SpotLight: BuddyPress

This series continues to look at some websites in the vein of sharing and storing. In this post, we look at BuddyPress.

History

WordPress is a website aimed for prospective bloggers to got their word out. Users chose which style and format layout they’d like their blog to be and begin blogging away. More ‘fancier’ styles usually have a cost involved, but the selections is so vast that there is something to suit everyone. WordPress is the most popular blogging system, registering more than 60 million websites. It is also the origin of this particular blog.

BuddyPress is the ‘expansion pack’ to the main game. It is a plugin that can be downloaded to make WordPress more like a social network. Plugins are a very popular area of WordPress; its plugin architecture allowing users opportunities to expand and extend WordPress beyond its core. It has over 26,000 plugins, each of which offers custom functions and features enabling users to tailor their sites to their specific need, such as the addition of widgets and navigation bars. But BuddyPress is perhaps the most featured.

Conceived in 2008, BuddyPress was added to allow for more social networking features to implemented into the core programming. This would turn the blogging system into something that added more ‘flavor.’ The first official stable release was in May 2009. The platform has grown and morphed considerably since then, into the dynamic, easily extensible package you see today.

Both WordPress and BuddyPress are open source, meaning there is no restrictions on their core code or engine. Everything from the core code, to the documentation, themes and plugin extensions are all built by the BuddyPress community. This means anyone can help the project by contributing their time and knowledge.

Described as ‘social networking in a box,’ BuddyPress is built to bring people together. It works well to enable people with similar interests to connect and communicate…just like a social network would. They themselves give a suggestion of ‘fantastic uses’ for this plugin being:

  • A campus wide social network for your university, school or college.
  • An internal communication tool for your company.
  • A niche social network for your interest topic.
  • A focused social network for your new product.

Nothing to surprising or unique about any of theses uses. But much like Steam adds newer services to supplement the demands of the community, so does BuddyPress to give its user base more things to try out. The average user rating for the plugin stands at 4 stars out of 5 and has been downloaded more than 1,750,000 times.

BuddyPress provides a range of features that work right out of the box. However, you might decide that you only want to make use of a couple of features to start with. This is really simple as you can turn off the features you don’t want with a click of a button. When you disable features, the site’s theme will auto adjust, showing only the menu items, pages and buttons for the features you have enabled.

BuddyPress Capabilities

The plugin lets users signup and start creating profiles, posting messages, making connections, creating and interacting in groups, and much more. A social network in a box, BuddyPress lets you easily build a community for your company, school, sports team, or other niche community.

As stated above, WordPress likes to take advantage of the numerous plugins to bolster its portfolio. BuddyPress boasts an ever growing array of new features developed by an awesome plugin development community (which is open source remember). There are more than 330 BuddyPress plugins available, and the list is growing every day.  You can install any of these plugins automatically, using the plugin installer on the WordPress Dashboard.

buddypress

Example of BuddyPress in use

Criticisms of the System

Not directly ‘criticisms,’ but BuddyPress has been met with some issues in the past that have contributed to people expressing their views.

Firstly, the actual development for the plugin has slowed down. Part of the reason is that this is going on part-time. As hard as they can, the job is demanding and with other commitments, progress has stalled. It appears BuddyPress hasn’t changed in over a year. Whether it needs to change is another matter. This is also despite the fact that BuddyPress is open source, but getting patches and fixes in from the community is not easy. A large part of that community are not coders or programmers; I’ll be honest and say computing…hurts the eyes.

Another concern is that 3rd party developers and designers get little reward in their efforts. As assuming as this is, the current hierarchy works like this. Plugin donations are extremely spare. Thousands of people download BuddyPress plugins every day and the developers hardly receive anything in return. Whether the developers actually want money is another story, but if you spend that much time and effort then perhaps you’d be expecting some financial reward. That realization is not present with 95% of the community and that reflects on the activity around 3rd party plugin development. The designers, when asked what they get in return, is like this: ‘I get about $20 bucks of donations, shit loads of feature requests and the occasional hatemail.’

Even contributors of the community from the beginning have given up and moved on. Maybe the most painful example is the way Jeff Sayre’s ‘Privacy Component’ has turned out. Hundreds of hours of development seem to have been for nothing due to pushed back released dates, rude community members and overly long demotivating discussions about the importance of such functionality. Sadly, this is the price you pay for having such a large, hungry community. There are those that give you time, but generally, people can be inconsiderate and disgraceful that you wonder why developers go through the trouble in the first place. It certainly was like that for Jeff and the community members who did try their best to get it out there for us to use.

BuddyPress contains a large selection of themes to choose from. And here is also another problem: creating and maintaining themes is a challenge. When you just mess around with the stylesheet and change a few things, it’s all good. But when you start modifying templates or actually want to create your own custom parent theme, you get in a lot of trouble.

Trouble starts with a learning curve that is tough, and existing frameworks already have a base template structure set in stone, premium BuddyPress themes are sparse. For the most part it explains the lack of (commercial) themes available for BuddyPress. The importance of ‘Premium Themes’ (the ones that you pay for) should not be underestimated and it was a huge part of the success of WordPress.

Some efforts have been made by bigger players in the theming business but these project have turned out to be troublesome. This is because of compatibility issues with BuddyPress itself. ThemeForest does not even except BuddyPress themes, just a ThemeGarden and practically all other theme shops. 3rd party plugins are based on the BP-Default template structure and this led to great difficulties in getting BuddyPress functional and compatible with other themes and frameworks.

Perhaps to summarize this issue, here’s a quote from Adii, founder of WooThemes that underlines the position:

‘Our opinion on BuddyPress is divided: whilst we think it is a great platform, we honestly do not see widespread use for it and think that the functionality & features is overkill for 99% of websites. Just because it’s nifty to have your own little social network, doesn’t mean that every website should have this…So our opinion before was that BuddyPress is thus a very niche market and as far as niches go on WooThemes, we’ve always been reluctant to over-commit our internal resources to these. 

We haven’t seen more requests for BuddyPress popping up since we introduced Canvas BuddyPress. This has generally been the case when we’ve introduced something new (like our tumblog themes, which has seen us release multiple popular themes since the first two themes in March 2010). ‘

Besides this, there is a complete lack of new themes being released in the repository. It has taken months before actual BuddyPress child themes were accepted in the Theme Repository due to features missing in the BP-Default theme. This meant that all BP-Default Child Themes were rejected, which in turn led to no new free themes being released for almost a year. In the end this was solved by some great people in the community, but this should have been something that would at least be addressed and handled by the WordPress Core team. It seems the core team let BuddyPress to the dogs.

Speaking of which, the actual BuddyPress site – BuddyPress.org – is like a quarantine zone. The community is completely fractured into several streams of communication, and it’s impossible to completely keep track of what is going on. After seeing the site for myself, I can safely say that the ‘support’ section was clunky, clustered and several pages seem to have zero content. It seemed like it wasn’t updated regularly and that is not a good sign. Using BuddyPress.org is like having 3 email accounts without any of them showing them if you have new messages. You visit the forums, browse to your profile and check your favorite threads RSS feeds. It’s a usability nightmare.

I think what this highlights, more than anything, is the issues with the community itself. Having a large community using your system is a success, but can also be a major problem. BuddyPress is designed for the community in mind, and if that community can sense something is wrong, it spreads like fire. The development team is small, but there are other contributors who provide support, but too few to get noticed by the larger community. As I said, the community can be restless. The development team need to be given more slack and recognition because this is not an easy job; that is a huge issue with the community currently not seeing all and some getting more light than others leading to some thinking ‘why bother.’

For the criticisms section, I used bowe’s article ‘The current state of BuddyPress: A critical analysis,’ which is featured here: http://bp-tricks.com/featured/the-current-state-of-buddypress-a-critical-anylyzis-of-the-project/

Tammie Lister provides a counter-argument. She appears to have had some input in BuddyPress, and even commented on bowe’s article. I don’t know if the problems were actually fixed, but I felt it would be useful to include this to give another side: ‘http://wprealm.com/blog/its-time-to-stop-kicking-the-buddypress-puppy/

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