SoapBlox meltdown and Drupal
by Shai Sachs, Sat Jan 10, 2009 at 11:25:02 AM EST
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.