WordPress: power and simplicity

Subtitle: Are we ready to take WordPress as a CMS seriously yet?

Power Lines

This is a post that was inspired by both a question on OLDaily as well as a post about Drupal documentation on Half an Hour. I originally threw out a flippant response to the “Joomla or Drupal?” question in regards to open source content management systems, that was appropriately handed right back to me. This, along with a recent momentous event, further encouraged me to sit down and spend some time framing a series of thoughts about WordPress (bordering on a misguided passion at this point) I have been raving about for well over a year now.

The common criticisms I hear about WordPress are that while cute for blogging, it can’t do much in terms of sophisticated Content Management and more granular permissions. Let’s take a moment here and think about these two “shortcomings” in relationship to how many of the best minds in ed tech have begun to conceptualize distributed learning networks in terms of more personalized spaces. In turn, these ““Personal Learning Environments,” “Virtual learning Environments,” and/or “Virtual Learning Spaces” (the terminology is still uncertain and in flux but all share a common core of an online space where users can shape their learnings through content creation, links, aggregation, integration with 3rd party online services, etc. -see recent discussions here, here, and here) while being in a direct relationship with others that feed out into the various services and designated spaces while also quickly and easily ingesting, feeding out, and represent information to reflect the goings on of a distributed learning network -and hopefully with some intelligent filtering, variegated coupling, and visually pleasing re-presentations. Stephen Downes says it better:

Very similar to EduRSS in concept design is the student version of the same idea, generally known as the Personal learning Environment. The PLE differs from EduRSS in that it depends explicitly on external services (such as Flickr, del.iciop.us, Blogger and the like) for data retrieval and storage. The ‘node in the network’, with the PLE, is actually virtual, distributed over a number of websites, and also very portable (ideally, it could be implemented on a memory stick).

Now the point has been, and should remain, that and individual within a given network should be able use the numerous tools she prefers and “they” (they! who in the hell is ‘they‘?) should find ways to aggregate, filter, and reflect relationships through topics using RSS, RDF, category tags, etc. (also known in certain abject circles as EDUGLU!).

Given this as a basis to move within and from (while at the same time acknowledging that web authoring tools may once again radically change or become interchangeable some time soon) -why are so many folks so quick to discount, or fail to even consider, WordPress as an ideal content management system for the more distributed learning networks that have been on so many people’s minds as of late? Why is a more simplistic blogging platform with an insane user and development community an ideal CMS for distributed learning networks? Well, it’s ideal in a few senses within some very specific contexts, let me try and be both specific and clear.

The architecture and design of more robust, enterprise-ready content management system’s are rooted in a more centralized logic of power which is anathema to the theoretical push towards a more coherent understanding of Personal Learning Environments.
Large, hulking CMSs (take Blackboard as one example in the educational sector) are premised upon allowing a large number of folks to add content to a website -or a series of nodes within that network. The hierarchical and closed structure of such a system affords more rigorous permissions through a built-environment that greatly limits the horizon of possibility for the end-user. Such an architecture is premised upon control, limitations, and ultimately a phantom sense of security for a particular learning environment -often begging the question is isolation the same as security? In fact, central to the design of such a system is the logic of a more centralized notion of power and, often by extension, capital (more on this in part two of this series of posts).

A CMS that is premised on permissions and control is often, but not always, built at the expense of flexibility and community. Open source options such as Plone, Drupal, and Joomla (just a few examples from an extremely large field of Open Source CMSs) do an excellent job of moving away from this logic; they offer open, flexible systems that have more complex permissions management and a rich community of user designed add-ons. Yet, these applications are very much geared towards a group, or community, driven site that by its very nature has to compromise certain possibilities in order to police concerns dealing with access, permissions, security, etc. For example, the design for permissions and controlled access shaped the nodal system of Drupal which puts the burden of administration upon one, or a few, individuals for a much larger community. The questions of power and control, while not central for these open source applications as they still are for BlackBoard and its ilk, remain integral to the design of the more traditional multi-user CMS.

The Drupal propaganda campaign
Drupal needs an ass kicking

Alternatively, WordPress was designed with little or no intention of controlling access in any granular way. In fact, for WP versions 1.2 through 1.5 it would be next to impossible to define just what the “10 levels” of user privileges actually denoted -for there were effectively three user roles: subscriber, author, and admin. Interestingly enough, to a large extent that is still the case. At this year’s Northern Voice, D’Arcy Norman and I presented a session called “More than just a blog.” In retrospect, this presentation was a bit all over the place for the first 20 minutes (that would be me) but took a really interesting turn thereafter -culminating in a quite provocative discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of using a blog as a CMS rather than a CMS as a blog. Chris Lott was particularly insightful on this account, and suggested that WordPress (or any other more “simplistic” blogging application) was not designed to management content in more sophisticated ways, and hence will never effectively act like a more robust CMS, -for the very reason that WordPress (or just fill in some other blogging application here) was designed specifically for blogging. An excellent point to challenge some of my assumptions that made me reconsider my rantings at length afterwards.

Video Interlude: “WP: It’s so easy!”

Almost three months later, I still agree with Chris and think he hit the nail on the head -the difference between the “more simplistic” content management of a blogging application like WordPress versus a more robust permissions based CMS is that it is really designed for a small number of users, often one, to frame out and customize their own web-based environment (think PLE in the Downes definition above). The limitations of a more robust community site (which is why everyone pushes Drupal or Joomla) for a stand alone WordPress install are readily apparent, but that quickly changes when we begin to think of the possibilities of a collective of WPMU nodes (in this case the node is an entire blog maintained and configured by a very finite number of users) that are loosely connected by rss, dynamic subdomains, php scripts, and a whole host of plugins. In such an environment, the ability to aggregate and sort feeds from distributed resources (such as blogs, flickr, youtube, wikis, etc.) from outside of the immediate instance of WPMU, within on-the-fly static pages that represent a dynamic space for the interaction, cross-pollination, and fermentation of ideas are all just a couple of plugins away (more on the specifics of what this WPMU environment might look like in part 2).

And that, my dear friends, is the key to the powerful simplicity of WordPress (which magnified millions, if not billions, of times is the key to the social web) -the harnessing of a rich community of users that both independently and collaboratively are constantly designing new features to make the their own experiences that much more dynamic. The WordPress community is second to none for blogging applications, and I would argue CMSs more generally, for the very fact that it is dead simple to use and depends almost exclusively on user-generated modifications to customize and shape the architecture of the application. The simplicity of WordPress allows for just about anyone to run and maintain a WordPress blog and have a dynamic publishing environment in little or no time. The ease of use and wealth of possibilities in the form of plugins allows for that many more people to be thinking about what they want out of their particular WP environment and how they might accomplish it, or ask for it, or find it for themselves on the extremely well-organized WP support framework (a killer combination of forums (bbpress), WordPress (blog/frame), and documentation Codex (MediaWiki) -I’ll return to this combination in more detail for part three of this “series” of posts).

In short (this is obviously a joke!), the power of simplicity is not so much because WordPress is “the one tool” or “the perfect application” (despite how I might often come across) -it’s power is in its user community, and its user community is empowered by the simplicity of the application, and, finally, the simplicity of the application has everything to do with the logic of its design. The power of an application like WordPress is a paradox of sorts (or at least a contradiction!) – by refusing to be overly concerned with creating a framework of power viz-a-viz the all too often CMS concerns of controls, limits, and privileges -its often touted weakness has proven to be its greatest strength.

Fight the power of the CMS man

If you read Flavor Fav’s neck-fitted wallclocks carefully, you’ll realize it’s WordPress time!

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9 Responses to WordPress: power and simplicity

  1. to be clear, though, I still use Drupal to manage dozens of websites. Stuff that would be difficult or impossible to do effectively in WordPress. Modules like Views and CCK make Drupal almost infinitely powerful, and its advanced concept of menus, blocks, users, and permissions make many things possible.

    I switched my blog back to WP because it’s the best tool for that particular job. It’s also good at a bunch of stuff, but Drupal simply rocks hard at a lot of really high-end stuff.

    My blog might be running on the Cooper Mini of CMS (cute, fast, powerful enough for every day use), but I still have the power of my Ferrari-Humvee (sick power, insane flexibility, off-road capability) lovechild of a CMS in Drupal ready to go for lots of other stuff.

    That said, I really think most personal knowledge management is best managed by WordPress. Students should be using it. Faculty should be using it. But the institution websites to support everything should be running Drupal or the like.

    But, really, isn’t Sarah’s white shirt a good enough reason to keep Drupal going?

  2. Chris L says:

    @Jim — well said… I’m glad that you understood that my comments weren’t in any way a knock on WP at all… they were a reflection of a real strength… the huge problem (but sometimes a critical advantage) of “real” CMS software is that it is, by comparison, over-controlled.

    Of course anytime you agree with me in any way I am bound to think you are right on the money 🙂

    @Dnorman — yeah, it’s the *shirt* I was admiring in that pic…

  3. jimgroom says:

    D’Arcy,
    In fact, I know you went to WordPress to change things up, and this post is really just a conception we have been thinking through in tandem. I guess as the re-emerging discussions of PLE have played out, I couldn’t help feeling that the centralized CMS is just the opposite logic, and perhaps distributing content, even at the enterprise level, is not necessarily a bad thing -the very logic of bit torent -diffuse information -but allow it to package itself back up nicely with rss, opml, tags, categories, scripts, etc.

    I agree that the students, professors should be using WPMU, but I also think the university more generally (i.e. administration, staff, etc) might consider also using WPMU. You could have one theme for departmental stuff, and allow each person in a department to manage their own space accordingly. With dynamic subdomains, you can create a more nodal space to share resource by individual that is ultimately pushed into more common areas. I really think WP (or WPMU more specifically) could be used as an academic site for teaching and learning throughout a university as well as a brochure site.

    Point being, for all the power and extensibility of Drupal, it may not allow the folks who are creating the crucial content to take responsibility of the space. Making the push for opening up course content to the world through faculty and student work (the real thing people want to see online) extremely less prevalent. It fits quite nicely with empowering the entire university to quickly and easily push their content onto the web and pull content off of it into their space -and they take full possession. That would seldom happen with drupal as the application stands now -and I could see have a few installs for certain kinds of management, but I’m not sure the privileging f the CMS logic is necessary anymore, even for larger -institutional sites. We just need more ways to connect the dots!

  4. jimgroom says:

    @Chris

    Actually, your comments in the discussion of the NV session were unbelievably generative for my own ideas about blogs that play CMSs on TV. As were your comments on D’Arcy’s blog post yesterday and today. The logic above is by no means entirely stable, and I may be seen as discounting the CMS entirely, but I think what might be packaged with the framing of the design and frame of the CMS is an idea of centralized management but distributed authorship -something that I’m not so sure will be of that much concern in the near future given all the amazing things everyone in ed tech, and elsewhere, are banging there head against with rss, rdf, tag/category feeds, etc. Do we want to manage all this information centrally, or do we want to access it quickly and easily no matter where it is?

    I’m not sure, this is just one Fanboy relentless push for sponsorship:)

  5. I am generally supportive of the comments in this post, though I would prefer to see it as something other than Drupal vs WordPress.

    Rather, the post draws the distinction between, if you will, individual content management and group content management.

    Individual content management is, obviously, simpler, because you don’t have to deal with a raft of permissions (though this will change in the future).

    But group content management is needed, as D’Arcy points out, when you have websites that are the result of group collaboration.

    This is necessary because most people do not have individual content management systems. So there is no place for them to put their contributions to a group site. Even with individual CMSs and aggregation, it is not obvious how to build a group website without a group CMS.

    The problem with the group CMS is, in my mind, one of ownership. Unless you own the Drupal installation, you are putting your content on someone else’s website, which means that you are subject to their restrictions, and any restrictions that they are subject to.

    What we need (and where we are headed) is place-independence of content submission. So, if I type, say, this post, it doesn’t matter whether I typed it here on your site or over on my site.

    When I submit the content, the CMS will do a few things: because I typed it, it will send the content back to my OpenID URL, where my system will process it however I want it to. Your site will become aware of a posting associated witht he original post and may, depending on how it regards my OpenID (is it a friend? a friend of a friend?) display either the full text or the link.

    The creation of a large number of individual CMSs, which is a pretty logical result of OpenID, will combine with identity management systems to allow both individual CMSs and group CMSs to manage permissions in pretty much the same way, through sets of both associations (FOAF) and memberships (groups).

  6. jimgroom says:

    Stephen,

    The Web vs Drupal is certainly a strawman, but may nonetheless exemplify to some degree the relationship between a personalize vs. group CMS. The idea of branding the this individual CMS in terms of WP has more to do with thinking through it for a campus environment than any particular dependence on a single tool -although I have my tendencies towards fanboy-dom. The notion of an OpenID URL that talks to other sites and manages one’s online identity is powerful, and I appreciate you suggesting it here. As way to begin playing with such an idea would be -to quote you above- “the creation of a large number of individual CMSs.” This is exactly what a more robust campus experiment with something like WPMU might afford.

    I think WordPress.com or blogger may do this just as well, but I am interested in avoiding the increased monetization of spaces like WP.com, while eager to design in to such an experiment the possibility for everyone on a campus (a somewhat controlled and provincial starting point in its own right -I know) to manage, customize and re-imagine their own online space. Give them across the board access within their own space to install as many plugins as they want, grant them access to their theme code (free of charge), give them a few gigs of storage (free of charge), and create a rich network of support that is geared towards creating, fostering, and sharing open educational content through a wide variety of online tools and services.

    Moreover, why shouldn’t administrative and academic departments also be expected to take ownership of their web presence, making certain information is freely available to a larger network, and being open to online discussions. The way most campus CMSs are set up now, showcasing student work and sharing institutional knowledge becomes prohibitive because of the obstacles towards arranging the permission and access to a Contribute key, etc. Shouldn’t public institutions and public employees have an obligation to share both the process and the resources with that public that is funding their work?

    I think so, and the idea of openness has just as much to do with the conceptual architecture of the networks as it does with people’s willingness to share. I believe that the simpler the process is, the more people will share, engage, and benefit from the work being done within any given set of educational networks. An amazing side-effect may be the changing role of the student from a consumer (to use Freire’s “Banking Concept of Education” to an active, participant in a process of framing experiences from numerous points along the spectrum of expertise -an important element of openness that should not, nor need not, be under emphasized.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Stephen. It’s exciting to think through this within the very networks folks are theorizing, and your framing of this distributed nexus of ideas and learning is constantly forcing me to re-think. For example, now I have to do more research on OpenID, damn!

  7. gardo says:

    Jim,

    Like Wikipedia, the trouble with the ideas you’re expounding is that they only work in practice, not in theory.:)

    That’s a facetious way of saying that I agree with you, which you knew already. Stephen’s comment shows one way that location-agnostic content publication could fit beautifully within the paradigm you’re exploring. Here’s the deal. Content management cannot scale in terms of real school unless that content is managed by the content creators themselves. To ask students and faculty to think about content management is also to ask them to think about content creation, and vice-versa. The work Claudia’s done with online journals demonstrates this, as does (in a smaller but even more varied way) the blogging experiments in my film class this term. When students create their own publishing environments, with a simple and extensible and customizable tool, in an open web paradigm, they begin to push out from “papers” into what the essays are meant to be, or at least what I mean them to be: informed, literate explorations. Aggregations. Syntheses. Stark and revelatory juxtapositions. Multimodal. And they can stamp the experience they create with their own unique sensibilities. Yet all that individual expressiveness is in the context of expert guidance and instruction. A happy meeting.

    We need to talk. 🙂

  8. jimgroom says:

    Gardner,

    Yes, yes, and yes!!!

    Was that clear? 🙂

  9. Pingback: “Alternatives for BlackBoard” at bavatuesdays

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