Social Publishing Systems to topple the CMS

You and I have a dirty little secret. Many of the Web applications that we call content management systems (Web CMS) are not really content management systems. Huh? A lot of this confusion stems from the difficulty most of us have in answering what should be a simple question, what is a content management system? Scott Abel, The Content Wranger, has noted in previous comments that one of the problems in discussions about content management is that we really lack a common definition of CMS.

The problem we have in defining a Web application as a CMS isn't because people haven't offered good definitions for how we should define today's Web CMS. For example, I especially value Dean Barker's interpretation of a CMS at Gadgetopia, What Makes a Content Management System? On the contrary, the challenge for many of us is that what we know in theory is a CMS isn't really what is currently put into practice. The latest generation of Web applications that we are still calling Web CMS simply have moved beyond the scope of content management and into social publishing.

Something more than a CMS

What do you call a Web application capable of publishing and managing not only content, but is an application that also manages wikis, social networking, documents, forums, photos, and blogs? Some people will tell you these diverse features are best described under such terms as social software, Web 2.0, social networking, and Enterprise 2.0. While these terms may help create a lot of buzz, I have some difficulty in using these terms to describe the information system model being used by the applications. If you think the definition of a CMS can be a fuzzy or limiting term, wait until you start using the term "social software" in a business setting. Personally, I don't think my boss is in the mood to deal with such vague terms.

Jeff Whatcott, Acquia, who was originally promoting dropping the term CMS in Drupal's description, apparently realized that just saying "social software" alone wasn't the best choice either for marketing his favorite CMS. In the end, Whatcott moved the discussion to a higher level by finally helping to identify the information system Web applications such as Drupal should really fall under, a social publishing system.

What is a Social Publishing System?

Whatcott describes social publishing as a blend of three categories:

  1. Web Content Management
  2. Social Software (blogs, wikis, social networking platforms, forums, etc.)
  3. Web application frameworks

Whatcott further defines the the information system for social publishing:

A social publishing system combines the above into a cohesive set of technology for assembling a web site that provides structure for people to express ideas and engage each other in proven patterns. Just a few of the patterns I see today are:

  1. Wiki pattern: several people jointly editing a document or group of documents
  2. Forum pattern: a structured discussion about an idea or document
  3. Blog pattern: a person publishing personal opinions and observations on a regular basis
  4. Article pattern: a writer and editor moving an article or story through an approval chain
  5. Custom content pattern: a custom content type like an event, a press release, a conference session, etc that is created and published.
  6. Social networking pattern: people publishing personal profiles, creating and maintaining their digital social graph, and interacting within their network

Things like RSS, tagging, comments, rating, voting, search, and input formats/editors permeate all of these patterns and need to be built in to the architecture. And user management, roles, and access control underly the entire system.

The genius of describing the features in a social publishing system as "patterns" is that it also allows flexibility for additional features that are found necessary for social publishing. For example, two additional patterns that I have suggested to be quickly added to the list is a document management pattern and media management (images, videos, music). Whatcott has replied and expanded his own thought to my suggestion even further.

The impact of Social Publishing on the Web CMS

Obviously the need for content management and the usage of the term, "content management system" isn't going away. There is just too much history and convenience to let the CMS slip from our vocabulary. However, if you believe Whatcott is correct in his model for the social publishing system, you have to also acknowledge that changes are about to take place in the entire Web application arena. While I can't be certain that social publishing will eventually be the most dominate information system on the Web, my gut tell me it will be so.

The following are four significant impacts I believe social publishing will have on the CMS market.

  1. Content management systems will become a niche application. Over the past couple years, I have loosely defined forum applications (SMF, phpBB), wiki applications (mediaWiki), and blogging applications (WordPress) as niche or subsystems of the Web CMS. Under Whatcott's model, content management now becomes a pattern or subsystem of the SPS.
  2. The best Web CMS of today will need to evolve into social publishing systems to survive. It's not just Drupal that is repositioning its focus on social publishing! Have you also taken a look at what SharePoint and Wordpress are doing lately?
  3. The rise of SPS will hasten the consolidation of CMS products in both open source and propriety markets. See Dries Buytaert's bold statements under the header, Market predictions for 2008. Buytaert discusses the big three CMS that he sees surviving and those that will struggle under consolidation (I would shuffle the list a little).
  4. Social publishing systems will be designed for more than just the desktop browser. What good is social software, if the system isn't also accessible on your PDA or SmartPhone? Hasn't Apple's iPhone shown us that people want to do more than just voice and text messaging on their phone?

If you really think about it, the purpose of the Internet was not to manage content. Instead the Internet's purpose was to exchange information, whether this is from computer to computers or person to people. In other words, content management systems really only meet a part of our needs for why we use the Internet. The social publishing model, with the scope and agility it is designed for, seems to be ready to do what the content management system was never designed to do. I think social publishing is here to stay and all that needs to be done is to spread the word.