Commons in a box (CBOX) is free, easy-to-install package that turns WordPress into a powerful community site. It is derived from the approach behind the excellent CUNY academic commons and offers extended user profiles, private/public groups and forums, messaging, personal and group blogs, community activity streams, email notifications and a wiki. The CBOX user guides are pretty comprehensive, so I won’t repeat much of that here. Rather, these are my reflections on installing and testing it and what I think it could offer education.

Installation

I started with fresh install of WordPress (current stable version of 3.4.2) running on a local XAMPP development server.

Once you have WordPress running, installing CBOX just like adding any other plugin. From the plugin area search for “Commons in a box,” click install and then activate. However, given the number of plugins that make up CBOX and their sophisticated nature, its unsurprising that a bit of setup is required. This is all managed in one place – a dedicated “CBOX dashboard” – that is added by the plugin.

The first requirement is to install BuddyPress (assuming you haven’t already – it knows). That is again a plugin, so installed at the click of a button. While it might seem like BuddyPress setup after that requires a lot of choices, they are at least fairly inutitive. I just went with the defaults and these seemed reasonable.

Theming your site

CBOX theme

Next, you need to select a suitable theme. The default WordPress theme isn’t currently BuddyPress compatible, so I installed the CBOX theme as suggested. Again, this was as easy as with any other theme. I’ve used several few BuddyPress themes before and generally been a little disappointed with compromises I’ve had to make for the sake of compatibility. However, even with the default settings, I thought this was a really nice, well-presented theme that packs in a lot of useful functionality without feeling complex or cluttered.

Theme options

However, the defaults are just the starting point for this theme as it has a very extensive set of options to customise virtually any aspect of the theme through a built in theme customiser UI. This includes stylistic choices (colours, margins and borders and custom CSS), structural choices (layout), custom headers and footers and BuddyPress options.

Site Customisation

Custom widgets

I also liked the admin customization that makes WordPress more intuitive to use the commons features. This includes custom post types for “Site Features” (stuff that shows in the slider on the homepage), BuddyPress docs (wiki pages) and invitations.

It also ships with some custom widgets to allow you to selectively customise the homepage and the other pages created CBOX (groups, wiki, activity).

Tools

There are quite a few – blogs, forums, groups, wiki and community communication features. I won’t review them all here, rather just say I set up some test user accounts to try them out and they worked well. That is how you’d expect it to be given that a lot of this is packaged functionality of established tools used in BuddyPress and BBPress.

wiki revisions history

There are however a few tool perhaps worth a special mention. Blogs are what WordPress does, so you’d expect them to be good. You can use CBOX with a single site/blog or setup a (multisite) network, where each member can have their own site.

The wiki adds the usual, but useful, collaborative document editing functionality and integrates pretty well with the WordPress environment.

Activity stream

The integration of all these tools is key for me though. The activity stream (of members, blogs, posts, groups…) and how it is built into the theme helps surface activity across a community is a way that increases the likelihood of discovery and engagement with it.

Summary

CBOX does a nice job of integrating some very powerful WordPress plugins to make them easier to setup and work with. Out of the box, it is a perfectly workable solution for creating an attractive and functional community site. Simply making this kind of thing easier to setup may be enough to persuade some to give it a try. However, it’s strength for me is in building on the flexibility of design and use that makes WordPress so widely useful, so the out of the box setup is really just a jumping off point to building your own community. A tool is only a part of this, no matter how good it is.

As this is a first release, you’d expect a a few bugs. However, the ones I’ve found are being addressed already, so I’m hopeful active developer community will keep working on and improving this.

Acknowledgements

Photo: Box Town by lovelihood on Flickr (CC BY|SA)

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