Sunday, March 23, 2008

The perils of volunteer web site maintenance

Back in the late 1990s, every organization wanted a web site. For example, churches want a page so that people could learn something about the church. Campus groups wanted one to tell about their group and their events.

The Basic-Information Page -- a single long document -- provided all that basic info -- the location of the church, the meeting times, something about the denomination, maybe even some photos. In effect, it's a brochure about the church, just on a web page.

Inspired by the success, somebody in the church starts adding some information about upcoming events. "We want this to be a way to get news out to our members," they think. They want current information; they want to send the message that the group is active and vibrant. So they start posting the newsletter online.

Then people notice that the newsletter doesn't come out very often; and after it does come out, it takes a long time to get somebody who knows how to upload it to the site. They really want something more along the lines of cnn.com -- always up-to-date with the latest news. So the new web-site maintainer starts to upload information from the church bulletin, or photos from every single group events. Plus they want sermon audio, and maybe video. They've moved to the Newsletter-Style site.

If they're lucky, the new webmaster just uses a tool like Dreamweaver. It's a lot of work for the new webmaster to keep this thing going every week. And it's every week, which means the page suffers if the webmaster is busy one week, or on vacation. But when he does update it, it looks good.

If they're unlucky, they get a nerd like helping at this stage. I'd get PHP and MySQL involved to do a really nice, top-grade dynamic web site. But PHP scripts have bugs and the page sometimes includes error messages.

Eventually, though, the maintenance is just too much for one person. The web site starts to look stale -- but now it looks really stale. Information is from months ago!. Some pages get neglected, maybe not updated for years at a time.

What's the next step? I've noticed two directions: (a) get professional help -- i.e., hire some staff to keep the site up-to-date. Or (b) de- centralize maintenance -- i.e., make updating the site easier, and get more people involved.

The former option is proven to work. This is how cnn.com and nytimes.com are always up to date: there's a paid staff working 24 hours-a-day to keep it that way. Simpler sites might just need staff working during the week.

I want to believe the decentralized option will work too. If lots of people have the skill and access to update the site, I'm hoping that reliable people will do it. My church's web siteis undergoing this transition. We can't afford (a), so we're trying (b). I've used blogger to make it easy for lots of people to maintain the information on the church's site. It's a poor man's Content Management System (CMS). The questions are: (1) Will others take the initiative to learn how to use it, even though it's "very simple" by web-site maintenance standards? (2) Will the CMS work well enough to get information out? (3) Will the maintainers actually get information onto the site in a timely manner? (4) Will maintainers keep the site up-to-date for a long time -- months or years into the future? (5) When someone updates the overall look, will it revert to the old single-webmaster style?

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