by Brianna Laugher
The first time I put together a website for a local activist cause, it was almost an accident. At the end of 2007, the state government of Victoria (Australia) had quietly changed the law to ban bicycles from peak-hour train services. I found myself involved in a group of cyclists aiming to protest the unannounced change, under the moniker “Bin the bike ban”.
The media and political sides were well-handled by Chris Star and others from YarraBUG, a local bicycle user group. I particularly liked the action of dozens boarding a train with life-size cardboard cut-outs of bikes—perfectly acceptable, unlike an actual bike. For my part, I bought a domain, put together a WordPress instance, wrote a few blog entries documenting media coverage, did an occasional interview, and got busy making shitty logos and image banners in Inkscape.
This campaign had a happy ending, as its short life may suggest—the “back-pedal” came in February. Not only did the transport minister reverse the decision, but the campaign succeeded in putting pressure on the largely complacent state cycling group, which had been prepared to accept the change. Having our own web presence was a non-trivial ingredient to our success, in my view. To politicians and the media, it gave us a certain credibility. Our spokespersons generated plenty of local media, which collated together looked like a thorough and relentless attack. To cyclists who may have only heard about the changes by chance, it provided a central information point about how to join our actions. And it pleases me to no end that now, nearly eight years later, I can go back and re-live it all again.
If you’re a developer of the web persuasion, you might be thinking that this is a remarkably modest proposal–setting up a WordPress instance for someone else. In a technical sense, I’d agree. It’s so common as to be boring. The “modesty” is what makes it an attractive and sustainable action, to me—it’s low-maintenance. And even so, what of it? It gives someone a web presence, and for most people that is the point, and the power of it.
For the technically inclined, it’s easy for us to turn up our noses at WordPress. Even those of us who have enough scars to eschew the cutting edge will be able to think of stable non-PHP or non-WordPress alternatives. Maybe you’ve used them to set up your own blog. Maybe you’ve been intrigued by some new package and setting up a site for a friend seems like a great opportunity to investigate in detail. It probably would be super interesting, and you would probably learn a lot about an interesting new tool, but nonetheless I advise you to refrain. If you are volunteering your time and someone else is relying on you, do Future You a favor and stick to “popular and well-supported”. What is the Minimal Viable Volunteer Effort that you could do? Start there.
I unfortunately speak from experience here. In 2007, I was a university student with enough essays to procrastinate on and enough command-line fu to be dangerous. If not to anyone else, then to Future Me. Although I knew a little Python, back then Django was pre-1.0, and Python was very poorly supported on shared web hosting. It was PHP or bust, baby. I played around with WordPress, but fell in love with Textpattern, another CMS written in PHP. It was all “elegant” and “separation of concerns” in a way that WordPress was not. And hey, even back then, it was a David to WordPress’ Goliath. Who can resist an underdog?
The result was, for me, a Textpattern blog with three years’ of solid writing, but possibly the world’s ugliest theme featuring shades of brown and lime-green links (hand-crafted by yours truly, naturally). And since Textpattern theming is not a case of plug-and-play like WordPress, it will surely remain that way until the sun engulfs our planet or the Internet Archive is attacked by electromagnetic pulse theorists.
Worse than this self-imposed wound, is that I inflicted Textpattern on a friend when I set up a site for a project she was part of, called China Labor News Translations (CLNT). CLNT ran until 2012 but began as a mailing list, mainly for academics, of original “English translations of Chinese-language reports, commentaries and blogs on labor issues”. From March 2007, thanks to my help, it had a web home as well, which helped it gain a larger audience. We tried a few different things to have the mailing list integrated into the site so that new posts would automatically trigger an email to the list—in the end, an extension called Postmaster did the trick, but it needed things to be done in a rather precise manner.
In 2010 we changed the theme, and luckily I was not involved in the selection, as the new one still looks pleasant today. I am not enthusiastic about repeating the process. Theming aside, setting up CLNT meant many more regular intervals of tweaking and scouring forums and trial and error. Maintenance, in other words. The thousand paper-cuts that slowly damp your enthusiasm and make you feel bad when you deliberately ignore your friend’s message in your inbox. This is how I started to embrace “satisficing” over optimising, in my non-work tech.
I took this lesson to heart in the next website I set up for another friend in 2010, Workers Solidarity Network Melbourne. As anti-striking laws are put in place, a workers’ solidarity group helps support unions and workers in strikes and industrial disputes by showing up to strengthen pickets and the like. WSN Melbourne was “like an online toolkit” of posters and campaign resources. This site was in WordPress and in fact I never had any contact with anyone in the group besides my friend, which somewhat miffed her when they redesigned the site and made it (in her esteem) much uglier. My friend drifted out of the group and the group drifted out of activity, to the extent that they decided not to preserve the website and now exist only as a Facebook group. I took it as a good sign that they were able to make it their own without my intervention.
The next was even easier, Teachers & ES Alliance, a kind of more radical, informal subgroup of members of the national education union. Again, a WordPress site that has required no further input from me after the initial set-up in 2012.
Likewise, Jewell Station Garden in 2013 is a very simple WordPress affair. Guerrilla gardening involves turning a fallow abandoned or neglected space into a productive garden, for food or beauty. Some guerrilla gardens are ultimately recognised as community gardens, and what better way to encourage that than by claiming one’s space online just as in the street? My friend told me, “It will give us a presence to engage new members, a place to document our history, and authenticate us with government.”
So if I’ve convinced you by now that a sysadmin volunteer effort can be impactful but still sustainable, where to start? Charity begins at home, as they say. All the projects I have helped with are partly organized by friends, and most of them have a specific geographic focus. Which makes sense, as a group of friends or colleagues is ideal to get something started. But to spread a message, or invite others to join, a web presence is going to help.
I mentioned above that one group decided to use Facebook rather than their own site. Having a Facebook presence can be very useful, but I’d hesitate to rely on it alone. Firstly, it bears repeating, not everyone uses Facebook (search engines included). Secondly, the trend for businesses and other ‘page’ users is to pay to have your content actually appear in your followers’ news feeds. Thirdly, if you opt for a group instead, these often need to negotiate a tricky balance of discoverability for newcomers versus privacy for group members. I’ve seen groups for minority sexualities have one “closed” group for those not out, which is basically invisible and unfindable unless someone tells you about it, and a “public” one for those who are out—or not yet aware of these fine-grained effects. Having two sources of similar discussion hardly seems like an ideal UX.
Now to the nitty-gritty. If you’re a web-inclined person you might already have your own VPS (virtual private server) in which case you’re already sorted. If not, you have three options to consider: managed WordPress hosting, shared (web) hosting, or a VPS.
WordPress is free software, which is more or less synonymous with open source software. The latter term is used partly to avoid the “free as in freedom, not free as in beer” qualification required in English. But most “free as in freedom” software also happens to be “free as in beer”, which means you can put WordPress on your laptop without paying a thing. The downside to that is that only you will be able to reach it, unless you turn your laptop into a publicly-accessible server, which would be overkill. So you’ll need the services of a web host.
WordPress as in the free software is often referred to as wordpress.org, to contrast it with the hosting service offered at wordpress.com. WordPress.com offers free hosting—with restrictions. Two of the biggest are a limited number of themes and plugins to choose from, and the inclusion of advertisements. Themes cannot be tweaked at all. (Plugins add extra functionality, such as integration with other sites.) These limitations can be paid away by opting for the “Premium” plan at US$ or €99/year. WordPress.com is not the only “managed WordPress hosting” available but it’s the most well known.
However, I’d argue that it’s worth starting with shared hosting. The price difference between the Premium plan and your own shared hosting is minimal, and the latter gives you truly a whole new world of possibilities. It is often said that shared hosting is like apartment living—your experience can suffer if you have inconsiderate or super-popular neighbors. This analogy is usually made in service of encouraging people to pony up for a VPS (which I guess is akin to living in a detached house). But it’s worth remembering some people live in apartments their whole life without problems, and if you’re not starting a garage band (a super popular website) you’re probably going to be fine.
Shared hosting gives you the opportunity to run all kinds of web software, not just WordPress. Or instead, a dozen WordPresses. And it will almost certainly give you a Linux command-line to call your own, perhaps your first. I don’t use the command-line to do anything with WordPress, but I appreciate that it’s there for experimenting or just-in-case. A good shared hosting service will have a web interface (web panel or control panel) for doing tons of common activities, such as creating new users or domains or mail accounts, installing new web software or databases, or making back-ups. Choosing a hosting service that also lets you buy domains (a domain registrar) is handy. If you live outside the US, you might want to consider a hosting service that lets you buy domains with your country’s extension.
Sometimes it is necessary to change apartments, though. For this a judicious initial choice will help. Look for a service that has been around for at least a few years, has a reasonable reputation, and is popular. Choosing something popular is buying yourself an exit strategy. That exit strategy looks like blog posts called “How to switch from [shared hosting service] to [other shared hosting service/VPS hosting service]”. (These are hopefully not filled with tears of frustration.) A decent web host won’t chain your data down to force you to stay.
Finally a brief word about security. WordPress and security go hand in hand, usually in the form of “WordPress security issue” followed by “WordPress security release”. To avoid spending your life doing WordPress upgrades, look for a host that will do automatic upgrades of WordPress installs that were installed automatically (i.e. through the control panel). If you’re not heavily customizing your WordPress then you can expect this to be painless and lossless. It wouldn’t hurt to set up regular backups via your control panel as well.
Above all, make sure that each WordPress install is designated its own (Linux) user on your shared hosting, and that that user’s space is used for that WordPress install and nothing else. This is so that if your WordPress is hacked by a 0-day exploit, the damage will be limited. Unfortunately, this has happened, and is likely to happen again, given WordPress’s popularity. My only consolation is that you won’t be cleaning up alone, and that in my estimation it’s the better trade-off compared to choosing a less-well-known option.
It’s rewarding and rejuvenating to be part of groups that draw people together, or try and make the world a better place in some small way, without a profit motive. I am a beginner in their worlds of social theories and organizing as they often are in my world of settings and symbols. In an industry where it feels like you can be left behind in an instant, it’s nice to step outside and perform some simple magic for the delight and benefit of others.
Brianna Laugher is a software developer, free software enthusiast, geek feminist and occasional triathlete. She lives in Melbourne, Australia and is pretty sure intermittently failing tests constitute one of the nine circles of programming hell.