Introduction to BuddyPress, a Social Network for WordPress
If you’ve developed in WordPress for any length of time, you’re bound to start running into references to BuddyPress – a social media plugin/theme system for WordPress. Your next step was likely to Google BuddyPress, at which point you likely quickly realized it’s an entirely different animal.
Bottom line: BuddyPress is a powerful solution to creating social media-like sites, but it’s a massive system built on top of WordPress – another massive system.
BuddyPress is like a nuke when you may just need a hand-grenade. Or, if you relate to food better than bombs, BuddyPress is an all you can eat dessert buffet when you probably only need a peppermint. Don’t over-do it. Pick the tool you need to create a solution. BuddyPress may save your day or waste a week of your time as you try to implement it.
What is BuddyPress?
Technically, BuddyPress is a WordPress plugin that adds social media functionality to your WordPress site. It’s an open source piece of software that, once understood, is easy to build on to create all kinds of functionality.
Some of the features that BuddyPress can give your WordPress site right out of the box include:
- User "Friends" – your registered users can connect with other users similar to making a Friend on Facebook or Connection on LinkedIn
- Messaging – users can send private messages to each other
- Forums – you can create forums or allow users to create their own
- Groups – allow users to join various groups or even create their own
- Activity Streams – users can allow others to see their activity on the site
- Media – users can share videos and photos on profile pages with friends or publicly
That’s a lot of functionality! Therefore, by extension, that’s a lot of code to learn!
Each of these functions are a separate component which can be turned on or off very easily. Point being: BuddyPress isn’t everything or nothing – it really is simple to implement core features or turn them off. So if you only need a few of those features, it’s not a problem.
But, like WordPress, you have to understand how the code gets executed. BuddyPress adds an entire layer of code – arguably multiple layers – that can drive you absolutely crazy if you try to jump in and think you can build out custom features without orienting yourself to the system.
Get Used to "Screens" and Navigation
Within BuddyPress, users have a series of menus on their profile page. The equivalent in Facebook would be the About, Friends, Photos, etc. The navigation items for BuddyPress let users edit their profiles, upload photos, track activity and the like, as well.
Instead of pages and posts, nav items point to "screens" within BuddyPress. Screens just load functions that are defined and registered like other functions in WordPress, but now you need to know the list of actions and hooks specific to BuddyPress.
When You Should Use BuddyPress
Basically, I start to think about using BuddyPress when a project requires two or more of the above features. For example, if a clients needs a project that requires users to create groups and forums, BuddyPress may be my best bet.
The more core functions in BuddyPress that are needed, the more likely I am to consider it. Many plugins do what BuddyPress does, so I tend to try to see if I can create a system that gets the job done without BuddyPress first.
When to Run Like Hell from BuddyPress
This is my default reaction, by the way. You may have noticed I’m not a fan, but it’s not because I don’t like the product or respect the incredible system that BuddyPress is.
Generally speaking, if you just need the ability of one of the core features of BuddyPress, there’s a plugin that can do that. Do your best to avoid defaulting to BuddyPress just for a single – or even a few – of the feature(s). BuddyPress adds so much complexity that it had better be worth the feature set to add all the extra work required.
Here’s another strong point to consider regarding BuddyPress: the documentation is about 1% of what WordPress has in place. While much of BuddyPress is really just WordPress with a different flavor, BuddyPress has a LOT of differences and functions.
So don’t expect to be able to search the codex and find a quick fix. BuddyPress is relatively new and only 3-4 people run it full time, compared to the small army that runs WordPress. You’d better be willing to dig through the PHP files on your own to track down functionality.
I say all that not to discourage use of BuddyPress at all, but I would be doing you a disservice to encourage you to jump in quickly. If you struggle with actions and hooks in WordPress, you’re going to really struggle with BuddyPress because all the functionality is built on top of WordPress.
On the upside, BuddyPress does provide a huge system with a lot of amazing functionality aimed at creating custom social media systems. As long as you know going in that you’re working with a bare-bones system and that there’s not a lot of documentation available, you’ll be fine.
Over the next few articles I’ll address some of the more obvious tasks that people struggle with when first working with BuddyPress. After you get some experience with the framework, you’ll start to see the pattern and get a sense of how the code is laid out.