In the past three years, since I co-founded Ourmedia.org, a lot of would-be community publishers have asked me the same question, which more or less is this:
How can I get a site up and running without investing a lot of time or resources into building a content management system and technology infrastructure from scratch?
There’s good news and bad news, I tell them.
The good news is that there are now hundreds of free, open source content management systems to run your publication or social network on. Some of the more popular ones include Drupal, Plone/Zope, Joomla, Ruby on Rails, Scoop, Mambo, Midgard, Typo3 and many others (though the openness of their platform is a matter of degree).
The bad news is that, out of the box, these platforms were created by coders with only a passing acquaintance with the English language.
More often than not, it takes months to learn the lingo of modules, blocks, categories, themes, orphans, aliases, input formats and all the other technical mumbo-jumbo. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s important not to delegate the entire operation of your site to your technical staff. The editorial/content people need to make the decisions about how the site looks and operates, what kind of social networking features to implement, what kind of data to ask your members to share, and so on.
In my view, technological ease of use remains the last remaining barrier to widespread rollout of community publishing sites. Blog publishing platforms are designed for individual expression but are not especially optimized for community contributions and collaborative solutions.
And so, a year ago I proposed that the Knight Foundation fund a development project to provide publishers, editors and developers at community media/citizen media sites with a toolset to enable a much richer degree of participation by the public on these sites. The proposal was not to reinvent the wheel but to create a suite of social media tools that would blend seamlessly into a great many publishing platforms, starting with Drupal.
The initial idea was to create a set of plug-ins, scripts, guides and tutorials that will make it extremely easy for citizen media sites to take advantage of the advances in social media technology – without having to build it from scratch themselves. The toolset would consist of:
• A set of social media components based on creating new modules or extending existing ones in the Drupal or ArmchairGM (backers of the Openserving.com initiative, now Wikia) publishing platforms.
• A free, cross-platform publishing tool for publishing videos, podcasts and photos to multiple hosting destinations. It’s likely that multimedia elements such as citizen videos and podcasts will be a key driver of community media sites in the next five years.
• Instant RSS and media RSS feeds.
• Google Maps configured for use by local communities.
• These content management system modules or capabilities: advanced search, navigation controls, social networks and groups, community chat, customized blog posts, comments, forums or message boards.
• Sleek, CSS-ready, customizable templates with mastheads, themes and graphic icons that can be adapted to different localities, regardless of CMS or platform.
• Preconfigured community channels of Internet video that enable individuals to publish to local channels based on tags or a structured ontology. If you’re a community publisher in Boise, you may wish to create channels about the City Council, Crime, Recreation, Senior Living, Youth news, etc.
• A resource directory consisting of public domain and Creative Commons-licensed images and clip art to draw upon.
• A prototype for wiki integration into local sites to spur community involvement in structuring solutions to local issues.
• Tutorials and screencasts that would offer a detailed guide of how other local sites — such as Chicagocrime.org — successfully use Web 2.0 tools and databases in their communities.
• A screencast on Web accessibility, showcasing the simple steps editors can take to make a Web site more accessible to the blind and disabled.
The Knight Foundation chose not to fund the toolset — at least not yet — and instead deputized me as one of the idea bloggers to spread the idea and solicit feedback from the community.
So, I’d love to hear what you think. Is this a good idea, or a pathway into technological hellfire? Does the hodgepodge of social media tools scattered across the marketplace provide citizen publishers everything they need to get going, or not?
Knight has recently made some noises that it is strengthening its commitment to open source, starting with the Drupal community. So I am guessing they’ll be interested in hearing your reactions as well.