Why Spot.Us Should Have Used Drupal (and Why It Doesn’t Matter)

    by Benjamin Melançon
    December 12, 2008

    It’s the one that got away. With many Knight News Challenge projects using Drupal, the dedicated Knight Drupal Initiative (reopening after DrupalCon in March), and Drupal sites for the Knight Foundation’s own community, David Cohn must just be deficient in groupthink to have chosen to develop Spot.Us in Ruby on Rails.

    Despite my bias, the “Why Spot.Us Should Have Used Drupal” title is tongue-in-cheek. I’m pretty sure David Cohn (who is smarter, better looking, and always better dressed than me) and the Spot.Us development team will get the following enhancements in place quickly. Especially since, when it comes to winning friends and influencing people, there is nothing like a polite, personal, respectful, and massively cross-posted note (but hey, I couldn’t find an issue queue).

    For what it’s worth, here’s the list of features that the Spot.Us site lacks that would be automatically or easily provided by a Drupal-based framework:

    • Instant log-in when registering (LoginToboggan)
    • Better workflow when registering in general: Currently, you are left on the registration screen after registering, and clicking on the “check your e-mail message” happens to lead to a 404 file not found error (featuring LOLcats, so it’s worth registering just to see this.
    • One-click email confirmation instead of cut-and-paste your temporary password (Drupal core functionality)
    • Ability to be alerted when pitches are added to selected categories (core Taxonomy module and Notifications). Update: The site has categories, but despite signing up as interested in everything I’ve yet to receive notice of anything.
    • Donations to the site in general, not just specific pitches (ECommerce or Ubercart. These could be added as matching funds to others’ donations. (Lots of traffic was generated in news articles about the site, and people enthusiastic about the idea with no stories matching their interests should have been able to donate, indeed set up recurring donations, to support the site and the stories chosen by others).
    • Integration with other Drupal sites. Not really automatic, but if written by Drupalers there would already be a Spot.Us Drupal module (and probably a WordPress plugin and a generic drop-in widget) for sites with a stake in a pitch on Spot.Us to solicit donations to that pitch. Drupal sites like the Bay Area’s Public Press or, on the other side of the country, Open Media Boston, could pull information from Spot.Us and have one click to get their readers and members involved in crowd-funding a story.
    • RSS feeds! Also related to promotion, a Drupal Spot.Us would have built-in RSS for listing of tips and pitches and every category.
    • Turn-key local Spot.Us groups (Organic Groups). Instead of only encouraging other people to download the free software (though that is great), Spot.us could allow selected people to curate or manage regional editions beyond California’s Bay Area. (Furthermore, people who do install the software themselves could draw on the huge Drupal ecosystem of modules to plug in all this functionality and much more.)

    There, I hope that’s lit a fire under some Ruby/Rails folk! Now, with all that said — and with only the dedicated few still reading — here’s the real point of this post:

    None of the above matters.

    Just as the code language (PHP) and even quality of Drupal is secondary to its amazing community, the technology of Spot.Us is a distant second in importance to its passion, purpose, and the energy that flows from its reason for being.


    As readers of Idea Lab know, Dave launched this thing with a wiki (oh, and a Drupal site of about three pages, which was undoubtedly the critical factor in Spot.Us’ success).

    Technology can certainly help or hinder the development of community — that is, after all, the premise of the Knight News Challenge — but tools matter far less than a sense of purpose and a drive to see it through.

    Of ideas whose time has come, community-funded reporting is definitely one. Please, just to spite me, go make Spot.Us a resounding success without a drop of Drupal. The new breed of local, independent, and smart news sites it will help flourish are as likely as not to be built in Drupal anyway!

    Tagged: community drupal independent media spot.us

    3 responses to “Why Spot.Us Should Have Used Drupal (and Why It Doesn’t Matter)”

    1. Justin says:

      Boostrapping Drupal to something it wasn’t designed for would have been a death sentence, in my opinion. An app as complicated from this one clearly needed to be built from the bottom-up.

      And you can make site wide donations, as I understand. There’s a button in the footer. I also believe that a lot of the features you mention are planned — that the beauty of Ruby on Rails. You’re supposed to develop in stages and add functionality as needs change.

    2. David says:

      Ben – you are a hommie and scholar.

      In the end I would compare Ruby on Rails with Django – which is the other darling programming softward of the Knight Foundation. What can I say – I am a loner ;)

      I actually recently just published my masters thesis on Drupal: http://www.digidave.org/adventures_in_freelancing/2008/12/drupal-nation-software-to-power-the-left.html

      So I am very aware of the many benefits of Drupal. I do think spot.us could have been built in Drupal – but there are other aspects of the site that would be a big pain to try and build in drupal. But hey – I’m no expert.

      Ruby on Rails is a little bit lighter and flexible – so you can change things as you go. (and all those features on are on the list ;) But I’ve decided to wait until the new year to start tackling a lot of the feature requests I’ve gotten (and there are A LOT. In truth – too much to tackle with any software).

      In the end – I agree with you: Technology is second to building community.

      Community funded reporting could be done with a wiki. But that is not ideal. The current spot.us site is not ideal – but it is getting closer and closer to the final vision I have. What you are seeing right now is about 1/4th of that vision.


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