Democratizing the Web – Adventures in Joomla

How Open Source Software is Democratizing the Web: My Joomla Adventures.

Read on if you want to know how a web designer with no programming experience created the RSS-powered News Supersite ANewRelevance.com.

While I’m in the shower, lightning strikes and you have a great website idea (my best inspiration always seems to reveal itself in the shower). The problem is: 1) you don’t have the skills or don’t know how to create it and / or 2) you don’t have the budget to build it. What a familiar puzzle, the brilliant idea for your website is in disguise and has nowhere to go. This summer I ran into the same situation.

First, a little history.

I am addicted to news, information and knowledge. I always want to know what is going on in the world and I always want to learn. In the past, that meant a lot of time hammering my keyboard with the television on in the background. These were essentially hour after hour alternations of Olberman, Maddow, Matthews, O’Reily, Hannity, Colbert, Stewart, SportsCenter … you get the picture.

I got married. That’s what started this whole adventure. I used to be single with a lot of time available to surf my boy’s channel. When I got married, I had to leave these friends behind, not to mention most of my things that were not up to par with my old apartment. The interesting thing is that my wife is more of a television viewer than I am. The problem is, it’s completely different programming: Bones, House, CSI whatever, and a LOT of reality shows. This is when the challenge was presented: How am I supposed to know what’s going on in the world if I can’t watch my shows? Taking off my schedule is like asking Derek Jeter to hit a winning homer with no thumbs. These were dark times.

I went to the internet.

I figured all the information I wanted is there, it just won’t be wrapped up in the little package I’ve known all my single years. Every day would start the same way: start the ‘pute, log in, start Firefox and start your search. I was going site by site, trying to collect everything I could about what was happening in the world around me: Drudge, Espn, TMZ, Fark, TechCrunch, etc.

Then came the idea:

What if I could put all the top headlines from my favorite sites on one page? Or better yet, put all the news you want in one place?

Then came the problem:

I am a web designer but not a programmer. That is serious functionality.

Then came the reality:

I can create a great looking site, but I’ve always dreaded the day when I would have to learn how to get into the backend and make things happen. Static site, safe. Dynamic site, well … serious times call for serious action.

The investigation began.

And the focus was mainly twofold: 1) How is news delivered on the Internet? and 2) What are the best platforms to deliver it? I had to find a way to create a dynamic site that not only collected the news, but presented it in a way that was user-friendly, easy to navigate, and gave me direct access to the sites it included. Of course, I had no idea how this was going to be done, but after a considerable amount of searching I found that there were numerous options, including open source software, that met my needs.

Some information on open source.

Open source software, simply put, is software that offers out-of-the-box usability, is almost completely customizable, and best of all, it’s free. You may have heard of a few: Ruby on Rails, Drupal, WordPress, Joomla. They offer rich functionality features for things like site development, content management, and online publishing. If you are concerned about aesthetics, there are thousands of themes (the look of the site) available for free download or purchase. When it comes to functionality, hundreds of plugins and modules are also available. If you can think of it, there is probably a module or plugin for it. These downloads are also available at no cost. You can basically build on the site on your own, which would cost thousands if you hired a developer.

With so many options, how do I choose?

It totally depends on what purpose you want your site to have. What do you want your site to do? Who is your audience? If you want to build a community, you probably want to go the Drupal or Joomla route. Do you want to do e-commerce? Both offer robust options for e-commerce integration. If you want to post your work online, WordPress is a great solution. The bottom line is that you need to take the time to search, find references, and determine which options best suit your needs. For my needs, I chose Joomla.

Joomla

Currently, there is considerable debate about which software is better: Joomla or Drupal. Honestly, I say “six of a half dozen of the other”. They can both “skin the cat”, they just do it a little differently. In my experience, Joomla has been a good solution for me for many reasons:

– With no experience, the learning curve was not so bad.

– Installation (remote server) relatively simple.

– The administrator / user interface is accessible and easy to use.

– The support community is strong.

– The plugins and modules available are abundant and well documented.

If you choose Joomla, you can be sure that you won’t be left out in the cold. The community of users and developers is large and growing. It is relevant software, and from what I have read, it should have been for quite some time.

The next step.

So I decided on the software. I installed it, chose a theme, set up the database and backend, and chose a few modules and plugins that provided the functionality I needed … except for the news. This was the next big step. The reason I got into this mess in the first place. He needed the news to be delivered, updated and published in real time. With a few more searches I found my answer.

RSS Feeds

RSS, more commonly translated as “Really Simple Syndication” or “Rich Site Summary”, are web feeds used to post frequently updated work such as blogs, news headlines, audio, and video. The sites provide these feeds so that instead of having to sign up for the site frequently, updates can be delivered to you automatically. Basically, “they keep you informed.” There are numerous applications available that will deliver these fonts to your desktop. In my case, I needed to find a way to deliver them through my website. This was challenging because most of the options I found only supported a small number of feeds (1-3). Beyond that, they weren’t open source, which meant that even if I got the feeds to run on my site, I wouldn’t be able to configure them. Uhmpf! More searches led me to …

Google AJAX feed API

At first, it seemed intimidating. The name alone made me say “Hun?” Basically, AJAX (short for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) helps to create interactive web applications. This service, provided by Google, allows the user to easily create a set of custom feeds and integrate it into their site simply by copying and pasting the code generated by Google. This was the perfect solution. And again, it was free. After searching a bit more, I discovered that there was a module available for Joomla that would easily translate this service on my site pages. So I installed the module, used it (remember, you can open source it), and achieved the desired results. My site was getting the news I wanted, but instead of the default 3 feeds per page, I was getting 12. My simple news site became a supersite of news. Aahhhh … success at last.

Now looking from the top of the mountain …

I must say it feels good. It would be remiss of me not to give a fair warning when the warning is due. This project was a considerable challenge and required a lot of patience, hard work and MANY hours. But in the end, a small town kid with no programming experience was able to create the site he dreamed of one morning in the shower. There is a revolution going on right now on the world wide web – if you can dream it, you can make it happen. All the tools are available and all it will cost is your time. Open source software is definitely democratizing the web. Be brave and good luck.

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