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From Joomla to Serendipity


Like so many other things in life, I thought my website was just the way I wanted it, right up to the moment when suddenly I did not. This is the story of my transition from Joomla to Serendipity (S9Y).

I'd rebuilt it in 2005, using Joomla 1, and though it took some time and effort to customize the theme, build out categories, tweak menus, and so on, I was happy with it for years. Even as Joomla was modified, I left it alone, as I had no reason to change. I especially liked that Joomla was a content management system, not a blog, that I could create and publish material based on subject, not on date (I still dislike the ubiquitous "Archives" menu on most Wordpress sites). And I also liked my site's layout, in which one article was highlighted at the top, spanning two columns, and then other articles followed below in two columns, kind of like a newspaper and certainly not like a plain old conveyor belt of blog articles.

Then, suddenly, I rejected it and worked feverishly to rebuild it on a different platform. What happened?

For one, the mobile web. My old fixed-width layout looked awful on phones and tablets. I wanted a better search bar. And if possible, I wanted an XML-RPC procedure so I could post from a dedicated client instead of a browser form (a matter of aesthetics, probably). Here's how it looked on its last day.

I looked at Joomla3, Wordpress, and then searched around for new frameworks with potential. Some were too different to be useful; Wordpress failed to interest me again for reasons I can't discern. Joomla3 might have been interesting and coincidentally offered a useful upgrade path, but to my astonishment I struggled to figure out how to use it (and I consider myself usually pretty good at these things). Finally, I settled on Serendipity (S9Y). In a world of Wordpress, I think that's a somewhat bold move! I'd used S9Y over at the Dictator's Handbook blog with success. It's so simple and straightforward. It's less flexibile than Joomla, but it turns out I never needed even a tenth of that flexibility for my site. On the server, it used very little space, functioned using a very small subset of tables and queries, and was easy to understand. Its Spartacus framework for plugins was straightforward, allowed easy reversal and de-installation of modules, and didn't require complicated marketplaces. And my one new requirement - a theme that would resize dynamically to a more mobile-friendly format when it detected a small screen resolution - now existed in the form of the lovely and elegant 2K11. Done! I'm thrilled every time I check it, and it renders beautifully on every screen from my huge desktop to my tiny-screened smartphone and Nexus 7. Bravo.

A final note: changing from one system to another was a miserable, fastidious experience I hope not to repeat (but probably will, some day1). Despite clever MySQL queries to replicate tables from one database to another, I still had to manually redo each page's images and links, reformat sometimes, and tweak. There is no convenient, automated tool to do this work: it requires thoughtful and painstaking effort by the author. I'm still not done!

That led me to reflect on the nature of content frameworks. By nature, they offer retention value: the bigger your site gets, the harder it's going to be to transfer it. Pundits wonder why Wordpress is so ubiquitous. While it's true the competition (Joomla, anyway) is not as easy to install, configure, and use, I think Wordpress also benefitted from two other advantages: first, everyone uses it because everyone uses it. A casual newbie asking a friend what he suggests will probably find his friend uses Wordpress. But secondly, everybody continues to use what they've installed because it's simply way too much work to change to anything else.

Meanwhile, I'll be over here at running on Serendipity, and I'm happy again.

1 Awful foreshadowing. I'd completed the fastidious process, and only a month or two later, hosed the system with a backup gone wrong, and had to do the whole thing again. Arrrrgh.


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