Breaking the Silence

Silence always scared me.

My parents first noticed my stutter when I was three years old. For the longest time, I thought I would one day be rid of it. I went for speech therapy, I did fluency exercises, I prayed. But now, at age thirty, I’m fairly confident that it’s here to stay.

I used to wonder why it had to happen to me. In many areas of my life, it limited me. However, looking back on my life now, I also realise it made me sensitive to silence, in all its many incarnations.

Somehow, as I progressed through high school, the expectant pauses of those listening to me were more difficult to bear than the nicknames and name calling. Often, I would not speak up, even when I had something I wanted to say.

My default setting was silence.

The web changed that. I still remember the first time I typed a URL into a web browser and watched the HTML render letter by letter, paragraph by paragraph. It was an experience that shook me to my core, this new understanding that my writing could now carry out over a telephone line, and in doing so, reach not just an intended recipient, but many. The world.

Though I perhaps could not quite put into words at the time, on that first afternoon in front of a web browser, I instinctively understood the power the web had to break silences – silences imposed by societies and traditions, silences imposed by governments and regimes, and perhaps most importantly, silences imposed by ourselves.

The promise of the web was that it could give everyone a voice. Even me.

I first started web publishing in Notepad on Windows 98, manually crafting each page and uploading it to my Geocities site. It was an arduous process, and it was difficult to create and maintain more than a few pages.

It was around this time that I stumbled upon weblogs. kottke.org was one of the first I read regularly, and as I bounced around, from site to site, I soon realised that I wanted my own. The most popular blogging software at the time was Movable Type. Alas, I was still in high school, and could not afford a web host that ran Perl. In fact, I couldn’t afford a web host at all.

DSL was just making its debut at the time in Sri Lanka, and we didn’t have a telephone line at home, so no dialup for me either. This meant that I spent an inordinate amount of time at local cyber cafes, often running up bills that far exceeded my weekly pocket money. Eventually, the owner of one cyber cafe said he’d let me use the net for as long as I wanted if I’d watch the place for a few hours each evening, while he was out. Needless to say, I didn’t need much convincing.

And thus, with hours of free bandwidth in hand, I began my foray into blogging. I found a free web host that supported PHP, and following an online tutorial, I wrote a simple (read: terrible!) PHP script that I used to run my first blog. I even released it for download, though it obviously had just one user: me. The Year was 2002.

Screenshot of myJournal setup
It didn’t take me long to realise that my simple script was not going scale as my blog grew. My free web host that very kindly supported PHP, unfortunately did not give MySQL databases away. Towards the end of the year, a friend offered me a database on his server, and for the first time, I had the option of running a piece of real blogging software.

I knew Movable Type and Greymatter existed, but my friend’s host did not support Perl. I needed something that used PHP and MySQL.

Following some frantic googling, I stumbled upon b2, and from there, to this post on photomatt.net. I can’t remember exactly how, but from there, I somehow found myself in #wordpress on Freenode, and the rest, indeed, is history.

I’ve used every version of WordPress since 0.70, and though I spent much of my career outside of tech circles before joining Automattic, WordPress followed me wherever I went. For years, it was my blogging platform of choice, the house in which I created my online home.

Then, even when I stopped blogging publicly, WordPress came with me into university, where I used it to keep notes, and into my teaching, where I used it as a Learning Management System (LMS), long before any dedicated LMS plugins existed. In between, I often used it for freelance work.

More than a decade later, I applied to Automattic, and amazingly, made it past the trial, and into my current role as a Happiness Engineer.

I now spend my work day helping people experience the sheer joy of being heard, that same joy I felt when I first began to publish on the web.

The WordPress support role is one that I inhabit fully, because if there’s anyone who understands what it’s like to have a technical barrier to expression, it’s me. It’s truly wonderful to be able to help others break through their own limitations, and end their silences, using the power of Free and Open Source Software, and the open web.

Over the past year, I’ve begun to break my silence as well. In March and September 2015, I had the privilege of speaking to audiences in South Asia about WordPress. Getting up on stage in front of so many people was terrifying, and even as I ready myself to speak at WordCamp Mumbai again this year, practising my presentation over and over again, the threat of silence lurks behind every block I experience, and indeed, every vibration of my vocal chords.

I still stutter, and could very easily experience some really embarrassing blocks at any point, whether speaking publicly, or otherwise.

The silence is there. But it no longer scares me.

There are a lot of things we cannot control in this world, many forces at work that we cannot even see. But, as members of this community, I think we can content ourselves with this thought:

Because of the GPL, and the way it works, WordPress will be available as a publishing platform for decades to come, and long after the next social network comes and goes, for as long as the Internet remains free and accessible, anyone with WordPress will be able to have their say.

What WordPress did for me, it can do for others. And that’s why we need to keep going.

Because every silence can be overcome.