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A Nation of End Users: Inside (and Outside) the White House Drupal Switch

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, October 28 2009

News of the White House's switch to Drupal absolutely has absolutely rocketed around the web this weekend and week. We are among the lucky beneficiaries. Our traffic numbers, frankly, look like a one-hump camel. We jumped on the story early, fleshing out an almost comically bungled Associated Press story that read, in part, "The White House says it's overhauled the technical aspects of the site and now there's computer code written in public view, available for public use and able for the public to edit." That's one way -- the wrong way, sure -- to make sense of the news, and the approach makes some sense. There's more or less two ways to think about software these days: either out-of-the-box software like, say, Adobe Acrobat, or something like Wikipedia, something that is almost completely created by its users, on the fly, and with only the most minimal barriers to entry.

Of course, a few minutes spent pondering a story like that has to make you doubt the prospect that the White House of the United States of America has turned itself completely read-write. Then what? Are there more useful ways to help us understand the great Drupal switch?

About half that traffic spike mentioned above came from Slashdot. That's not to say that our regular readers didn't find the White House Drupal piece interesting, but they were swamped by visitors from a site that regularly celebrates the free and open source culture. (The rest of the traffic came through Google and other search engines, a handful of news sources, and direct visits to the site.) Perusing coverage of the Drupal switch around the web suggests that much of the excitement over it was endogenous, coming from FOSS folks and those who love them. That isn't unexpected, since Drupal seems to evoke the same sort of passions in the software development world as something like the New York Yankees. (And Drupal's detractors might match Yankee haters in their vehemence, but more on that below.) Bigger than the FOSS community, though, is the number of people who regularly experience something that you can make the case is much more akin to the new White House than Wikipedia is: the Firefox web browser.

The Mozilla Foundation estimated last spring that Firefox is being used by more than 270 million people in the United States and around the world. Most users' first experiences with Firefox are little different than, say, Microsoft's Internet Explorer (for those folks on Windows machines.) Both are free. Both can be downloaded in seconds with one or two clicks. Few people pay much attention to the fact that IE is a wholly-own Microsoft product, while Firefox came out of what participants describe as an internecine battle at Netscape that pointedly produced an open product under a GNU General Public License. That isn't to say that users won't feel a difference. When CNET ran a head-to-head competition between Firefox 2 and IE 7, the former got major points for extensibility, in large part because the community of devoted programmers around Firefox have dreamt up and make public thousands of add-ons that let people customize their experience. "IE has extensions too, but not like Firefox," said CNET editor Rafe Needleman. That engagement with the community is reflected in the fact that Firefox has an incredibly flexible feel to it. The point of Firefox is to get from it what you want and need. Everything is negotiable. This is software meant to serve.

All of which is a long lead in to a pointer to Chris Wilson's story on Slate in which he predicts that the White House's Drupal switch will be a story that "ends badly." As a content management system, argues Wilson, Drupal is a complete bear to work with. When you engage with the software from the backend, suggests Wilson, it can be resistant to change, paternalistic, and often frustratingly counterintuitive. Personal experience suggests that he has a point. Let's just say that we run on Drupal here at techPresident and Pdf, and leave it at that. That's why we have it in iCal to check in with the White House new media team once they've actually lived a bit with their new Drupal-based system.

In the end, though, whether or not Drupal improves the user experience for a handful of folks sitting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and using the CMS counts for less than whether a new, Drupal-driven website means a more flexible, engaging, extensible experience for the rest of us. We're the important ones in the equation -- the end users.