Build An Online Community With Drupal

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The Web as a place. This is not a foreign concept to SitePoint users, nor an abstraction. You’re the ones laying the foundation of the place we all call the Web. But the concept of "place" on the Web has seen a transformation in the past few years. Today, more than ever before, that place is about communities of like-minded Web users; people clustering together to form a coherent and nearly organic core. Technology as organism; the Web as place.

At first blush, the rise of Web communities seems both new and natural. In reality, the seed of the Web community lies deep in the roots of the Web itself. Bulletin board systems preceded the Web by several years and, really, what were they but communities? IRC and chat took hold early in the evolution of the Web. Again, communities. That communities now appear as a new concept is really just a result of the evolution of the tools used to create them. These tools have made communities much more interactive, much easier to use and administer, and much more attractive to the eye. The concept of connecting disparate dots into a high-res picture — a community — has, in the past few years, come full circle.

A Little History

Today, there’s a proliferation of tools designed with Web-based communities in mind. Some might argue that the modern community model began with the launch of Slashdot. The code to build a Slash-like community is readily available. Some might point to the Kuro5hin community as the prototype. That code, too, is available for anyone interested in community-building. With varying degrees of administrative and user ease, these tools serve as a useful means to achieve the end of community-building.

Some, myself among them, believe that the real revolution in communities is underway at this very moment. The Web merely delivers the space in which communities form. Increasingly, those communities are themselves becoming movements with greater weight and influence than ever. The American presidential campaign of 2003-2004 may years from now prove to be a watershed moment in the evolution of online communities. MeetUp and Daily Kos are motivating Web users far beyond the Web sphere. They’re providing the tools and space within which users motivate themselves and each other toward political activism outside the Web place.

Need further evidence of the value of community-building in politics? Look no further than two American presidential campaigns that clearly "got it," using online community-building to form and foster a stronger political voice than ever before. Though the campaigns didn’t last, the impact of the communities they built will be felt for years and elections to come.

One strong example was the Clark Community Network (CCN), a creation of Cameron Barrett and the Wesley Clark for President campaign. Based on modifications to the Kuro5hin tool, Scoop, CCN provided a true two-way communication with Clark supporters and interested observers. Users were allocated their own blog space, with entries voted down or voted to the front page by other members of the community. CCN moved through creation to rollout and more than 5000 active users in less than six weeks. At its peak, the community helped drive the overall Web traffic of the Clark ’04 site to well over 175,000 unique visitors a day. That’s a powerful forum for both candidate and supporters.

But the best known political community of the 2003-2004 campaign was the DeanSpace site. Based on Drupal, both DeanSpace and its sister, Dean for America, were widely recognized as the communities that put politics squarely at the center of the online map. The focus of the Dean communities was more than mere discussion — it was mobilization in support of Howard Dean. These communities literally took the American media by storm with their reach and power. That attention, at long last, finally pushed the concept of blogs and communities to the forefront of both technical and popular media reporting.

So, what is this Drupal tool that captured the fancy of even the narrowly-focused American political media? Simply put, it’s an easily-customized open source package of PHP code that you, too, can use to create an online community. Regardless of your community needs — dog-walking, Chinese checkers, Chicago blues, or politics — Drupal can set your community foundation in place quickly and easily. Let’s set the community-values proselytizing aside for a bit, just long enough to paint the basic concepts and technologies with a hands-on brush.

Installing and Configuring Drupal

Drupal bills itself as "community plumbing." You can download the elbow joints and drain traps that are the source code of Drupal at http://drupal.org. Version 4.1.1 is the latest version, released on May 1. The requirements for installation are minimal: the Apache Web server, PHP and a MySQL database installation. These are the recommended tools, though any database server supporting the PHP PEAR libraries will do.

Prior to unpacking the source code, you’ll need to check a few PHP configuration settings. In the /etc/php.ini file, assure that you have the following:

magic_quotes_gpc  0
 session.save_handler  user

PHP4 also provides support for RSS syndication and the Blogger API by default, via the XML extension. If you want to utilize clean URLs in your community, you’ll also need to enable the mod_rewrite and .htaccess capabilities on your Apache server.

With the PHP and server configurations set, extract the source code and copy it to the DocumentRoot of the Web server:

tar -zxvf ~/source/drupal-4.1.1.tar.gz
 cp -r drupal-4.1.1/* /var/www/html

Next, you’ll set up the Drupal database using the mysqladmin tool. The example below uses root to create the database. Adjust your mysqladmin command accordingly. Following the example, the new database will be named "drupal".

mysqladmin -u root -p password create drupal

Now, log in to the MySQL monitor:

mysql -u root -p password

Create the Drupal user permissions on the database. In the example below, "drupal_user" is the database user for whom you’re creating permissions. This user need not exist; setting the permissions will create the proper database entry. "localhost" is the local database server and "drupal_pass" is the password you’re assigning to the drupal_user account.

GRANT ALL PRIVILEGES on drupal.* to 'drupal_user'@'localhost' identified by 'drupal_pass'

To finish the database setup, flush the privileges and log out of the MySQL monitor with the following commands:

flush privileges;
 q

You can now create the Drupal database tables using the create script provided in the Drupal package. You’ll need to change directories into the server DocumentRoot, and execute MySQL, feeding it the database script as input:

cd /var/www/html
 mysql -u drupal_user -p drupal_pass < database/database.mysql

With the Drupal database set up, it’s time to dig into the configuration file for some minimal site-specific adjustments.

The Drupal installation directory contains an include subdirectory. This is where the configuration file resides. You’ll need to set the database directory and the base URL of your site in this file. In your favorite text editor, set the $db_url line of includes/conf.php to:

$db_url = "mysql://drupal_user:drupal_pass@localhost";

This line sets the database directory for your installation. Next, set the base URL by editing the following line:

$base_url = "http://your.url.here";

This is the public address of your Drupal installation. With a mere thirteen small steps, your Drupal installation is browser connection-ready.

The first time you open Drupal, you’ll create an account. This first account will become the administrator account for your system. As always, select the username and password carefully.

The administrative features of Drupal present a nearly dizzying array of options. In order to understand those options, it’s important to first understand the underlying structural philosophy.

Understanding the Base Drupal Installation

Drupal presents every slice of content attached to the system as a node. This is, as you might have guessed, analogous to a network, in which every desktop, server and printer is a network node. In the case of Drupal, these nodes consist of anything related to the content of the site. The base nodes of the Drupal system include many pieces such as title, author, body, comments, votes, score, users, and authored on date. Other node types include polls, static pages, personal blog entries, forum topics, and book pages. Collectively, these discrete pieces form the core of the Drupal system.

In parallel to Drupal’s node system is its scheme of blocks. Think of these blocks as the visible user and administrative tools. Blocks are a gateway for you (as admin) and your users to access additional tools or view information about the system. These blocks include login, navigation, most recent poll, who’s online, who’s new, and blogs. If you bring to your Drupal administration some PHP experience, it’s an easy task to create blocks specific to the purpose of your community. In fact, the Drupal authors have provided a wealth of documentation to assist you to do so. We’ll look at a few examples in a bit.

Nodes and blocks alone make Drupal a powerful, easily configurable community-building tool. But, there’s yet another level to the system. The heavy-lifting behind the scenes of the Drupal installation is the module. Modules, in fact, control both blocks nodes. They extend the base functionality of the Drupal installation. Modules can be enabled or disabled and protected with user-appropriate permissions. Critical modules include:

  • admin – Provides all the administrative features
  • block – Controls the boxes around the main content
  • blog – Creates personal blog space for registered site users
  • user – Provides the ability for users to register and log in
  • help – Controls a deep and very useful help system
  • node – The core module that allows content submission to the site
  • system – Allows full administration of the site
  • profile – Provides configurable user profiles
  • tracker – Tracks recent posts to the system

The combination of nodes, blocks and modules is a powerful one. It provides user and administrative granularity unsurpassed in other community tools. With PHP behind the scenes and a MySQL backend, the configuration options are nearly endless. On your first login to the newly installed Drupal system, it’s well worth your while to look carefully through the administrative and configuration options. You’ll be startled by how much control lies at your fingertips.

Customizing Drupal For Your Community

Exactly what type of community do you want to build? Are politics the crackers in your soup? Do you lean more toward creative activities; writing, art, music? Each community type will have a different set of feature requirements. Political communities, for example, should always provide forums, hierarchical commenting and polls. You may also want to send new post information to the blog aggregators such as weblogs.com. These are features that can be enabled as modules in Drupal.

While political communities require high levels of user interaction, a community focused on more creative endeavours might need only light commenting and the ability to collaborate on community works. In a community of this sort, "extra" features can be disabled with a single mouse-click in Drupal. It’s important to clearly think through your community needs prior to building out a community site with too few or far too many features.

For all the pre-planning, the final voice on features in your community will be the users. The flexibility of Drupal and its full default set of features make it easy to fulfill the needs of those users with minimal effort.

Occasionally, though, you or your users will find a need for a feature that can’t be met by the default Drupal tools. If you’re proficient in PHP, you can easily design, test and add modules to your installation. The Drupal authors have provided a wealth of instruction and guidance for creating these modules. Of interest to your coding are the following:

If you’re more interested in providing the features than coding them, you may find that someone else has already done the tough work. Sites providing downloadable Drupal modules include:

Paying close attention to your user requirements and making the modifications to meet those needs will help assure the growth of your community.

Conclusion

The Web as a place? It’s been that since the beginning. Email, chat, and instant messaging all contribute to the sense of place on the Web. They serve as gathering places where a broad collection of voices, given proper time and care, become one. The surge of Web communities, in wikis and blogs and political sites, is really just a return to roots. It’s one that’s taken even the mainstream media by storm. That surge has provided yet another glimpse of the human potential of the Web.

And it’s a surge spurred, in part, by tools; tools like Drupal. With a little care and minimal configuration, you too can install the plumbing for your Web-based community.

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