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The Social Networking Script of Choice

December 28, 2007

In the previous posts, we’ve discussed various aspects of social networking, including general thoughts about social networking, goals for running a social network, and what platform choices are available to creating and maintaining an S/N site. Now I’m going to be specific and review the platform of choice for building our social network. For the first part, I’ll mention the positive aspects of the platform we’re using and later, I’ll mention the negative aspects. There’s plenty of things to mention in both parts so reading part one is long enough for one sitting.

As already discussed before on this blog, some of the options available for building a social network had been outlined. After researching the different packages, the Dolphin platform by Boonex came out on top. This decision was made for several reasons. First, while the preferable method of building a social network is to code everything in-house, it would be too time-consuming and expensive to do so. Social networks are booming, with new ones trying to attract users every day. Certainly, we can spend a lot of money and a year to build up all the features users expect but companies such as Boonex have already provided much of this functionality in their software. So pre-built software was our best option. The wheel is there. No reason to make another one.

But why Dolphin in particular? In looking at some of the currently available pre-built packages, it turns out that Dolphin actually has most of the features currently popular in social networks. For user-centric features, Dolphin has profiles with custom defined fields, user blogs, profile comments, user private messaging, buddy lists, some profile page customization, and a profile picture gallery. For community oriented features, Dolphin has Myspace-like groups, a forum, Classifieds, an Events announcement system, a global shoutbox, and global polls. For community sharing features, Dolphin allows users to upload videos, photos, and music and has a ratings system for each of these elements, though the rating system could use much improvement. So from a features perspective, Dolphin is fairly robust. They basically have all the features expected in a social network, although some are not as well implemented or fully implemented as the current best-of-class counterparts.

In terms of costs, Dolphin is free with an advertisement-based install or $40 to have the advertisements omitted. So price certainly was a factor. Comparing Dolphin to some of the more popular social networking scripts such as phpFox and BuddyZone reveals that Dolphin is behind in some aspects and ahead in other aspects. So it certainly can contend against these $300 plus packages. Had Dolphin been lacking some large features, we probably would not have used it even if it were given free with no obligations. Its rivals in the free or inexpensive social networks arena include phpIzabi and Around Me by Barnraiser, both of which currently fall behind in terms of features. The main problem with Dolphin 6 is that while many of the large expected features have been implemented, they often lack polish and full functionality. For instance, Dolphin has a blog system, but it lacks things like the ability to save posts without publishing, the ability to customize the look of the blog, and the ability to set the blog posts under multiple categories..

While not everything is fully baked, what is positive about Dolphin is that the developers at Boonex continue to improve the software at a rapid pace, at least compared to other software in the same category. They have plans to release a new version with additional features about every six months while releasing bug-fix versions in the interim. This is important, because as we will talk about a little later, the Dolphin software still has much room for improvement. Having had past experiences with web scripts such as phpBB and Joomla, we have gotten used to many months and even years between major releases sometimes because the team behind the project de-prioritize it for stretches of time. We don’t see that in Boonex at the moment. One thing to note is that the Boonex developer support is not very good, or we could say they’re even pretty bad. Go to their forum and you will see many unanswered questions or questions answered by the community itself. While this certainly isn’t positive, people who understand php will have fewer issues as they can help themselves.

For our social network, we know that Dolphin will not provide all the features we want, partly because our S/N site has a specific focus and Dolphin is a general purpose S/N script and partly because Dolphin doesn’t have even some common S/N features implemented. But two things work for it. First, the code is all open and available to modify. Nothing is obfuscated. After working with the code behind Dolphin, I have been able to add many of the features we want to add for our site within the framework. Once Dolphin’s architecture was understood, extending it was not a difficult task. Although I don’t agree with some programming approaches taken by the Boonex team, in general, Dolphin is easy to extend, which is another plus.

Next time, God willing, we will focus on the negative aspects of Dolphin, what needs to be improved and what we are doing to address Dolphin’s issues.

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