“It’s Not Just About the News”

Originally, I was going to present these thoughts at the PHP Community Conference (in a session titled “It’s not Just About the News”) but it didn’t work out for me to be there. I still wanted to share some of my thoughts and experience in running PHPDeveloper.org for the last 11 years.

In its very first form, PHPDeveloper.org was just a page of links. It was hosted on a local server I had at the college I attended and was aliased to the outside world under the hostname “bender.ods.org”. I started gathering links on that page to some of my favorite PHP resources of the time – things like PHPBuilder.com and, of course, the PHP.net manual. I was new to the language – this was back in 1999-2000 range – and was constantly devouring everything I could about it. Not many of the free hosting services supported PHP back then so running it on my own server was clearly the answer. I compiled my own installations from scratch complete with some of the earlier versions of Apache, PHP3 (fresh off of PHP/FI) and MySQL. All of my code was procedural and I had no clue about application design. All I knew was that I loved the language. I left my Perl books to gather dust and marched on to a bright PHP-based future.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure when I made the leap from a set of links to the sort of blog style PHPDev is in today. I was a huge fan of Slashdot back then (weren’t we all?) and I think I thought to myself one day, “I could totally do that”. So I hacked together a custom sort of content management system and started to work. Things weren’t as consistent then as they were now. Back then I might have posted once a week, two or three times if I was feeling ambitious. If you want a good laugh, go back and take a look at some of my earliest posts on the Internet Archive.

I was a big IRC user back then – still am on Freenode – and I spread the word about the site mostly through there. There was no such thing as Twitter and getting sites like Yahoo to notice you wasn’t as easy as it is now. I had one thing going for me though…back then there just wasn’t another PHP news site out there, at least not one that was consistently updated. I was determined that PHPDev would become one of the best resources out there for PHP-related news and community happenings that it could be.

Some folks have called me a human aggregator in the past, and I think that’s what really sets the site apart from some of the other PHP news/community sites out there. I’ve never, ever pulled in posts automatically from other sources. Yep, that’s right – I hand-write every post you read on the site. I spend about an hour or so each day trolling through my Google Reader feeds (I’m up to 434 of them currently) to find some of the most interesting content out there. I actually spend some time reading the posts and writing up a good summary of what it has to offer. Plus, I can do some fun things the other automatic readers can’t like:

  • Pulling announcements from Twitter
  • Listening to podcasts and summarizing their content
  • Filtering out posts that are related to a product or general commentary
  • Making community announcements about conferences
  • Taking specific article submissions

One of the best things, though, is subscribing to things like DZone or PHPCamp and discovering new articles that aren’t even on other aggregator’s radar. I gather things from the four corners of the web and try to make the best sense I can out them to share with the world. In recent years, I’ve realized that the “stuff I find interesting” approach is good, but I had to widen the scope to make it really work. I now read through my feeds and think more “is there a group that would find this interesting” instead. As a result there’s been posts on things outside of PHP touching on software like Drupal/WordPress/Joomla as well as Open Source projects that might be related to PHP, but not always directly.

I’m sure you’re curious about the technology behind the site. Well, let me say off the bat, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Remember when I said I had a hacked together CMSish kind of thing to manage the content – it’s not much different these days. I started with it back in PHP3 and it was all procedural. It wasn’t pretty but I was proud of it and it worked. Then PHP4 came along and these magical things called objects and OOP came along with it. Of course, I just had to do a rewrite. PHPDev v2 was born. Things changed again when Zend announced that they were making a framework (framework? what’s a framework?) and released some of their earliest versions. So, being the curious developer I was, I did what any good developer would do – another rewrite (PHPDev v3). If you’re wondering, I think it was ZF 0.7 or 0.8 – not sure which. Keep in mind that most of these rewrites came with a design update, but they all took the same basic news site/blog format. Finally, and this is the current form, I wanted to learn something different so I branched out to the Solar framework in yet another rewrite (yep, PHPDev v4).

So, what does all of that mean? It shows that the tools don’t matter. I could probably rewrite the site a million different ways, but that’s not what it’s about. Most of my current posting is just done on a simple form with subject, content and date/time. I write them in the morning and queue them to go out during the day. Sure, there’s been a few hiccups now and then when the technology changed, but what matters to most of my visitors is the content.

I checked in my logs a little while back just to see how many people were hitting the feeds on my site and found an interesting statistic – there’s now more people following the @phpdeveloper account on Twitter than there are pulling the feeds. Now, that’s not taking into consideration any re-blogging folks do of my content (that’s a whole other topic), but it’s still interesting to me.

So, how far have things come since the site’s birth back in 2000? Well, without trying to sound too boastful about it, I think PHPDev has become one of the most respected PHP news sites out there and provides a valuable service to the community that can only come from a human behind the helm. As of my latest post, the database now hosts 16232 articles that chronicle the history of the years the PHP community has been through, both the good and the bad.

Of course, I couldn’t end this post without thanking each and every one of you out there – my readers have made the site what it is. I couldn’t have done it without you. Your contributions – either through blog posts or actual submissions – are the lifeblood of the site. I’ve stood on the shoulders of everyone in the community to reach this high, and I thank you for letting me come along.

4 comments

  1. Thank you for your hard work as well. You are always very help spreading the word and at Client Bucket we truly appreciate the help you provided us with the training workshop announcements. Please do not hesitate to let us know if there is anything we could do to help keep things running.

  2. I’ve been reading phpdeveloper.org for years and got occasionally featured; but I was always always impressed by the quality of aggregation, particularly in context with the sheer quantity of posts. We spoke about doing “more of this type of post” on Content with Style a few years ago, but it seems an impossible task! When do you sleep!

    And, please tell me that when you say you hand-write each post, that you silently excluded the weekly/yearly popularity summaries and the new pear releases?

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