The Underlying Meaning of Content Management Systems

A spontaneous flash fire burst into flames this past weekend surrounding content management. Scratch that; it focused on WordPress. Like many of these debates, it was sparked by a seemingly unrelated Tweet, this time by Nathan Smith. My personal reaction to the post was to let it be. I appreciate knowing that a designer knows how to work with WordPress, not so much Dreamweaver, but can understand referencing WordPress as a skill, albeit an outlying skill. Could the designer list PHP as a skill? Sure, but when a lead comes through asking for Drupal development, the designer is worse off and faced with a dead end.

I always get a chuckle when designers list 'WordPress' amongst their skill-set, or say 'I use Dreamweaver' with a straight face.

I’m going to infer that what resulted was not Nathan’s intention, but a small powder keg went up in flames. He was hit with instant recoil from the massive troll population plaguing both our community and the rest of the Internet. Without taking the time to find out his true intention, people instantly felt Nathan was bashing both WordPress and Dreamweaver, and felt the need to express a targeted response. I’m all for debate, but there are certain ways of going about it. The odd part about this occurrence, however, was that people on both sides of the fence were being quite overzealous about their home turf.

The philosophy of content management

I think a major talking point throughout this conversation needs to be the premise of content management itself. How is content management defined? To me, a content management system is something that manages content. It can be “enterprise level” content management (whatever that may mean), blogging, or the one page site your aunt asked you to put together for her.

Much of the support “in favor” of Nathan’s opinion surrounded the stigma WordPress has as a blogging platform. Nate Klaiber made a great point throughout the back and forth; that custom fields != CMS. That’s more than true. I absolutely 100% agree with that sentiment. It was at this point I learned that what we’re dealing with is again the mass adoption issue with WordPress. More on that later.

WordPress has its roots in blogging, that is the founding purpose without a doubt. The continuation of the story, however, is that WordPress has essentially conquered blogging. WordPress moved beyond blogging on the order of years ago. Since then, WordPress has begun to accommodate a nearly endless combination of site types it can handle. Not to toot any horns, and not that it’s the end all be all, but over the past years WordPress has worked its way up the Open Source CMS Award rankings to take it home this year.

How WordPress fits in

Nathan’s primary argument regarding WordPress was the fact that to him, while it makes a decent blogging platform, to call WP a proper content management system would be pigeonholing. Many rejoiced, many took offense. Surprising to me, a number of designers I’ve come to respect went so far as to say that if you use WordPress as a CMS you’re doing your client a disservice. That was tough to hear, not because I’m defensive of WordPress, but because that’s quite a dig to take at a large population of what I feel are talented people.

I’m a huge fan of WordPress. I use it for 98% of my projects and it’s worked out swimmingly. I’m not dumping dozens of custom fields into every Post and Page though, I’m using a set of plugins I’ve come to know, trust, and work with for an extensive amount of time that helps me provide terrific content management platforms for my clients.

That’s where a light bulb went off for me through this back and forth amongst my peers. The people supporting WordPress know it on a higher level than those who were bashing it. I then continued to process the discussion by justifying some comments by realigning them to target an out of the box installation of WordPress, sans plugins. But then I went on to think about some of the content management systems suggested as alternatives to WordPress. The primary of which being ExpressionEngine and Drupal.

That’s where it got interesting to me, and where I felt zealotry was taking over a bit. I respect both ExpressionEngine and Drupal, and although I’ve never used either beyond a basic installation and run through, I can see that lots of time and effort has gone into both. I also know and respect the large, talented, and knowledgeable communities surrounding both platforms, but I also know that I’m turned off by both systems for daily use. I’m not here to start another flame war, but my trials with both ExpressionEngine and Drupal have shown that they’re not the system for me, not at this time. I say ‘at this time’ because I fully intend to explore both systems in full detail for an extended amount of time before officially signing either off as incompatible with the way I want to present a CMS to my client. Drupal also won big this year in the unofficial CMS Awards; it took home the Hall of Fame Award, and has a long standing streak of winning Best Overall Open Source CMS in past years.

I continued on with my thought process to realize that many of the people who know and love ExpressionEngine and Drupal also have their secret weapons in the form of plugins or mods that make the CMS work the way they want. For example, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say that they’d never build an EE site without Structure. I’ve also heard that Structure completely changes the way you work with EE. I use Pods for every WordPress project I build. It completely changes the way you work with WordPress.

What does that say about each respective platform? What does that say about the plugin architecture? What does it say about the people using the systems?

My final remarks on the issue

As I mentioned previously, I feel that a major aspect of the WordPress vs. “CMS” ordeal is mass adoption. As with PHP in general, people do lots of stupid crap with WordPress. I admit that fully. When it’s so readily accessible and open, it’s an impossible thing to avoid. There are also, however, people doing some amazing things with WordPress, and it’s got nothing to do with shoehorning or pigeonholing.

I also feel that the minor aspect of the debate is (for lack of a better term) ignorance tied in with a touch of overzealousness. It’s hard to become intimately involved with every CMS in an effort to find a fully encompassing opinion on it. That takes quite a bit of time and even more effort, a resource everyone in the world ran out of long ago. If your initial experience with a CMS didn’t work out in the way you had hoped, you’re going to move on to the next until you find something that does. Once that project goes smoothly and you’ve covered the basics, you’re going to learn even more on the next project, so on and so forth. Before you know it, even considering the original CMS was a laughing matter as you’ve become so accustomed to what worked for you. Why, if that original experience was so lacking, would you keep up with development, keep up with new plugins, or even bother reading up on the system at all? You’ve got work to do and you want to get it done with the system you know to be effective.

In the end, I’d just like to conclude this opinionated piece by reminding everyone that it’s not always the tools you use to get the job done, it’s the end product itself. While content management is a unique case in that your client will see the tool you’ve chosen, it’s about education. Instead of talking bad about one system or another, how about we build some websites? Let’s tout the good things we’ve come to know and love about our choice content management system, and leave the rest to the wayside.