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AI / Frontend Development / Open Source

Drupal Creator: Websites Needed More Than Ever in the AI Era

Generative AI is an existential threat to websites. Which begs the question: are websites still relevant? Drupal's Dries Buytaert says yes!
Feb 1st, 2024 11:06am by
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The last time I spoke to Drupal creator Dries Buytaert, in October 2022, our focus was headless content management systems — at the time a trending topic in web development. But much has changed since then: JavaScript frameworks have gotten even more complex, Jamstack is no longer a hot buzzword, and (of course) generative AI has burst onto the scene. These aren’t necessarily positive trends for the web.

Indeed, some might say that websites are more under threat now than at any point in the web’s history. During the 2010s, it seemed that smartphone apps and App Stores might vanquish the web, but by the end of the decade, web developers had fought back using technologies like advanced JavaScript, WebAssembly, and Web Components. Now, in the early 2020s, generative AI has quickly become the new existential threat to websites. Which begs the question…

Are Websites Still Relevant?

In his retrospective of 2023 for his company Acquia, a SaaS platform built on top of the open source (and browser-based) Drupal software, Buytaert noted both the dangers and opportunities for the web going forward. “On one side, the rise of AI in information gathering will decrease the need for traditional websites,” he wrote. “On the other side, the decline of commercial social media and the shift to a cookie-less future suggest that websites will continue to be important, perhaps even more so.”

“I think it’s net positive,” Buytaert said, regarding the fate of websites. He then somewhat surprisingly cited the fact that Google is phasing out third-party cookies by the end of 2024 as an opportunity for the web.

“What that means is that marketing teams don’t have the same amount of information about users,” he said. “So that means they need to learn more about users themselves. They can’t track people around the web, so they need to get people to their websites — their own digital properties — and really engage with them to learn about what their behaviors, intents, desires are. So that’s good for the open web. I think it’s good for privacy, obviously, that third-party cookies go away, but also I think marketers and organizations will invest more in their own websites.”

He had a similar take on the impact of ChatGPT and other generative AI tools. He acknowledged that AI will likely result in a decline in organic website traffic since the likes of ChatGPT are designed to answer search queries directly. But that just forces website developers and owners to make their properties more compelling, he argued.

“You have to deliver value beyond what a ChatGPT can provide, so that people are still incentivized to come to your website. So how do you do that? By having better content — and better content could be personalized content, or […] it could also be that more content goes behind… not necessarily paywalls, but gates. You know, maybe you need to sign up to get the content.”

Another factor pushing people back to building on the web is the rapidly deteriorating user experience of centralized social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter. That has led to the rise of the fediverse, for which the open web is a key foundation — primarily via the World Wide Web Consortium’s ActivityPub specification. Buytaert noted that Drupal has supported the indie web movement for about a decade now, which he said extends to the fediverse.

“You can just install a module, we call it, but it’s a plugin. And it will connect your blog or your site into the fediverse, and it will automatically pull in content and push content to the fediverse — all these things. We’ve had that for a long time.”

On Web Dev Complexity

I noted the recent pushback in the web developer community about the ever-increasing complexity of JavaScript frameworks. Netlify CEO Matt Biilmann, who coined “Jamstack” back in 2016, recently told virtual conference that although decoupling the frontend from the backend has been a positive development, there is now “pressure to twist everything into the frontend — [to] rebuild the monolith in this frontend layer.”

I asked Buytaert what he thinks of the current frontend complexity.

“What happens with all of these platforms is they start simple, and then people want to use them for more complex use cases,” he said. This causes what Buytaert termed a “slow evolution” towards becoming a more complex architecture. He cited content previews as something that Jamstack didn’t have to begin with because it was simpler to just enter content into a Markdown file and then use a Static Site Generator to build the website. The trouble is, website users don’t necessarily want to write in Markdown. So that led to requests for Jamstack developers to create custom preview functionality, or integrate with headless CMS products that offered visual editing (when I was first experimenting with Jamstack in 2020, I used a product called Forestry — now called TinaCMS — for that very reason).

“I think the Jamstack has evolved quite a bit towards […] what I call traditional CMS,” said Buytaert, “where they can do all of the same things — you know, content previews being a good example. It’s something that we’ve had for Drupal for two decades, right? And any CMS, really, it’s not just a Drupal thing.”

He acknowledges, though, that Drupal itself has been through that same evolution, from simple to complex. These days Buytaert and his company Acquia refer to Drupal as a “digital experience platform” (DXP), so it has evolved well past the hobbyist CMS it started out as in the early 2000s.

“Drupal has evolved from a hobbyist project out of my dorm room to an enterprise content management system,” Buytaert told me. “So I’m not necessarily opposed to that evolution. It certainly has been good for Drupal and I can imagine it will be good for the Jamstack in many ways. But as you do that, […] you rotate new users in and rotate old users out. You lose your hobbyists and you gain enterprise users. So that is a choice that you make.”

Drupal and Generative AI

Lastly, I asked how Drupal has adapted to the generative AI trend. Buytaert replied that Acquia has added GenAI capabilities to all of its products, including Drupal. Around 90% of this functionality, he says, is “low-hanging fruit” to help with content production.

“We use it for things like summarizing content, and suggesting titles for content or posts. We use it for translating content to different languages. We use it for alt text generation, to make images accessible. We use it for auto-tagging and auto-categorization of content. We’re starting to see it in search.”

But the goal for 2024 is to move beyond “these relatively simple content creation use cases,” he said. The plan is to use AI as a user interface for the CMS. He described something akin to Locofy, a design-to-code tool I profiled recently that uses AI to auto-generate a website. It seems like Drupal is also heading in this direction.

“You could easily imagine a future where you could prompt this, right? Where you just type: ‘Create me a two-column landing page, a signup form with these fields in the left column of the layout’ and go. It won’t be perfect, but it might easily eliminate 90% of the [work] and then you can just kind of tweak it with clicking around.”

He added that Acquia is also committing to “responsible AI,” which includes things like preventing data leaks and allowing its customers to bring their own LLMs.

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