WordPress is one of the most widespread software solutions today for individuals and organizations to publish on the Web, especially if interaction with the public or multiple-contributor participation is desired. It is well-suited to advocacy sites because it is adapted to the Web 2.0 era of collaborative authoring and user involvement; it is also powerful, flexible, relatively easy to customize, and free. (This 4Humanities site runs on WordPress.)
WordPress is an open source system that has evolved from a blog platform (for which it continues to be frequently used) into a modern, general-purpose content management system (CMS). In a CMS, authors write content through Web forms into a database, which then outputs the content to the Web in organized, combined, filtered, or dynamic ways through a “template” or “theme” (essentially, a pre-designed mold of a Web page into which content from the database is pumped). Multiple authors, who can be assigned to different permission levels, can collaborate to create content. Readers are allowed to post comments (at the option of site administrators).
Thousands of pre-designed “themes” for WordPress are available. The typical WordPress theme produces a Web site with a header (with banner image), a sidebar for navigation, and a footer. The main content part of the page is devoted to posts. Posts can be assigned to one or more custom “categories.” For example, a post can appear not just on the home page but on a category page for any topic. In addition, “pages” can be created that function like static Web pages.
There are innumerable “plug-ins” for WordPress that can be downloaded and activated to extend the system. WordPress also implements “widgets”: in themes that are widget-ready, these allow for the intuitive addition of features to the navigation sidebar. For example, one can just drag a blogroll, tag cloud, calendar, or other widget from a theme’s repertory into the sidebar while working in site-administration view.
There are two main ways of creating a WordPress site:
- The easiest is to sign up at WordPress.com for a free account, choose a site name (which will end in “[your site name].wordpress.com”), choose a theme, and go from there.
- The other way is to create a local installation of the open-source WordPress software (downloadable from WordPress.org) on your own server (usually a server at your institution or organization, with your institution’s domain name). Required is a server running the LAMP suite that is the default open-source platform for Web 2.0. (LAMP is an acronym standing for the Linux operating system, Apache web server program, MySQL database program, and PHP scripting code). This option is more difficult to implement, and in reality you need a sysadmin or network administrator at your institution who can not only set up the initial installation but keep up with future upgrades and security patches. However, this option allows for much more powerful customization. While users of WordPress.com sites can customize mainly just the CSS (Cascading Style Sheet) file to tweak the look of particular HTML elements in a theme, users running local installations of WordPress (given sufficient knowledge of PHP, HTML, and CSS) can adapt both functionally and visually all the component PHP files that create a theme–e.g., the individual PHP files that create a site’s header, sidebar, individual post item, category page, etc. (4Humanities runs on a customized, local installation of WordPress.)
Other frequently used open-source content management systems include Drupal and Joomla (both more customizable than WordPress, but both also requiring a steeper learning curve and available only for local installation).