As I've been blogging about recently, I've been building a Drupal-based website for my son's school's Parent Advisory Council (PAC). As a geek, the technical nature of putting together a content management system like Drupal for a site is interesting, and I learned a lot. However, what really interested me is the social aspect of it.
You can't have a business it seems without having a website. That must mean there's value for a business to have a website. But is there value for a grassroots group to have one? If technology truly is neutral, then grassroots groups must be able to benefit from websites. (I'm not sure technology is inherently neutral, but that's another topic.)
When we started, the PAC has a static HTML website updated infrequently by a parent who knew some HTML and how to FTP files to his server. It was out-of-date, since the parent's children had moved on to high school and he was obviously not so active in the PAC. Members of the PAC did want some place to post meeting dates and minutes, and to publicize their activities, so I offered to help out.
We set up a committee with four members. I built a test site under my company's site (jadesystems.ca) and we started to work.
Right from the start a few people really took to it and started to use it in ways that I couldn't keep up with. This included translation into Chinese, especially after I enabled the translation modules in Drupal.
I also set myself up to do screencasts, and posted a number of them. It's still early, but I've got some feedback from people that they find them very useful. For grassroots groups, where you don't site face to face with people every day, I think screencasts are going to prove to be an excellent tool.
I think the main lesson I've learned so far is this: I like Drupal and it's allowed me to do a lot. However, I can't help feeling that I'm writing in assembly language for content management. What I mean is that I've had to learn too much about how the system works to get it to do what I want. We're still a long way from grassroots groups being able to set up a website without someone with technical skills.
My dream would be something analagous to blogging. You simply go to a website and create your own community site. The task is inherently more complicated than setting up a blog, so it will never be as simple, but the skill set should be relatively similar. You should be able to pick and choose based on functions the user wants (e.g. a list of upcoming events), not functions based on how the programmer delivers them (e.g. a Views module with an obtuse and fragile configuration screen that lets you cobble together a list of upcoming events if you bang your head on it long enough).
More on this later.