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 Last year I concluded my development of Docomomo-us.org, which I had transitioned from outdated custom cgi code to Drupal back in 2006, by having Jochen Hartmann take over as web developer and earlier this year I replaced the Drupal sites for both AUDC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.