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Community blogs run better on open-source software


Even if Bryght/Acquia/May First went out of business tomorrow, virtually all of its customers could find another vendor to take their system completely intact.

Earlier this month, Soapblox, a blogging platform used by many local progressive bloggers – especially community blogs – collapsed. In one fell swoop, hundreds of political activists’ online communities were gone, despite the fact that they had been paying for the service.

Why did one system failure take down such a large network? Because the entire project was being run by one person, part-time. These were fairly high-traffic blogs, yet their content was hosted on Soapblox’s own servers, and when it all went down, that data became unavailable. After first proclaiming the software “dead,” developer Paul Preston responded to an outpouring of community support and donations by working to restore the service.

On many lists and other community blogs, discussions have centered on whether it makes sense for these blogs to stay on Soapblox. “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,” wrote Shai Sachs at MyDD.

Most of those discussions then devolve into “Drupal! No, WordPress!” with proponents of each sparring over how to construct a community blog similar to Soapblox’s core features. I want to refocus the discussion around the underlying issue: Community blogs simply run better on open-source software, regardless of the platform.

Of course, it’s true that different systems have different features, and one of the attractions of Soapblox was that it offered just want community-blog sites needed out of the box. Setting up community blogs on Drupal or WordPress, both of which I have pretty extensive experience with, is definitely possible, but each requires customization – something many local activists don’t have time or money to do.

There are many companies that offer “hosted” versions of open-source software, in the same way that Soapblox (the company) offered a hosted version of Soapblox (the software). So why would I recommend the open-source hosts?

The issue here – and the difference between these open-source hosts and Soapblox – is the gigantic community of open-source developers behind them. Soapblox, like these other companies, helps set up hosting and put a friendly face on a somewhat complicated piece of software. But there are hundreds of people working on Drupal that aren’t in any way connected to Bryght, or Acquia, or May First – and that’s something that all of their customers benefit from: new features, continually-upgraded plugins 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. Paul has since suggested that “SoapBlox needs to be transformed from a proprietary model to one of open source to help get rid of me alone as the single-point of contact with so much stuff.”

I think that’s great, and if Soapblox becomes an open-source project then I’d definitely recommend it along with other open-source platforms. But the point isn’t just to make Paul’s life easier, or make him more responsive to customers. Open-sourcing Soapblox would make the software, and the blogs it hosts, better. Don’t believe me? Information Week magazine wrote a cover story about how businesses are using Drupal and other open-source software, and why:

Drupal draws on a strength that’s common to other successful open source efforts: a vibrant community that drives innovation and lets companies tap the development efforts of thousands of people experimenting with the system.

Since reviving itself, Soapblox has hired some more people, and that’s nice, I’m sure, for both Paul and his customers. But the model by which we pay more and more people to maintain our vitally-important software in locked cages just seems poor to me.

Even if Bryght/Acquia/May First went out of business tomorrow, virtually all of its customers could find another vendor to take their system completely intact and get them up and running in an hour or two. Soapblox dies, and their customers are stuck in the dark – if they’re lucky they might be able to get a dump of the database and then painstakingly input it into another system.

Open-source communities as the scaffolding for community blogs just seems like a no-brainer 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, be it Drupal or WordPress, Joomla or Plone – or, if Soapblox takes that route, Soapblox itself.

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