Drupal Enters the Murky World of D.C. Politics

October 29, 2009

"Methought I heard him think, 'Ay! I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!'" — John Adams, describing what he believed George Washington was thinking upon retirement

The Drupal world has been abuzz, of late, mostly owing to the news that Whitehouse.gov, one of the many online mouthpieces of President Obama's administration, has been moved to Drupal. Indeed, this has been hailed as a victory for all open-source technologies, and one outlet after another has offered mostly pleasing remarks about the switch.

But you can't please all the people, all the time in politics—or in web development, incidentally—and the announcement has engendered the type of public criticism the Drupal community isn't really used to. In this case, Chris Wilson, an assistant editor at Slate, took a few good swipes at our CMS of choice and called the White House's move a "political disaster waiting to happen."

We're probably biased, but that sounds a bit melodramatic. Still, we're good sports, so let's take an objective look at his objections:

Platform: Drupal knows best.

Wilson's point is that Drupal is paternalistic and prevents the average administrator from adding elements (such as Javascript) that he apparently views as benign. To be honest, we need not address whether tossing in some random scripts can cause serious harm to a site (Answer: It can. Ok, so we addressed it.). The simple truth is that Wilson's ire is misplaced, for a couple of reasons.

For one, what a given user is allowed to do on a Drupal site is set (and expanded/retracted) through robust user permissions and roles. If you can't wantonly add potentially crippling elements, it's because someone who probably knows more than you forbade it—that's a benefit, not a drawback. Likewise, I'm pretty sure the White House cleaning crew doesn't have a skeleton key that grants unfettered access to every room in the joint, bunkers included.

Platform: Drupal is impenetrable.

The complaint here is that Drupal has a steep learning curve. To support his assertion, Wilson points to a couple of studies that explored usability difficulties. Aside from the non sequitur caused by extrapolating such a wide-ranging claim from only two studies, it appears Wilson didn't see the forest for the trees.

The author of the first study explained (and reiterated in his discussion of Wilson's piece) that his focus was on those installing Drupal, something the overwhelming majority of content administrators won't be doing. The second study used only eight participants, and the results are actually being used to improve the administration interface.

Platform: Drupal hates change.

What he really means is "People don't like upgrading or applying patches." Apparently, Wilson believes security improvements are a liability, not an asset, and that Drupal upgrades always invite disaster or, alternatively, inaction. One wonders if he uses a Windows computer.

As an open-source project, Drupal has thousands of committed developers working to improve the software. Because all issues relating to security, usability, platform stability, and project advancement are discussed in an open forum, solutions come quicker and are, typically, more diverse and more effective. The alternative is a closed system that relies on the ingenuity and goodwill of a limited set of people who have a larger profit motive. We'd pick too much change over too little.

Platform: Drupal is disorganized.

Here, Wilson laments that Drupal doesn't display content in a Windows-like hierarchy of folders and files, relying instead on a content list he describes as "nightmarish" because you "have to search" for everything. First off, he's wrong: Drupal's content list can be filtered in a number of ways, which makes navigating your content quite snappy.

More importantly, we tend to think this method is more efficient, as you don't have to remember where you parked something—and go poking around dozens, or hundreds, of folders if you forget.

Platform: Drupal is righteous.

In this case, I see Wilson's point; Drupal, like many open-source projects, has its fanatics. Then again, so do some well-known proprietary systems. Personally, I worship at the altar of Mac every day, and I routinely slay and consume the carcasses of those who dare use Windows.

Levity aside, who cares? One of the advantages of employing open-source technology is the freedom to fire a development team that consists of snobbish fanboys and hire another that's humble and helpful. In most cases, the new team should be able to pick up where the previous left off, which could save you from having to start from scratch.

Is Drupal perfect? Is it the best solution for every web marketing or communication need? No, and no. There are legitimate criticisms of any platform. These just aren't all that legitimate. But that's par for the course in national politics. Welcome to the big leagues, Drupal.