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Movable Type and Drupal and a rant for dessert

David Nunez
David Nunez
5 min read

I think it's no state secret by now that I am a huge fan of Drupal.

I'm a bit behind the curve in piling on to the Movable Type bruhaha and resulting exodus in the past few weeks. My opinions of that software and people behind it have a lot less to do with rational thought than they do with insane envy, so it's probably not productive for me to give an ill-informed opinion on that.

However, I should share a conversation happening on the Drupal site: Why move from MT to Drupal?

This discussion attempts to draw lines between MT and Drupal, showing why Drupal meets or exceeds the feature set of MT.

That's a played-out discussion, though... (and the way to market yourself is not to keep mentioning the competitors)

I'd rather mention THE killer apps for me in Drupal:

  • Superior Software Architecture: Dramatically easy to tweak, modify, append... it makes sense and does very smart things (like systematic function naming) that allow for someone to drop in and spend minimal effort to get up to speed.
  • Open Source: The community is wide-open for contributions back to the software (i.e. Very good developer community that uses (get this...) DRUPAL to communicate via forum, mailing list, cvs integration, and basic project management tools)
  • Everything and the kitchen sink... or not: The feature set is significantly large out of the box and is only getting larger by the day (literally... subscribe to the cvs rss feed and you'll see what I mean). However, Drupal doesn't suffer from the overwhelming geek-glut of other content mangagement systems... I'm not entirely sure why this is, and I imagine my non-geek friends would loudly disagree. Nevertheless, this is a system that is being designed for actual human beings to use. God forbid! In fact, there is quite a bit of conversation (and consequently, development) around usability and "prettiness."
  • Threaded Comments
  • Everything's a node: Everything, whether it be images in a Drupal image gallery, blog entries, or cookie recipes is treated as these things called "nodes". All nodes share common features (like the ability to be categorized and commented on), but each type can have specialized attributes. Drupal gives me the ability to group, connect, and organize the nodes in any arbitrary way. Insanely powerful.
  • Taxonomies vs. Categories: Wow. This is actually the feature that pulled me off of pMachine. Every node can have multiple categories from different "vocabularies". These categories can have heirarchical (and/or peer) relationships to get a pretty sophisticated organizational scheme. So, for example, if you were building a drupal site for your recipe collection, you could organize your nodes around any facets you'd like (ex. "breakfast, lunch, dinner" and "chicken, beef, pork") and start doing things like "show me all the lunch soup recipes that I haven't made in the last 7 months")! The data is the killer application.

Drupal is not the be-all-end-all, though. There are some issues with ease of customizing templates, for example, that need some work. With the effort behind drupal's XTemplate, I'd argue that if you can do MT template customization, you can do the same for Drupal (i.e. embed special tags in html).

In general, Drupal is a very fast-evolving technology that may move a little too randomly for some users. If you stick with the "milestone" releases (which update every few months or so) rather than the hourly updates that developers follow, you'll be fine.

Technology challenges can be solved. In fact I think the technology barriers will be solved in much the same way as they were solved for MT (quite often the barter system at work: non-geeks bought their geek friends lunch for help installing MT).

I think the more difficult part of adoption is the paradigm violence that must occur for the typical blogger to accept Drupal. It is fundamentally different than most blogging software. It's a superset of blogging. It's blogging on steroids. Instead of "I'll publish a stream of information every day," it's "I'll be fortifying my intricate web of information every day."

In fact, that's the one: People indoctrinated in using sequential streams of linear data to convey their thoughts will struggle with the concept of a graph of nodes that represent their publishing. We're used to associating our blog reading with questions like "Gee, I wonder if so-and-so wrote anything new today," and even built tools to keep up with this chronological organization (ex. rss readers).

The thing is, time is not a very usable way to organize information. In fact, as people are reaching their multiple-year anniverseries of blogging, there are enormous amounts of very valid and useful or entertaining content that is no longer read because we've decided "newer is better.. let the 'old' stuff (i.e. last month's news) fall away into 'the archives'."

Bullshit. Information doesn't expire. Ever.

Sure, the context changes, and new environments might devalue older information. Nonetheless, in absence of any other changes, just because you flip a calendar page, data does not ever lose its value.

This is my problem with the blogging status quo. Blogging systems insist on implicitly "expiring" articles and stories, placing them in these archive attics, never to be read again except by the occasional google hit. This is for no reason other than to reduce the content that the reader can easily access... That's fine; a reader should never feel overwhelmed. However, the problem is that the filter of "time" is bogus. Do we every archive our stuff because, maybe, it just isn't up to par? Where does quality fit into this? What if my ten new posts today all suck? Do they deserve front page status?

Systems like Drupal allow you to resurface valuable information based on more important attributes (like a category system that actually works) than time, and with Drupal, the concept of meta-data is now a fundamental prerequisite, not a nice afterthought. This means when we develop content for our new websites, we might have to put a little more thought ABOUT our content and how it fits in with other thoughts before we post it. We get to be our own harsh editors.

But here's what this post is really about:

The state of the art in online personal publishing has stagnated. We've had only a handful of revolutions in the past 10 years and nothing of real note in the past couple.

So it's about time there was a shake-up. I'm glad people are finally seriously considering alternatives to the blogging oligopoly that has dominated for so long on flimsy premises. The usual suspects, I hope, are receiving a wake-up call: always nuture your community first, innovate incrementally, commit revolutionary paradigm violence to make things interesting every once and a while, focus on proving measurable and scarce value before you twist the thumbscrews, or die. In that order.

For me, I see the open nature of Drupal's software that is built around fostering its user AND developer community as it's shining victory. It is constantly getting better, in little ways, every hour. I feel if I wanted to create technical revolutions in social software or community building tools, there's a strong chance it'll happen on the every strengthening backbone of Drupal. If you look at the growing, long list of sites using drupal, you'll find businesses, political orginizations, non-profits, and yes, individual bloggers deriving more and more value from its tool set.

...or not. And that's the beauty of it. I can flip off every switch in Drupal that complicates things, that takes away from my writing or thinking, or makes personal publishing not fun or educational or profitable.

Fun, educational, or profitable. Pick one, two, or all three... Isn't that what this is supposed to be about, anyway?

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David Nunez Twitter

Dir of Technology at the MIT Museum • Writing about emerging tech's impact on your life • Speculative insights on the intersection of humanity and technology 🤖

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