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Elgg CMS is an open, flexible social application engine, designed to run at the heart of any socially-aware application. Building on Elgg is easy, and because the engine handles common web application and social functionality for you, you can concentrate on developing your idea.
We recently had an opportunity to interview Ben Werdmuller, the co-founder of this exciting project and here’s what he had to say about it’s future and his thoughts on it’s success.
CC: Can you tell us a little about yourself and the Elgg CMS team?
BW: I’m a first-generation commercial web user; as a teenager, I developed an interest in the Internet and used NCSA Mosaic, and later Netscape, as they were first released. As soon as I could acquire webspace, I started putting together sites. I’ve been blogging in various forms for over ten years, and have always loved the social aspects of the web – although the term “social networking” has only been coined more recently, I was hanging out on newsgroups and using my address book as my buddy list for years.
I studied Computer Science at the University of Edinburgh, and after that found myself working there in learning technology, which is where I met David Tosh and co-founded Elgg.
We now work full-time on the software as part of a larger company, whose expertise includes high quality visual design and banking-grade back-end security. We’re lucky to have some incredibly talented people working with us.
CC: How did Elgg CMS come about?
BW: David Tosh was working at the University of Edinburgh doing a PhD on a particular aspect of e-learning, and as a developer at the learning technology department, I was placed in the same office with him.
Through the conversations we had there, we developed an idea for an open, extensible community system based on the kinds of software we had both been using. This evolved into a proof of concept that would build on the best bits of generic online communities but be geared for specific niches like education, business or the charity sector.
We initially put out a couple of white papers describing it, and the response was so immense that it became obvious: we had to build it. That’s what we’ve been doing ever since, and from there it’s evolved from a very personal project to being the centre of a thriving company.
CC: If you could have the ultimate Elgg CMS site running right now, what plugins would it use and what would it be about?
BW: There’s no one ultimate Elgg site that I’d have in mind. What excites me is the concept of the social cloud – a collection of Internet applications, some of which are Elgg-based, that can all talk to each other and operate as a bigger, functional whole.
For example, Elgg 1.0 allows you to easily create mobile versions of an application, for example for an iPhone or a Blackberry. For a while, I’ve wanted to create a social network for environmental biologists, so they can share species counts with each other all over the world and join forces more efficiently. Using Elgg, they could collect and share that information out in the field. However, why should that be one network? Why can’t each environmental organisation have their own, with their own set of features, and share the data between them?
We created a new format, the Open Data Definition, which allows for this kind of import/export and generic syndication together with open standards like OpenID and oAuth. Beyond the blogs, video players and so on, that’s the functionality that I think is really killer; users shouldn’t need to know how it works, but they should absolutely feel the benefit.
CC: We often hear of Elgg CMS being used in social networking type environments. What makes it a good choice for this and what other types of setups have been done with Elgg?
BW: Elgg is optimised for social networking, so that’s really where it’s used; upload it to your server and you instantly have a fully-functional social network. It allows you to keep track of friends and maintain profiles, and handles fine-grained access permissions out of the box – and also has very flexible options for extending its functionality. Elgg 1.0 also does things like produce automatic RSS feeds for plugin authors, so that it’s easier to create functionality that plays well with other applications. There’s even an extensible two-way REST-style API that works with JSON, XML and others. These kinds of things are still emerging in other areas, but are absolute requirements in the social space.
In terms of the kinds of sites and networks – we’ve got loads. For example, in education, the University of Brighton is running a social network across their whole campus using Elgg, and was the first university in the world to do so. UnLtdWorld, at unltdworld.com, uses Elgg to connect social entrepreneurs together. Rucku (rucku.com), meanwhile, is for rugby enthusiasts.
CC: What motivated you to choose opensource as opposed to being a commercial platform?
We believe strongly in open source. One group we talk to frequently is uniting charities in Colombia, allowing them to share resources and help people more efficiently. If Elgg had been a commercial solution, it’s unlikely that we would have seen those kinds of use cases.
We’re following the tried and tested open source business model. Although anyone can download the core and use it for free, we provide a complete set of commercial services and training surrounding it. We’ve built award-winning networks and will introduce more services in the near future. If you want to build a professional network, we should definitely be your first port of call.
CC: What can we expect from Elgg CMS in the future. Any major changes planned?
BW: Huge changes!
Elgg 1.0 has an entirely redesigned codebase that runs faster and more flexibly than any previous version, while pushing the envelope of what a social network can be. We feel that we’ve built the most flexible white label social networking product in the world, to the extent that it works very well as a social application engine; you can use Elgg as the core of any social application, whether it’s a web application, a mobile widget or a desktop title. It works with OpenID and OpenSocial, is extremely slick out of the box, and is incredibly fast to develop functionality for (creating a widget for the dashboard, for example, takes as little as three minutes). We’re very proud of it.
CC: If you could change one thing about your platform, what would it be and why?
BW: I could, and we did! Elgg 1.0 is completely rebuilt from the ground up in order to enhance performance and flexibility. The original codebase evolved in an organic way over a number of years, and we felt it was time to take all the great ideas and functionality, but pare it down into a slimline, very structured core.
CC: Are there ways interested people can contribute?
BW: Elgg is open source, and as I’ve mentioned, developing plugins for 1.0 is now incredibly easy. We’re always interested in core patches or interesting new plugins. It’s that kind of two-way interaction with the community that makes open source work.
CC: The realm of SEO is always a concern for developers and designers.. how does Elgg handle this?
BW: We’ve actually had complaints about the high quality of Elgg’s SEO! Someone will create a profile on an Elgg site somewhere and very often discover that that profile has risen to #1 on Google for their name. The links and interconnections in a social network are very effective.
Beyond that, Elgg lays out its pages in XHTML with a proper document structure and the capability for friendly URLs, so well-written crawlers will understand the priority of content on the page.
CC: What are your most popular plugins?
BW: I would say blogging, internal messaging, forums, and the photo gallery; the common DNA of a social network on today’s web.
CC: How active is your community?
BW: The Elgg community mainly consists of two groups: people who see the power of Elgg in itself and have created Elgg-powered sites for their fields, and people who use it as a starting point for further development (for example on sites like Snippr.de). Both are extremely proactive about contributing code and ideas – we’re very pleased with the interactionwe have.
CC: Any parting comments you’d like to make?
BW: The future of software lies, in part, in social functionality; you can think of websites like Facebook and Myspace as a sort of proof of concept. We’re going to see this creep into systems more and more, as a way for people to more accurately filter content and view the resources they want. We think the software we’ve built is a great way to make this happen, but beyond that, we’re committed to making sure it happens in the right way – open source, open standards, user control over data and data portability.
It’s been a kind of adventure, moving from some ideas passed back and forth in a corner office to a thriving business with an active community of business. There are some very exciting ideas in the pipeline, and I’m looking forward to seeing them realised.
CC: Thank you Ben, Elgg is a wonderful open source cms and we look forward to plenty more to come. All the best!