Drupal, Barack Obama and the Dumbest Article of the Year

It’s almost November and we’re starting to see the usual “Best of 2009” lists (best books, best songs, etc.), which seems strange since there’s a whole lot of year left in 2009. I won’t try to name a best book or movie or song of the year today. However, I have just read an article on Slate that is so bad, so incorrect and so unnecessary that I’m going to go out on a limb: “Message Error” by Chris Wilson is the dumbest article of 2009.

This article’s young author is attempting to take down Barack Obama’s new whitehouse.gov on account of the software the site uses, and he’s in way over his head. The level of journalistic ineptitude here makes a typical anti-Darwin or 9/11 truther pamphlet look downright fact-checked by comparison.

Chris Wilson says that the popular open source Drupal software package used to build whitehouse.gov sends the wrong messages and is “a disaster waiting to happen”. In fact, Drupal is widely regarded as the best general purpose web publishing package out there today, and is certainly growing faster than any of its competitors.

As a web techie since 1994, I’ve seen content management frameworks come and go: Vignette StoryServer, ColdFusion, Jive, Interwoven Teamsite, Struts, WordPress, Spring, Java Server Faces, Ruby on Rails. I was a dedicated WordPress user but I switched to Drupal 10 months ago when I was hired as a consultant by a company very much like Slate.com. I began learning Drupal when I began the job, and I’ve been enthralled by it ever since. It’s far more ambitious, consistent and full-featured than any other package I’ve seen.

It’s hardly a perfect platform. The learning curve for a developer is steep — Drupal is a toolkit, after all, not a magic problem-solver — but it rewards expertise. Best of all, this free software is a thriving example of the open source community ethic — everything about Drupal is developed and maintained through a cooperative model that works more smoothly, efficiently, organically and logically than any software corporation I’ve ever seen has been able to do.

So what is Chris Wilson talking about in this piece? My best guess is that he had a deadline to meet and was plum out of ideas. Or maybe he once worked on a badly designed Drupal site (there are plenty of them out there) and can’t imagine that the toolkit could ever be used successfully. Let’s take a look at his gripe list:

Drupal knows best. It’s not that Drupal thinks you’re evil. It just thinks you’re ignorant. In a basic setup, the software is suspicious of everything you try to do. Should you, say, go completely rogue and try to add some Javascript in the body of a page—a 14-year-old technology that controls interactive components like buttons—the platform will have none of it. The message: “That’s dangerous stuff, and you probably don’t know what you’re doing.” Better to outlaw something altogether, Drupal figures, than simply ask you if you really want to use it. If Drupal ran the Food and Drug Administration, it would ban high-fructose corn syrup. This is just the sort of straitjacketed paternalism that half the country is convinced the Democrats are hell-bent on imposing on us all.

Silly, silly writer. Of course Drupal does allow embedded Javascript. In fact, it offers smooth javascript integration at every level, and ships with JQuery, the most popular Javascript library. If Chris Wilson has some idea that Drupal doesn’t allow embedded Javascript, that probably means he once worked as an editor on a Drupal platform that chose not to allow it. Drupal offers this choice, of course, because that’s the kind of software Drupal is — the kind that offers choices.

It’s also a good bet that whatever Drupal site Chris Wilson once had a bad experience on did allow embedded Javascript, but only for users who could be trusted to use the feature correctly. Drupal offers granular levels of user permissions, after all.

This poor author goes on. He claims that Drupal is hard to upgrade, whereas anybody whose worked on a well-maintained Drupal site knows it’s remarkably easy to upgrade. The site I’m working on now is at the latest release level, and the latest upgrade took about two minutes. I was never able to upgrade WordPress this easily. As for upgrading a Vignette or Interwoven or Alfresco … forget it.

Wilson continues his tirade:

Drupal is righteous. The open-source movement has done wonderful things for the Web. But at its core, it remains a religion. If you went to DrupalCon in Paris last month, then you would have almost certainly come across proselytizers of one the movement’s fundamental tenets: Drupal doesn’t break Web sites. People with Drupal break Web sites. Most problems with Drupal stem from people who “don’t get it” or aren’t using it correctly

So … Drupal is the first software package that techies get arrogant about?

Can Chris Wilson name any software package more complicated than Wii Fit whose experts aren’t difficult to work with? It comes with the territory, bub. It’s not the toolkit that makes techies impatient with clueless users. Often, it’s the clueless users. The ones who shoot their mouths off about how this sucks or that sucks without taking the time to understand the words they’re using.

Now, let’s talk about why open source software offers exactly the message Obama wants to project. First of all: it’s free. American taxpayers are paying for whitehouse.org, just like they did when George W. Bush was President, but now they are paying nothing for the software that runs it. I think that’s pretty cool. What other politician’s websites can make this claim? I think it sets a winning example.

Second, Drupal is maintained by an idealistic and inspired worldwide community of volunteers. But hmmm, no, Chris Wilson doesn’t think this is an image Obama’s White House should want to project. Wouldn’t want any of that spirited idealistic volunteer stuff around.

Why would anyone write such a dumb article as this? Well, some people just love to grumble and complain. There is a controversial health care bill going through the early approval stages in the US Senate and the US House, and I believe that anyone who takes a long sober look at the state of health insurance in the USA right now will conclude that our Representatives and Senators and President are trying to tackle an important problem in the most constructive possible way. But people love to grumble and complain.

Come to think of it, some of the opinion pieces I’ve read recently attacking Obama’s health care agenda might give Chris Wilson some competition in the “dumbest article of the year” department.

But I’m not an expert in health care policy, so I don’t know enough to make that call. I know about web development, though, and that’s why I think this Slate article takes the title. Of course there’s still two months left in this year.

6 Responses

  1. Great take down of that trash
    Great take down of that trash article! I wrote one up myself this morning. The first part about Javascript really got me. Having come from the same background as you and working in numerous CMS systems, Drupal is by far the best when it comes to offering security and extensibility. Want Javascript? Sure just allow it in a input filter and decide what roles can access that filter. No programming necessary, and no modules need be installed. Try doing that in WordPress (and like you I did a lot of WordPress work but got out of it last year. Now I focus on Drupal)

  2. i think it’s was funny that
    i think it’s was funny that Chris felt it was necessary to explain what javascript is. I find it hard to believe that anybody who decided to read past “Web site management software” would need such assistance.

  3. Can’t resist…At least Obama
    Can’t resist…At least Obama made the right decision with Change.gov (before politics got involved with his choice) and went with ExpressionEngine!

  4. Come on everybody knows that
    Come on everybody knows that the year starts on 11/1 and ends on 10/31. That gives those critics the 11/1 till 12/31 to try to think of what they are going to write about as to the years best lists. Now if I could just figure out why the 2010 cars hit the end of August all would be right with the world.

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