It's about the Community Plumbing: The Social Aspects of Content Management Systems

Presentation submitted for Computers and Writing Online 2005

Co-authored by Charles Lowe and Dries Buytaert, May 2005

This article is a work-in-progress, a draft for a chapter being submitted to a Computers and Writing edited collection on databases. Use the links below the abstract and/or to the right in the navigation block to begin reading this multi-page hypertext. Or you can view a pdf version.


In the summer of 2003, we worked on creating a general description of Drupal--an open source content management system (CMS)--for the "About Drupal" page on While Drupal is clearly within the class of applications known as content management systems, we felt that to describe it with that term alone would not present a clear picture of the breadth and range of Drupal's capabilities. Thus, the final description ended up describing Drupal with a total of four characteristics, although notably not distinct:

  • content management
  • weblog
  • discussion-based community software
  • collaboration

Why is it then that the term CMS alone would not suffice? The word "content" places much emphasis on the product over process; it fails to emphasize the social use of CMS's, a mislabeling which places too much emphasis on the content itself at the expense of the communication and collaboration the better of these systems implement. In order to better understand how CMS's are being influenced by the precepts of social software and their role in creating social networks online, this presentation will

  • explore Drupal's social software features,
  • narrate its genesis as software serving a community
  • explain the influence of the community itself on Drupal development and the software's influence on the community that creates and uses it.

In composing this text, we draw on the coauthors' unique perspectives. One of us is the founder and lead developer of Drupal, and the other a researcher in Computers and Writing and a participant in the Drupal community.

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I appreciate getting the background on the name. I don't know why I found that sort of thing interesting, but I did. Nice paper through and through.

What struck me most, and this was a first reading and I certainly want to give it at least one more read, was the comment about community in the "drupal as application" section: "We need a new approach to building adaptive social applications that are easily deployed and can be humanised – not just customised – to support different types of online interaction and different modes of communication," and that these tools should "augment our social interaction rather than mange it for us" (Bryant).

For me this is the difference between the course management systems such as Blackboard, WebCT and eCollege and Drupal and other Drupalesque content management systems. One of the arguments I make again and again, enough so that I'm sure some of my colleagues wish I would shut up, is that if we, the humanists, don't use appropriate technology and teach it with a humanistic bent, then students won't come to view and interact with technology in such a way. Not only does Drupal help me foster that humanistic element in my teaching with technology, much more so than most if not all proprietary systems, but because the software it self is imbued with that humanistic bent, the collaboration is king attitude, that makes it all the better. Walking the walk so to speak.

Great paper to kick off the conference!


I was also struck by the Bryant quote for precisely the reasons Bradley points out . . . how the quote informs my perspective of BlackBoard and WebCT.

To play with the community aspect a bit and as a non-programmer that tends to complain about "the lack of 'normal' documentation," I wonder how (or where?) Drupal's development community and Bradley's technology-using-and-teaching humanists intersect. I don't know much about development communities beyond searching for answers to specific problems, but I wonder if the development community as described in Charlie and Dreis's piece has to have a "humanistic bent" as individuals in order for the system to sustain the type of collaboration valued by humanists.

I tend to view three communities (and this might be the result of my ignorance of open source in general)--1.) the development community, 2.) the hosting/programming community and 3.) the end user community--with plenty of overlap, of course. (The overlap might be the intersting part, actually.) For example, Dries and Charlie might fit properly within the first community as developers, Bradley might fit neatly within the second community in that he has installed and used Drupal in his classes, and I might fit within the third group by commenting on this thread on kairosnews. The paper, though, really seems to complicate the first two at least, and, as Charlie noted in a recent comment, I'm not sure how to separate the technology from the community.

Anyway, I wasn't going to comment because I'm still muddled, but we had an extra couple of days. Thanks for some excellent background information (I hope to play with Drupal soon), and I hope everyone enjoys C&W. Wish I could make it.

I suspect that the collaborative practies of open source are probably not the "type of collaboration valued by humanists," although they should be. As someone who studies intellectual property, it is my experience that most people--humanists and educators included--have conceptions of collaboration too closely tied to romantic notions of authorship and too invested in the property metaphor. Open source development is a new way of looking at collaboration which requires a different view on IP, one that puts sharing before ownership.

And this may not be quite what you mean, but I don't think you can separate the technology from the community in this case. The Drupal community is about creating and using the technology; seems inseparable to me. But perhaps I'm too close, which is one of the real problems with our piece. Dries and I don't have any objective distance at all from the project/community. Would be interesting to see the opinions of a researcher observer who is not a participant (or at least not as much as either one of us are).

CMS's are great to have as a front end to some blog or forum site it allows easy additions and bridging of scripts especially joomla with so many addons it's the perfect CMS. I use ready made joomla sites since i'm constantly creating website it's great for the speed and packages already installed.