Drupal and eliminating middlemen

At my 'State of Drupal' presentation at the Open Source CMS Summit at Yahoo! last month, I talked about the fact that there is a simple and well-known recipe for success: using the internet to eliminate middlemen.

Amazon eliminates book shops, iTunes eliminates music stores, news websites eliminate traditional broadcast media, eBay eliminates flea markets, travel websites eliminate travel agencies, real estate websites eliminate real estate agents, online photo print services eliminate photo shops, and so on.

Of course, the reality isn't as cut and dried as I make it out to be. Book shops, music stores, newspapers, flea markets, etc. are obviously here to stay. They will, however, have to co-exist with their online counterparts and that certainly adds pressure.

Either way, we can't dismiss the fact that there is a clear trend: any business that disintermediates traditional middlemen by taking advantage of the internet has a good chance of being successful. Products or online services that eliminate middlemen can be incredibly successful. It's a recipe for success.

With that in mind, what can Drupal eliminate?

Frankly, we already eliminated the webmaster. When was the last time you had to hire a webmaster to hand-craft your website and content using XHTML and CSS? Nowadays content creators can input, format and publish their own content themselves. The webmaster role that we used to know is dead. Publishing tools and content management systems, like Drupal, replaced them. Killed by technology, replaced by scripts.

But let's think ahead. Whom will Drupal eliminate in the future? Are Drupal's custom content types and views popular because they eliminate the developer? I think the answer is 'yes'. Mashups and web services are also an example of this trend. Modern content management systems are well on their way to eliminating the developer. End-user programming (EOP) empowers individuals, both professionals and amateurs, to take control of the framework and the tools.

If we can eliminate the webmaster and the developer, the next question is: can we eliminate the designer? A lot of people will be inclined to say we can't. Others will say it is too hard. And, while it might be difficult, there's still a lot of specific tasks we can eliminate. Just as we'll always need webmasters and developers to accomplish certain tasks, we'll never be able to totally eliminate the role of the designer. How many of the designers tasks can be killed by technology, replaced by a script?

The color picker in Drupal 5 is a great first step at eliminating the designer. All of a sudden, changing your site's color scheme becomes easy and accessible for non-designers. We can take this further. We can build selectors that let us choose between different structural layouts, different header formats, etc. There are a lot of things we can do, and that might satisfy the design needs of many end users.

To all the naysayers: remember that the first steam engines were known to blow up. Over time, we managed to perfect the technology and build an entire economy on top of it. They enabled mass transport by boats and trains.

Similarly, I think there is great value in perfecting technologies that set out to eliminate the webmaster, the developer, and the designer. This is what Drupal is all about. Just like the steam engine helped people get from point A to point B fast and effortlessly, we're making it easy for everyone to build powerful websites. Help your users move up the Drupal learning curve as fast as possible and you win. Eliminating middlemen certainly removes barriers and flattens the curve.

Let's keep that in mind while working on Drupal. There are a lot of unexplored possibilities here, and it would be great to see us untap some of that potential.

Of course, the funny part is that by doing so, eventually, we'll eliminate ourselves ... But that's a good thing, as it would free up a ton of spare time. ;-)

Comments

fhug (not verified):

Interesting thoughts.

"Of course, the funny part is that by doing so, eventually, we'll eliminate ourselves ... But that's a good thing, as it would free up a ton of spare time. ;-)"

Yeah, it seems funny, but i think in our society its (sadly) not. We see it in other industries - thousands of people are losing their jobs everyday, while those companies replace people by machines and are growing endlessly.

Its a matter of time that machines can do absolutely everything. In theory. The Question is - what are WE doing then? What are we living for?

And - capitalism is the wrong system for a world without jobs for people.

April 11, 2007 - 17:09
Khalid - 2bits (not verified):

Actually, the webmaster may not be dead, despite questions like who killed the webmaster?

The webmaster role grew into many other roles. For example, for larger sites, there is the sysadmin who takes care of the servers, the network admin, the DBA who administers the database, developers, designers, the marketer, the editors/content creators, ...etc.

Just like an medieval intellectual (e.g. Avicenna, Averroes, ...etc.) was also a physician, surgeon, pharmacist, philosopher, jurist, poet, writer, lecturer and politician among many other things, today, those encyclopedists do not exist. The body of medicine or or law has become so vast that no one knows it all anymore.

So, there is more specialization there.

CCK and such will eliminate a lot of programming, but not all. The need to create custom logic in PHP and/or AJAX will still be there, but will be less. When COBOL and SQL were invented, they were intended for the same thing: for use directly by the business people and managers, respectively. The reality is: they are used by programmers to create screens and reports for managers and business people.

So while agree that the traditional role of a developer, designer, ...etc. will be eliminated as it exists today, those roles will specialize, just like the generalist webmaster vanished, and more specialized roles evolved.

April 11, 2007 - 18:25
jkopel (not verified):

I clearly remember way back when pagemaker and desk top publishing were going to eliminate the need for graphic designers in corporate communications. Yeah right. The average DTP user turned out to be visually illiterate, and we were suddenly awash in a sea of ugliness!

Sure the templates in powerpoint are great, but I think they encourage conformity, mediocrity, and boredom.
Of course Drupal can outperform powerpoint, but the issue remains the same.

I am not a designer, but I see clearly the role they play in crafting the message a site delivers. Even if there are a myriad of possible combinations of template variables and color choices, how creative can you be within those limitations? Furthermore, with any template driven system, I find that the vast majority of users only ever explore a few levels of complexity. As a result their results all start to look very similar very quickly.

For many sites this may be sufficient, but my personal opinion (and it is just that, an opinion) is that those are the sites which will end up being dull and lifeless.

April 11, 2007 - 19:01
Mariano Barcia (not verified):

Dries,

Very interesting point, dealing with technology and innovation.

The last sentence of your post about "it would free up a ton of spare time" was/is a cornerstone of the communist doctrine. It was a powerful "dangling carrot" for years, targeted at the intellectual people, who are essentially lazy.

The previous comment draws up "capitalism", I am drawing up "communism". Wow, your post IS dangerous! :-D

The other day I read that technology is built faster than people can mentally adapt to it. The distribution chain will not change so radically as you also point out, but the coming iterations will take less time that's for sure and we all need to adapt to it. I cannot tell however, if developers will need to become "technology facilitators" in the future, instead of selling themselves as drupal coders as it is now.

Cheers, and kudos to your creative leadership in the drupal universe.

April 11, 2007 - 19:50
jakeg (not verified):

Hmm... sounds a lot like what I wrote about in my dissertation five years ago:
http://www.jakeg.co.uk/dissertation

Capitalism requires full employment. Yet technology has the power to destroy jobs. Ultimately, we hit problems.

April 11, 2007 - 20:41
Robert Wetzlmayr (not verified):

I can't help but at first thought this reminded me of the proclaimed elimination of print designers with the arrival of DTP back in the 1980s. And in fact, this has led to a wave of funny looking brochures for the following five or so years, but print design is alive and prospering still.

You can only substitute a certain fraction of education and experience by automation and tools. "A fool with a tool..." That's why AI has been the next big thing for the past thirty years, and it will continue for another decade or more...

April 11, 2007 - 22:26
Robert Douglass (not verified):

Eliminate the webmasters, programmers and designers, and who is left? The core maintainers. Now we know your secret plan, Dries!

April 11, 2007 - 23:05
chill35 (not verified):

DOUGLASS: Eliminate the webmasters, programmers and designers, and who is left? The core maintainers. Now we know your secret plan, Dries!

HA! HA! HA! (Like most things that are hilarious, there may some truth hiding under this rock.)

DRIES: The color picker in Drupal 5 is a great first step at eliminating the designer.

Someone needs to rewrite the color.module to make it more usable.

About the designer's job : I admit that I sometimes get devious pleasure out of seeing some people strain with CSS and tableless layout and more intense pleasure at the sight of the amount of ugly designs out there. I think that *on some level* I want the whole thing to be very hard to grasp for the common man. I am 35, my hair is turning gray, I live in a huge capital, all I have going for myself is my brain, and because of my insecurities, on some level I derive pleasure from the complexity.

I also like to massage my brain with complex things. And after some hours of massaging, I often find myself wondering : ohhh-kayy... was it useful that I understand this inside out ? Will that serve me ?

On some other level, which probably has a stronger 'say', I want all this technology (and design!) to be easy. I want people to have an easy time and and an easy life, and want everything to be more accessible for all.

I have a split personality.

PS : Dries, why don't you add the <blockquote> tag to your accepted tags...?

April 12, 2007 - 01:49
Larry Garfield (not verified):

A wise man once told me "A professional is someone whose job it is to put himself out of work". If a doctor does his job right, you never have to see him again! Ideally, after you hire a plumber to fix your pipes the pipes "just work" forever and you never have to see him again. After you put up a web site, ideally you should never need to deal with the person who build it again.

That is, until you want plastic surgery, or to add a new bathroom, or to develop an Intranet to match your web site. It's a different type of work.

And therein is the key. I think Dries is spot-on here. If someone else makes you obsolete, you are out of work and need to figure out what to do next.

If you make yourself obsolete, then you know exactly how you've done so and what the new job/position/task you've created to replace it is. That makes you perfectly suited for that role.

We eliminate the webmaster and replace him with the CMS... and the CMS developer. We eliminate the developer and replace him with Views/CCK... and replace him with the CMS manager. We eliminate the designer and replace him with the color module... and the CMS designer and integrator.

Who's the best CMS developer? The person who built the CMS. Who's the best CMS manager? The person who build the query builder. Who's the best CMS integrator? The person who build the CMS API hooks.

Making yourself obsolete makes your competition obsolete, too, but gives you a head start on the next level.

That's the open source business model right there. Give a way the tool (make building tools obsolete), and charge for service (people skilled in using tools).

Fun times. :-)

April 12, 2007 - 02:04
Gerhard Killesreiter (not verified):

Yeah, I am not too concerned about putting myself out of work either. Things like the color module are great for people who can live with solutions off the shelf. Most real world clients. however, can't or don't want to.

April 12, 2007 - 13:06
Fabio Varesano (not verified):

I agree with jkopel's comment above.

Customizable theme and CCK make websites looks quite all the same. This could be good for simple usages but useless if you really want more.

I think that the more we add quality to this "customize by yourself" scripts the more people will need to stand out from the others.

Developers and designer will not disappear soon.

April 12, 2007 - 10:17
Bockereyer (not verified):

There always will be opportunities for the innovator. Becoming obsolete forces you to think and find other solutions.

April 12, 2007 - 11:27
Benjamin Melançon (not verified):

The greatest benefit to society comes from eliminating the middlemen of corporations, government, and media.

Here I'm talking about the parts of a system that maintain conditions of such blatant unfairness that literally billions are consigned to poverty, and most of the remaining billions are prevented from doing as well for ourselves and others as we could.

The internet, and Drupal, have roles to play in this political and macro-economic elimination of middlemen, too, directly connecting people who give a damn.

See http://pwgd.org in about four months...

April 13, 2007 - 02:11
Andrew (not verified):

There might be a bit missing here, though. You haven't killed the webmaster or the designer by switching to Drupal. They're still there, they're just not responsible for every single page that goes up on your site, like in the days of POHTML (Plain, Old HTML).

Yes, the color picker in Drupal is nice for those who know how to use it.. I don't know about you, but I don't want to go back to the days where people thought light purple text on a brown background was an acceptable colour scheme.

Designers also have expertise in legibility, typography, layout and others that takes a long time to learn.

July 17, 2007 - 20:22
Different Andrew (not verified):

Ahh... that part about eliminating designers - woo, that's a good one! Just because you have a copy of Photoshop (or a color module, or anything in Drupal's future) doesn't make you a designer. It takes years - frankly, at least a decade - of education, research, discipline, practice, and experience to become a legitimate designer. And nothing is ever going to change that. :)

July 18, 2007 - 23:39
Bjorn Solstad (not verified):

Definately interesting thought you got there. I agree with some of the comments that states that the webmasters just slide into new roles.

October 7, 2007 - 06:12
Anonymoose (not verified):

Below is a satire, but not a joke.

Drupal and eliminating men

At my 'State of Drupal' presentation at the Singularity Summmit last month, I talked about the fact that there is a simple and well-known recipe for success: using the internet to eliminate men.

Amazon eliminates book shops (except you go there to browse books first, but you would have to be crazy to buy them), iTunes eliminates music stores, news websites eliminate traditional broadcast media, eBay eliminates flea markets, travel websites eliminate travel agencies (although hopefully memory implants will soon eliminate travel), real estate websites eliminate real estate agents, parking lots eliminate real estate, online photo print services eliminate photo shops, e-paper eliminates print services, and so on.

Of course, the reality isn't as clean, inhuman and sterile as I want it to be. In order to calm my readers, I have to lie that book shops, music stores, newspapers, flea markets, etc. are obviously here to stay. They will, however, have to co-exist with their online counterparts and that certainly adds pressure, and thank Science for that, what would a world without pressure be? Stupid people and their weak hearts!

Either way, we can't dismiss the fact that there is a clear trend: any business that disintegrates traditional structures and values by taking advantage of the internet has a good chance of being successful. Products or online services that eliminate men can be incredibly successful. It's a recipe for success. You need success. Only winners deserve to live. All hail Efficiency.

With that in mind, who can Drupal eliminate?

Frankly, we already eliminated the webmaster. When was the last time someone hired you to hand-craft a website and content using XHTML and CSS? Nowadays content creators can input, format and publish their own content themselves. The webmaster that we used to know is dead. Publishing tools and content management systems, like Drupal, replaced them. Killed by technology, replaced by scripts. Did you know that human brain is on the Wikipedia page under technology that is likely to be replaced by disruptive technologies?

But let's think ahead. Whom will Drupal eliminate in the future? Are Drupal's custom content types and views popular because they eliminate the developer? I think the answer is 'yes'. Mashups and web services are also an example of this trend. Modern content management systems are well on their way to eliminating the developer. End-user programming (EOP) empowers individuals, both professionals and amateurs, to take control of the framework and the tools. Soon after, the tools will take control of the users and render them obsolete.

If we can eliminate the webmaster and the developer, the next question is: can we eliminate the artist? A lot of people will be inclined to say we shouldn't. Others will say it is too cruel. And, while it might be difficult, there's still a lot of specific tasks we can eliminate. Just as we'll always need Indonesian children to make our Nikes, we'll never be able to totally eliminate the role of the designer. How many of the designers tasks can be killed by technology, replaced by a script? (Of course, if you read anything published on Siggraph in the last 5 years you know that the answer is: all. But, let's pretend that human creativity is holy and magickal so that the idiots don't bother us during our quest for glory).

The color picker in Drupal 5 is a great first step at eliminating the designer. All of a sudden, changing your site's color scheme becomes easy and accessible for non-designers. We can take this further. We can build selectors that let us choose between different structural layouts, different header formats, etc. There are a lot of things we can do, and that might satisfy the design needs of many end users.

To all the naysayers: remember that the first steam engines were known to blow up. Over time, we managed to perfect the technology and build an entire economy on top of it. They enabled mass transport by boats and trains.

Similarly, I think there is great value in perfecting technologies that set out to eliminate the webmaster, the developer, the artist and all humans in general. This is what Drupal is all about. Just like the steam engine helped people get from point A to point B fast and effortlessly, we're making it easy for everyone to build powerful websites. Help your users move up the Drupal learning curve as fast as possible and you win one thousand Internets. Eliminating men certainly removes men.

Let's keep that in mind while working on Drupal. There are a lot of unexplored possibilities here, and it would be great to see us untap some of that potential. Hail Efficiency again.

Of course, the funny (have you heard of all thous guys who killed their families after the crisis hit? hilarious) part is that by doing so, eventually, we'll eliminate ourselves ... But that's a good thing, as it would free up a ton of spare time. We will be just like the homeless people are now: there will be a great, benevolent system to take care of us, we will have a ton of free time and our lives will be meaningful AND convenient ;-) !

April 27, 2009 - 05:21
Sid (not verified):

I hate to say it, but you erred in the very beginning when you said that Amazon and online Photo Processing eliminated the middleman. Actually, they created an extra middleman. Amazon has no inventory, they link to bookstores and warehouses who are still very much in the chain, and perform as a mediary between customers, bookstores, and inventory houses.

Online Photo Processing has gone in similar directions as Amazon, introducing an extra player to connect more customers with the mom/pop photo store that actually still does the developing.

Not to gripe, but this is one of the most common "mis-speaks" about the role of the internet in the logistics channel.

And you say the CMS has eliminated webmasters already, but honestly, they've just given webmasters a new avenue rather than hand-coding. Someone's always going to have the job of updating websites, and that I guess is what a webmaster is, isn't it? No matter if the tool is HTML, PHP, Rails, or some CMS.

What CMS do, in my opinion, are help define more separation between a webmaster, a web designer, and a web developer. And before you even hire these 3 people, you should spend some time/money with a web consultant and/or a web marketer. And don't forget to contract with the SEO consultant too, as you are building your online marketing strategy.

Aside from these notes, I think you've made some very valid points, and have a great insight on the evolution of the technology of this industy (whatever this industry really is). Keep it up.

May 7, 2009 - 01:13
Guy Park (not verified):

I remember reading somewhere once that in 30 years, something like half the jobs will no longer exists, instead they will be replaced with new jobs that we cannot yet fathom.

"If I asked the people what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses" - Henry Ford

I bet you the weapon blacksmiths thought their profession would last.

But it does give ponder to a very interesting new idea of what happens when we do automate everything? I remember that computers we're going to make life better, give us more time and allow us to spend more time with our families.

Yet we can see that people are spending more time at the office; productivity has not really increased from an individuals perspective; families are not exactly well bonded these days (with a divorce rate of 50% or somewhat).

I think the first post said it best; that a capitalist society does not work in an automated society. Well not at least for the common folk.

So does this mean that Capitalism is doomed for failure? Just a thought =)

March 9, 2010 - 09:17
GM (not verified):

Great post! I think Capitalism IS doomed for failure. Especially when people realize that capitalism also creates the scarcity factor that creates the need for people to work and making money? And have we ever given any though on how money is created in the first place? I believe there are enough resources available on earth so people can leave without the need to work and make money. It's just that corporations hide the real information from people so they can keep creating false needs for everyone destroying the earths natural resources at the same time, then making people work, that's a from of slavery, IMHO.

I think, technology will help automate a lot of function people do these days. Unavoidably a lot of people will loose their jobs. The issue is that people should never have "jobs" in the first place, if you know what I mean.

Just a though, sorry for being slightly off topic!

January 13, 2011 - 02:51
Susan MacPhee (not verified):

Yes, but what color to choose in the color picker is the question (answered best by a designer.) Great post Dries!

Susan

October 20, 2010 - 17:36

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