drupal

On Drupal, or Wither Web 2.0?

With the end of the year approaching, I might as well begin my reflections with yet another rote lament for why I don't post enough anymore. Blogging is dead for many and has been dead now for about as long as it thrived. Somehow, I resolve, I'll turn back to blogging one day, but other things come first, like my kids, my project at MoMA, various projects at the Netlab, teaching, articles that I have neglected too long, writing my book, working on the restoration of my house and so on.

But every now and then it turn back to the Web, if not to blogging then to working on the infrastructure beneath my stable of Web sites. In this case, this morning I took the Networked Publics site and converted it to from a live Drupal installation to a static site. Networked Publics ceased to be live years ago as it was the record of a year-long workshop that took place from fall 2005 to fall 2006 and the book that came out of the workshop was published in 2008. Besides me the last log at Networked Publics comes from my late colleague and friend Anne Friedberg some six years, twenty-four weeks ago. I find it sad that the group we formed doesn't stay together virtually, but such, I suppose, is the nature of scholarly collaborations involving individuals from radically disparate fields. Still, as a historian, the record of a year spent by a team of scholars investigating a topic seems worth paying a few dollars to keep registered so I spent a couple of hours to ensure the site wouldn't be tied to an aging Drupal 6 infrastructure.  

Looking back at the low-fi Web 2.0 site and the low-fi videos on it, it already seems like ancient history. But this was the state of the art not 15 or 20 years ago but rather a mere eight years ago. The trends that the Networked Publics group identified—the rise of DIY media in particular—are now not the province of nerds and geeks but rather part of our everyday lives. It's stunning to think back and remember showing the group the first video iPod that I had purchased soon after its release that year. Such, I suppose is the process of aging in the technological future. One gauges oneself as much by the personal milestones one experiences as by the tech one leaves behind.  

For me, development on Drupal has become something to leave behind as well. Last year I concluded my development of Docomomo-us.org, which I had transitioned from outdated custom cgi code to Drupal back in 2006, by having Jochen Hartmann take over as web developer and earlier this year I replaced the Drupal sites for both AUDC and the Netlab with sites driven by Indexhibit. This process of steadily whittling down my Drupal sites means that this remains the only one I have left (minus the seriously neglected Lair of the Chrome Peacock). 

But this isn't a mere status update regard the infrastructure of these sites. Changes in infrastructure, as my readers should know, are never innocent, but rather embody ideological and social changes. When I first came to Drupal back in 2005, I was encouraged by the ease of extending the system and its Open Source development. For a time I was active in the community at Drupal. Not being much of a coder anymore, I asked questions, gave suggestions, and helped out with some problems people had on the forums, but it became clear to me that most people on Drupal's communty site fell into three categories. Those just starting out, those trying to help out as they could (and usually fleeing when they felt overwhelmed… this typically happened after they had submitted a new module or theme), and those who were either dedicated hobbyists or worked with Drupal for a living. Not being part of the latter two, I wound up retreating.

As a designer, I had this foolish idea that my site should look the way I want it to look so I spent a ridiculous amount of time tweaking these sites by building themes for them and outfitting them with extensions called "modules." Unfortunately in an effort to optimize its code base, the developers of Drupal have adopted a mantra which states that "the drop is always moving" which simply means that Drupal will actively break any themes and modules during each major point release. The result is that I found myself needing a month of down time to upgrade my sites from Drupal 5 to Drupal 6. For a scholar to do this is preposterously difficult. For a scholar with kids to do this is virtually impossible. 

Drupal 7 came out a while back, but lacking any compelling features, I chose not to upgrade. After all, a month of down time just to get back to where I was is hardly attractive. Now Drupal 8 promises adaptive themes that will appropriately react to the mobile platforms that increasingly drive Web traffic so I am likely to go to it, but even though new development was frozen in the system a year ago, it seems far from prime time. I spent more than half an hour today looking for a release date for the first beta and couldn't find anything but long-outdated information. If this site is to be believed, there are more critical bugs in Drupal 8 today than a year ago. 

Therein lies the trouble with Drupal and modern coding: immense complexity (see my comments on complexity at Triple Canopy). Projects of this size become impossible to manage, impossible to code, and impossible for users to work with. My front page is aging, an artifact from an era in which laptops commonly had screens with a resolution of 1024 X 768 not 1920 X 1200 (as my current one does) but to redo when it will only break again soon seems ludicrous. Perhaps I'll use another system like Wordpress to run this site or maybe I'll pickle it and fork off to another platform. Any of this is possible, but I'll hardly recommend Drupal to anyone again or do anything but build the most minimal theme I can for it.  

Beyond a stern caution about the complexity that Open Source projects can generate and that can choke them, as Drupal has been choked, for all of the technological maturation that we've seen over the years since Networked Publics, the one thing that we've drifted away from is Web presence. If the static Web marked the 1990s, Web 2.0's dynamic Web sites dominated the time in which we wrote Networked Publics. Bringing varnelis.net back to life with Drupal in 2005, I envisioned it as part of an interlinked ecology of sites, both local (AUDC, DoCoMoMo-US, the Netlab, etc.) but also global, interlinking to other sites through RSS feeds and commenting systems. This hasn't happened, to this site or any other. Web 2.0's strongest links such as social bookmarking (repeated problems with Delicious at the hands of Yahoo! and AVOS and the meltdown at ma.gnolia) and RSS suffered a similar fate after Google Reader shut down this summer. As Open Source withers when it becomes over-complex, struggling corporations like Yahoo! and Google undo matters in their binge and purge cycles, buying up whatever they can in hopes of monetizing the Web and then wiping out communities when they turn out to be too hard to profit from.    

Instead of the open Web then, we have apps and the privatized, Balkanized world they promise. It's hard not to be gloomy about this, hard to find a happy face to put on all this. Perhaps that is my wont, but sometimes there isn't one. The problems of cooperation, collaboration, and democratic decision-making remain the thorniest of problems for Networked Publics. 

After 6 (or is 11 or 13 or 16) Years

This month marks six years of varnelis.net on Drupal. I moved my Web site to its own domain, then kazys.net in April 1998, after running a site on lightlink.com since 1995. I began a blog (I didn't even know that term when I started) on May 14, 2000. There must be something about this time of year, no doubt it's tied to the extra time and energy I get when the spring semester wraps up.

Drupal is powerful but intensely frustrating. It's Open Source software and while I'm immensely grateful, I'd be so happy to pay a couple of hundred a year to be rid of the headaches it gives me, but I've learned enough about it that I'm happy enough using it to run networkarchitecturelab.org, audc.org, networkedpublics.org, docomomo-us.org, to name a few sites and I can't see transitioning away from Drupal anytime soon.

Learning the software allowed me to run the blog for the Networked Publics year at the Annenberg, in itself also a crucial transition period, allowing me to move more deeply into network culture.   

rss frustration or, spoken into the void

Apparently, an undocumented "feature" of upgrading to Drupal 6 is that the path for RSS feeds changed, so those of you who were reading the site through RSS (which is likely most of you) have been are quite behind and have missed a couple of dozen classic posts.

The easiest way to do this is going to be through classic blog view, e.g. http://www.varnelis.net/blog.

Many apologies on the part of my content management system.

Thanks to Nicholas Nova for pointing this out. 

A Modest Proposal for Social Networks or, How This Could be the Next Facebook

I'm still trying to catch up with my big blog post (maybe a white paper?) on the research we did on Networked Publics and the Infrastructural City, so bear with me. In the meantime, how about some pie-in-the-sky ideas about Web 3.0 (so sorry)?  

A couple of weeks ago, Traction Software's Jordan Frank wrote an intelligently-written post titled "Wither Web 2.0 Social Networking? My 2 Cents." Jordan begins with a series of gloomy links on the failure of social networking technology to monetize. It's pretty obvious to those of you on Twitter or on Facebook…we use these sites all the time. Some 150 million people subscribe to Facebook and half of them use it every day. It costs a lot of money to run Facebook's servers (the photo below is of some of the over 10,000 servers Facebook uses) and back in 2007, Fishtrain calculated that the server cost alone was around $1.05 a user and of course there are employees, office space, and so on.

In other words, that's crazy money and for social networks to stay afloat, they are going to have to make some real cash fast. Facebook could well be racing the New York Times for which one will shut its doors first.

facebook's server room

Advertising is the hitch here. Social networks, search engines, and of course newspapers and magazines have long relied on advertising to fund their businesses, but as advertisers are able to see results more directly than ever before, they find that perhaps ads—especially the sort of relatively unobtrusive ads that appear on social networks…but that users still hate—aren't really generating the kind of results they want.

Remember "it's all about eyeballs?" I remember doe-eyed business school graduates telling me that a decade ago and look how far that went...

User fees are certainly possible but extremely unlikely, in my opinion, to succeed.

Instead, here's a thought experiment. With millions of blogs and content-management-driven Web sites out there (like this one, but also online user communities), what if social networks left the corporate-owned ghetto? What if a set of tools were developed—OpenId being only the first one—to allow all the goodies of social networking sites—meeting friends, posting profiles, tracking online actions, sending dumb gifts, unfriending people, posting kid photos, poking—to spread across the Web? How different would this be than losing America Online, Compuserve, and the various online services of the 1980s and early 1990s? What if all this social networking stuff just went into the cloud—not a cloud owned by Amazon or Google—but a cloud owned by everyone? A few new tools and Drupal 9.0 could certainly do this, I think. 

Surely some important technological breakthroughs would have to be made to make this a reality, but really, why not? 

site updates

This seems like the summer of endlessly extended projects. It's already July and I am still finishing work on books that I thought would be done last semester. But with a larger staff at the Netlab and with those projects wrapping up, this should be a good summer for new work and, I hope, for the blog.

Over the weekend, I've been bumping up both this site and the Netlab site. With Drupal as the underlying content management system, it's pretty trivial to change the look of the site, so I brought varnelis.net in line with the underlying theme at AUDC. It probably looks a tiny bit less polished right now, but it has more potential for growth in the long run. At the Netlab, I set up a photoblog, which seemed long overdue given the number of photographers around.

greatest hits

When I resurrected this blog in May of 2005, I turned to Drupal because I wanted to have a content management system that could handle more than just blogging. Even if the learning curve was steep initially, Drupal has proven to be the correct choice. I built sites for Networked Publics, the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, DOCOMOMO-US, AUDC, the Netlab, and even for my espresso maker on Drupal installs. As the CMS has evolved, it's become possible to handle custom databases and to produce all manner of content that is different from your usual blog. 

Today I'm introducing a new page that simply keeps track of the most popular content on the site. See it here. Not a bad place to start if you're new to varnelis.net. 

 

 

site updates

I've made some behind-the-scenes changes today that I hope will make varnelis.net load faster and tweaked the css a little bit. If you encounter trouble as a result, please let me know!

With the New Year on us, it'll be time for some pretty major changes to the site. We'll see what you think, but I am happy with the way they look.

site/maps

A brief note before heading off to teach Network City.

First, even though I haven't written much on any site in the last
few days, I've been busy working on migrating my own sites to a new server and on getting the networked publics site updated to drupal 4.7.4 so that it can host our upcoming book. A lot broke in these transitions, from trouble with user privileges (ill-thought out on the part of my host) to "collation issues" (this time the trouble is with Drupal). You may notice some stray strange characters throughout this site as a result, but I'm cleaning those up little by little. My hope is that now that I've dealt with it this kind of thing won't be a problem in the future. But it reminds me how fragile Drupal is as a content management system and how, more than a decade after the web first entered my life, how far away we are from an inexpensive (or free!) application that can just manage content efficiently and effortlessly. While I can configure the site and leave it to someone, when that site requires upgrades or if it ever has to migrate servers I have to get back in the picture or the client has to find someone willing to take on the project.

Second, in an unrelated note, worldmapper is a great site, containing hundreds of projections of the world such as this one:

world population

which shows "the earnings of the richest tenth of the population living there, as a proportion of the earnings of the richest tenth living in all territories"

vs this one:

flights

which shows "the proportion of all kilometres flown around the world by aircraft that were registered there."

 

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