The Future of WPMu

There has been a lot of discussion about the future of WPMu with the coming merge of WPMu and WP, and I understand there are concerns and issues all around. I’m not in the business of selling WPMu, so my concerns aren’t so much caught up with the preservation of the WPMu name, but they are very much centered around the future of the multi-blogging functionality. In many ways the coming merge provides us with an opportunity to re-think some things about the WPMu architecture and the possibilities of what it might mean for individuals to manage their own WPMu sites.

I think the most exciting prospect of the merge is that WPMu will finally become as simple to install and maintain as a regular old WordPress install. And if that’s the case and the raison d’etre of the merge, then the whole push for a multi-user blogging system is not nearly as essential as a way to aggregate, visualize, and expose the work happening around a particular community within any given blog. If I were thinking the merger through I would be just as interested in the possibilities of robust and distributed syndication built into future core of WP— something that at least for me seems so much more important than giving everyone a blog on your blogging system. I don’t necessarily want people on our blogging system as much as I want them to easily set up their own site with RSS (and a WP site with the added bonus of many blogs in one install wouldn’t suck) . Why not start thinking about how to integrate plugins like FeedWordPress, Sitewide Tags Pages, BDP RSS (which it turns out still does work with WPMu 2.8x, despite my earlier post), etc. into the core and truly supporting the idea of a blog as an aggregation point for a wide range of sites. WordPress has pretty much perfected the ease of use for publishing, and that is why they rule, but working a more robust framework within the future releases for re-publishing and real-time web stuff would certainly be powerful in my mind, but this is quite selfish because it is what I’m really interested in beyond WP or WPMu. I want an elegant, feed-driven aggregation system that brings the work of an entire community into conversation with itself.

And what really gets me about this is that we are pretty close right now with UMW Blogs, I grab feeds from external blogs all the time that are related to UMW an pull them into our sitewide “tags” blog (the name tags here is confusing, it is simply a republishing of everything in the entire WPMu install) with FeedWordPress. For example, I stumbled across this post in the tags blog on UMW Blogs tonight, which was actually being pulled in from a WordPress.com blog of a student who graduated years ago, but regularly blogs about her work in historic preservation.  This particular post was all about a book she read as an undergraduate in Historic Preservation, and how great a resource it is.  A valuable post, especially since the professor who recommended that book, W. Brown Morton, retired last year. There is a kind of eternal echo in a system like this that students, faculty, and staff can continue to feed into a community of teaching and learning well beyond their matriculation period, or even their career.

I often think why we couldn’t just use UMW Blogs for aggregating clubs and organization news, course blogs, etc., but have everyone’s actual blog in their own space. Now, don’t get me wrong, I still see the value of something like WPMu for a simple solution for a quick blog without the updating and versioning headache, but I also see what we are doing as instructional technologists, scholars and students in higher ed right now is much bigger than a particular blogging system or software, I see my job as working with people to imagine the implications and possibilities of managing and maintaining their digital identity in a moment when we are truly in a deep transformation of information, identity, and scholarship. It’s key to keep this in mind well beyond the application, and when I think about WP or WPMu, I love it because the architecture has enabled me to grasp this more clearly than any other thing in my online experience.  So how might working with people to wrap their heads around this space, and manage their own WP install (or whatever floats their boat) on their own space (the Gardner Campbell SysAdmin vision is very much at work here—see his “bags of gold” talk for a mind blowing discussion of this very thing) as a means to make that lesson of the digital archaeology of knowledge that much more apparent and powerful.

To this end, I have been experimenting with what the new merged WP might be like.  For example, we have a few professors with mapped domains on UMW Blogs which basically host their personal/professional site, Jeff McClurken’s mcclurken.org is a good example of this, as is Steve Greenlaw’s hosting of his personal blog Pedablogy on UMW Blogs. So, with both of these domains I have created the logic of what a merged WordPress might look like for each of these professors. Steve Grenlaw would have his own domain stevegreenlaw.org on which he could create all his course blogs (as many as he wanted off of one domain and one WP install) and with built in aggregation, he could make it easy enough for students to get their own space wherever and share their feeds to create syndicated spaces for his course discussions, postings, etc. And, by extension, we could pull anything off of stevegreenlaw.org because as I see it he would share his course feeds with us. In fact, this is precisely what Zach Whalen is already doing with his own course sites that he hosts and designed himself with his Drupal kungfu, and it works beautifully.

But, here is the kicker, for anyone who can’t do what Zach does, we’ll host domains that professors purchase and, ideally, map all their domains onto one WP install that can manage many multi-blogging solutions from one install.  The whole Russian Doll thing that WPMu can do with the Multi-Site Manager plugin. So you offer a Bluehost like setup for faculty, and if that is too much, allow them to map a domain, take control of their own course work, and encourage an aggregated course management model that pushes students to take control of their digital identity and spaces by extension.  Giving students a space and voice on your domain or application is not the same as asking them to create, manage and maintain their own space.  Moreover, it doesn’t feed into the idea of a digital trajectory that starts well before they come to college and will end well after they leave.  This model extends the community, and brings in key resources like a recent graduate discussing an out-of-print historic preservation text book a retired professor assigned to be one of the best resources for an aspiring Preservation graduate student. This is what it is all about, right there, and it’s not gonna happen in silos and on someone else’s space, we need to provision, empower, and imagine the merge as a full powered move to many. many domains of one’s own.

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8 Responses to The Future of WPMu

  1. Alan Levine says:

    I am writing from a position of zero information as I’ve not been reading the discussions/drama on said merger. Lack of information surely presents no obstacle to having an opinion 😉

    One could take it as recognition that what was created by a core group of dedicated developers to become WPmu was so good to roll into the main product. It says that a blog is not everything, that there is a need to provide systems of blogs.

    I would not expect said merger to prevent you doing what you’ve accomplished, though its likely to take a fair bit of migration work. But I’d not necessarily expect to see the kind of feed aggregation you’ve done roll into the core- that is not to say it is not important and ground breaking, but honestly, its a rather specialty need that ought to be made possible as it is now via plugs into the core.

    At the same time, its not like what you have created will break as it is running on the current code- you can get years out of your platform for sure, and keep it alive while you grapple with the next stage.

    It’s always always going to change, evolve on you. AT the same time, to WP’s credit, my site keeps using the same template I created 4 years ago (I am lazy) though the software has jumped through huge stages of development.

    Then again, if you read the hype tea leaves, WPMU will be subsumed by Google Wave, which is also going to solve global warming, bring peace to the Middle East, and help the Cubs win a World Series.

  2. Boone Gorges says:

    I wonder how much of the angst about the MU merge has to do with the fear of functionality loss and how much of it has to do with “community” loss and ego. Anyone who clings to the independence of MU because they like being part of a cool, edupunk niche should join a band or something. My interest in MU has to do with ends rather than means, and if merging MU with WP core will help me to accomplish those ends (as many have suggested), then I’m all for it.

    On that note, I am not a (good) developer, but it seems to my limited WP brain that the merge will only affect a small part of what MU does. “Multi-User” is a misnomer anyway, since a vanilla WP install will let you have multiple users. So I assume that losing the MU title won’t do anything to user management, or to content composing (the most important thing about WP, after all), that wouldn’t have happened anyway if the two softwares continued independently. The ability to host multiple blogs on a single install seems to be the main thing that needs to be merged from MU into WP, and it strikes me that here the issue is more about hiding unnecessary MU functionality from the single-user UI than the technical challenges of making a multi-blog platform host a single blog (since an MU platform can host a single blog just fine).

    I’m taking Jane’s word for it that there are no secret machinations at Automattic about destroying MU functionality. Those of us who are concerned that our previous work with MU does not become totally obsolete post-merge should get involved in the development process.

  3. Reverend says:

    @Alan,

    I actually agree with you both, this post isn’t so much about me being overly concerned about the merge—which I’m in fact pretty excited bout—but rather thinking through what the merge might mean for syndication. How might a more simplified WP with multi-blogging capabilities allow us to move the application to individual woners and work more on a syndication hub. And while I know syndication is still a marginal activity as far as core WP development goes, I personally think that id blogging is morphing into a sophistiacted way to aggregate your work from around the web, then some kind of core feature makes sense, as does some more sophistiacted identity management layer on top. But I think those may indeed be plugins, and I’m also fine with that.

    @Boone,

    The ends and the means idea of WP never really interests me and this goes for most technology). It is certainly one way to sell it, but for wordpress has been an end in itself—having fun and playing with this stuff in order to think through possibilities. Same goes for WPMu, I think the kind of pragmatic, I’m in it for what the application offers teaching and learning kind of omits the fact that we actually think that through by using the application, both as a means and an end. Part of the development process, at least in my mind, is thinking it through and suggesting the possibilities—and for me that is an end in itself often. I often get more satisfaction from just thinking about the the possibilities for a syndication bus than actually seeing a project, or product, emerge from it. This is one of the reasons why the merge provides a welcome new challenge, and a much needed change of scenery. We’ll be on the frontend of the merge making sure our blogs move into the new application, and I hope from there to encourage people to take all their work out of it and manage their own spaces and feed it back.

    And, oddly enough, I just started a band last week, and oddly enough we are called the Multi-Users :0 (Why is everyone always fucking hating on EDUPUNK, it made you all!)

  4. Boone Gorges says:

    Jim, you make a good point that I’m wrong to make it as simple as means v ends, medium v content. But we shouldn’t confuse what WP means to us personally and what it means for what we do (though there’s certainly a connection). I absolutely get more pleasure out of the building of something in WP than I do out of using it. If I had to do some of the things I do in Drupal or Joomla or raw HTML rather than in WP, it would make a big difference to me. But the real consumers of ed tech, the students and faculty, don’t see what we see. When they’re doing the content creation itself, they see a blank text box with some tool buttons around it. And this doesn’t change much between different applications, or different versions of the same application.

    Now here’s something I can support, and it goes right along the lines of what Gardner suggests: If we want an application like WP to actually mean something to the students other than a set of themes and a text box, we should let them be admins of their own sites in a meaningful way. Then they’ll see WP and other platforms more like we do: as mediums that we work within instead of through.

  5. Luke says:

    Well, if you’re reductive about “means” v. “ends” then of course you’re going to see the relationship as simplistic. The nature of the means informs the quality and dynamism of the ends, and WP has been the most useful platform for exploring new possibilities of edtech that I’ve come across in my 10+ years thinking about this stuff. Its possibilities have been a muse for me. At the same time, I doubt I’d be exploring those possibilities nearly as deeply as I have without the practical, “ends”-oriented challenges created by my work.

    I want to be honest that part of my simmering dissatisfaction with the academy is the extent to which the process of thinking and talking about doing stands in for actually doing. For instance, we’ve created a powerful network of Freshmen bloggers who are now able to publish openly about their transition to college and what it means to be at Baruch. That was an interesting challenge to set up, and I feel good about having done so; but I’m not yet satisfied with how it’s being used because the ends– which may very well only be more thoughtfully articulated means — haven’t yet been identified, problematized, constructed, reverse engineered. What’s the point of doing this if it’s not employed with some sort of purpose (even a chaotic one)? Because we can? Well, that would engage me for a while, but, ultimately, it would bore me.

    I also want to push back against this, if only a bit:

    I often get more satisfaction from just thinking about the possibilities for a syndication bus than actually seeing a project, or product, emerge from it. This is one of the reasons why the merge provides a welcome new challenge, and a much needed change of scenery. We’ll be on the frontend of the merge making sure our blogs move into the new application, and I hope from there to encourage people to take all their work out of it and manage their own spaces and feed it back.

    I totally see where you’re coming from in terms of the satisfaction of imagining and then solving a big, dynamic problem. Yet, thinking gives me half the satisfaction that thinking and then realizing does, if only because attempting to realize stretches, challenges, complicates, deepens my thinking, and makes the “means” more enriching. And, frankly, WP’s strengths– its extensibility, its swift progress from version to version, etc — often throw up challenges to what I’m trying to do with it that require time investment that I’m not always totally psyched about making at the time I need to make them (and Jim, you’ve expressed similar thoughts before). I know that a LOT of that has to do with the inadequacy of my skill and our particular setup. Nevertheless, I don’t really want a challenge for the sake of a challenge. Which is why WP, or any technology, is useful to me only to the extent that it allows me to get done the other things that I want to get done. I came into the edtech game thinking that way, and I don’t ever want to lose site of it.

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