Automattic has invested $4.6M in New Vector, a company founded by the creators of Matrix, an open standard that powers decentralized conversations with end-to-end encryption. Matrix.org is home to the open source project that offers HTTP APIs and SDKs, enabling developers to create their own communication clients on top of the Matrix open standard with open federation. This means anyone can communicate with others on the Matrix ecosystem by deploying their own server.
The protocol also allows for bridging existing platforms like Slack, IRC, XMPP, Gitter, Telegram Discord, Facebook, and many more, creating “a global open matrix of communication.” Matrix is the protocol behind Riot.im, a universal chat app that is often described as “a Slack alternative.” Riot supports groups and teams with chat, file sharing, widgets, and voice/video calls. It is currently the most mature Matrix client and the most well-known New Vector product.
A loose comparison might liken Automattic’s role in the WordPress ecosystem to New Vector’s role in growing the Matrix ecosystem while funding the development of the protocol. Co-founders Matthew Hodgson and Amandine Le Pape created the company to keep the lights on for the open source project. Automattic is now one of six investors in the company with voting rights.
In 2017, Matt Mullenweg contributed to Matrix’s Patreon when the project was struggling to stay afloat. On a recent Matrix Live podcast episode, he elaborated on why Matrix drew his interest for an investment from Automattic:
I really like when things solve a real user problem and do so in a technically rigorous and an intellectually and morally pure way. Those are things that attracted me then and now to the Matrix project. I also like to think, ‘What if this is successful?’ What does the world look like if 90% of the messages in the world are sent over the Matrix systems and protocols? That would be kind of amazing….I think that a widespread worldwide adoption of what you all are working on could be amazing for humanity.
A growing dissatisfaction with the ethics and privacy breaches of today’s most popular social platforms has caused a great deal of personal communication and social sharing to shift away from these massive data silos and into a myriad of private messaging apps. Mullenweg has often spoken of his fascination with messaging platforms and their relationship with the independent web. In an interview with Om Malik at WordCamp Europe 2017, he mentioned that Automattic was experimenting with Telegram’s group broadcasting feature. It’s not surprising that the company is making a significant investment in an open, decentralized communication protocol.
Five years ago, at an event in San Francisco, Matt Mullenweg said that Automattic has “flirted with commercializing” P2, its internal messaging system. The Matrix ecosystem offers a more real-time version of these types of collaboration tools that are client-agnostic. With the explosion of companies working from home due to the pandemic, Matrix-powered communication tools might be a strategic addition to Happy Tools, Automattic’s suite of products for remote teams.
The Matrix project boasts 10 million global visible accounts with 20,000 federated servers powering 2.5 million messages per day. More than 400 projects and 70 companies are building on this technology, so it is still relatively obscure but growing rapidly since the Matrix 1.0 release in June 2019.
Matrix is somewhat of an underdog among enterprise communications platforms, but New Vector is working to position its client better with competitors by designing a more modern UI. In Matrix.org’s announcement about Mozilla selecting Matrix as the successor to IRC for its public community, Matthew Hodgson said the Matrix team “are absolutely determined for Riot to have as good if not better UX than the likes of Slack or Discord.” New Vector also hired more designers to work full-time on Riot’s UI and UX, and shifted the product’s focus from being developer-led to design-led.
Automattic Plans to Adopt Matrix-Powered Tools and Build Bridges to WordPress
Given that New Vector is actively developing Riot as a Slack competitor and selling hosted Matrix services, it seems inevitable that Automattic will incorporate some form of Matrix-powered collaboration in the near future. Hodgson’s announcement about the investment stated they do not yet have a concrete project to announce but “at the very least, we should expect to see Automattic’s communities migrating over to Matrix in the coming months.”
Hodgson was also enthusiastic about the many possibilities of bringing Matrix to WordPress’ massive user base:
Imagine if every WP site automatically came with its own Matrix room or community? Imagine if all content in WP automatically was published into Matrix as well as the Web? (This isn’t so far fetched an idea – turns out that Automattic already runs a XMPP bridge for wordpress.com over at im.wordpress.com!). Imagine there was an excellent Matrix client available as a WordPress plugin for embedding realtime chat into your site? Imagine if Tumblr (which is part of Automattic these days) became decentralised!?
Some bristled at the idea of introducing Matrix in WordPress core, but Mullenweg was quick to clarify that the intention was likely to reference WordPress.com and not self-hosted sites.
Given the hosting requirements for a Matrix client for WordPress, it would have to be offered through WordPress.com, as a SaaS offering through Jetpack, or as an add-on with WordPress hosting companies to gain widespread use.
Automattic is hiring Matrix.org/WordPress Integrations engineers to “bridge the two software worlds” and explore cross pollination opportunities that “may include building open-source plugins for either platform, enabling real-time chat and collaboration for business websites, blogs, e-commerce stores, or communities, integration of existing infrastructure.”
“I would love to hire a few folks to contribute to the [Matrix] project full-time and help Automattic’s adoption of it, because I think it’s really healthy for the ecosystem if there’s more than one company sponsoring it,” Mullenweg said on the Matrix Live podcast. Hodgson said that currently New Vector supplies an estimated 90-95% of the open source contributions to the Synapse release of the Matrix server implementation and to Riot.
One user on Hacker News suggested that WordPress.org also adopt Matrix-powered communication tools for collaborating on the open source project:
Here’s hoping Automattic has enough influence to move the WordPress.org open source and community discussions (which are currently hosted on Slack, but used to take place on IRC) to Matrix too.
Hodgson responded saying, “That’s the hope – the pressure is on the Riot/Matrix side to ensure that the transition is a no-brainer in terms of UX.” Ideally, any migration away from Slack would preserve both public and private messages, including emoji reactions, files, and the full treasure of collaborative history of the project for the past five years.
Can Automattic Take Decentralized Communication Tools Mainstream?
Although the main commercial thrust for New Vector seems to be centered around enabling enterprise collaboration platforms with Matrix and its necessary infrastructure, Mullenweg had a lot to say about social networking during the recent Matrix Live podcast episode.
“I think communication is at the core of what makes us great and what brings us together,” Mullenweg said. “And the breakdown of communication and separation is the source of most conflict and suffering in the world.”
He used Facebook as an example of how a platform’s massive success can cause it to fly too close to the sun and ultimately miss the opportunity to deliver what users truly want.
“I think as centralized or decentralized systems become ultra successful, what’s made them successful also contains the seeds of their own demise,” Mullenweg said. “When a ‘Facebook’ becomes a social network which sucks up maybe 90 percent of all media we generate in the world, that also then draws in everyone else creating the alternatives. I think the economic inevitabilities of the commercial self-interests of Facebook, in this example, growing from that particularly in a shareholder beholding system – their success is the golden handcuffs which prevents them from doing the thing that the users or the audience might want next.”
The concept of decentralized social networking has so far failed to attract mainstream attention. Most implementations are woefully difficult to set up for anyone who is not technically inclined. A 2017 Wired op-ed contends these types of networks will never work because “we join [social networks] because our friends are there, not for ideological reasons like decentralization.” New social networks can be challenging to navigate. Networks like Diaspora and Mastadon still struggle to gain much traction.
Late last year Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that the company is funding a small team under the project name “bluesky” to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media. If successful, the ultimate goal would be to move Twitter to this new decentralized model.
Dorsey cited challenges that his centralized network struggles to meet, including scaling a centralized enforcement of global policy to address abuse and misleading information. He also credits the advent of blockchain technology for advancing decentralized solutions into the realm of viability.
In response to the thread, many suggested Twitter consider using the existing ActivityPub standard that is already a W3C spec. This spec seems quite narrowly focused around networks built on a simple system of following and liking and not as well suited to more dynamic communities with real-time chat capabilities.
I could imagine Matrix-powered communities pioneering a protocol that accounts for a blog or website as the user’s home on the web, where content originates and can be automatically published to select streams, such as communities or rooms.
Ten years ago there was a project called SocialRiver that aimed to bring decentralized social networking to WordPress and BuddyPress. It was based on the the OStatus specification and promised to allow users to host and control their own stream of information, which could then be merged with others’ streams to make a unique social river. The creators were making a hosted instance as well as a plugin to help site owners create their own SocialRiver instance.
The project was abandoned a few years later. It disappeared without any explanation, but the basic idea seemed to hold so much potential for the growing world of WordPress sites.
Automattic is a company that might be able to take decentralized social networking mainstream with the help of Matrix, freeing users from the clutches of the data silos and their dehumanizing algorithms. The right team of people with enough resources, rooted in the principles of the open web, could change the face of social networking forever.
The Matrix.org homepage calls on visitors to imagine a world:
- …where it is as simple to message or call anyone as it is to send them an email.
- …where you can communicate without being forced to install the same app.
- …where you can choose who hosts your communication.
- …where your conversations are secured by E2E encryption.
- …where there’s a simple standard HTTP API for sharing real-time data on the web.
Combining WordPress’ mission to democratize publishing with the Matrix project’s technology for “democratizing control over communication” should yield some interesting products that stand to impact both open source ecosystems.