Drupal: A platform built on change

A rebuttal of Chris Wilson’s article on slate.com exclaiming the use of Drupal on http://whitehouse.gov as poor choice of messaging by our government.

Incase you haven’t heard already whitehouse.gov just made the switch to a new Drupal powered website. As a Drupal developer and enthusiastic member of the open-source community I am very excited about this news. This is an enormous win for Drupal and the open-source community as a whole. Congratulations to everyone involved.

As someone who uses Drupal on a daily basis and has been for almost 5 years now I have become intimately familiar with many of the platforms strengths and shortcomings and am disappointed to have them so erroneously represented by Chris Wilson’s recent article on slate.com. In summary Wilson attempts to make the case that the use of Drupal is giving off the wrong message, and warns that the White House may be representing itself as disorganized, resistant to change, and reluctant to provide information that the rest of us can understand.

I find the article to be misguided, poorly researched, and unfortunate. Here’s why:

To be honest I’m not entirely sure I understand the reasoning behind Wilson’s “Drupal knows best” argument. The idea that Drupal’s filtering of potentially malicious content is an assertion that you are ignorant is for lack of a better word completely ignorant. The reasoning behind this system is not preventing you from being able to accomplish your goals, it is implemented in order to act as a barrier between you and those who wish to do you harm. With a little bit of knowledge of the underlying principles behind Drupal’s input filtering system it doesn’t take much to embed a snippet of code into the body of a page.

Case in point.

What if, on the other hand I had embedded this into your website?

while ($row = db_fetch_object($results)) { print_r(user_load(array('uid' => $row->uid)));
} ?>

That’s me viewing the personal information of every single user of your website. Information that you assured them when it was collected you would not share with anyone without their consent. That’s the kind of power you don’t hand out to just anyone. Drupal gives you the control you need to delegate responsibility to those you can trust and protect yourself as you see fit. If you want to give someone a shotgun and let them run around blasting up your house that is your prerogative. You might however see fit to politely step outside while they do so.

Furthermore I fail to see how this applies specifically to whitehouse.gov a website that is no doubt built and maintained by a large team of people who do in fact know what they are doing.

I can’t argue with the fact that Drupal has a steep learning curve. But “impenetrable”, far from it I say. You wouldn’t conjecture to build a house without first spending the time needed to educate yourself about things like structural engineering, materials, and architectural design. Nor should you expect to be able to build a website that doesn’t fall apart during a storm without first taking the time to learn a few best practices from those who have tread this path before.

Should you feel enticed to learn Drupal the doors are open and there is a thriving community of knowledgeable people willing to help you along the way. People who will do so for nothing other than the sense of pride and satisfaction that comes from being able to share their knowledge with those around them. Open-source is not just about writing code, it is about sharing our knowledge and improving it together as a community. If my government wants to make experts in their field available to help me better understand the debates behind healthcare reform I’m all for it. If you prefer to tread along in the dark because you are unwilling to take the initiative and instead prefer to wait around and have things handed to you in gift wrapped box that’s your choice. I for one would rather understand the issues well enough that I can be a positive influence on their outcome in the future.

Trying to argue that the usability study performed by the University of Baltimore as evidence of the Drupal communities indifference towards the platforms learning curve is misleading and quite frankly illogical. In fact, had Wilson taken the time to research his arguments before presenting them he would have found the exact opposite to be true. The study was performed specifically as a means for finding ways to improve the usability of Drupal and upon completion the information gleaned was has been continuously dissected by the community as we strive towards making ever more usable versions of Drupal.

No system is perfect, especially not on the first try. But one that is willing to accept the fact that it has flaws and put enormous amounts of resources and effort into alleviating those weaknesses is one that I can stand behind.

In his article Wilson argues that “Drupal hates change”. An argument that I believe to be completely erroneous and ill informed. I would go so far as to say the complete opposite is true. Drupal loves change. From the outset the Drupal community has embraced change and strives to maintain a place on the forefront of technological innovations. Wilson’s reasoning behind his statement that “Drupal hates change” is based on the claim that Drupal can be difficult to upgrade. And while I won’t argue with that I feel it is worth pointing out that the root of this difficulty is Drupal’s inclination towards doing things the best way currently possible without compromising it’s integrity in order to support an old and flawed methodology. That’s change I can believe in.

Sure you may have to spend a few extra hours updating to a new system, but wouldn’t you rather expend the effort required to do things the right way than compromise and only do it half right because the old way was wrong and you need to continue to support the wrong way?

I’m sorry Mr. Wilson but your attempts to turn President Obama’s buzz word on it’s head are just not going to fly.

Saying that Drupal is disorganized is misleading at best. The content navigation page that Wilson refers to as being disorganized is only one of many ways that Drupal allows you to access content. Not to mention that it is a page that only administrators and other authorized users of your site will ever see. Once again, people who more likely than not already understand the ins and outs of this particular system.

Drupal provides a robust and flexible framework for organizing, categorizing and ultimately displaying content in almost any way imaginable. What it doesn’t do is impose a system of organization on site maintainers out of the box. Instead you are provided with the tools necessary to organize your data according to your needs. In order to organize something well you need to first understand it and no one understands your content better than you.

“Drupal is righteous”, claims Wilson. Followed by an argument that I’m still having trouble groking. I can’t even come up with a rebuttal for this last argument other than to say it feels like Wilson is really grasping at thin air here.

Claiming that the use of Drupal for whitehouse.gov is destined to fail because recovery.gov which initially launched as a Drupal based website ended up switching to a proprietary system completely misses the mark. You choose the right tool for the job, Drupal obviously wasn’t what was needed for the recovery.gov website. I would be surprised if the teams which built these two sites were so disconnected that the use and eventual discarding of Drupal on recovery.gov was not discussed before deciding that it was indeed the right tool for the new whitehouse.gov website.

In fact I would venture that after using Drupal for the recovery.gov site and getting a better grasp on the ups and downs of the platform, what it is good for, and what it is capable of makes the eventual decision to use it on the whitehouse.gov website that much more compelling. You don’t pound in a screw with a hammer and you would not try and pound in a nail with a drill once you had learned how and when the tool was useful.

In my opinion the use of open-source software and Drupal in particular by the government conveys a message contrary to that of Mr. Wilson’s. In a time when our country is in a state of crisis and desperately in need of change one way or another I find a sense of security in the knowledge that our government has taken interest in tools which will allow it the flexibility and opportunity to make rapid changes. Sometimes moving forward with a new way of doing things will require overcoming challenging obstacles while attempting to migrate legacy policies to a new way of doing things. But if it means we are doing things the right way and not being held back by a need to support a flawed approach I’m all for it.