What the hell is happening at Automattic?

The WordPress.com company is selling posts from that site and Tumblr to AI companies — while its CEO scraps with a banned user online. Which is… fine?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

If you needed evidence that digital content is the new oil, fuelling the AI “revolution”, look no further:

Tumblr and WordPress.com are preparing to sell user data to Midjourney and OpenAI, according to a source with internal knowledge about the deals and internal documentation referring to the deals.

Yup. Automattic is going to sell access to your content, that you might be paying them to host, to the AI companies to train their models on. That’s unsettling.

What’s worse is that some companies may have already been given data they shouldn’t have:

One internal post made by Cyle Gage, a product manager at Tumblr, states that a query made to prepare data for OpenAI and Midjourney compiled a huge number of user posts that it wasn’t supposed to. It is not clear from Gage’s post whether this data has already been sent to OpenAI and Midjourney, or whether Gage was detailing a process for scrubbing the data before it was to be sent.

That includes things like private posts, posts on deleted blogs and private answers to Tumblr’s Asks feature. Sure, it’s an error. But what an error.

Take a JetPack right into an AI model

Of course, if you self-host WordPress (ie, it’s hosted anywhere but WordPress.com), you should be safe from this, right?


What remains unclear is whether self-hosted WordPress blogs that use popular Automattic plugins like JetPack to connect those blogs with Automattic's infrastructure are subject to the company's AI-scraping deals. Automattic did not immediately respond to a question about whether sites using JetPack are subject to its data sharing agreements.

For many of us, JetPack has been a must install on any new WordPress site, despite the ever-increasing exhortations to upgrade your account. This will give me pause in the future. It turns out that Automattic has been selling access to posts like this for years:

The truth is that Automattic has been selling access to this “firehose” of posts for years, for a variety of purposes. This includes selling access to self-hosted blogs and websites that use a popular plugin called Jetpack; Automattic edited its original “protecting user choice” statement this week to say it will exclude Jetpack from its deals with “select AI companies.”

So, what the hell’s going on here?

There’s nothing little about WordPress any more

For all its chummy, Open Source and developer-friendly image, it’s worth remembering that Automattic is a VC-backed company to the tune of nearly $1bn ($985.9M according to Crunchbase). It’s gonna need to keep those investors happy. A nice deal to sell content to AI companies, like the one Reddit has struck? That’ll do nicely, thank you.

All of which makes it doubly strange that the other odd story about Automattic—or, rather, its CEO-on-Sabattical Matt Mullenweg — there emerged over the weekend.

He decided to weigh in on a specific moderation issue — which is unusual in its own right. But given that the decision in question involved a trans person, it also inevitably led to it being dragged into one of the most heated debates online at the moment: trans rights:

The controversy began when a user with the blog name predstrogen was banned. Before the ban, she was frustrated with Tumblr because the platform failed to take action when she reported that she was being targeted with transmisogynistic harassment. This led her to post that she hopes that the CEO “dies a forever painful death involving a car covered in hammers that explodes more than a few times and hammers go flying everywhere.”

Admittedly, that was an unwise, if hyperbolic, thing to say…

CEO versus banned user

However, Mullenweg took his response to an unusual extreme:

Mullenweg took the debate off platform to X, where he commented on a post from the user who was banned on Tumblr. Then, on one of his Tumblr posts, Mullenweg shared numerous of her side blog names, which is not public information (Tumblr users often make empty side blogs with no content in order to squat on URLs).

It goes without saying that it’s pretty unusual for a CEO of a $1bn company to be squabbling with one banned user like this. Automattic had a generally positive image in the industry. It’s amazing how much one bad week can tarnish that…

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.