An Investigation of BuddyPress vs Drupal Commons
Posted on January 4, 2011
(I’ve recently posted an update about BuddyPress 1.5. With the 1.5 update, BuddyPress is better than ever, though Drupal Commons is still the only choice if you need enterprise-class support.)
Let me start with my software evaluation biases and then a quick summary of why I’m looking for a social platform, before sharing my exploration into these two very innovative and interesting platforms.
Software evaluations are irrelevant.
Of course, that’s an inflammatory statement. They’re not irrelevant, but I believe most companies do them wrong. In this case I have the benefit of just picking something and starting for my small non-profit. There are no integration requirements that I’d need to test against, no existing corporate standards to impede a “best choice” selection, and no existing software licensing I’d be expected to take advantage of even if the products licensed don’t really meet my needs. In the course of this evaluation my requirements condensed, but even before that they were truly minimal compared to what any large company has to think about.
I don’t believe I can make a wrong decision. Both WordPress and Drupal are enterprise-class systems. Both have robust communities that I can turn to for help. Both cost the same. Both are going concerns.
Which means, what I’m really looking at are two or three things:
1. Which has the better out-of-the-box experience?
2. What plugins are available for any key features I need? (This made me think again about what key features I needed. As a result, I streamlined how I think about prioritizing my features/requirements/milestones.)
3. What’s the platform “philosophy”? How does that align with my philosophy around what I’m doing? This is something I’ve always pitched as important in complex corporate technology, and didn’t think would matter for my small project. But, at one point the philosophy thing really hit me, and surprisingly changed my mind about my selection.
Why Am I Doing This?
I recently founded Where’s Your Heart? Foundation, a non-profit meant to improve people’s lives through altruistic living. What does that mean? Well, you know that good feeling you get when you do something? Where’s Your Heart? will sponsor events that create that good feeling, in ways that nurture and magnify the feeling, and then provide a community to share it. You see, just like a smile, that good feeling is contagious… and it’s important because it makes us feel good even when we’re not having such a good day for other reasons.
There’s more, but that’s enough for the purpose of this technical comparison.
So, I want to create an easy to use community around events for people to connect in the specific way of communicating around event participation. Acquia wrote a (useful) white paper about their target market for Drupal Commons, and it fit me quite well in solution intent (though not in target company profile). I’m not looking to let people create their own communities (like Facebook, Ning, etc). It was a plus for Acquia that they could express their target market so clearly, and since it resonated with me, it gave me a very good feeling. And, considering that there’s not similar content around BuddyPress I assumed the worst in terms of alignment… or worse yet that BuddyPress would try to be everything to everyone and just bog down in a morass of being everything to everyone.
I ran our first event, Cleanse for Your Cause(™), in December. It was very successful, and taught me a lot about what the platform needs to do. In particular, through this process and based on that experience I learned that my key features/strategies are:
1. Donor management; efficiencies here maximize the ability to entice participants and connect
2. Minimal but delightful function with respect to “social connectivity”
3. Form over function other than the features in #2 and possibly #1 above. I’m sure I could justify this comment, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, it’s really important to look pretty and be easy to look pretty.
By the way, as a freelance consultant I’m also looking beyond Where’s Your Heart’s requirements for a tool I can get experience with that I could then use on my work with customers. The fact that people make their first impression on how something looks makes me want to have a tool that I can make look good easily.
Well, let’s just jump in and start with that last point.
One thing I noticed early on was that I liked the way the BuddyPress sites looked, but not the Drupal Commons ones. This was consistent. I kept thinking… it’s just the themes and the way it’s implemented. You can do anything with a theme, so try to look deeper at the platform to make the “right” decision. It was quite funny. I’d like a BuddyPress site, then remind myself that it didn’t matter. Or, I’d not like a Commons site and rationalize it in my mind. Either way, I ALWAYS NOTICED before telling myself not to.
Then it hit me. Form over function is critical. And, if it’s easier to look pretty with BuddyPress, then that’s what I’m looking for.
Thinking otherwise is a trap, discounting (as I was) the user experience by thinking “oh, it’s simple to fix” which is why no one does. If it were that simple, just fix it and be done with it.
By the way, I understand the trade-offs made to the theme in Commons. They write about it in one of the white papers mentioned above. However, if commons.acquia.com is their showcase, I suggest someone pretty it up. It’s noble to show what’s out of the box, but there’s room for both — out of the box, and what can be done. I know that most companies feel that form is secondary to function, but at the same time instinctively evaluate how something works by how it looks (not dissimilar to dating).
I started looking at Drupal first. Really glad I did, but doing so telegraphed (to me) my preferential platform. I wanted to pick Drupal from the get go. I have what I believe are typical Drupal biases:
1. Drupal is better for enterprise scale. I realize it’s not (or really, it’s not that simple a fact), but that it’s my perception that it is.
2. I wanted to use Drupal because I felt it would give me more flexibility. There’s also a lot of excitement around Drupal right now. WordPress is (relatively) boring.
3. Drupal is more complicated. I got my first WordPress site up (this blog) and running in minutes without reading anything. You might say “it shows” but considering that, not bad. I’ve installed Drupal, then not known where to start. I’ve purchased and read books. I get it, but my bias is that anything I do in Drupal will be more complicated and therefore more expensive.
I started with a couple of book chapters that I was able to download (legally) using my Safari Books Online account. I followed the trail to social modules, looking at functionality and philosophy. Though I remind you, I didn’t and never intended to install anything before picking a platform. I looked at sample sites, read posts by plugin authors, and followed comments (and commenters) to build a picture for myself about the state of a social Drupal (and then WordPress).
The two books/chapters were (affiliate revenue is donated to charity):
- WordPress Top Plugins, chapter 5 “Building a Community with WordPress”
- Beginning Drupal 7, Appendix C “Social Networking”
In particular, a great place to start is the presentation Social Networking in Drupal on Slideshare by Isaac Sukin. Slides 25 & 26 are a great list of requirements and a great place to jump in to get in the weeds. I got really excited by the modules and the capabilities he talked about. That was before I decided on the strategy “minimal but delightful functionality, otherwise function follows form”. Reading and following this trail was a great education.
By the way, I highly recommend you to read another article by Isaac The Road to Social Networking Nirvana. It really gets the juices flowing to get you into the social zone. Issac is definitely someone to keep an eye on in this space.
I had known about Drupal Commons, but hadn’t thought about it to this point (because I forgot that it was the social bundle for Drupal). I was thinking about how the various (and overlapping) modules would fit in to the vision I have of my site. It’s pretty exciting stuff… and I finished my Drupal investigation validating my bias. That is, deciding there are no red flags to using Drupal based on what was in my mind.
I looked BuddyPress a while ago when I first thought of Where’s Your Heart? (Summer ’09) and remember that it didn’t seem to have any depth. I realize now it was first released in April ’09 which would explain the 1.0 feel! And, funny enough when I looked at Commons I felt that Commons’ August ’10 release made it more relevant (since it would have incorporated the latest thinking in building social interaction). We are so easily swayed by our biases!
The first thing I noticed was how well it was packaged. I’m a technical person, but not so much hands on. So an easy to use bundle is sweet. It made a real impression, and I wished there were something like that for Drupal (that thought eventually led me back to Commons after my BuddyPress investigation).
As I mentioned above, I really liked the look/feel of Buddypress.org and the sample sites.
I took a bit of time to figure out how it all fit together. BuddyPress is a WordPress plugin. It pulls all the social stuff together into a “social release” for WordPress. There is a theme framework based on Genesis called GenesisConnect, as an add on (I didn’t see any advanced theming help for Drupal Commons).
Very quickly I had two feelings about BuddyPress:
1. Really nice bundle, would make it much easier to use/deploy/manage
2. Genesis has a really good reputation so I knew I’d be able to theme it up nice and easy (I love CopyBlogger’s blog — it’s a must read, and the content quality of his blog gives Genesis more credibility)
I got this feeling I could do any of the “features” I wanted with BuddyPress… and found myself wishing there were an out of the box experience like BuddyPress with Drupal. This feeling probably related to the biases I mentioned earlier about Drupal scalability and flexibility. Interesting that I was still resistant to the idea of using WordPress as my platform.
It was at this point that I remembered Drupal Commons.
As I mentioned earlier, it was released in August 2010 to compete with Jive & Teligent and help companies build “business oriented social websites”. The theme was specifically designed for functionality and the ability to be branded by enterprises.
Commons did what I wanted. It provided a social bundle to Drupal with a great out-of-the-box experience. I consumed the materials on the Commons site, some good white papers and their own marketing. I checked out other sites running Commons, and I kept coming back to “hate the look and feel” — in fact, just as strongly as I was stuck on “Drupal is scalable” relative to WordPress.
Here’s a great Drupal Commons overview analysis by Isaac. I also found an article that discussed the Commons bundle in good depth. This article was a great jump-off point to learn more about the modules that were included (and not included) in Commons.
To summarize, Drupal Commons is a bundle released by Acquia who offers service, support, and hosting. You can easily download the bundle and install it anywhere you can install Drupal.
I had made up my mind it would be Commons.
But, I was hesitating? Why? It was the experience. I just liked the BuddyPress sites better. Information about BuddyPress was harder to find, but it was there. And, I kept reading. I sat with my decision over night, and that was where I developed the 3 key points I shared above.
I also found an article focused on non-profits and CRM. This sorta backed up my feeling about ease-of-use, but also validated the ability to use WordPress on large scale. It also pointed me at two tools for donor management (CiviCRM and Donor Tools). While it seems there’s out of the box integration between Drupal and CiviCRM, I don’t know what I need there yet… so want to start by dealing with what I do know first.
It was at this point that I started to have some clarity on my gut vs my brain. I developed the 3 rules above (recapped here) and had some observations:
Rule #1. The most important thing I learned from running Cleanse for Your Cause was that getting people connected to participate socially is going to require some real habit changing, and time. But, the need for donor management is immediate and drives my business (yes, my non-profit is a business). So, I need to figure out donor management.
Rule #2. Since it’s going to require some serious user behavior development around interacting socially on these events, it’s going to need to be an elegant and simple implementation. So, less is more.
Rule #3. In order to make it fun, build engagement, and establish credibility (we got asked “who’s Where’s Your Heart??” a lot!) we’d have to make it look good and be really easy to use. So I will prioritize user experience and look-and-feel over social functionality (and in turn, prioritize event administration, including donor management, over social functionality).
Observation #1. Not all open source is the same.
This may be a “no kidding” for many of you, but let me explain. First, a little disclaimer… I think Acquia is going to be hugely successful, and would (and do) recommend them unconditionally for their product, people, and intent. That said, in my mind I drew a distinction between BuddyPress and Drupal Commons. Drupal Commons is Acquia. It’s their tool to pursue their market, and as a small user I’m not sure how much attention I’d get from them even were I to be a customer. However, since Acquia is self-interested in Commons, others in the community with different interests could fracture Social Drupal (as it’s represented by Commons). In fact, just today the author of the presentation mentioned above tweeted one of his new year’s resolutions:
So, there would be two Social Drupals. I get it, but I’m looking for simple, consistent, and supportable by the community as a solution, not in bits and pieces.
BuddyPress on the other hand is “pure” open source. I suspect there might eventually be a supportable version of BuddyPress (like Acquia/Commons but for BuddyPress) but it’s a true community project. And, as such, there are people in the community more directly interested in providing community support to growing BuddyPress without any commercial conflict.
I hope I’m explaining myself without shooting myself in the foot.
Observation #2. I’m not managing (traditional) content.
When I realized this, I really made the switch in my mind from Commons to BuddyPress. I’m not managing content, I’m managing social events. In that regard, it’s new ground for both platforms (though admittedly there are various plugins that could help and existing customers doing things in this area with either platform) and neither aligns better philosophically one way or the other. Once I broke away from the content management bias, and Drupal being “the platform” for content management, it broke me out of thinking I’d be sacrificing too much with WordPress.
I’m quite excited to put this to rest. I learned a lot, especially in some of the tangents I took to look into plug-ins features (they impacted how I thought about my site’s functionality) and donor management software (not sure what to do with that yet, but glad I’ve got more knowledge). In fact, the two days I spent doing this research I could hardly sleep at night as I was so wired with ideas and creativity. I also identified quite a number of interesting people who I hope to follow (stalk?) because they said (and shared) really smart things or simply seem interesting.
If you liked this please leave a comment or share a link to this post. And, consider donating a pint of blood or sponsoring a blood donation as part of our second event, Bleed for Your Cause™. Each pint donated helps 3 people, and there’s no synthetic substitute for blood. Participate in Bleed for Your Cause and when you donate blood (in any country), we’ll donate $15 to a cause you pick as our way of saying thanks and helping a cause you care about in return.