A lot of folks these days are starting to notice WordPress’s potential to be something way more interesting than a space for a single blog. WordPress has always provided a means to aggregate content via its built-in RSS widget, which will feed data in from remote sites into a sidebar. In addition, there are–and/or were–many really handy plugins that would enable this functionality in blog pages as well, and some of the more interesting work in this area is being done in academia where instructors are using WordPress sites to 1). establish a main presence for a course where 2). all the student’s work related to said course–everything from blogs posts or content from other social media services–is aggregated into sidebars AND pages, either in the form of links or individual blog posts that get republished. For a while now, two of the more popular plugins for this have been FeedWordPress for syndicating content into pages and BDP RSS Aggregator for feeding in content to sidebars (at least, I think). Unfortunately, the latter plugin has gone the way of the dodo, but some stalwarts of aggregation are still using it even though it’s not compatible with the latest build of WordPress.
I’d like to intentionally ping two people who have introduced me to the concept of the “courseblog,” Jim Groom and Gardner Campbell, both of whom have been doing this for quite a while at their own respective universities, and both of whom have advocated the use of the aforementioned plugins (guys, chime in as necessary). In doing my own research to more fully understand the mechanics behind this approach to aggregation, however, I’m realizing that WordPress is falling short in a very fundamental way. I’m wondering: If native support for RSS is built into sidebars, why not also for pages and posts? (A recent Google search on the subject tells part of the story, but more on that later). At first glance, the native behavior of the RSS widget performs comparably to what BDP RSS could do–but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it does more than just simple sidebar aggregation …
This conversation needs a little context, first. I’m coming at this from the perspective of a multisite admin. Since my early days of WordPressing in a multisite environment when “MU” was its own product, I learned very early on to observe certain cardinal rules to make my life easier:
- Eschew any and all plugins that duplicate a native functionality. Many good reasons to do this. For one, it keeps your installation more bug-free since plugins are often the culprit behind many WSOD (white screens of death). In the end, fewer plugins is better, IMHO.
- Always upgrade. Always. Always. This keeps you from getting hacked, but it’s way more problematic when you’re stuck using a plugin with deprecated code.
- If you must install a plugin, use those that have a loyal following, a committed developer, and provide something truly unique for the end user. Much easier said than done, but in this category, BuddyPress comes to mind.
- Don’t hack ANYTHING if you don’t have to. I’m very thrilled to see WP provide a good solution for hacking themes via the new child them approach, and so I wish there was something similar for plugins (is there?) or for the entire core of WordPress. But while it’s now easier to hack themes, the usual caveats apply for hacking anything else. You’ll lose it all anytime an update is pushed out, and besides: Most of us got into the WordPress business because we either weren’t programmers or didn’t have the time to program, so why hack if you don’t have to?
Of course, I wish it were that simple all the time. However, things occasionally arise to challenge this “one-size-fits-all” approach, and this concept of aggregation is one of those. As widespread as RSS technology is, and as popular as WordPress has become for its ability to be an aggregator, there is no native support for aggregating content into the body of a WordPress site or republishing remote content into WP pages or posts. Why not? Sure, there’s old ways to hack that behavior into a theme, but those approaches don’t necessarily work in a multisite scenario where, let’s say, I have many people who want their own unique theme AND a courseblog to go with it (sure, I could hack all my themes, but getting back to #4 above … ). I’m also finding that the most popular plugins for this are either going away or are broken in WP 3.x, so what’s a super admin to do?
This is really frustrating because I’ve seen what a really fleshed-out courseblog looks like. This kind of aggregation is really valuable, and it’s one thing that–at least, not without the use of a limited amount of robust plugins up to the task–WordPress can do well. But I’d like to challenge the WordPress folks to consider making that behavior native so folks can aggregate content 1). ANYWHERE on a WordPress site, not a just in a sidebar and 2). within the context of multisite environment without the admin having to do any hacking.
Looking at WordPress.com to learn how they handle this kind of aggregation, I learned that they don’t. This thread may help explain why. While it’s true that aggregating content requires a blog admin to be more vigilant against incoming spam, it shouldn’t be a reason to keep that technology from being implemented into core WordPress.