Roadmap for a Drupal-based progressive community blog platform

Last week I wrote a brief series on developing a Drupal-based progressive community blog platform.  As a bit of background, Drupal is a leading open source content management system; at work, most of the websites I build use Drupal.  In light of the vulnerabilities of the Soapblox platform, which hosts many local and some nationwide progressive blogs, it's become apparent that an open-source software packages, specifically tuned to the needs of progressive bloggers, would be a valuable asset.

The initial series last weekend got a fair amount of interest, but there was one theme that was fairly strong among the comments: Drupal is a great platform, but it's not user-friendly enough for most bloggers.  There is, to be sure, some kernel of truth in that critique - Drupal is not that easy to use out-of-the-box.  On the other hand, a savvy developer can turn Drupal into one of the most easy-to-use, powerful platforms for blogging around.  If you have any doubts, I'd suggest you visit OnSugar and create a free account - the system is a hosted, Drupal-based blogging platform, and in my opinion it is at least as user-friendly as Wordpress, if not more so.

While I don't know if I'll ever be able to put together something as nice as OnSugar, I'd like to give it a shot.  In the next few weeks, I hope to release a simple Drupal-based community blogging platform, which will include some (but not quite all) of the features many of us are already familiar with in most progressive community blogs.  The platform will be released on drupal.org under the GNU General Public License, like all other Drupal contributions, so that others can download it and try it out.  The hope is that this platform will improve over time, with the help of other progressive Drupal developers, progressive bloggers, readers, and anyone else who is interested.  Below, I've outlined a prospective, best-case-scenario roadmap for this platform.  I'd love to get feedback on this, so if you have critiques for the roadmap, if you'd like to help out - or if you're already working on a similar Drupal-based platform - please let me know!

Stage 1. Basic community platform

In this stage, we will develop a Drupal installation profile which contains the basic features needed for a progressive community blog.  In particular, readers will be allowed to create new user accounts, and to comment and post their own blog posts using those accounts.  Recent user blog posts will appear in a sidebar.  Users will also be able to vote on one another's comments, and administrators will be allowed to front-page a diary or promote users to be front-pagers.  One thing we might not include in this release is the ability to recommend diaries, and for recommended diaries to appear in their own sidebar block.

Stage 2. Platform enhancements

In this stage, we will make incremental improvements to the platform, in order to develop features which are similar to (or slightly better than) those of the basic Soapblox platform.  These features will include recommended diaries (if they didn't make it into the first stage), user profiles and WYSIWYG editing.  We will also include features that give administrators some options for tweaking the look-and-feel of their site, including specifying a color scheme, easily trying out new themes, and managing their sidebar blocks.  At this stage, we may also consider adding functionality to allow bloggers to import their blog posts and comments from other platforms - like Blogspot, Soapblox, and Wordress - without much effort.

Stage 3. Hosted platform

Assuming that the platform has gained a toe-hold among progressive bloggers, we will begin to explore deploying the software on a hosted platform.  The challenge at this point will be more of a business model challenge than a technical one - the question is how to finance hosting and software maintenance at a cost acceptable to most bloggers.  One option is monthly fees, but it's possible that the fees required to maintain the system would be too high to be acceptable.  Another option is dedicated advertising space, a percentage of merchandising sales, or some other shared-revenue approach, as I discussed last week.  This stage will likely be a crucial one, in terms of making the platform widely accessible, as it will provide bloggers with a turnkey solution that lets them get a Drupal-based progressive community blog up and running with minimal effort.

Stage 4. Turbocharged community

At this stage, it will finally be possible to begin taking advantage of some of Drupal's more powerful community features.  These include Open ID login; community calendars; lightweight intranet features that facilitate the work of committees or project teams; libraries of appropriately-licensed embeddable images and videos; polls and anonymized survey/data gathering tools.  It would even be possible to add some e-activism features, similar to those at FireDogLake, and, if the appropriate state-level data is available, to create state-based e-activism tools.  This stage would likely have several sub-stages; many of these features are uncharted waters for local blogs, and would require careful requirements gathering and testing before rollout.

Stage 5. Built-in financial stability

There are a number of ways in which Drupal can help bloggers earn more money, and this stage would focus on that problem.  A DailyKos-like "advertising-free" subscription module would help bloggers earn dedicated revenue from a loyal customer base.  Modules which automatically display "buy now" links on book reviews and similar posts could help bloggers earn more commissions from merchandising sales.  More exotic possibilities are also available.  For example, bloggers could write e-books and sell them directly from their site using Drupal's Ubercart module.  Or, the system could integrate with Mochila, and allow bloggers to profit by reselling their work and even (with appropriate permission, profit-sharing, and so forth) their readers' diaries.

Again, if you have thoughts and suggested improvements for this roadmap, please drop a line in the comments!  I'd also be interested to hear from developers who might be willing to help out, or who have already started building something similar.

Tags: Blogosphere, content management systems, Drupal, progressive movement, Technology (all tags)

Comments

15 Comments

Wordpress MU

The Drupal ecosystem is definitely powerful but I think that the primary focus of Drupal is content management. A better fit in my opinion is Wordpress multi-user (WPMU). Wordpress is after all a blogging platform first and foremost, and the plugin ecosystem around it has as high developer intensity as drupal does (if not more). I maintain a WPMU site myself, Talk Islam (http://talkislam.info) with user diaries and site-wide features, etc - take a look. I think that before you invest too much in Drupal you shoudl take a look - I invite you to email me to discuss technical issues further and I can easily set up a demo site for you to play with for free. We can go from there if you like what you see - drop me an email at apoonawa-blog@yahoo dot com.

by azizhp 2009-01-17 07:16AM | 0 recs
Re: Wordpress MU

Thanks for the suggestion!  I did look around your site a bit, and it looks quite interesting.  I've worked with Wordpress MU a bit, and it is an interesting platform.  But for better or for worse, Drupal is my platform of choice, and I've found it much easier to work with (from a developer's point of view.)  I have a decent idea of how to implement almost all of the features I've listed above in Drupal, but in Wordpress it would be a much greater challenge - for me, at least.

That having been said, if there's an open source Wordpress MU package capable of doing most of the things that Soapblox does that I can download, install, and play with, I'd be happy to review it here as another alternative.  I'll be in touch by email shortly.

by Shai Sachs 2009-01-17 08:52AM | 0 recs
Re: Roadmap for a Drupal-based progressive communi

This is great project, and your phase divisions make a lot of sense.

I'd definitely be willing to help out (I'm an intermediate Drupal developer who only dabbles in the php side); shoot me an email.

by ahkiam 2009-01-17 08:55AM | 0 recs
Drupal vs Joomla

I would appreciate a few comments on Drupal (which I used to build a website in 2005) vs Joomla.  

by msobel 2009-01-17 09:02AM | 0 recs
Re: Drupal vs Joomla

Here's a good article comparing the two.

by ahkiam 2009-01-17 09:18AM | 0 recs
On a tenuously related note:

I'm in the process of implementing a countywide voter outreach system based on Advokit, which I believe is no longer under active development.  Is there any interest in providing features for campaign management in your project?  Maybe drupal modules already exist for this purpose?

by beemer 2009-01-17 12:10PM | 0 recs
Re: On a tenuously related note:

To my knowledge, the closest thing to Advokit available for Drupal, and it's not very close, is CiviCRM.  That's more for contact relationship management.

Adding campaign management features to Drupal, or perhaps on top of CiviCRM separately, might be really nice, but I think it's a little too far removed from this project.  And it's also a much more complicated problem to solve than community blogging is.  After all, we're talking about a blogging platform, not a campaign website platform.  That being said, if there was a readymade campaign management module available for Drupal, it would be fairly easy for a blogger to add that functionality into the community blogging platform.

by Shai Sachs 2009-01-17 01:15PM | 0 recs
Worth pointing out that CiviCRM

interfaces with Drupal (and Joomla). That might not be clear to all readers. Also, for those who don't know what contact relationship management is, it's a system that lets you, for instance, keep track of contact info for all members of a group, or send e-mail to those people.

I really like the idea of your offering this series. It's extremely valuable information. I also like the fact that you don't seem to be presenting these tasks as simpler than they really are. That kind of hype just ends up causing frustration.

by AlanF 2009-01-18 05:11AM | 0 recs
I like this conversation.

I am currently looking for software to create a collaborative / community / progressive blog in much the same fashion you have described.  

I looked at Scoop, but there seems to be no current community writing plugins for it.  Also, it seems to be in Perl v. php, so the concepts, languages, syntax would present an imposing learning curve to the community at large.

I don't write a line of code, but I am willing to play with your Drupal project in the role of a test-monkey.  I can easily serve as typical noob or low-tech end user, for you to see how your system is managed by newcomers and non techies.

My current blog is self-hosted, so I can load it, test it, break it and report on it on short notice.

If you are interested in participation from 'user' minds during the creation, experimentation and construction phase, then I offer my time to you.

-gadfly

by the national gadfly 2009-01-17 02:02PM | 0 recs
Re: I like this conversation.

Thanks!  I'll email you with an update soon.

by Shai Sachs 2009-01-24 03:13AM | 0 recs
Re: Roadmap for

imo, you should hold your powder dry for a couple of more weeks, and see what we have built on rails get released. I think you've some rails background, right? But, if you insist, its not a bad thing, and I wish you well building it.

by Jerome Armstrong 2009-01-17 05:08PM | 0 recs
Re: Roadmap for

I didn't realize you had something cooking.  I do know a bit of Rails, but at this point I'm quite rusty - I've been doing Drupal (and a bit of Wordpress) for a couple of years.  I'm going to see what I can get done in Drupal, if nothing else as a challenge to myself, but I'm very interested to see what's coming down the pike in Rails!

by Shai Sachs 2009-01-24 03:15AM | 0 recs
Multiple sites with one manager.

The main issue is how to have small admin overhead while handling multiple installations. SoapBlox may have been understaffed, but it is admirable that one, part-time guy could host (or service) so many blogs.

I'm willing to believe that Jerome's Ruby on Rails project will be successful. Ruby claims rapid implementation of DB driven websites, which works if you already know what you want.

Drupal offers flexibility, as well as a trajectory of improvement due to its open-source community. I've just done my third Drupal design, and it went far faster easier than numbers 1 & 2.

Atain, with either the Ruby or Drupal implementation, the key will be whether the admin & hosting can be turnkey to the user.

by MetaData 2009-01-17 09:04PM | 0 recs
Team Approach; Budget for key expenses.

The average blog owner should realize that you don't usually find all the necessary skills in one person. The owners should obviously direct personal attention to content and operational issues (ads, links, writers, audience). I'm as cheap and controlling as anyone, but sometimes you get a lot of value by knowing what other things you can hire out. Treat your blog like a business, and figure out your costs over two, four and eight years.

Graphic design is done once, and it is really worth spending some money having it done well.

Drupal (or whatever) setup and structure is also done once, a cost that can be amortized over the lifetime of your website.

Hosting can be cheap, but the SoapBlox situation showed that your expenses probably should be closer to $50 per month than $15. 100 blogs at $50 each might actually support a robust support infrastructure. You need the confidence that backups, security, updates and maintenance are being handled.

Content.... well I guess that is up to you, your writers and your commentors.

by MetaData 2009-01-17 09:26PM | 0 recs
Re: Team Approach; Budget for key expenses.

I agree with you that a hosted blogging platform probably should be closer to $50 / month than $15 - if you're taking the hosting provider's point of view.  But if you look at it from the blogger's point of view, that's $600 / year to launch a blog that might or might not be a success, might or might not need to be abandoned for more pressing concerns, etc.  On the whole, it's definitely better to keep the barrier to entry as low as possible, both because it makes it easy for low-income folks to get on board, and because it encourages experimentation.

by Shai Sachs 2009-01-24 03:18AM | 0 recs

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