How Open Source Software is Democratizing the Web: My Adventures with Joomla.
Read on if you’d like to learn how a webdesigner with no programming experience was able to create the RSS Powered News Supersite ANewRelevance.com.
While in the shower, lightning strikes and you have a great idea for a website (my best inspiration always seems to reveal itself in the shower). Problem is: 1) you don’t have the skills or know how to create it and/or 2) you don’t have the budget to have it built. What a familiar conundrum, your brilliant website idea is all dressed up with nowhere to go. This summer I ran into the same situation.
First, a little background.
I am a self-professed news, information and knowledge junkie. I always want to know what’s going on in the world and I always want to learn. In the past, that meant lots of time hammering away on my keyboard with the T.V. on in the background. These were essentially hour after hour toggle-thons of Olberman, Maddow, Matthews, O’Reily, Hannity, Colbert, Stewart, SportsCenter…you get the picture.
I got married. That’s what started this whole adventure. I used to be a bachelor with lots of available time for my guy channel surfing. When I got married, I had to leave these friends, not to mention most of my stuff that didn’t make the cut from my old apartment, behind. Interesting thing is, my wife is more of a T.V. watcher than I am. Problem is, it’s an entirely different line-up of programming: Bones, House, CSI whatever and LOTS of reality shows. This is when the challenge presented itself: How am I supposed to know what’s going on in the world if I can’t watch my shows? Taking away my programming is like asking Derek Jeter to hit a game winning home run with no thumbs. These were dark times.
To the internet I went.
I figured all of the information I wanted is out there, it just won’t be wrapped up in the pretty little package that I’ve known all my single years. Each day would start the same way: start up the ‘pute, login in, fire up Firefox and begin the search. I would go site by site, trying to gather everything I could about what was going on in the world around me: Drudge, Espn, TMZ, Fark, TechCrunch, etc.
Then came the idea:
What if I could put all of the top headlines from my favorite sites onto one page? Or better yet, put all of the news I would ever want on one site?
Then came the problem:
I’m a web designer but I’m not a coder. That’s some serious functionality.
Then came the reality:
I can put together a great looking site, but I’ve always dreaded the day when when I would have to learn how to get onto the backend and make things happen. Static site, sure. Dynamic site, well…serious times call for serious measures.
The research began.
And the focus was primarily two-fold: 1) How is news delivered on the internet? and 2) What are the best platforms to deliver it? I had to find a way to create a dynamic site that would not only gather the news, but present it in a way that was easy to use, easy to navigate and would give me direct access to the sites I included. Of course, I had no idea how this was going to be done, but after a considerable amount of searches I found that there were numerous options, including open source software, that would meet my needs.
Some information about open source.
Open source software, in a nutshell, is software that offers out-of-the-box usability, is almost entirely customizable and is, best of all, free. You may have heard of some: Ruby on Rails, Drupal, WordPress, Joomla. They offer rich functionality features for things such as site development, content management and on-line publishing. If you’re concerned about the aesthetic, thousands of themes (the look of the site) are available for free download or purchase. When it comes to functionality, hundreds of plugins and modules are also available. If you can think of it, there is probably a module or plugin for it. These downloads are also available at no cost. Basically, you can build at site on your own that would cost thousands if you hired a developer.
With so many choices, how do I chose?
It totally depends on what purpose you want your site to serve. What do you want your site to do? Who is your audience? If you want to build a community, you’d probably want to go the Drupal or Joomla route. Looking to do some ecommerce? Both offer solid options for ecommerce integration. Want to publish your work on-line, WordPress is a great solution. The bottom line is that you have to take the time to do searches, find reference, and determine which options will best serve your needs. For my needs, I chose Joomla.
Currenlty, there is considerable debate about which software is better: Joomla or Drupal. Honestly, I say “six of one half dozen of the other”. Both “can skin the cat”, they just do it a bit differently. In my experience, Joomla has been a good solution for me for many reasons:
– With no experience coming in, the learning curve wasn’t too bad.
– The installation (remote server) relatively painless.
– The admin/user interface is accessible and easy to use.
– The support community is solid.
– The available plugins and modules are abundant and well documented.
If you choose Joomla, you can rest assured you won’t be left in the cold. The community of users and developers is large and continues to grow. It is a relevant software, and from everything I’ve read, should be for quite some time.
The next step.
So I had decided on the software. I installed it, chose a theme, configured the database and backend, and chose some modules and plugins that provided the functionality I needed…except for the news. This was the next big step. The reason why I got into this mess in the first place. I needed news to be delivered, updated and posted real-time. With a few more searches I found my answer.
RSS, most commonly translated as “Really Simple Syndication” or “Rich Site Summary”, are web feeds used to publish frequently updated works such as blogs, news headlines, audio and video. Sites provide these feeds so that, rather than having to check in on the site frequently, the updates can be delivered to you automatically. Basically they “keep you in the loop”. Numerous applications are available that will deliver these feeds to your desktop. In my case, I needed to find a way to deliver them through my website. This was a challenge because the majority of options I found only supported a small number of feeds (1-3). Past that, they weren’t open source, which meant even if I got the feeds to run through my site, I wasn’t going to be able to configure them. Uhmpf! More searches led me to…
Google AJAX Feed API
Now looking out from the Mountain Top…
I have to say it feels good. It would be remiss of me not to give fair warning where warning is due. This project was a considerable challenge and took extreme patience, hard work and LOTS of hours. But in the end, a small town kid with no programming experience was able to create the site that he dreamed of one morning in the shower. There is a revolution going on right now on the world wide web: if you can dream it you can make it happen. All the tools are available and all it will cost is your time. Open source software is definitely democratizing the web. Be brave and good luck.