We Cater to Cowards

Matt Mullenweg Tried to Get Me Fired

by Ben Cook on January 6, 2011

While WordPress creator, Matt Mullenweg, frequently preaches speaks about the freedoms open source platforms provide users, it seems he’s not a fan of that freedom extending to those who dare to criticize him.

You don’t exactly have to dig deep in the archives of this site to realize I’ve been fairly critical of Mr. Mullenweg. Call me a stickler but I expect someone who claims to put user freedom at the top of his priorities to actually live up to those standards. Instead, Mullenweg has consistently opted to feed his ego and further personal vendettas at the cost of the very user freedoms he claims to champion.

And while I certainly didn’t expect my call for his resignation to earn me an invitation to the Mullenweg Christmas dinner, I was honestly shocked at the cowardly reaction it apparently elicited.

At the time, I was the SEO Manager for Network Solutions, a company who, among other things offers domain name registration and WordPress hosting packages. Like many other companies, Network Solutions has a social media policy in which employees must clearly disclose their employment and state that their opinions are their own and do not reflect the company. Since I’m so active in social media, I went out of my way to make it abundantly clear at every turn that this site, as well as my Twitter account, were my own.

Matt Mullenweg doesn't care about any stinking disclaimers!

For the most part, those disclaimers were effective. People realized that my views on anything from politics, to sports, to WordPress were not indicative of Network Solutions’ stance on the matter. (Despite my best efforts to make the St. Louis Cardinals the official sports interest of the company, I failed.)

But, when Matt Mullenweg decided he’d had enough of my criticism, he didn’t come to me personally. Instead, as any true freedom loving person would do, he decided to go over my head and raise the issue with my employer. Matt, by his own admission, claimed that my writings here and on Twitter “borders on hate speech and reflects badly on any organization you’re associated with, regardless of any disclaimers you may have.”

Matt admits he's a coward.

(click for full sized image)

Update: While I initially didn’t think this follow up exchange added much to the post, a commenter below prompted me to post the rest of the exchange.

(click for full sized image)

Now, I wasn’t privy to the conversation that took place, but I have a healthy imagination and can think of a few topics that might have come up.

Whatever was discussed, a brief investigation was launched. But, thanks to those lovely disclaimers it was determined that I was abiding with company policy, and my employment (thankfully) continued.

On a more personal level, the accusation that my criticisms even remotely resemble hate speech is ludicrous, and that sort of accusation is not only irresponsible, but offensive in its own right.

As with any good story, there are several lessons to take away from this episode. First and foremost, please make sure you’re abiding with your company’s social media policy. You never know when it will save your job from a passive-aggressive egomaniac leveling unfounded accusations to your employer behind your back.

Secondly, this event continues the disturbing pattern of behavior by Automattic & WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg. Many within the WordPress community refer to Matt as their “benevolent dictator” because he controls pretty much every aspect of the WordPress project (from WordPress.com, to WordPress.org to the WordPress Foundation). However, the kind of bullying, threats, and intimidation displayed in this episode as well as here, here, and here, are lacking any hint of benevolence.

The final, and most unfortunate, lesson of this sad but true story is that unless you’re prepared to be attacked by Matt Mullenweg and the almost cult-like following he’s incubated, don’t criticize Mullenweg, Automattic, or WordPress in any way.

All hail King Matt.

Coward image source: Miriella

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Phil Buckley January 6, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Nice – ugh.

We’re with you Ben, Matt is only 20 million strong 😉

James January 6, 2011 at 2:13 pm

…and I thought the GPL was evil.

Karl Staib - Work Happy Now January 6, 2011 at 2:14 pm

At least you are not afraid. Too many people back down and let themselves be steamrolled.

I’m a huge fan of WP and Matt, but I believe we all have the right to state our opinions without fear of losing our job. Kudos to you Ben.

Eddie January 6, 2011 at 2:31 pm

It’s disappointing to say the least. I love Wordpress, but this whole GPL thing just seems like a “either you’re with us or against us” kind of thing. Although they claim it’s ok if it’s a split license, it’s pretty obvious you won’t get the same treatment as if you were 100% GPL.

john andrews January 6, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Wow… thanks for sharing that. Great insights to an individual’s driving ego, which is almost always a great predictor of future behavior.

I find it hard to believe, actually…perhaps there’s more to the story? If not, this should be very damaging to Matt’s reputation in the business world.

Can you imagine how knowledge of such inglorious behavior will taint potential business deals? If you knew that Matt was proud of his back-channel spiteful actions like the alleged, would you trust him?

Not to mention the online reputation management FAIL this represents, which was totally avoidable. Clearly he knows better, yet his better judgement could not prevail over impulsiveness or spitefullness?

“Wow” is the summary.

Jbagley January 6, 2011 at 4:02 pm

I have no context regarding your thoughts on Matt etc, but every one has a choice. You choose to use WP and with that comes Matt. Same with Apple products. Jobs decides what you get to do on their devices (flash for example).

Whatever Matt or you have done wrong, why not stop using WP? That way you’ll be a much happier person not having to worry about what Matt gets up to.

Ben Cook January 6, 2011 at 4:15 pm

John, the only other context I can offer are tweets along the same lines of the content you’d find on this site. I’ve repeatedly questioned Matt’s decisions, leadership, and eventually character (after his response to many of the incidents linked to in the post).

None of which ever came close to hate speech and none of which involved Network Solutions at all. The only way Matt would have known I was a NetSol employee at the time was my frequent disclosures that the opinions were my own.

I would (obviously) agree that it is astounding and very illustrative of Matt’s ego & character.

Ben Cook January 6, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Jason, actually WordPress doesn’t require that you let Matt contol your use but that’s entirely beside the point. Matt attacked my job (which didnt involve WordPress) for my criticism of him.

Carl Hancock January 6, 2011 at 4:44 pm

@Jbagley Sure Steve Jobs controls what you can and can’t do on your iPhone, but if you complain about being unhappy how he runs things is he going to swoop down and try to use his influence to get you fired from your job? Not likely. Bad comparison.

Sean Malarkey January 6, 2011 at 4:53 pm

I am surprised his ego hasn’t done him in already.

Ben – props for putting this out there for everyone to see.

His ego and actions are completely contradictory to everything wordpress is supposedly about.

Jess Ostroff January 6, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Hi, I don’t know you, but I love this. I love your matter-of-fact approach to the situation. No need to let your emotions get in the way of facts (at least the facts from your perspective, which he admitted to, which validates them) the way Matt did. I’ll never understand people who spend their time literally seeking out ways to ruin the life of someone else. If you’re going to put yourself out there in the world (especially the internet world), you must expect criticism. And it would be a completely different issue if he took a few words to criticize YOU publicly somewhere. He’s free to do that. The fact that you might write about his antics from time to time publicly, from a personal blog with full disclosure, is your prerogative, and I really just cannot believe that someone so seemingly smart and powerful would stoop to the level of attempting to sabotage your JOB. People just fucking suck sometimes.

I’m really glad it all worked out for you, and without knowing either of you at all, I hope that people will take a lesson from this story. Thanks for sharing!

Glenn January 6, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Hi Ben,
I don’t think you know me but I follow you on Twitter. I have a couple of things I wanted to point about the main claim you make and the general purpose of your post:

It would seem that your main claim lies in the phrase: “I was honestly shocked at the cowardly reaction it apparently elicited.”
Your claim here is that he is a coward.
Your grounds for that claim is that he is a coward because he went to your company to talk about removing you from your position rather than coming to you.
A) I’m not sure that you can get from those grounds to that claim.
B) I’m not sure you’d want to if you could.
The grounds for your claim paint you a coward as well since you admittedly chose to engage with the public WordPress community in your call for Matt’s resignation.

Second, your 3 lessons are less than relevant or profound.
Lesson 1: “Please make sure you’re abiding with your company’s social media policy”. Okay. Check.
Lesson 2: “There’s no lesson here. Just another rant.”
Lesson 3: “If you do x or say x [to matt and friends] don’t be surprised when you have to take your own medicine”. Okay. check. You called for his position: http://twitter.com/Skitzzo/status/14300369265 and he called for yours.

Now I’m going to make a claim based on the above:
This post is a poorly grounded argument that paints you and matt with the same stroke as cowards.

Why would you do that? Lucky for you its a poor argument.
Congratulations on poorly arguing something in public that should have taken place in private.

Paul L'Acosta January 6, 2011 at 6:13 pm

New Year, new ventures, new dilemmas! Cheers Ben and good luck! Hope this is just the beginning of trying to set the record straight… ~Paul

Ben Cook January 6, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Glenn, I apparently didn’t relay my point well. I called for Matt’s job, yes. But I did it publicly & because of his professional behavior. Matt reached out to my bosses in private and not in regards to my professional behavior. That’s what I view as cowardly.

Mattonomics January 6, 2011 at 6:56 pm

@Glenn: There is a massive difference between stating on Twitter that you think the head of a nonprofit should be removed for abusing their position and someone contacting your employer in private in attempt to have you fired. Don’t attempt a Philosophy 101 analysis of this situation…it sounds pretentious and is completely wrong. Here’s the main point: if you publicly disagree with Matt Mullenweg he will seek revenge. It’s that simple.

Norcross January 6, 2011 at 7:30 pm

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll state here that I know you personally and consider you a friend, and I don’t know Matt personally. That being said, the fact that he went to your employer in private without even so much as notifying you is what bothers me more than what his motivations or justifications were. It was petty, simple as that. Now I know that Matt (or any other core person) won’t publicly acknowledge this, which makes it all the more troubling. Is this the first time it’s happened? What if his actions had actually gotten you fired?

Joe January 6, 2011 at 7:50 pm

“hate speech” is a term universally used by leftists who want to pretend they support free speech but really would like to have the government throw anyone they disagree with in jail. There is no special category of speech like that and freedon of expeession includes ranting about people you hate.

Anyone who uses that term is revealing they dont believe in freedom of expression.

Mixmastakooz January 6, 2011 at 8:14 pm

I didn’t know of this situation and I think you’ve laid it out clearly. Thanks!

@glenn Ben didn’t call for Matt’s job: he called on him to clear up a potential conflict of interest which is a fair and honest assessment of the situation. He asked him to choose the for-profit position or the non-profit position. The use of a non-profit to benefit a for-profit, I believe, is illegal due to the tax shelters non-profits receive. Even the hint of impropriety should be enough for someone to clear this conflict. Here’s a law firm’s take on COI: http://www.t-tlaw.com/np-09.htm The first two and last one hit it on the mark…

Ben Cook January 6, 2011 at 8:20 pm

Actually your comment brings up the follow up exchange that I didn’t really think added all that much to the post but fits now.

I commented that I was:

“curious to know how that fits in with your mantra of discussing issues with the person privately?”

He replied by saying:

“It was not a public declaration, it was a private email, just not to you. I have tried to discuss things with you in the past and it felt like I was on one of those talk shows where people scream over you.”

Now personally, I think the fact that he attacked me privately (to a superior at my company) makes it worse. Had he responded publicly, and not brought my employer into it, I wouldn’t have minded.

Bringing my employer into the equation (especially in the quietly behind the scenes passive-aggressive manner) is what makes it such a petty move.

Allie Caulfield January 6, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Bravo for standing up, Ben. I’ve actually had a run-in with the Mighty Mullenweg myself, and it amazed me how much people tremble before his nerdy feet.
I worked in the “marketing department” (such as it was) of a medium-sized webhosting company (which I won’t name), and one of their business strategies was to court the WordPress crowd. That meant sponsoring a lot of WordCamps and generally sucking up to the Mighty Mullenweg. However, a parallel company strategy involved emailing bloggers and offering them money to publish articles with links to our company — basically, super-spammy SEO stuff. I was “honored” with command of this particular effort and I had under my charge someone who accidentally emailed some random blogger who worked for Automattic.
Well, as you can imagine, our spammy efforts did not go over well with the Almighty Matt and he responded to my colleague’s email, CC-ing our company’s CEO and telling us to stop spamming.
Now, I agree that we were being spammy, and I insisted as much before the project launched, but my boss wasn’t having it and hey — it was a recession.
Need less to say, the CEO of my company totally sold us out and didn’t back us up a whit. Totally caved to His Highness and said he’d discipline us, in spite of the fact that we were carrying out company directives — but we all know how that argument turned out in My Lai.
Anyway, my point here is that I’m proud of you for not being cowed by this bullshit.
Carry on, soldier.

Franky January 6, 2011 at 9:03 pm

@Glenn, as ‘public leader’ of Automattic and also Guru of the WPF and thus everything WordPress, Matt Mullenweg is in this sense a public figure.
Ben is an employee at a company and no person ruling an open source community millions large.

Matt is very well aware of his behaviour and others have felt his urge to use the ‘Matt hammer’ as well, in different ways. Our company is one of several who have been excluded and publicly trashed on the WP site by employees. Together with fame and money Matt also has developed everything bad which comes with corporate status.

Matt for President of the USA!

Ben, I do hope you have forwarded this to all publicly known Automattic investors.

michael arrington January 6, 2011 at 11:21 pm

As an outsider to this here’s what I see – someone acting a little stalkerish and obsessed with Matt. If I were him I would likely have done the same thing. This does reflect very poorly on your employer, in my opinion.

Alan Bleiweiss January 7, 2011 at 12:04 am


I believe the proper designation for Matt’s action would be “chicken-shit move”.

Ben Cook January 7, 2011 at 12:16 am

Mike, if you had a negative experience with say an airline & complained on twitter do you think the airline should try to get you fired? Personally I don’t.

Also, as someone who I’m sure has faced criticism of his own, what exactly do you find as stalkerish about my critiques? This site is about WordPress and Matt Mullenweg is the creator. The only difference between my actions & other WP related blogs is that I criticize Matt instead of worshiping at the alter.

Alan Bleiweiss January 7, 2011 at 12:32 am

What I find most laughable in this comment thread is @JBagley’s suggestion that you should abandon WP. If I find the actions of the President or Congress deplorable, should I therefore move to Canada? Please. Give. Me. A. Break.

Tim January 7, 2011 at 7:53 am

How on earth can you feel like you are being shouted over in an email? Shouted at I can see, shouted over? How does that work?

Mark McWilliams January 7, 2011 at 11:57 am

I mentioned on Twitter that I wasn’t taking sides, nor saying that what Matt did was right or wrong, but I wanted to address a couple of things I’d noticed throughout the post/site (or rather sprung to mind when I looked at things more!)

First up was I’d noticed the disclaimer had done a disappearing act and considering the fact it includes “Copyright WPblogger © 2011” and we’re only on the 7th day after 2010, I thought it was rather odd?
And secondly anyone reading will notice the screenshots of Ben and Matt date back to the 14th July 2010, so why bring it to light 6 months later?

I hope I’m not the only one to have spotted that? 😀

Ben Cook January 7, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Thanks for the comments, from other questions I’ve gotten on Twitter etc, I’m sure you’re not the only one to notice those things.

The copyright date in the screen shot of the disclaimer is 2011 because I forgot to remove the disclaimer until I started writing this post. I actually left Network Solutions on Nov 30th, 2010.

As to your second & probably more important question, I didn’t expose the issue immediately because I was still employed at Network Solutions and didn’t want to push the envelope any further. While I feel I would have probably been able to do so under the company’s social media policy, I just didn’t think it was worth the risk of my paycheck that my wife & I depend on.

That then begs the question of why bring it up at all? As I stated in the post, I think this event continues a string of very poor decisions and actions made by Matt and I feel the community should be aware of this pattern of behavior.

Now that I have a business of my own and I’m not at risk of losing my job, it seemed like a good time to bring the issue to light.

Dean Saliba January 8, 2011 at 10:23 am

Sounds like a childish act on Matt’s part, grow up Matt. I’m glad you did not get fired. 🙂

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