Are Content Management Systems (CMS) Sustainable?

Happy New Year! This post begins an outline of some topics I will be discussion at the Sustainable Ux conference next month, namely the sustainability of systems like the one I’m using now, WordPress. Compared to the static web of 15 years ago, Content Management Systems (CMS) have different features, each of which can have negative – or positive – impacts on the basic features of web sustainability.

The next couple of posts provide a background and outline of things I will discuss at Sustainable Ux. Here I’ll raise some questions, there I’ll give some answers and invite feedback.

Some Motivation

As I just alluded to, CMS systems have become big. WordPress began life as a basic blogging programs, but as of early 2016 about one out of 5 websites was built with WordPress or another CMS system. Originally restricted in their use to online journals and development frameworks, CMS systems have come to occupy the middle ground between building websites “from scratch” and creating accounts in existing websites. The user base has also expanded – today, they are a popular choice for marketers due to their SEO features and expandability with a minimum of code. Many non-web designers also base their sites within a CMS, and several CMS systems like SquareSpace or Cargo Collective cater mostly to them.

CMS Systems have become a major portion of the web. About half of all websites are run by a generic CMS, while the other half have a de facto CMS “built from scratch”, or use a “client-heavy” framework moving all the logic to the browser, via frameworks like AngularJS and EmberJS.

Within the CMS world, WordPress is dominant. More than 25% of all sites use WordPress Also note that Joomla, while not often discussed, is a major player, and has a higher market share than Drupal.

CMS 2016 Market share

Data source:

In recent years, there have been a proliferation of CMS systems catering to the “designer” market. This may be a misnomer, since many of these designer CMS systems promise to make design pushbutton. In fact, they aren’t designer frameworks as much as template systems which a visual look and feel similar to graphic design books. While it might hurt some feelings, it is safe to say that sites like Cargo or SquareSpace are

the PowerPoint of the Internet…

However, these systems are not a major concern, since designer-centric CMS systems like SquareSpace comprise a very small portion of the overall market (which I suspect will surprise many designers using their services).

Designer Oriented CMS Market share 2016

Data source:

Data source:

Sustainability Issues Around CMS Systems

CMS systems affect all aspects of sustainability, not just the energy efficiency component most commonly considered. Their relative ease of use, for example enhances inclusiveness, while their heavy use of server-side code pushes bit processing into the “greener” server-side computing space. Let’s pose these issues as questions, embedded in the principles of Sustainable Virtual Design I have listed elsewhere on these site. First, let’s look at how CMS systems might affect those principles articulated by Nathan Shredoff in his book, Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable:

General Sustainability Principle Sustainable Web Design Goals
1. Make meaningful products Make websites that are have real value, not fashion or tech-tricks
2. Easy design rollback Iterative or Agile design workflow
3. Source Renewable Materials  Switch to a “Green” webhost
4. Design products to work in the future  Implement classic design strategies
5. Design with the user in mind  Create effective User Experience (UX)
6. Ensure democratic access  Build accessible, responsive websites
7. Interchangable Parts Apply standards-based design
8. Minimize energy and resource consumption Web Performance Optimization (WPO)
9. Don’t corrupt the virtual system  Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Let’s consider each of these in turn:

  1. Make Meaningful Products:
    1. Do CMS systems encourage the creation of websites with real value, or meaningless sites that waste electricity and user time? The ease of setting up a CMS may result in an increase in marginal sites.
  2. Easy design rollback:
    1. Do CMS systems allow for quick redesign, and changing design to improve other sustainability values (like page bloat)? Here, CMS systems seem to have an advantage, with simple theme “skinning” to change the UI, and an easy way to organize, add, and remove content.
  3. Source renewable materials:
    1. Does using a CMS, thereby shifting more computation to the server-side, make the site “greener”? In general, server “bits” are produced in a greener way than bits produced by the local power company. However, the need for server-side processing to build every page in a CMS, as opposed to downloading static HTML and CSS, may eliminate this advantage.
    2. Does coding a CMS lock down the design more strongly than creating a site using a more basic framework? Here, CMS systems seem to have a problem. While theme-swapping is easy, doing things like removing unnecessary code put in by the CMS (e.g. emoticons in WordPress) is difficult.
    3. Does the use of “plugins” or “extensions” within many CMS frameworks act as a renewable resource? Here, CMS systems seem better tha coding from scratch. But this ease of use encourages site creators to load up their site with plugins, creating bloatware.
  4. Design products to be “future friendly”:
    1. Does using a sustainable CMS make the site more standards-based, and more likely to function on the future web? Doing logic on the server means it remains in the abstract, so standards might be easily preserved. However, the very nature of CMS systems, almost all of which use PHP/MySQL argues that going forward, they will push legacy code and design farther into the future than other types of sites.
  5. Design products with the user in mind:
    1. Are CMS-based sites better for the user’s experience? On one hand, the casual site owner benefits from using CMS templates. SquareSpace, for example, has a bunch of “minimalist” templates suited for graphic designers who don’t do web work. On the other hand, these templates are marketed to those designers, not the user. The way the templates work impresses a web-naive designer and often don’t work well for the average user.
  6. Ensure democratic access:
    1. Do CMS sites broaden participation in website creation, or restrict it? Here, CMS systems are huge. They allow almost anyone to build a reasonable website.
  7. Use Interchangable parts:
    1. Do CMS systems use components that are readily refactored and interchangable? The plugin model wins hand down here.
    2. Do CMS systems reduce multiple authoring of the came code? Once again, CMS systems are winners. They create common code for basic tasks, harden this code to use and testing by many users.
  8. Minimize energy consumption:
    1. Do CMS systems use more, or less energy than other website technologies? The answer here is probably more. The very ease of skin swapping encourages site developers to grab templates that are complex and often bloatware. The use of plugins means that many sites are loaded with unnecessary server-side code that slows down user interaction and increases bandwidth consumption.
  9. Minimize resource consumption
    1. Do CMS systems encourage, or discourage page bloat by designers? This could go either way. Some CMS templates are standards-based and efficient. But others are loaded with bloatware features to attract naive site creators.
    2. Do CMS systems encourage, or discourage wasteful workflow practices? CMS systems encourage developers to use other people’s code. This avoids the “not programmed here” syndrome and reduces redundant coding efforts.
  10. Don’t corrupt the virtual system
    1. Do large numbers of CMS systems alter the energy usage of web hosts and the Internet as a whole? To the extent that CMS systems bloat, this seems true.
    2. Do CMS systems degrade, or enhance design on the web? CMS systems, by their use of templates, tend to lock design in a “cookie cutter” state. In the long run, this will result in lots of sites with obsolete design. However, if a new design wave comes along, it is easy to grab a new template to replace the old one.

These are some starting thoughts for standard sustainability framework goals. In the next section, I’ll consider CMS systems with respect to the Permaculture model of sustainability.


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