversation, I still couldn’t find an answer.

The real problem here is that there are a whole raft of people who are struggling to keep the wolves from the door whilst doing something which benefits a community but for which that community are not paying. Matt saw a way to keep the wolves at bay without having to ask for money from the WordPress community, and whilst maybe it wasn’t the best thing for him to do, I understand completely why he did it.

Creative people have always had a problem making enough money to live, there’s nothing new in that. That’s why the music industry is so exploitative – musicians generally make crap business people and, because many reach a state of financial desperation, they are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Wherever you have vulnerable creative people, you will have someone exploiting them. Happens all over the place.

For a while, it seemed that the internet would be a great leveller, and anyone with the talent would be able to make at least a modest living from the products of their creativity. The boom could be seen as a product of that optimism – people with ideas managed to find funding to develop those ideas even though in many cases they had no solid business plan to back them up. And we all know what happened next.

So where we are at the moment is that ideas are not enough. Creativity is not enough. And there is such a low barrier to entry that lots of people have entered the market, creating a signal:noise ratio unfavourable to the discovery of any individual person’s talent.

Yet there are a lot of people with very good ideas which fulfil the needs of a given community who have the skills to bring those ideas to fruition. What they are missing is a business model to allow them to earn enough money to make development of their idea financially viable. But because there seems to be a fundamental disconnect in many people (not everyone, I hasten to add) between creativity and business acumen, and becuase there is no existing business model to follow, we now have a creative class who are chock full of bright ideas but who just don’t know how to scrape a living from them.

Unfortunately, many business models that are being tried out at the moment can work only for a small minority of people. Jason Kottke’s micropatronage system, for example, has worked for him but, whilst this may be overly pessimistic, it’s not going to work for many other people – you need to have a huge audience, and already be at the top of your mountain in order to be in a position to ask for donations.

If you’re in a niche, and let’s pick the Welsh language niche because that’s something I know all about, your work may well be addressing a fundamental need within a clearly defined community, but if that community is not willing or able to donate, or even buy merchandise, then your business plan, all those pretty numbers you invented for your bank manager, is oh so much toilet paper.

Advertising is another ‘will work for some, not for others’ revenue stream. Some projects, for example, do well out of advertising, but for others it is a waste of screen real-estate. Again, you need to have a high traffic in order to get the clickthroughs you need to make any decent cash.

Plus advertising doesn’t always sit well. I keep thinking that I should put some ads on Chocolate and Vodka, but I haven’t got round to it yet, at least in part because I am really not sure I want ads on my personal blog. I get decent traffic there, according to my server stats, but yet putting ads up somehow feels wrong, even if I can’t articulate why.

Perhaps the root of it is a fear that I’d earn bugger all money whilst simultaneously appearing greedy – a no-win situation. Instead I’d prefer to go the Hugh Macleod route, making money because of my blog, instead of from my blog. That seems to not only suit my personality better, but also to be more probable.

There are cultural problems too. The ‘free as in beer’ attitude is ingrained in the majority of web users, particularly when it comes to content. Subscription models are not only unpopular, they are on terribly thin ice as more and more people find ways around them. For news vendors dependent on the walled archive model, there is going to be a nasty shock awaiting them as more and more people find ways to tunnel round or under those walls.

For companies with large amounts of data online, however, there are additional services that they could offer which might replace the subscription model. Make your archives free, but make money out of data-shuffling – provide keyword tracking services, research services, clippings services. Stop being a repository and start being a service.

But yet again, there’s only a small minority of companies who could turn their large data stores into money. That model doesn’t work for the micro-company or the self-employed.

So where does that leave us? Thrashing about in the dark, searching for a way to earn enough so that we don’t have to do hand-to-hand combat with the wolves at our door every month. We can moralise about whether Matt should or shouldn’t have taken money for helping a company game Google, and we can say ‘Oh, he should have asked for donations – I would have given him money’, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t address the root cause of the problem.

Matt’s actions are symptomatic of a far wider problem, and that’s that there are a huge number of very creative people out there who don’t know how to make money out of their ideas. (Not saying that Matt is one of them, necessarily, but his actions could be interpreted that way. Or simply as bad judgement, but I’m being generous.) Some people find it hard exploit their own skills for their own benefit, and existing business models are too unreliable, too hit-and-miss, to be of any real use.

Maybe the people who are clueful as to the realities of such things could assist the people who are grappling with the wolves by discussing their business models in detail in public a bit more, instead of hiding them away where they can’t benefit anyone else.

18 thoughts on “The WordPress linkfarm furore – symptomatic of a wider problem

  1. Suw, agree with what you say – interesting to see that reaction has been fairly muted, with a distinct lack of “the world is about to end” type hysteria.

    Moving a little off-topic – Lloyd, I know you’re well into podcasting, but do you really expect people to spend however long it takes to download *16MB* (wow!) and then listen to it all just to find out something that could probably be captured in 3 or 4 bullet points ?

  2. Lloyd: Sorry – wasn’t having a go at you ! Just a little sceptical dig at podcasting in general. But I think that’s a discussion for another day !

  3. “Matt’s actions are symptomatic of a far wider problem, and that’s that there are a huge number of very creative people out there who don’t know how to make money out of their ideas.”

    Hasn’t this always been a problem? Creative people have had to find creative business models – aye there’s the rub – such as getting an in with the Medicis, or whomever else is in power. Just because you’re smart and/or creative doesn’t mean that you can make money. It’s a level playing field.

  4. The sanest writing on this little controversy that I’ve seen so far. Thank you.

  5. Matt saw a way to keep the wolves at bay without having to ask for money from the WordPress community

    I’m not sure where donations on this page go:

    But each time I donated I got a personal thank you email from Matt.

    I’d say there’s a bit more to this than “poor Matt he’s done so much for so many and no one pays him.”

    In my mind all of this is less about the mistake Matt may have made, more about how the community of WordPress users talk about it and spin and rationalize it.

    I’d say process is everything here: When Kubrick was announced Michael got huge amounts of support and criticism and the flack was less about Kubrick and more about the way he introduced it.

    How Matt and the rest of us spin this will make all the difference for me.

  6. My cut is that I like financial transactions. The problem with goodwill barter (pagerank from links) is that it comes with strings attached. Sort of like receiving gifts you can’t sell.

    Open source’s model has been to depend on patrons who do make money. Look at linux (very subsidized by IBM) and firefox (subsidized by google and others).

    I generally think OSS needs a model where people pay for packaging, essentially what Redhat does with its corporate distro. That is an OSS model that works.

    Sixapart may be another if they open the source on MT (something I heard rumored).

  7. Rather than hide a working business model away, I’m happy to help by sharing it, as it was shared to me.

    “Most people go around in life trying to sell what they can make. Instead, you should make what you can sell. In fact, go sell shoes – because everybody wants them.”

    Stop trying to foist the result of your creativity on the world. Be creative for a purpose that solves a need which someone is willing to pay for, or else realise that you’re not being creative – you’re just consuming time – like watching TV.

    (I wrote a followup post to this but being new to blogging I couldn’t work out how to do a trackback. If someone could teach me that would be great.)

  8. Nice, thought-provoking article!

    Blogging is an incredibly effective way to begin and maintain a conversation with a field of potential business prospects, but it does not come with any sort of template for business models. There is the potential for profitable business, but one has to work out what the exchange is going to be first.

    I tend to agree with Matthew White in that I consider creative output to be relatively useless unless somebody needs it. Do what people need and will PAY for and you have the beginning of a valid business model.

    You still have to do it profitably, and you have to promote like crazy to attract business, but there is a way to support yourself if you consider your blog as a means to advertise, rather than the product itself.

    Hugh Macleod seems to be making progress in this direction and it will be instructive to watch how he does as time goes on. He is also running ads, which may not be appropriate for all bloggers.

    My take on blog advertising is that paid space on a selected blog is a good investment. Exchanging blog ads with related sites is an even better investment. It is easy to track the traffic coming from these sites and to determine the effect of copy changes on orders placed.

  9. Back a few years ago I pinned my hopes on the Medici approach. Problem is the Medici’s of the world have the same cultural viewpoint as the rest of us.

    “Why pay for the cow when you can get the milk free”.

    But the problem, although endemically systemic, is simply that people that pay $40/$50 a month for broadband are the Medici’s of the world.. As I said at Rogers’ blog (, I’d (rarely) pay for good blogging (mebbe $1 a month or $10 a year)…

    Not enough for some to live off. But some could and others could get some part-time money for part-time work with a paying readership of a few hundered… And it’d be a good start to a cottage industry. Especially since there’s a direct link between the creative and the value to the reader’s as opposed to the indirect method of advertising.

    (And yeah, that’d imply that the best thing is to support non-free software as well.)

    From Dept. of Small Nits:

    “and becuase [sic] there is no existing business model to follow”

  10. From the same Dept. of Small Nits:

    “with a paying readership of a few hundered”

    That’s Irish spelling, I s’pose.

  11. Suw, could you perhaps enumerate which illegal, unethical or immoral acts are OK if you need X amount of money? I am a little bit unclear on that. Perhaps a little table–10 US$ for a white lie, 100 US$ for a black lie, 1000 US$ for theft–anyway, you get the picture.

    A Dutch bishop once got into a furore when he suggested that a beggar who steals bread to survive is doing nothing wrong in the eye of God. A lot of mom-and-pop shops, who are having a hard enough time themselves, did not particularly care for that sentiment. However, I can sort of see the bishop’s point.

    Would Matt Mullenweg have starved if he had not spammed? No, he just would have had to stop working on or hosting WordPress. Big deal.

    It is not like he never got anything for free. The web, the Apache web server, the PHP language, the MySQL database, all these things would have cost Mullenweg a lifetime to develop or billions of dollars to pay if he had not gotten them for free.

    In case you figure that spam is only a minor evil: I disagree. In case you figure that spam has nothing to do with crime: think again. Spammers are heavily linked to organised crime.

    Anyway, I think the ethical side of what Mullenweg did needs to be kept separate from what happens to WordPress. is tainted. It can no longer be trusted. IMO, at this point a trusted entity like the FSF needs to step in and take over. Fork the project, give it another name, and take it from there.

  12. Branko – please read what I wrote rather than what you think I wrote before you start insinuating that I have no morals or ethics. I didn’t and don’t say that Matt’s actions were particularly wise, and I don’t endorse spamming. But over-reacting doesn’t get us anywhere. Matt made a mistake. Big deal. Get over it.

  13. Suw, I did not insinuate that you have no morals or ethics. Quite the contrary. Did you take your own medicine and read what I wrote?

    If you want to know what mistake Matt felt he made, you only need to read his own comments. Hint: it’s not the spamming.

    From Matt’s blog: “The articles hosted content thing was just a short-term experiment, an interesting idea (original and relevant Wikipedia-type content on the site) that was badly implemented. As an experiment it could have been conducted much better than it was. The content should have been more topical to WP issue, I should have kept up with the content that was going up, the links should have never had the overflow CSS, and I should have discussed it with more people. Each was a mistake and they combined badly — I’m very sorry.”

    Please note that nowhere he admits that spamming is wrong; to the contrary, he seems quite OK with it. The mistake he made, is that he spammed the wrong way–as if there is a right way to spam!

    He very much reminds me of the sort of people who say “I am sorry I got caught” instead of “I am sorry that I did wrong”.

  14. But this post isn’t about the pros and cons of what Matt did. As I say, I think it was clearly a mistake. Remembering that this post was written before Mstt had responded, and is about the wider implications – and the lack of business models that work online. I think that’s more important a debate than whether or not you like what Matt did. He’s one person who made a mistake. Big deal.

  15. My reply wasn’t about the bulk of your entry. 🙂

  16. bugaboo stroller

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