Drupal is always changing. The community constantly reinvents Drupal with new code and reimagines Drupal with new words. This article seeks to examine the current narratives about Drupal. By examining the stories we tell about Drupal — the so called cultural constructions — we can better understand what is going well and what should be making us uncomfortable.
The dominant narrative surrounding Drupal 8 is that it will leave small websites behind, but that oversimplifies the situation. Focusing on this narrative ignores some of the more important issues facing Drupal, such as the influence of paid Drupal core developers on volunteerism, the personal connection that many people have with Drupal, or the importance of the GPL to Drupal’s longevity. The cultural constructions of Drupal sometimes change as quickly as the code, and this article will attempt to bring together a wide variety of competing narratives to reconsider why we use Drupal and challenge some of the prevailing constructions.
Drupal is for business
There have been quite a few articles published recently about Drupal and the enterprise, and many of them seem to take, as their point of departure, the following question: "Is Drupal 8 built for the enterprise?" When we dig a bit deeper into some of these narratives, it even starts to sound like the question might be, "Is Drupal 8 built by and for Acquia?"
Part of the answer to these questions seems rather settled. Yes, Drupal 8 is built with enterprise needs in mind. Yes, Acquia contributes a great deal of time and money to Drupal 8. I don't think these facts are in dispute.
Indeed, when Dries Buytaert, the creator of Drupal and co-founder of Acquia, talks to publications like Computerworld, he does not hide his intentions. He unabashedly makes statements about Drupal's future in the enterprise, such as:
"I think with small sites I'm not willing to give up on them but I think we just need to say we're more about big sites and less about small sites."
It would be fair to say that not all "big sites" are "enterprise" sites, or "corporate" sites, or even "money-making" sites, but I think we can also assume that many of them are. A quick look at the biggest sites on the web shows that most of them are the sites of for-profit companies. Big sites are generally big business.
Further, when Dries talks about his company, Acquia, he clearly identifies his intentions to grow and serve an ever larger, more cash-rich, clientele:
"We wanted Drupal to be what Red Hat is to Linux, that's why we started Acquia.... I see us as being the next large open source business model to reach $1 billion in revenue, like Red Hat. We're on the IPO track — even though it's still early days, but we are getting ready."
To call Drupal 8 "enterprise-focused" is not controversial, especially if one believes that Dries and Acquia have any influence on Drupal. Drupal 8 will likely be a boon to large, for-profit companies, and Drupal will continue to attract companies that seek a robust, open source, enterprise content management system (CMS).
Nevertheless, Acquia is not the only large enterprise that affects the future of Drupal. When Dries announced Acquia's Large Scale Drupal (LSD) program, he began:
"Acquia works with many large enterprises that bet on Drupal. These organizations are doing amazing things with Drupal and innovating by breaking through prior limitations. However, in talking to our customers, we noticed that there is limited knowledge sharing and discussion happening among the heaviest Drupal users."
The LSD businesses conduct behind-closed-door meetings, share knowledge, decide what problems they want to solve, pay developers to create solutions, and eventually share those solutions with the broader Drupal community. As the LSD website tells us, these initial decisions are made by "key community leaders and developers as well as their peers at other leading organizations running Drupal." Following this process, the broader Drupal community receives these gifts, which it can then help grow. Dries wrote, "once contributed, anyone is welcome to discuss and assist the project." The advertised benefit of LSD, according to the Vice President of Large Scale Drupal at Acquia, is that we all get "significantly better software built by some of the most talented people in the community."
We are led to believe that LSD has the brains, the money, and the talent to make things happen efficiently. LSD reminds me of the early meetings of the open-source movement in 1998 that brought companies to gather in private and find ways to "monetize" the efforts of all contributors, as the New Yorker put it, "putatively in the name of progress and standardization." LSD might actually help solve what my colleague at Lullabot, Jeff Eaton, has called Drupal's "Platypus Problem," it's inexplicable, emergent complexity.
While Drupal clearly benefits Acquia and its large, enterprise clients, there is much more to this story. When we change the question to something like, "Is Drupal 8 built only by Acquia and its partners?" we get a very different answer: absolutely not.
As we move progressively closer to things like corporate credits in commit messages, create more opportunities for advertising on Drupal.org, and as Acquia certifies more developers, we can see the desire to bring more organizations into the Drupal ecosystem, which I think is an excellent goal. A wide variety of corporate influence can help free software.
Drupal is not Acquia. Acquia employs four of the six people that can actually push code changes to Drupal 8, but thousands of people submit patches for consideration. While we cannot know for sure — since we do not have that history of organizational commit credits — it seems very likely that the number of people contributing code to Drupal 8 that work for Acquia is much smaller than the number of people who have contributed at least one patch to Drupal 8 and do not work for Acquia.
By virtue of the fact that Dries created Drupal and co-founded Acquia, he gets the biggest megaphone. For example, I suspect that a lot more people will remember when Dries tweeted "Breaking news: out of the box, Drupal 8 is 2x to 200x as fast as Drupal 7 for anonymous users" than will remember the lengthy Twitter discussion that followed, suggesting flaws in the logic of his tweet. Dries, and his company, probably have the most power to shape messages about the essence of Drupal. But are they correct? Is Drupal actually "more about big sites"?