Moving to a new community (part 1)

photograph of antique Tinkertoys can
Photograph “Tinkertoys” by Alan Levine. CC By 2.0

On January 12th, 2022, I attended a really exciting Reclaim Community chat hosted by Taylor Jadin. Taylor showed us a WordPress template that Reclaim Hosting makes available by request. It lets Domain of One’s Own institutions build a site that spotlights local work by displaying a thumbnail that links to the site featured. We can categorize sites by author characteristics (student/staff/faculty), or by site type (portfolio/blog/etc). It’s what some have been calling a “community site” or a “community hub”.

This adapted WordPress site, made available as a template through the Installatron Application Installer, will make it very easy and fast to create a community hub, and because it’s WordPress, it will be super quick and fun to customize local versions of a community hub to suit particular needs. For me, this is a really promising and very much appreciated addition to all the many things Reclaim Hosting already provides us.

This idea traces back at least to the very first Reclaim Domains conference in 2017, when Marie Selvanadin, Tom Woodward, and Yianna Vovides presented on their work to build a community hub at VCU and Georgetown. It’s also is something I’ve been trying to do at Muhlenberg College with varying degrees of success since 2019. This new community template site will potentially solve some of the most stubborn problems I encountered in maintaining Muhlenberg’s community site, built from scratch with PHP, an HTML5 Up! template, and some scripts processed with the Cron Jobs scheduler in cPanel. Kind of a rickety build, unfortunately.

Among the numerous advantages I see offered by Taylor’s template is the solid reliability of WordPress. Taylor has incorporated a forms plugin (Gravity Forms) for entering sites into the community hub, and has pulled in an Isotope filter/sorter, called The Post Grid. This means I can create my own facets and build sortable navigation that can, for instance, pull Student AND Portfolio sites, or Faculty AND Research sites. The Post Grid is something I want to explore more in the next few weeks, but I know already that Isotope is a fantastic way to bring in some jQuery goodness without having to delve deep into writing my own JavaScript. Some of the advanced features of The Post Grid cost money, but the price is reasonable, especially for the lifetime license, and something I expect I will purchase as I start building our next version of our community hub.

I also like the idea of building my own entry forms as a way of entering sites into the community hub. There are a lot of forms plugins for WordPress out there, and I imagine several of them would do the trick. Gravity Forms is really popular, and if you’re imagining perhaps a couple hundred sites in your community hub, this seems like a great way to go. It also opens up the possibility, as Taylor demonstrates, of self-nomination by students, staff, and faculty for inclusion in the community hub. Or faculty can nominate student work to be featured from their own classes, for example. Administrators can reserve the right to approve submissions before they appear live on the site, preventing spambot silliness and avoiding potential mischief. Or, admins can go directly to the form entry and start bringing in sites, themselves, after a periodic review. I think all of these workflows hold promise.

But I’m also interested in looking for ways to automate or semi-automate the care and feeding of a community hub. To be totally honest, this is something I underestimated and is one of the things that made my first version of a community hub unsustainable.

Eventually, I’d like to explore how some scripting and cron jobs could pre-populate a community hub with new sites that have been built (pending review), and scrub the community hub of sites that have come down, either because the site’s creator has deleted them, or because folks have graduated and their Berg Builds accounts have been removed. And because WordPress is essentially a database, this is all totally possible.

At present, Muhlenberg has around 1,850 different WordPress installations across all of Berg Builds. Many of these are abandoned “Hello, World!” sites, admittedly. But there are certainly real gems in that long list, and those might never get nominated. And I might not ever see them either if I can’t find a way to review what’s out there and decide what deserves a place in the community hub. So in the next post, I’ll show a couple simple PHP files I’ve built to help me with my periodic review of the great work happening at Muhlenberg with WordPress. Hopefully this simple hack can help others out, too.

Featured Image, “Tinkertoys” by Alan Levine. CC BY 2.0

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