The Digital Campus

The Digital Campus

Swiss Research Center Builds Social Network With BuddyPress

This post is a authored by Pascal Waeber, Web Producer at the Computer Center of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. He helped develop and implement a social network for a project at LIVES, a joint research center between the Universitiy of Lausanne (UNIL) and the University of Geneva (UNIGE). Read his analysis on why the university chose BuddyPress for the project and how they implemented it.

A year ago, the UNIL computer center was asked to provide help with setting up a social network for LIVES, the only National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) in the field of social sciences. LIVES aims to study “Overcoming vulnerability: life course perspectives.” For one of the projects, the research center wanted to interact with teenagers and young adults, and a social network was chosen as an innovative way to collect part of the data.

The social (research) network

The research project is titled “Facing critical events in early adulthood: A normative approach to vulnerability and life course regulation” and is sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

The project website with the social network

Over the course of two to three years, five researchers plan to study how young people deal with situations and issues they face when trying to access education and/or the job market. Since social media is a given for these young digital natives, the research team figured that a private social network would be a great tool to engage with the 240 research subjects, in addition to surveys and interviews. Why private? Because privacy and non-commercial disclosure really matter when dealing with scientific data in the social sciences, and are mandatory if you want to be trusted.

The Buddy of evidence

This project gave me the opportunity to work jointly with Gregoire Métral, the LIVES IT officer. For both of us, it was clear from day one that data ownership was the way to go, hence the choice of a self-hosted and open source software. Facebook groups, Ning, HyperWeek or other SAAS solutions can for sure do a lot for many kinds of private communities, but we preferred total control, which allowed things like fine-grained privacy settings and unlimited testbed instances.

Backend settings for the social network

The StatusNet microblogging software, which is pretty much like Twitter, turned out to be quite interesting, but the wealth of possibilities available with BuddyPress seemed to allow more in the long run.

Advertised on its website as “social networking in a box,” BuddyPress is a WordPress plugin which allows the creation of a full-fledged tool in minutes, with user profiles, activity streams, friends management, messaging, groups, forums and more. WordPress is the world leader in blogging tools and small content management systems, and is very versatile thanks to a library of 20,000 plugins.

Since 2009, in addition to its legacy CMS, the UNIL computer center has run several kind of websites successfully with WordPress. So we have first-hand experience in understanding why Automattic products like WordPress, BuddyPress and bbPress are gaining momentum as easy and affordable self-hosted solutions.

Going social, step by step

Mouna Bakouri and Marlène Carvalhosa Barbosa are PhD students working on the LIVES project. They prepared the list of requirements and conducted a three-month long test stage involving up to 40 of their colleagues as test users. They suggested many improvements to the original setup by adding BuddyPress plugins such as photo albums, profile privacy dashboard and newsletter. Many of these plugins and themes are free, but commercial ones are available too. Some of them seemed quite interesting, so we subscribed to WPMUDEV, which was the only extra expense for the project.

We chose to work with two Budypress servers: testbed and production. This allows for the testing of new plugins and updates outside of the production server. In April 2012, the network and the project information pages went live under (read more in the press release).

The social network with an example of an activity stream

Results: coming soon

The results of the surveys conducted in May 2012 in a training school in Lausanne are already available, but the output from the social network will require a little more time. The researchers are acting as community managers, helping group conversations to sparkle about various topics. Two or three years might seem a rather long period, but the goal of the project is to see how young people address issues and difficulties over time.

Want your own social network?

I cannot find better words than those written by WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg in 2009 when BuddyPress was launched: “The idea behind it was to see what would happen to the web if it was as easy for anyone to create a social network as it is to create a blog today. […] I don’t think BuddyPress will be something you use instead of your existing social networks, […] but if you wanted to start something new maybe with more control, friendlier terms of service, or just something customized and tweaked to fit exactly into your existing site, then BuddyPress is a great framework to use.”

From what we have experienced so far, it is true to say that this “little plugin” is up to the task and more than able to fulfil this promise, provided you can spend some time studying the documentation and the setup options.

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