Jailbreaking WordPress with Web hooks

As is often the case, I struggle at first glance to see the full implications of a new development in technology, which is why I so often rely on others to kick me up the arse before I get it.1

Where I ramble about WordPress as a learning tool for the web…

I first read about web hooks while looking at WordPress, XMPP and FriendFeed’s SUP and then again when writing about PubSubHubbub. Since then, Dave Winer’s RSSCloud has come along, too, so there’s now plenty of healthy competition in the world of real time web and WordPress is, predictably, a mainstream testing ground for all of it. Before I go on to clarify my understanding of the implications of web hooks+WordPress, I should note that my main interest here is not web hooks nor specifically the real time web, which is interesting but realistically, not something I’m going to pursue with fervour. My main interest is that WordPress is an interesting and opportunistic technology platform for users, administrators and developers, alike. Whoever you are, if you want to understand how the web works and how innovations become mainstream, WordPress provides a decent space for exercising that interest. I find it increasingly irritating to explain WordPress in terms of ‘blogging’. I’ve very little interest in WordPress as a blog. I tend to treat WordPress as I did Linux, ten years ago. Learning about GNU/Linux is a fascinating, addictive and engaging way to learn about Operating Systems and the role of server technology in the world we live in. Similarly, I have found that learning about WordPress and, perhaps more significantly, the ecosystem of plugins and themes2 is instructive in learning about the technologies of the web. I encourage anyone with an interest, to sign up to a cheap shared host such as Dreamhost, and use their one-click WordPress offering to set up your playground for learning about the web. The cost of a domain name and self-hosting WordPress need not exceed $9 or £7/month.3

… and back to web hooks

Within about 15 minutes of Tony tweeting about HookPress, I had watched the video, installed the plugin and sent a realtime tweet using web hooks from WordPress.

It’s pretty easy to get to grips with and if a repository of web hook scripts develops, even the non-programmers like me could make greater use of what web hooks offer.

Web hooks are user-defined callbacks over HTTP. They’re intended to, in a sense, “jailbreak” our web applications to become more extensible, customizable, and ultimately more useful. Conceptually, web applications only have a request-based “input” mechanism: web APIs. They lack an event-based output mechanism, and this is the role of web hooks. People talk about Unix pipes for the web, but they forget: pipes are based on standard input and standard output. Feeds are not a sufficient form of output for this, which is partly why Yahoo Pipes was not the game changer some people expected. Instead, we need adoption of a simple, real-time, event-driven mechanism, and web hooks seem to be the answer. Web hooks are bringing a new level of event-based programming to the web.

I think the use of the term ‘jailbreak’ is useful in understanding what HookPress brings to the WordPress ecosystem. WordPress is an application written in PHP and if you wish to develop a plugin or theme for WordPress you are required to use the PHP programming language. No bad thing but the HookPress plugin ‘jailbreaks’ the requirement to work with WordPress in PHP by turning WordPress’ hooks (‘actions’ and ‘filters’) into web hooks.

WordPress actions and filters, are basically inbuilt features that allow developers to ‘hook’ into WordPress with their plugins and themes. Here’s the official definition:

Hooks are provided by WordPress to allow your plugin to ‘hook into’ the rest of WordPress; that is, to call functions in your plugin at specific times, and thereby set your plugin in motion. There are two kinds of hooks:

  1. Actions: Actions are the hooks that the WordPress core launches at specific points during execution, or when specific events occur. Your plugin can specify that one or more of its PHP functions are executed at these points, using the Action API.
  2. Filters: Filters are the hooks that WordPress launches to modify text of various types before adding it to the database or sending it to the browser screen. Your plugin can specify that one or more of its PHP functions is executed to modify specific types of text at these times, using the Filter API.

So, if I understand all this correctly, what HookPress does is turn WordPress hooks into web hooks which post the output of the executed actions or filters to scripts written in other languages such as Python, Perl, Ruby and Javascript (they can be written in PHP, too) hosted elsewhere on the web.   In the example given in the HookPress video, the WordPress output of the action, ‘publish_post‘, along with two variables ‘post_title’ and ‘post_url’, was posted to a script hosted on scriptlets.org,  which performs the event of sending a tweet which includes the title and URL of the WordPress post that has just been published. All this happens as fast as the component parts of the web allows, i.e. in ‘real time’.

In other words, what is happening is that WordPress is posting data to a URL, where lies a script, which takes that data and creates an event which notifies another application. Because the scripts can be hosted elsewhere, on large cloud platforms such as Google’s AppEngine, the burden of processing events can be passed off to somewhere else. I see now, why web hooks are likened to Unix pipes, in that the “output of each process feeds directly as input to the next one” and so on. In the case of HookPress, the output of the ‘publish_post’ hook feeds directly as input to the scriptlet and the output of that feeds directly as input to the Twitter API which outputs to the twitter client.

Besides creating notifications from WordPress actions, the other thing that HookPress does (still with me on this ‘learning journey’ ??? I’ve been reading, writing and revising this blog post for hours now…), is extend the functionality of WordPress through the use of WordPress filters. Remember that filters in WordPress, modify text before sending it to the database and/or displaying it on your computer screen. The example in the video, shows the web hook simply reversing the text before it is rendered on the screen. ‘This is a test’ becomes ‘tset a si sihT’.

The output of the ‘the_content‘ filter has been posted to the web hook, which has reversed the order of the blog post content and returned it back to WordPress which renders the modified blog post.

Whereas the action web hooks are about providing event-driven notifications, the filter web hooks allow developers to extend the functionality of WordPress itself in PHP and other scripting languages.  In both cases, web hooks ‘jailbreak’ WordPress by turning it into a single process in a series of piped processes where web hooks create, modify and distribute data.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this presentation, which is all about web hooks.

In the presentation, there are two quotes which I found useful. One from Wikipedia which kind of summarises what HookPress is doing to WordPress:

“In computer programming, hooking is a technique used to alter or augment the behaviour of [a programme], often without having access to its source code.”

and another from Marc Prensky, which relates back to my point about using WordPress as a way to learn about web technologies in a broader sense. WordPress+HookPress is where programming for WordPress leaves the back room:

As programming becomes more important, it will leave the back room and become a key skill and attribute of our top intellectual and social classes, just as reading and writing did in the past.

  1. I am not ashamed to admit that I’m finding that my career is increasingly influenced by following the observations of Tony Hirst. Some people are so-called ‘thought-leaders’. I am not one of them and that is fine by me. I was talking to Richard Davis about this recently and, in mutual agreement, he quoted Mario Vargas Llosa, who wrote: “There are men whose only mission is to serve as intermediaries to others; one crosses them like bridges, and one goes further.” That’ll do me. []
  2. Note that themes are not necessarily a superficial makeover of a WordPress site. Like plugins, they have access to a rich and extensible set of functions. []
  3. I am thinking of taking the idea of WordPress as a window on web technology further and am tentatively planning on designing such a course with online journalism lecturer, Bernie Russell. It would be a boot camp for professional journalists wanting (needing…?) to understand the web as a public space and we would start with and keep returning to WordPress as a mainstream expression of various web technologies and standards. []

Scholarly publishing with WordPress

Working on the JISCPress project, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about scholarly publishing on the web, and in particular with WordPress. This morning, I read a post over on the ArchivePress blog about some WordPress plugins which are useful additions for creating a scholarly blog and it got me thinking a bit more about what features WordPress would need to support scholarly publishing.

JISCPress does away with the idea that WordPress is a blogging tool, and instead uses WordPress Multi-User as a document publishing platform, where one site or ‘blog’ is a document. The way WPMU is structured means that despite serving multiple (potentially millions) of document sites, the platform remains relatively ‘lightweight’ as each document site generates just a handful of additional database tables, while sharing the same administrative core as a single WordPress install. So, 100 WordPress blogs on WPMU is nothing like the equivalent of running 100 separate WordPress blogs, both from the point of resource requirements and administration. In fact, quite soon, there will be no such thing as WPMU as the two products are going to be merged and because they share 90%+ of the same code already, it’s not too difficult to achieve.1

Anyway, my point here is to discuss whether WordPress can be extended to accommodate most conventions found in scholarly publishing and where it is lacking, to identify the development work required to meet the needs of most academic who wish to write on and publish to the web.2

Scholarly publishing extends to a wide variety of published outputs. As a Content Management System (CMS) and technology development platform, I believe that WordPress has the potential to support any type of scholarly publishing that the web supports. It is extremely extensible, as can be seen from the 6000+ plugins that are available. However, what I’m interested in is what can be done now, by an academic wishing to publish their work through the use of WordPress acting as a CMS. What can be achieved with a few quid3 to self-host WordPress so that a few plugins can be installed and a well structured, typical, scholarly paper can be published.

My Dissertation

For some time, I’ve been meaning to publish my MA dissertation. Back in 2002, I undertook some unique research which has not, to my knowledge, been repeated and I think there is some value in having it easily accessible on the web. I have an OpenOffice file and a PDF and, in the course of a morning, have published it under my own domain. The reason I did not publish it on the university WPMU platform is because I have been experimenting with different plugins and did not want to install plugins that were untested or we may not support long-term.  In this case, I’ve used a single WordPress installation, but ideally an individual researcher, group of researchers or research institution, would run a WPMU installation which allowed multiple documents to be authored individually or collaboratively4 and published directly to the web as XHTML.

BuddyPress, by the way, can make the experience even more natural, not only because it is based around a community of like-minded people writing together  on the same web publishing platform, but also because, with a few tweaks here and there, we can move away from the language of blogs and towards the language of documents.


BuddyPress admin bar

Profile menu

Enough of BuddyPress on WPMU for now and back to my dissertation. I set up the site in ten minutes, without using FTP or a command line because I use a host that provides a one-click install of WordPress and WordPress allows you to search for and install plugins from its Dashboard, rather than having to use FTP. Once the site was installed, I then  made some basic changes to the settings, turning on XML-RPC and AtomPub, so that, if I decided to, I could publish to the site using my Word Processor.5 I didn’t use this in the end, but trust me, it works very well using recent versions of MS Word, Open Office (free) and other blogging clients such as MS Live Writer (free).

So, what are the common characteristics of an academic paper? What does WordPress have to support to provide functionality that meets most scholars’ publishing requirements? I scratched my head (and asked on Twitter) and came up with the following:

  • footnotes/endnotes
  • citations
  • use of LaTeX (sciences)
  • tables
  • images
  • bibliography
  • sub-headings
  • annexes
  • appendices
  • dedication
  • abstract
  • table of contents
  • index to figures
  • introduction
  • exposition
  • conclusion

Many of these are supported in WordPress by default and don’t require any additional plugins (tables, images, sub-headings, annexes, appendices, dedication, abstract, introduction, exposition, conclusion, are all either basic literary conventions or just part of a simply structured document).

For additional support, I installed digress.it, which we have funded through the JISCPress project. This is a WordPress plugin which allows readers to comment on the paragraphs of a document, rather than at the document section level. We’re adding a lot more functionality to meet the objectives of the JISCPress project, but I chose digress.it, principally for the reason that it is designed to turn a WordPress blog into a document site. I could have used any other WordPress theme, but digress.it automatically creates a Table of Contents and allows you to re-order WordPress posts when they are read so that you don’t have to author your document in reverse or adjust the publication dates so the document sections appear in the correct order.

My dissertaion published using digress.it

My dissertation published using digress.it

I added the abstract for my dissertation to the ‘about’ page, so it shows up on the front of the site. I also uploaded a PDF version so that people can download it directly. You’ll see that I also added some links to a related book and DVD, which will certainly appeal to people who are interested in my dissertation. The links pull an image and some basic metadata from Amazon, using the Amazon Machine Tags plugin. This could be used to link to the book in which your article is published and earn you money in click referrals. An alternative, would be the Open Book Book Data plugin, which retrieves a book cover and metadata from Open Library, where your book may already be catalogued. If it’s not on Open Library, catalogue it!

After setting this up, I installed a few more plugins:

Dublin Core for WordPress: Automatically adds ten Dublin Core metadata elements to the document mark up.

wp-footnotes: This allows you to easily add footnotes to your document by enclosing your footnote in double parentheses.6

OAI-ORE Resource Map: Automatically marks up the document sections with a OAI-ORE 1.0 resource map.

Google Analyticator: Adds Google Analytics support so you can collect statistics on the readership of your document.

WP Calais Archive Tagger: Analyses your entire document and automatically keywords each section, using the Open Calais API.

Search API: WordPress comes with search built in, but there is a new search API which will eventually make its way into the WordPress core. I’ve installed the plugin to provide full-text search across the document. It can also add Google Search to your document site.

wp-super-cache: This is simple to install and will significantly speed up your document site, making it a pleasure to navigate through and read :-)

Plugins I didn’t use

wp-latex: Although I didn’t need it for my dissertation, it’s worth noting that WordPress supports the use of [latex]\LaTeX[/latex].

Academic Citation: You need to add a line of code to your theme for this to display. It supports the concept of an article being a single blog post, rather than a ‘document site’ and displays a variety of citation formats for readers to use.

Do you know of any other plugins for a scholarly blog?

The Beauty of Feeds

The other useful thing about managing a document using WordPress and in particular, using digress.it, is that you automatically get RSS/Atom feeds for the document. I’ve already discussed these in detail. It means that I was able to read my document in my feed reader, with footnotes and images displayed correctly.

Document in Google Reader

See how nicely the formatting is preserved. [latex]\LaTeX[/latex] is also rendered correctly in feed readers.

Document formatted nicely in Google Reader

Reading my dissertation in Google Reader

You’ll see that the document sections are listed in order; that is, first section on top. As I noted above, blogs list posts in reverse (most recent first), so I sorted the feed items in Yahoo Pipes and sorted it in ascending order. Yahoo Pipes exports as RSS and it’s that feed that I subscribed to in Google Reader. Wouldn’t it be nice, if I could import my document feed into an Institutional Repository? Wait a minute, I can! :-)

Importing an RSS feed into EPrints

Click to see the item in the repository

Click to see the item in the repository

When importing the default feed, the HTML output is accurate but in reverse order, while the RSS output from Yahoo Pipes didn’t import into EPrints very cleanly at all. I’ll work on this. UPDATE: Forget Yahoo Pipes. WordPress feeds can be sorted with a switch added to the URL: http://example.com/feed/?orderby=post_date&order=ASC

So there it is. An academic paper, published to the web using a modern CMS which supports most authoring and publishing requirements. I would favour an institutional WPMU platform for academics to author directly to, publish their pre-print to the web for open access and detailed comment, and import their RSS feed into the repository. As a proof of concept, I’m quite pleased with this. We are currently developing a widget that can be embedded in a web page or WordPress sidebar and allow a member of staff to upload a document or zipped folder of documents to the Institutional Repository. I wonder if we can also support the import of a feed from the widget, too?

So, what would your requirements be? Tell me and I’ll do my best to test WordPress against them.

  1. Has anyone done a diff on the two code bases to measure exactly what percentage of the code is shared between WP and WPMU? []
  2. Actually, I think I’ll save the discussion of its shortfalls for my next post. This one is already long enough. []
  3. I pay $5/year for my domain name and as many sub-domains as I need. I pay $10/month for my hosting with unlimited storage and bandwidth. []
  4. Like any decent CMS, WordPress supports role-based authoring and editing and maintains a revision history of edits, auto-saved once per minute. Revisions can be compared alongside of each other. []
  5. On a scholarly WPMU installation, plugins could be pre-installed and activated, a default theme selected and settings tweaked so very little work is required by the academic author prior to writing her document. []
  6. I am using the plugin on this blog! []

My revised ALT-C proposal

I’ve just re-submitted this proposal for a demonstration at ALT-C 2009. It’s called WordPress Multi-User: BuddyPress and Beyond. It won’t be confirmed until June, but for the record, here it is…

‘BuddyPress’ is a new social networking layer for WordPress Multi-User blogs. It provides familiar, easy to use social networking features in addition to a high-quality and popular blogging platform. The University of Lincoln have been trialing WordPress MU since May 2008 and have been using BuddyPress since February 2009 to promote an institutional social networking community built around personalised and collaborative web publishing.

This session will demonstrate the versatility of the WordPress MU platform. We’ll look at an installation that is enhanced with BuddyPress, LDAP authentication, mobile phone support and advanced privacy controls. You’ll see how simple it is to set up site-wide RSS syndication and aggregation, enhance your blog with semantic web tools, publish mathematical formulae with LaTeX, send realtime notifications to Facebook, Twitter and IM, publish podcasts to iTunes, and embed GPX and KML mapping files. We’ll also look at how to embed WordPress content in your VLE and other institutional websites. The use of a temporary ‘ALT-C 2009 BuddyPress’ installation will be encouraged.

There will be opportunities throughout for questions and answers and participants will leave with a good understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of WordPress and the resources and skills required to provide a social networking and blogging platform in your institution.

Realtime WordPress updates to FriendFeed (and therefore to XMPP)

Quickly following on from my previous post about realtime XMPP updates from wordpress.com:

For self-hosted WordPress blogs, there’s the Jabber Feed plugin, which promises something similar but is going to take me a while to set up. For something quick and simple, there’s the wp-sup plugin which “implements FriendFeed’s Simple Update Protocol. Your blog posts will appear on FriendFeed near-instantly after they are published.”

And indeed, they do. Even better, you can receive FriendFeed notifications via Google Talk/XMPP/Jabber, achieving pretty much what wordpress.com are offering via their IM bot.

FriendFeed is a decent social lifestreaming and messaging platform. There’s an iPhone interface, a FaceBook app; it allows for a little more engagement than Twitter with the ability to ‘like’ content and comment extensively (with no 140 character limit). I can see it being quite useful to aggregate and discuss course work. You can have private groups, too.

I’ve been trying to ‘hack’1 the plugin to also work for comments, but it’s beyond me. I’ve submitted an issue to the plugin’s Google Code site and, if it’s possible, maybe it will be possible in a future version.

Hoorah for the realtime web!

  1. I use the term ‘hack’ loosely. ‘Botch’ might be a better way of describing my approach to code. []

Developing BuddyPress for education

In February, I wrote a brief post about setting up BuddyPress with LDAP authentication within a university context (you’re looking at it). Four days ago, BuddyPress reached maturity by hitting version 1.0, marking a time to reflect on what I’d like to see developed for BuddyPress for use within a university context. This is an initial wish list. I’m not looking for BuddyPress to be an all singing, all dancing, social network. I don’t care about image collections and status updates (Flickr and Twitter do those jobs nicely) I would, however, like to see it being used for building group identity (projects, special interest groups, classes, courses) and portfolio/resume building. Right now, it’s pretty limited in those areas.

Privacy controls

As I mentioned previously, our social network is private, while the blogs have five levels of optional privacy controls, ranging from public and indexed by Google, to private, single-user blogs. However, privacy within the social network is currently all or nothing. It’s a hack that works but has no flexibility. The BuddyPress activity plugin is currently turned off because the privacy plugin I use, doesn’t account for the feeds that the plugin exposes. It would be nice to be able to have the site-wide social activity visible when logged in. Currently, only information about new blog posts is published site-wide. What I would like is for everything that the activity plugin logs, to have site admin options to be 1) visible to non-logged in users/public; 2) visible to logged in users; 3) visible to my groups and friends,4)  visible to my friends and 5) not visible. In addition, the feeds that are exposed of site-wide activity and member activity, could also be configurable so that 1) a site admin can choose to expose them or not; 2) if allowed, a member can choose to expose their personal feed or not; 3) a feed key could be used in place of the normal feed URI so that private member feeds could be created. Finally, groups and member profiles could optionally be made public or private. So anything following /groups/ or /members/ has an option to be visible outside the community.

Group activity

Currently, groups don’t publish very much information and you can’t aggregate information from elsewhere into a group profile. I submitted a ‘wishlist’ ticket to BuddyPress for group activity feeds, requesting that feeds for when a new group member joins and changes to the group wire. It would also be nice to be able to aggregate content from other sites via RSS into the group ‘news’ field, or a new lifestream-like field so group photos or videos or whatever, could be sucked in. It was possible to do this via a Yahoo! Pipe which combined various feeds which could then be put through feed2js and dropped into the ‘News’ field. However, embedded javascript is now intentionally blocked :-( I guess I could find a work-around.

Member profiles

For both teachers and students, the profile pages could be effective resumes. Currently, the site-admin can build basic grouped fields and there’s a choice of field types, too. I’d like members to be able to build their own fields and for there to be pre-built field types to choose from. It’s possible for the site admin to pre-build fields and probably easy enough for me to pre-build specific fields to design a resume (the examples given of language, country and state are just .csv lists). However, currently, if I provide three ‘Employment’ fields, a member can’t add a fourth ‘Employment’ field, nor can they select dates to correspond to when that employment was. I’m pretty sure I could create the fields, but it’s beyond me to allow a member to build their own profile pages from a selection of pre-built fields.

Finally, in addition to my request for members to be able to make their profiles public, I’d like the member profile to be marked up with hResume markup and exportable in a variety of styled formats: xhtml+css, xml, pdf, txt, doc and rtf.

The entire member profile should use microformat markup where possible. Currently, the profile can export a simple, personal hCard but could also use hCard for company and school addresses, hCalendar for dates, and rel=”tag” for creating a set of tagged skills. LinkedIn partially implements this, by the way.

So, privacy controls, group feeds and a resume builder. Not too much to ask is it? I’d probably be able to pay for the resume builder if anyone is interested…

A few notes on data portability

I had a bit of fun over the weekend looking at how I could both aggregate my online presence and make it portable, all under my own domain name. I ended up touching on a bunch of interesting initiatives revolving around web and data standards. The minor output of this is over on my personal ‘home page’ at http://josswinn.org

You’ll see that there’s an Attention Profile (APML), Friend of a Friend document (FOAF), hCard generated from my contact details, an OPML file of the significant feeds I have spotted around the web (Delicious, this blog, Twitter, Last.fm, etc), an aggregated feed of my OPML file, and a link to my LinkedIn profile, which I happily learned includes hResume microformat markup. My OPML, FOAF profile and RSS feed are all auto-discoverable.

All links on the page are marked up using the XFN markup rel=”me” tag, which should help consolidated my identity on the web. There’s an interesting discussion over on Marshall Kirkpatrick’s blog about how our Twitter profiles are starting to rank higher in search engines than our personal blogs or home pages because Twitter is using the rel=”me” tag. Marshall suggests that we start using rel=”me” somewhere on our own sites to counteract that.

To add to the fun, I also tried to get the page to validate as HTML5, but in doing so, I had to remove the meta tag that provides OpenID Attribute Exchange via my OpenID Service Provider. I get the error:

Bad value X-XRDS-Location for attribute http-equiv on element meta.

Apparently the draft HTML5 spec currently disallows values for http-equiv. OpenID AX is a good thing if you want to consolidate your identity while at the same time ensure it is portable. It’s certainly more useful to me than validating as HTML5.

In addition to this, I added a Google Friend Connect (OpenSocial) widget and integrated Apture. I thought about adding the ability to leave comments via Disqus, the advantage being that comment authors could retain control over their own comments. But to be honest, I don’t think you or I need yet another method of communicating with each other. There are plenty of ways to do that already.

Other than providing a playground for fun, what this bit of tinkering on my home page has taught me is that microformats and the ethos of data portability is being embraced quite widely on the web and although I spent my time hand-crafting my new home page, there are opportunities to do much the same, quite easily, through the use of a WordPress blog and a bunch of third-party services. More on that later…

OAuth, OpenID, XMPP with WordPress

Automattic, the company behind WordPress, released an update to Prologue, their theme for group discussion, today. I read about this, minutes after reading about the new OAuth features in WordPress 2.8 and an hour or so after reading about a new Facebook Connect plugin for BuddyPress, the social networking layer for WordPress. All this stimulation proved a bit too much for me, so this post is an attempt to plot what’s happening here and what might be possible in just a few months from now…

So, I have the BuddyPress Facebook Connect plugin working on a my test installation…

BuddyPress Facebook Connect

Nothing fancy going on there. Basically, new users to the site can register using their Facebook credentials. The plugin doesn’t do anything for existing users on the site. They just login with their local account as usual. For a first release, the plugin is a good proof of concept and with a bit more integration work will make it easy for Facebook users to join BuddyPress sites.

The new Prologue theme, P2, is impressive, too…

P2 on wordpress.com

It takes advantage of the new threaded comments feature in WordPress 2.7+ , has ‘realtime’ notifications (unless I’ve missed something, the use of the term ‘realtime’ is a stretch – see below) and has some nice keyboard shortcuts…

Keyboard shortcuts

One thing that’s lacking is a Twitter-like realtime notification that a new post has been made and you should refresh your bowser. Twitter doesn’t use it for the user home page, but they do on their search page and I like it.

Twitter notifications

Moving on, OAuth functionality for WordPress is still in development but the latest code from the SVN trunks of both the DiSo plugin and WordPress does appear to work…

OAuth options

Be warned that it does not run on a server where PHP runs as a CGI. I tried to run it first on Dreamhost, but it gave an error showing that getallheaders() is an undefined function.

I need to spend more time with the OAuth plugin to see how it will actually work in practice. One of the first use-cases for it is to allow client applications like the iPhone app, to be able to post remotely without sending a password using XML-RPC. If anyone has any ideas and wants to test it with me, please leave a comment. As I understand from the announcement, it’s working but it’s still early days… For more information, see Will Norris’ presentation from last August.

Finally, there’s mnw, a new plugin for WordPress that provides support for the OpenMicroBlogging specification. With this, users from other sites using the specification, such as identi.ca and other Laconica-based services, can subscribe to your blog/omb site and receive updates whenever you publish a new post or page. So this…

WP OMB…ends up here…

WP posts on identica

mnw is still a bit rough around the edges but it was only released as V0.1 a month ago, so that’s to be expected. Note that mnw only seems to work on single WP installations (WPMU produces a familiar error message which I think is wp_nonce related) and does not work on WP 2.8 trunk. Also, identi.ca complained of my avatar image being the wrong size. In the example above, I’d removed my avatar from the mnw settings, but I’ve since found that a .png of 96px seems to work OK.

What does it mean for me and you?

So, what does all this mean? In terms of wordpress.com, we might speculate that before too long, they will add the BuddyPress layer to their 4.5m blogs to create a sizeable social network. The P2 theme shows posts in realtime, they’re already offering an XMPP firehose of blog posts and there are plugins that offer XMPP functionality for WordPress, so remote real-time updates aren’t far away and realtime remote publishing already exist using XML-RPC. With the P2 theme, anyone can create a Twitter-like site that any number of registered users can post to and anyone can comment on. Add OpenID authentication and OAuth authorisation and you’ve got a large, mature and open social (micro)blogging service.

For self-hosted WordPress users, it’s even closer to being a reality. I’ve had a site running today that accepts new user registrations via the DiSo OpenID plugin and those users can then post updates to the Prologue themed site and join a threaded group discussion. If I enabled XML-RPC posting, users could post in ‘realtime’ to the group site from their iPhone or other other client app. With OAuth support, this would be possible from desktop and mobile applications as well as other sites such as Flickr, without exchanging protected user data such as a password. Those updates could also be broadcast via XMPP in realtime, which I’ve done on another blog I was testing.

WordPress Flickr account setup

Things are a bit different for WordPressMU/BuddyPress installations. As you’ve seen above, I’ve got a BuddyPress site running that accepts users joining via Facebook connect.  Functionality is limited to social networking and it still has some issues that need working on before it’s ready for every-day use (I’ve noted them on the BP forum). WPMU blogs (by which I mean blogs not the overall site) don’t allow new-user registrations so the blog adminstrator needs to sign up new users. Users registered via Facebook don’t have an email address associated with their account, so blog admins can’t add these types of users as the process requires a username and email address of a new or existing user.

However, by activating the right plugins, registered WPMU users (I’m thinking university staff and students) could participate in a group microblog using the P2 theme, LDAP and/or OpenID for login and XML-RPC and XMPP for remote publishing and receiving posts. It won’t be too long before you can send and receive WordPress posts via your GMail or Jabber account (on your iPhone/iPod) in realtime (hopefully with support for tagging), and all of that data is simply WordPress data and has RSS feeds hanging off every tag and wrapped around every post.

Just a thought.

BuddyPress: A university’s social network

To cut to the chase, this post is about using WordPress MU and BuddyPress with enterprise authentication (LDAP) to create an internal/private social network while leaving the blogs, by default, public.

Since May 2008, I’ve been running WordPress MU on the Learning Lab, a Linux server I maintain at the University of Lincoln, for experimenting, trialling and evaluating software that may enhance and support research, teaching and learning. It’s a great job ;-)

Of all the software we’ve looked at over the last few months, ‘WordPress Multi-User’, has clearly shown the most potential for use by staff and students at the university. It’s a mature, well maintained, very popular open source blogging platform. In fact, it’s more than that. It’s a web content management system that runs 5 million blogs on wordpress.com and 280,000 blogs on edublogs.org. While evaluating WPMU on the Learning Lab, 65 blogs were registered by 123 users. I didn’t advertise the service at all during this period, preferring to work with individuals on specific projects and get their (informal) feedback. The feedback has been positive. People initially need support but once they’re set up and running, they only tended to contact me when they wanted to push WordPress to do more for them through plugins and custom themes.

During this period, I’ve been watching and doing my best to help with the progress made on BuddyPress, a set of plugins for WordPress MU, developed by Automattic, the company behind WordPress. It’s been interesting trying to get everything to work together at times but over the last few weeks it’s all come together.

BuddyPress Profile

Automattic also develop open source forum software which integrates with Buddypress, too. Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington pioneered the integration of all three products and I’ve had it working here at the University of Lincoln quite nicely. However, bbPress is still beta software and I’d like to be able to offer privacy options on forums, too, which is currently unsupported (there are some plugins, but they’re not mature enough for our use yet). So currently, we’re running WordPressMU, BuddyPress, an LDAP plugin for WPMU and a privacy plugin that’s commonly used on WPMU installations. It works really well.

I’ve documented some of the set up on our wiki. It’s not been difficult. For the time-being, while BuddyPress matures, I’ve chosen to stick with the default home and members themes, changing just the logo. Forums are, as mentioned above, turned off for now. I wonder if we’ll ever turn them on as the ‘Wire’ (similar to the Facebook Wall) is available and people are used to using services like Twitter and the Facebook Wall to communicate these days. We’ll see what demand there is for forums.

The final set up is really quite sweet. A member of the university goes to https://blogs.lincoln.ac.uk for the first time and logs in with their usual credentials. The first time they login, they are signed up. That’s it. No sign up page needed. It’s as if they were already a member of the social network, which, being members of the university, they are of course. From there, they see the BuddyPress home pages, can join groups, change their profiles and, when they’re ready, create or join a blog.

I’ve finally finished setting it up for general use today. The few people that know about it and have already joined, instantly see the benefits of having the social networking layer on top of the blogs. I’m excited to see how this works out over time. It’s not something we’re going to launch in a big way just yet (it’s only me supporting it at the moment), but I’m guessing that it will spread quite quickly through word-of-mouth.

The university web team are supportive and are sending staff and whole departments my way when they want a web site. The IT support team have been trained to use WordPress, should they get enquiries their way. We’ve got a few projects that have been waiting patiently for the new home of the blogs and a number of the Learning Lab blog users are migrating across already. The potential for supporting personalised and group online learning is now better than it’s ever been and the social networking element only helps bring peers together for collaboration and discussion.

Many thanks to Jim Groom and D’Arcy Norman who have been working on WordPressMU at their universities in ways which I hope we can emulate and contribute to here at the University of Lincoln.