SoapBlox meltdown and Drupal


This week Soapblox, the content management system and hosting platform of choice for many, many local progressive blogs, had a serious meltdown due to a massive hacker attack, and nearly collapsed. The attack on Soapblox immediately took down a huge chunk of the progressive blogosphere's infrastructure, and threatened catastrophe for the progressive movement, just as a new session of Congress and a new administration was getting started. The story was already covered ably at DailyKos, Open Left, and many other progressive blogs.  The consensus that appears to have emerged after a fairly short but very wide-ranging discussion is: it may make sense to transition to another system eventually; for now there is no readily available alternative; Soapblox is a shoestring operation run by a good progressive; so progressives should chip in to save Soapblox.

More on the meltdown, and how we can use this crisis as an opportunity, across the flip!


My career is web development, so I naturally have a very keen interest in this story.  If the progressive blogosphere was a single organization, if it could have anticipated its current needs a few years ago, and if it had asked me for an ideal platform to meet those needs, I almost certainly would have suggested a system based in Drupal, or perhaps multi-user Wordpress.  Both are software packages that are more than capable of handling all of the sundry needs of most progressive bloggers, and actually quite a few more.  Of course, the progressive blogosphere isn't a single organization, and even if it was it certainly couldn't have anticipated its current needs a few years ago, so I never had a chance to propose that kind of solution.


Instead of that scenario, Soapblox emerged, through an organic process that ranged over the past several years, as the platform of choice for many leading progressive blogs.  Soapblox is a reasonably good technological platform, but I think the key to its success, until this week, was its low barrier to entry.  For a low monthly fee and with very little technological expertise, a blogger could launch a full-featured blog that was felt, to readers, a lot like DailyKos.  In contrast, Drupal and multi-user Wordpress would require an awful lot of tinkering and monkey-wrenching in order to simulate the Dailykos experience.


With Soapblox hanging by a thread, it's important to develop a new and stronger alternative to the old system.  There's very little question, in my mind, that the best foundation for this kind of hosted blogging system will be Drupal, for a wide variety of reasons.  First, Drupal's out-of-the-box features include user-specific diaries, moderated comments, and the capability to front-page a diary - those are all key features of Soapblox.  What Drupal lacks is the ease-of-use of Soapblox, but as OnSugar demonstrated late last year, it's entirely possible to run a hosted, easy-to-use blogging platform on Drupal.  Second, Drupal is one of the most popular content management systems in the world, which means it has an enormous user, developer, and support community; there is no single point of failure in the Drupal community, meaning that a near-meltdown like Soapblox's is nearly unthinkable.   Finally, there is already a considerable degree of cooperation between the Drupal and progressive communities.  Many local Dean organizing groups, and later DFA chapters, developed websites based in Drupal, thanks largely to the release of a Drupal distribution called Deanspace, (which later changed its name to Civic Space Labs).  Today, there are a variety of progressive Drupal development firms, including Development Seed, Chapter Three, Prometheus Labor, ZivTech, and my own company, Lightbulb First Consulting, LLC.  Drupal is a community which is strongly based in a number of open source values, including meritocracy, transparency and accountability - the same values that drive the progressive blogosphere.


As with all crises, this one holds an opportunity to rebuild something which is not just as good as, but actually much better than, the old Soapblox platform.  Drupal has, for a very long time, had extensions which provide robust, automated search engine automization (via the Pathauto and Global redirect modules); anonymous survey tools (via the Webform module); ecommerce tools (via the Ecommerce or Ubercart module, take your pick); calendaring features (via the Date and Calendar modules); and lightweight intranet features (via the Organic groups module). As of about a year ago, Drupal includes support for OpenID integration, meaning that a Drupal-based progressive blogging platform will lower the barriers of cross-blog cooperation, since it will be possible to allow readers of one blog to comment and post on another blog without creating a new account.  Drupal will soon include support for semantic integration, meaning that progressive bloggers will be able to gather data sets and share them with one another easily.  In short, the creation of a new Drupal-based blogging platform will make it possible to extend and expand the range of functionality available in progressive blogs in ways that are essentially unimaginable with Soapblox.


Primarily, I think it is the responsibility of the progressive Drupal community (which I count myself a part of), to answer this call-to-arms.  We must develop a stronger, better alternative to the Soapblox platform, and we must properly productize and market that solution in order to make it palatable to progressive bloggers.  These are busy days for me, and it's not entirely clear that I'll have time to develop such a product on my own, or to organize a larger effort.  But I think we need to get the ball rolling very soon, because the days when it made sense to run the progressive blogosphere on a shoestring are long gone.  


Full disclosure: My company offers Drupal-based web development services, and therefore is a competitor to Soapblox.  We also worked on a small design project for Open Left about a year ago, and we submitted a business plan to the Blogpac entrepreneurship contest.

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

Comments

37 Comments

Moderation & Comments

Discussion and community participation is IMO by far the most important part of these sorts of sites, and leveraging the size of a healthy community to moderate itself is invaluable.  Although I know it's very flexible, I've always thought of Drupal as a more "top-down" CMS.  Nearly every sute built with it follows the traditional blog paradigm: A small number of admins post stories, with user interaction limited to posting comments.  Can you point me to any drupal modules or existing sites that provide for the kind of segmented structure that exists here and on dailykos (i.e. a frontpage run by site administrators with a secondary area for users to post diaries)?  Ditto for a more robust comment and moderation system, with user rating and ajax submissions.  This isn't a dig on drupal, I'm genuinely curious to know if there are any existing dkos clones built with it.

by semiquaver 2009-01-10 12:40PM | 0 recs
Re: Moderation & Comments

Sure thing.  The blog module which comes with Drupal allows any user to post a blog.  Drupal's core system allows administrators to choose which posts get "promoted" to the front page, and which do not.  The blog module also comes with a "Recent blog posts" block, which can be placed in the left and right sidebar.  Each user also gets a page listing all of the blog posts he or she has ever written.  Finally, Drupal comes with a comment administration system which enables quite a sophisticated community moderation system - in fact, one potentially much more powerful than that offered by SoapBlox; you just need to configure it properly.

You're right that many Drupal sites are run in a top-down fashion, but not because it's impossible to run a community oriented site.  If you remember the Principles Project (which was a site organized in 2005 around putting together a "Statement of Progressive Principles", and featured a very heavy component of comments, voting, etc.) - that was run on Drupal (partially because I helped build it :)  There are also some current progressive blogs, like FutureMajority.com, which are run on Drupal.

In short, Drupal has ample capacity to support grassroots community features, even if it's often not used that way.  The features I listed above are just what you get "out of the box"; it's possible to install additional modules, or develop custom ones, in order to get Drupal to do even more.  The main problem with Drupal, from the point of view of progressive bloggers, is that it's not as easy to use as other alternatives.  There's no "dailykos-lite" version of Drupal, even though, relatively speaking, it's not all that difficult to develop something like that.

by Shai Sachs 2009-01-10 12:53PM | 0 recs
For Example

Tool around our site:  Young Philly Politics

The graphic design is just out of the box drupal, but in terms of the features, I am pretty sure we have everything a soapblox blog would have, plus some other things, like job listing form, etc.

by DanielUA 2009-01-10 02:14PM | 0 recs
That site seems to cover the basics well.

So then the next question is what were the steps you needed to do to get it up and running?

Find a hosting source (probably your isp?) And then what? FTP something and execute it and answer some setup option questions?

Did you need any hand-holding? Those sorts of things?

by Jeff Wegerson 2009-01-10 02:23PM | 0 recs
Re: That site seems to cover the basics well.

No question I could not have started it myself.  My brother, who later went on to start Zivtech (mentioned above), did it all, because he is nice and because he was learning Drupal and because he wanted to help grow our blog.  So, I think to build the basic site, you would need someone with Drupal experience.

Once it is set up, it is very, very easy to use and modify, change features, basic design, for anyone with general blogging/html level skills.

This would all take money to do.  But, I think a Drupal firm could make a liberal blog package that could be designed by one of the above mentioned firms for a reasonable price- and that design would be able to be modified or worked on by others, which seems like a real problem with soapblox.

by DanielUA 2009-01-10 02:44PM | 0 recs
Re: That site seems to cover the basics well.
that design would be able to be modified or worked on by others, which seems like a real problem with soapblox.

At the user level Soapblox has lots of easy to use and change functionality. It's my impression that at the coding level it isn't actually that difficult for others to work with. It's just at the moment it's a one-man closed shop. If he opens at as he seems to want then that issue would be resolved.
by Jeff Wegerson 2009-01-11 03:16PM | 0 recs
Re: SoapBlox and Drupal and Drama Queens!

Buried in your diary are the real issues here which are open sourceness and distributedness. Soapblox at the moment is neither open source nor distributed. It is quasi both but not yet either.

I would count myself as a poster child for Soapblox. I was an early adopter of Soapblox. At the time I also saw Drupal. That was three and a half years ago. My skill-set is such that I might have been able to pull off a Drupal site then, but with the ease of entry and the full featuredness of SoapBlox I stuck with Soapblox. So far the only problems have been the occasional down time. A nuisance but that's all.

But my site is small as is the the community generated around it. Should we quit publishing, it would be relatively easy to start all over again with whatever. It would be a big irritation, but again that's all. Perspective is important here.

If I were part of a larger blog and blog community, what are to us minor would become much greater. If I were OpenLeft I would be much more concerned with the current SoapBlox situation. Which is what again exactly?

Well Paul Preston, the current SoapBlox czar (or whatever word might strike your fancy) is nothing if not a drama queen. What really happened? Nothing but that one or some of his servers running about a quarter of his sites had some down time. The reasons aren't even very relevant. It could have been any number of things with such a thinly distributed operation. It was only a quarter of his sites because there was indeed some distribution. But the point again is that each site is not responsible for its own hosting and software maintenance; i.e. closed source.

But is that a bug or a feature? And if it's a feature can it be secured in the next phase of the SoapBlox  evolution. Because the feature is the very user-friendliness of SoapBlox and it's very low cost of entry, both technical and financial. There are real world reasons why there are about a 100 SoapBlox communities. If someone offered an out of the box Drupal site, already hosted, and minimally featured with user diaries, comments, nested comment replies and comment moderating being the major ones, then it would be a reasonable option for some of the SoapBlox sites like the ones that have already failed to draw an audience and already bitten the dust. If you take my point. So easy that people are not afraid to fail!

The software that originally came pretty out of the box ready to go has slowly added complexity. That again is a plus and a minus to those just starting out. My guess is that it would still be pretty easy to fire up a SoapBlox site. If you can get Paul's attention long enough, of course. I suspect that reality has actually limited the number of SoapBlox sites out there. I can only imagine how many there would be if Google were offering the service for an email address like they do with Blogger (or whatever it is now). But that's the business model that needs to be followed, however that can be done. Can it be done progressively, meaning some kind of community ownership? I hope so. I suspect that Paul is willing to go down that path.

But really your post is about Drupal. Is there a path from SoapBlox to Drupal? That would certainly be a good thing were it to exist. It would be a sort of backup option. At the moment all SoapBloxes can get full MySQL data backups of all their data. Indeed I believe that there already exists some experience (by Paul) and tools for the other direction migrations from Wordpress and maybe even Drupal to SoapBLox. This probably needn't be an either or reality. It doesn't have to be either SoapBlox or Drupal. There is the opportunity here for it to be both.

Drupal is a community which is strongly based in a number of open source values, including meritocracy, transparency and accountability - the same values that drive the progressive blogosphere.
That is not incompatible with Paul and SoapBlox. But who would create such a Drupal route from SoapBlox? Certainly not Paul. Paul is the classic individual entrepreneur, except for his odd community values, which means that SoapBlox is a labor of love. There is likely not such a love laborer in Drupal to effect such a path. With luck I will be proved wrong.

by Jeff Wegerson 2009-01-10 02:07PM | 0 recs
Re: SoapBlox and Drupal and Drama Queens!

Dupal has contributed modules to import content from  csv files one can get from database exports from Mambo (of which Soapbox is a branch I believe?), though I've never tried it.

A new Drupal focus has been on creating download profiles that are preconfigured for certain uses.  I don't see one that comes for MyDD/DailyKos style multiuser blogging, but that wouldn't be a big project to set up.  If a developer were to set up that package, so all an individual site owner needed to do was download, install, & style the site, it would go a long way to making Drupal less daunting.

by ahkiam 2009-01-10 04:43PM | 0 recs
I've looked at the source to both (and Scoop)

And I'd stick with SoapBlox. It might mostly be a matter of developer preference of languages. Scoop (the much modified underpinnings of MyDD and dailykos) is written in perl. Drupal is written in PHP. SoapBlox is written in Java. In my professional opinion, Java is the best language and run environment of any of those. At the simplest, Java code runs 50 times faster than perl or PHP. There are a few things that can be more quickly tossed off in PHP and perl, but they don't encourage long term maintainability of a software project. Of course a good programmer could do it the right way, and Scoop has some of that, but Drupal's PHP and contributed modules are a nasty mess. I've done some development on a Scoop site I used to run. I would not develop for PHP. SoapBlox is what I would want to develop for (but I currently work for a company with a competing blogging platform, so I shouldn't touch it).

by bolson 2009-01-10 04:19PM | 0 recs
Re: I've looked at the source to both (and Scoop)

Where do you get 50x better?  Particularly on comparable hardware.

Both PHP and perl have reasonable options for acceleration.  And many Java platforms, frankly, are beasts.  Given the choice between Java and, say, Python, there are a lot of applications where Java's greater complexity is just over-engineering.

You can write good software in Java.  But you can write good software even in PHP or perl.  And you write bad software in any language.

by MBayRob 2009-01-10 04:54PM | 0 recs
Re: I've looked at the source to both (and Scoop)

Drupal Core's php is fine, but I'd agree that some contributed modules are a nasty mess.  However, since you can get MyDD style functionality out of core modules, this isn't really an issue.  Plus Drupal lets you put together very advanced website without ever touching php.  Remember that a lot of these blogs won't have any 'real' site development, just theming.

As far as php vs java speed...this is a religious discussion.  I'd agree Java is faster (potentially, depending, etc.) but 50x is a fake number.  Maybe it matters for DailyKos, but for 90% of the progressive blogs, no.  Easy usability and support for non-experts is key.

by ahkiam 2009-01-10 04:57PM | 0 recs
Re: I've looked at the source to both (and Scoop)

I get the 50x from implementing the same code in C, Java, perl and Python. If C is 100% speed, Java runs at 50%-90% (the 1.6 JVM made things much faster), perl and python run at 1-2%. Java runs 25-50 times faster.

Sure, it doesn't matter for one small blog, but it matters when you're running 100 blogs on a dozen servers. If it's the difference between needing a dozen servers and needing twice as many, that's a big server cost and admin overhead difference.

I heard rumors months ago that kos was funding a complete rewrite of dailykos.com in Ruby. I expect that project to run into performance issues. And because it's a successful site, I expect they'll throw money at the problem and run a big complex server cluster. In these dark economic times, I'll put a little more work into the programming to get efficiency gains at run time.</rant>

by bolson 2009-01-11 06:26AM | 0 recs
What does the end user really want?

We can have technical arguments about the best this or the worst that, but the customer is the owner of the blog. I suggest that ease of entry, ease of setting up, ease of use, and cost are primary, not which software or which platform to use.

The recent problems at SoapBlox require the technical people to point out that robustness and quality hosting should be given higher priority, even if that adds cost. I think the users get that, now.

But, for the priesthood to suggest that blog owners sacrifice ease of use, and easy entry would be the height of arrogance.

(PHP is very similar to PERL with optimizations for database hooks and html layout. A PERL programmer finds it a pretty easy switch. Not that different from Oraperl, or Oracle's procedural SQL, for that matter, which was the platform for the first US-national Internet yellowpages in 1996... I should know.)

by MetaData 2009-01-10 05:03PM | 0 recs
Exactly

DemConWatch started with Soapblox a month ago (we had been on Blogger for 3 years before this), and there's no way we could have achieved any of the functionality Soapblox gives us with any other platform for the price and ease of use. Like almost all the soapblox blogs, we're part-time bloggers, and we want to spend our blog time on providing content, not figuring out Drupal modules.

In the short term, there's really no other solution than getting Soapblox stable and providing a future for it.

by msn1 2009-01-11 05:31PM | 0 recs
Simplicity vs Extensibility

I've worked with WordPress, Drupal, Zen and CiviCRM... These tools are really cool; Man! the places you can go and the things you can do. For Drupal see PopSci.com or TheOilDrum.com. But, Drupal takes a good web programmer to design, build, set-up and manage a site. Hosting and updating the core software requires a lot more than average web layout skills.

Once a year or so you get a major upgrade, and then you have to jump through some major design and programming hoops to keep up. Oops, your favorite module didn't make the upgrade. Popular science had a several person team and several months of design. Read about it here.

SoapBlox succeeded because it was a simple, out of the box solution, optimized for these political blogs. Paul made a turn-key system and charged low prices. Low overhead and low cost democratizes the blog invention process.

I'm really pissed at the 2 or 3 open-source demagogues over at DailyKos who repeatedly dissed Paul. Moral purity is one thing; the practical needs of a new blog are another. And for christ's sakes, stop dumping on the progressive guy who made a lot of good happen. Sounds like jealousy and purer-than-thou ideologues to me. The trolls never actually offered helpful suggestions... just dumped repeatedly on SoapBlox and Paul.

Yes, given that the SoapBlox sites make up a significant portion of the progressive blogosphere, it is time for a more robust system. Yes, this necessarily means more expensive hosting and personnel. Maybe this means transitioning to a new platform.

But, certainly, these 100 or so blogs require immediate solutions for their near-term needs.

Drupal has matured a lot in the last couple of years. It would be interesting to see if a subset of key Blog enhancement modules (whatever they are) could be maintained together, so that all the key features would be released at the same time the Drupal core gets an upgrade. CiviCRM has a separate development team that (tries to) keep current with Drupal. Of course, open source is notorious for release slippage. (Closed source releases slip also, but you know who to burn in effigy.... Bill Gates or Paul, in this case.)

by MetaData 2009-01-10 04:46PM | 0 recs
Best argument for SoapBlox

I develop for Drupal as well, and work on a couple of reasonably large sites.

Certainly, you can do excellent sites with Drupal, if you're willing to invest the effort and money to do it.  Drupal doesn't do a whole lot out of the box, and it doesn't look really good doing it.

The whole point of SoapBlox, I think, is that it's a quick and dirty solution that does what certain kind of community sites require out of the box. It's not that pretty, but for these sites, it doesn't need to be (and it still looks better doing it than any of the standard Drupal themes).  And at $15/month, the price was right.  I know the CivicSpace people very well, and I will tell you, they had a hell of a time provisioning a good hosted service at a price that people would pay, and would allow CivicSpace to keep afloat.  If you are hosting Drupal and not losing money hand over fist, you are charging more than Paul was charging for SoapBlox.

Both hosted and engineered Drupal sites do good things and are the right solution for some applications.  But something like SoapBlox -- a simple community platform at a low price point -- is needed as well.

by MBayRob 2009-01-10 05:02PM | 0 recs
My life was a wreck until...

I discovered Zen.

Drupal 6.0 with the Zen theme is a lot easier to make pretty than Drupal 5.0.

But, your point is the same one I made. Something as important as "nice menus" where your drop-downs look good, takes hours of CSS work to get right.

Again, it would be interesting to have a Set-o'-Blog Drupal Modules optimized for the needs of progressive blogs.

by MetaData 2009-01-10 05:08PM | 0 recs
Re: My life was a wreck until...

No way!  Try SimpleMenu.  Looks pretty good out of the box...

But your point is generally true.

by ahkiam 2009-01-10 05:22PM | 0 recs
Great discussion ...

... and I very much agree with the approach of turning into the crisis as an opportunity.

One thing that would be great to see is a requirements sketch for a couple of different use scenarios.  Drupal clearly has the functionality and the extensibility; is there a way to create an out-of-the-box usable platform for activists and  progressive bloggers that would have a minimal barrier to entry and (just as important) low administration effort?  Quite probably yes, and the first step is understanding what people need.

by JonPincus 2009-01-10 09:47PM | 0 recs
Re: SoapBlox meltdown and Drupal

Just this past week I spent a long time comparing CMS options for a new site that I'm starting.  I wanted dKos community blogging features but also thought maybe some other stuff.  A few minutes on the Soapblox home blog scared me away.  It had the turnkey aspects I wanted but as I read Paul's screeds about trying to collect on account's it seemed very fly by night and what would happen if this guy got a better job, got married, moved, failed.

Then it was Drupal vs. Joomla.  Drupal is used by more not for profits and the test case sites did the things that I wanted to do, better.  My two priorities are combining a the blog driven community features of the best progressives sites with Facebook style social networking.  Other things like wiki are down the road.  Drupal with it's large community of developers and extensions seemed like the way to go.

I got a hosting package from Site Ground for $216 for 36 months with push button installation of Drupal, Joomla, Wordpress, three different wikis and a dozen other CMS options.  

The only problem now is that I have to become a Drupal expert on my own overnight.  Which falls in the category of "I can do it, but I'm going to hate it, but I can't afford to pay someone."   I went that route a few years ago stitching together a multiblog site in Moveable Type and did it pretty well but hated building it.  This will be worse though hopefully the results more worthwhile.

Those thread has convinced me that I made the right choice (which I wasn't convinced of) but I look forward to finding the developments for the kind of plug and play progressive community site people like us need.

by marcbrazeau 2009-01-10 10:47PM | 0 recs
Re: SoapBlox meltdown and Drupal

It's going to be a food, nutrition and food/agbiz politics site.  Any volunteers to help me navigate the Drupal set up?  Even a few pointers will be appreciated. And if you live in Portland, OR rewarded with delicious food and drink.

by marcbrazeau 2009-01-10 10:49PM | 0 recs
best practices?

Consider what things you should hire out instead of doing yourself. You can learn anything, but maybe a one time expense for professional graphic design job will make your site really stand out.

The zen theming engine is much easier to work with than the native themes. Out of the box it gives you more flexibility in layout (sidebars, headers, etc), but the important thing is it separates the layout CSS from the text & fonts CSS. Rearranging the layout is much more difficult than swapping in your own graphics and changing font colors and styles. Zen purists claim you should never touch the layout CSS... yeah, right.

You can do a MAMP install on your Macbook which will give you an integrated MySQL, Apache and PHP for a local backup or testbed.

For your host environment, I've been extremely happy with cpanel, which allows you to manage your databases, files, installs, etc.

There are five or ten important third party modules, depending on your needs. These might include:
 - login toboggan (email or username logins)
 - Captcha/Recaptcha (security),
 - TinyMCE (wysiwyg or gui for your HTML comments),
 - ed_readmore (essential for teaser management),
 - nodequeue (managing recommended diaries)
 - Pathauto/nodewords/taxonomy_menu (tags and keywords)
 - CCK and views (customizing your content entry and display... but this path is not for the faint of heart)

There are a few other modules useful for a specialized blog site, like blog ad modules, but I don't know so much about those.

All this illustrates how much value you get from a turnkey solution. $15/month is cheap... evidently too cheap.

by MetaData 2009-01-11 06:19AM | 0 recs
The Drupal Way

Your hardest job will get your head wrapped around the Drupal philosophy and terminology. Just figuring out the relationship between taxonomy, nodewords, metatags and menus is nutso.

In fact, I would recommend avoiding the use of tags or keywords, as it will delay figuring out the rest of drupal.

by MetaData 2009-01-11 06:33AM | 0 recs
Re: The Drupal Way

Thanks for some good starting points.

by marcbrazeau 2009-01-11 07:21AM | 0 recs
Re: SoapBlox meltdown and Drupal

Be careful with the easy installation features of your hosting service, especially if it's Fantastico (see this discussion).  You're probably better off downloading the latest version from drupal.org and installing it yourself.

Here are some additional contributed modules that you might want to consider:

Fivestar (rate posts and comments)
Pingback or Trackback (if you want those features)
Akismet or Mollom (instead of Captcha -- I can't stand Captcha!)

I agree with Metadata the Views & CCK can be daunting, but once you 'get it' those modules are very powerful for controling how your content is created and displayed.  I'd say it's worth the time investment.

by ahkiam 2009-01-11 11:33AM | 0 recs
Non techies run away.

This discussion is about automatic installation and management tools.

I use Cpanel and Fantastico for many purposes, but Drupal wasn't set up at BlueHost, so I installed that by hand.

Updates by hand must be carefully done. Again, this indicates your technical overhead is a little higher with Drupal.

by MetaData 2009-01-11 12:00PM | 0 recs
Re: Non techies run away.

Agreed about the add'l technical overhead.

As a Drupal newb, I did an install from Bluehost's Fantastico (now they provide it), but it came without an update.php.  That is, needless to say, bunk.

by ahkiam 2009-01-18 12:43PM | 0 recs
Re: SoapBlox meltdown and Drupal

Shai -- Your critique is well intentioned, but misses the target.

The "meltdown" was not due to being a SoapBlox site or a Drupal site. It happened because we* were all using the same same progressive shoe-string hosting service.

(*I say we, as West Virginia Blue is one of the several dozen state blogs for whom BlogPAC pays SoapBlox fees.)

WVaBlue.com has been on SoapBlox almost two years now. Overall, I'm quite happy with it. If SoapBlox goes open source and if Paul can get a full time gig, I think that's the very best solution.

If there is eventually a viable truly turn-key Drupal-based alternative, great, the competition will be good for everyone. Is there an alternative that gives me what I have today for $15 a month? I'm guessing that's at least a year away.

Meanwhile, I'd ask that we progessives not eat our young. I realize your intentions are good and you are trying to motivate Drupal developers.

Still, It's not so helpful to talk up an alternative in the middle of a fund-raising drive to keep an important part of the progressive infrastructure intact.

by WVaBlue 2009-01-11 02:16AM | 0 recs
Rails for me, mydd, and the netroots.com platform

This site is moving to Rails. There's not a doubt in my mind, that the blogging platform we created for SBNation.com's network of sports blogs is the strongest blog platform out there right now, but its part of the corporate company, so using it here or on dkos would be out of the question.

I think scoop is pretty much dead. No recent major migrations to it, and no one that is developing on it pushes anything back into it.

My one criteria for having things built is speed, because there is limited funds to pay for it to be built, and Ruby on Rails offers a turnaround that beats anything I've worked with in the past.

I have never put together a project with drupal, but I have been around it a bit with other sites, migrating off of them or to them, with various clients. So I'm not very qualified to say anything other than it seems to work for various clients. And I do appreciate the open source structure of it, having sat by Zach Rosen during the CivicSpace formation era in the Dean campaign.

by Jerome Armstrong 2009-01-11 11:18AM | 0 recs
Re: SoapBlox meltdown and Drupal

+1 for Drupal as a CMS.

No real opinion on the SoapBlox situation and the way forward for the platform or the users.

But based on my experience with Drupal there's a pretty good argument for it.

We've been running Drupal for almost three years (our anniversary is Inauguration Day, hooray!) at KnoxViews.com and a few other smaller sites.

I have found it to be a reliable and robust and amazingly flexible platform that does almost everything you need out of the box, with a few exceptions:

1. No way to designate "authors" who can post to the front page without admin/moderator intervention to promote their posts. Giving users the ability to edit their own published/promoted status gives them the ability to edit everybody's.

I hacked a way around this, but it's not perfect and it has to be retrofitted after every Drupal update. It basically involves looking for an 'author' role in the user's list of assigned roles, and if it's there and if it's a new blog post to force it to the front page.

One of the reasons I picked Drupal was because of the very nice granularity of the permissions system, with this one glaring omission which has not been addressed in v5 or v6 (I started on 4.7).

2. Comments permissions are flexible and work great for either a wide open (no registration required), or a registration required, or a moderated, or not moderated implementation (we have been in and out of all modes at one time or another). The only thing missing is user ranking/self-moderating auto-deprecating voting up/down type system. I've tried all the add-on modules and none seem to work very well. Some kind of "reputation" system would be nice too, and I have tried all those also and they don't work very well either.

3. Performance rocks, until Google/Yahoo etc. come stomping through the site every day or so. Because it's so dynamic, Google seems to crawl my entire site multiple times every time they come through, even with caching set on.

For example, a post gets crawled on the front page. Then again on the user's individual blog page. Then again for each taxonomy term attached to the post. Then again if it's in "recent posts" or "recent comments" and so on and so on. Great for SEO and page ranking and such, but I had to put in a 10X-what-I-need-for-normal-traffic dedicated server just to handle Google/Yahoo crawls without crashing the whole thing. Some of it can be managed in robots.txt, but I have so many entries in there that Google bots send me nastygrams saying they can't adequately crawl the site.

4. Drupal has probably the best handling of RSS feeds (in and out) of any CMS. But it chokes a lot on blogger and other atom feeds, and it tends to create a lot of duplicate entries for inbound feeds. I found patches that seem to fix most of it, but this has not been addressed in new releases, either.

5. It only has basic browser text boxes for blog posts and comments. Casual and non-technical users expect buttons and icons to paste a link or a picture or blockquotes or whatever. None of the add-on modules work that well or they are performance hogs or they don't play well with all browsers or installation/maintenance is a nightmare. I settled on the really basic BUeditor, which user seem to be OK with everyone and its configurable.

Other than that, every time I take a new look around at current CMS, I always come back to Drupal. If I were running a single user or multi-user invitation only group blog I would probably go with WordPress. But Drupal can't be beat for an (almost) out of the box community site.

(Any tips on workarounds for the above listed issues appreciated!)

by rneal 2009-01-12 11:03AM | 0 recs
Re: SoapBlox meltdown and Drupal

@issue 1:
Just sort posts by user role in Views. No hacks, you just set up a filter.

@issue 2:
Have you tried the Flag module?  I like to set up an Up/Down or an Offensive flag, then with Flag Actions, you can make content or comments unpublish or be promoted when certain count thresholds are reached.

@issue5:
Yeah, I haven't found a text editor that doesn't cause major problems with other parts of my sites.  That area needs work.

by ahkiam 2009-01-18 01:00PM | 0 recs
Re: SoapBlox meltdown and Drupal

Thanks for the tips.

Hadn't thought of making the front page a view with a filter. (See later comment by Shai re. a module to autopromote. That sounds pretty cool, too.)

Don't remember if I tried the Flag module. Will take a look at it.

by rneal 2009-01-25 07:46AM | 0 recs
Re: SoapBlox meltdown and Drupal

I wrote up an "Auto Promote" module which will allow administrators to designate certain roles who can write automatically-promoted content today.  So you'll be able to create a front pagers role, give that role the "write automatically promoted content" permission, and then let your front pagers blog away.  I'm working on getting that contributed right now.

Can you give me some more detail on what you mean by the various karma schemes not working well, and which ones worked best?  I'll probably be working on something like this soon, so I'd be interested to hear what problems you came across. (This is in reference to issue 2).

by Shai Sachs 2009-01-24 04:57AM | 0 recs
Re: SoapBlox meltdown and Drupal

Great news on the Auto Promote module! I will keep an eye out for it.

Now that you have it almost done, of course I have some suggestions. :) It would be nice if there was just a permission in Drupal for "edit own publishing options," and somewhere to specify default settings for publishing options by role. This would give you the flexibility to implement front page posters and probably some other stuff, and allow front page posters to post stuff without forcing it to the front page (for things like images or events or static reference pages).

On the karma modules, I tried several and it has been a while like maybe a year ago, so my memory is fuzzy.

But I have gone through my downloaded modules folder and will try to recall my thoughts on each one.

Fivestar: I seem to recall that this one worked pretty well but it doesn't really do anything except provide a ranking. Might be a good starting point for something more comprehensive.

Userpoints: I implemented this one briefly, and mainly I recall that users didn't understand the point (so to speak) of it. I think my plan was to use it to let the community promote other users to 'front page poster' status based on their content, or likewise demote them, but I don't think I ever quite figured out how to do it without a bunch of coding. It was also supposed to work with the vote up/down module, but I don't think I ever got that working.

Voteupdown: I played around with this but I don't think I ever really got it working. It seemed a little buggy at the time. I also seem to recall it was complicated with a lot of dependencies on other modules. I think it was closest to what I was looking for, though.

Ideally, in my environment a "community moderation" module would apply to nodes or comments, let users vote + or -, and at certain thresholds a) promote or demote nodes on/off the front page, or b) unpublish comments (or as an alternative hide them and replace with a link that says something configurable like "Comment hidden due to possible abuse, click here to read" or something (although that sounds pretty complicated).

Additional nice to have features might include modifying a user's role based on thresholds, so that, for example, a user could be promoted to front page, superstar, whatever status (or conversely demoted) based on accumulated +/- votes on their content.

I'm not sure I would go so far as letting the community outright ban a user ID, although it has been suggested at my place a few times (i.e. "can we vote this jerk off the island?")

by rneal 2009-01-25 08:20AM | 0 recs
I work for NGP Software

we do Drupal sites for Democratic campaigns, among other things.  Some of my work includes the following:

http://rfkcenter.org
http://stonewalldemocrats.org
http://thepeoplesinaugural.com
http://saraforcongress.com
http://ksdp.org

Plenty more where those came from.  I'm a huge fan of Drupal - did my first Drupal site back in 2003 and have been doing Drupal full time at NGP for three and a half years now.  Drupal is an extremely well written framework.  It's very flexible if you learn views and CCK and such (especially if you get into writing your own modules), but even right out of the box it's very easy to use and quite powerful.

by Sean Robertson 2009-01-12 11:53AM | 0 recs
Community blogs run better on open-source software

There's a lot in this discussion that's been about Drupal, but that's not really the issue. I love Drupal, but I've also used WordPress, Joomla and Plone. What differentiates each of these from Soapblox is that they're open-source.

Why do I say community blogs run better on open-source software?

Consider this: There are plenty of vendors who will host, set up and tweak a Drupal/WP/Joomla/Plone installation for you, and many of them have been mentioned above. But if said company goes out of business -- no problem, you just pick up your (still open-source) software and move somewhere else. If Soapblox goes dead? Maybe you get a dump of the database which you then have to painstakingly import somewhere else, if you're lucky.

Even more importantly, the vendors who setup and host open-source software benefit from the huge community of hundreds of active coders (some of whom are hobbyists and some of whom are getting paid), so all the while you're getting bug fixes, new features, new themes and security fixes. With a proprietary system, you get only what the company chooses to put out, and only what they have time to put out.

So if you think of Soapblox and Lightbulb/DevSeed/Trellon/Bryght/whateve r as similar companies which will make things easy for and put a friendly face on complicated software, the difference is the community-supported scaffolding that supports it.

I think it's great that Soapblox has hired some more people, but the model by which we pay more and more people to maintain our vitally-important software just seems poor to me. I certainly understand the limited time people have and the inertia around a system you already know, but I would hope this might serve as a wake-up call to explore more robust and sustainable systems, Drupal or otherwise.

(Full disclosure: I work as a consultant to nonprofits and social change groups under the name Rootwork and usually build sites in Drupal and WordPress.)

by quixoticlife 2009-01-12 06:45PM | 0 recs
Re: SoapBlox meltdown and Drupal

Well, I'm late to this particular party, mostly because I didn't know the thread was here till Shai pointed it out to me.  And because I've been at Camp Wellstone for the last several days.  

I've run one of the state blogs on Drupal since it started (http://www.uppitywis.org).  This isn't exactly rocket science - Drupal is very amenable to this sort of operation.  I do in fact think that a simple multi-user blog platform could be built around Drupal as an install profile - in which case, bringing up a Drupal site with all of the modules already pre-installed would be quite simple.  I've thought of building this in the past, but frankly the progressive blog infrastructure has been so sold on Soapblox that it never really seemed worthwhile to bother.  Frankly, I think the main problem with Soapblox as a platform is simply that it is a single-person project for all intents and purposes, and isn't open source.  Compare that to the thousands of people who have contributed to Drupal, and the fact that since it's open source you can easily move it to whatever hosting environment you'd like.  

I'd be glad to contribute to this if there is a genuine interest - but frankly I'm so busy at the moment doing Drupal sites for people that I"m already a little overwhelmed.

by shanson 2009-01-25 05:27PM | 0 recs

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