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A Community-Driven Site with Eleventy: Preparing for Contributions

I’ve recently found myself reaching for Eleventy (aka 11ty) above all other tools when I want to develop a website. It’s hard to beat a static site generator that provides advanced templating opportunities while otherwise getting out of your way and allowing you to just create.

One of those sites is Style Stage, a modern CSS showcase styled by community contributions. Eleventy was perfect for this community-driven project in several ways:

  • Its exceptionally fast builds locally and on a production host
  • It’s un-opinionated about how to construct templates
  • Its ability to create any file type with complete control over how and where files are rendered
  • Its ability to intermix templating languages, such as HTML, Markdown, and Nunjucks
  • It’s highly performant because it compiles to static HTML with no required dependencies for production

The number one reason Eleventy is a great choice for creating a community-driven site is the ability to dynamically create site pages from data sources. We’ll review how to use this feature and more when we create our sample community site.

Article Series:

  1. Preparing for Contributions (You are here!)
  2. Building the Site (Coming tomorrow!)

What goes into creating a community-driven site?

In the not-so-distant past, creating a community-driven site could potentially be a painful process involving CMS nightmares trying to create contributor workflows. Armed with Eleventy and a few other modern tools, this is now nearly fully automatable with a minimum of oversight.

Before we get to inviting contributors, we’ve got some work to do ourselves.

1. Determine what content contributors will have access to modify

This will guide a lot of the other decisions. In the case of using Eleventy for Style Stage, I created a JSON file that contributors can use to create pull requests to modify and provide their own relevant metadata that’s used to create their pages.

An early version of the JSON file which initially had an “Example” for contributors to reference. This screenshot also shows the first two contributors details.

Perhaps you also want to allow access to include additional assets, or maybe it makes sense to have multiple data files for the ease of categorizing and querying data. Or maybe contributors are able to add Markdown files within a particular directory.

Consider the scope of what contributors can modify or submit, and weigh that against an estimate of your availability to review submissions. This will help enable a successful, manageable community.

GitHub actions can make it possible to label or close a pull request with invalid files if you need advanced automated screening of incoming content.

2. Create contributor guidelines

Spending time upfront to think through your guidelines can help with your overall plan. You may identify additional needed features, or items that can be automated.

Once your guidelines are prepared, it’s best to include them in a special file in your GitHub repository called CONTRIBUTING.md. The all-caps filename is the expected format. Having this file creates an automatic extra link for contributors when they are creating their pull request or issues in a prompt that ask them to be sure they’ve reviewed the guidelines:

Screenshot courtesy of the GitHub documentation.

How to handle content licensing and author attribution are things that fall into this category. For example, Style Stage releases contributed stylesheets under the CC BY-NC-SA license but authors retain copyright over original graphics. As part of the build process, the license and author attribution are appended to the styles, and the authors attribution metadata is updated within the style page template.

You’ll also want to consider policies around acceptable content and what would cause submissions to be rejected. Style Stage states that:

Submissions will be rejected for using obscene, excessively violent, or otherwise distasteful imagery, violating the above guidelines, or other reasons at the discretion of the maintainer.

3. Prepare workflow and automations

While Eleventy takes care of the site build, the other key players enabling Style Stage contributions are Netlify and GitHub.

Contributors submit a pull request to the Style Stage repo on GitHub and, when they do, Netlify creates a deploy preview. This allows contributors to verify that their submission works as expected, and saves me time as the maintainer by not having to pull down submissions to ensure they meet the guidelines.

The status of the Netlify deploy updates in real-time on the pull request review page. Once the last item (“/deploy-preview”) displays “Deploy preview ready!” clicking “Details” will launch the live link to the preview.

All discussion takes place through GitHub. This has the added advantage of public accountability which helps dissuade bad actors.

If the contributor needs to make a change, they can update their pull request or request a re-deploy of the branch preview if it’s a remote asset that has changed. This re-deploy is a very small manual step, and it may not be needed for every PR — or even at all, depending on how you accept contributions.

The last step is the final approval of the PR and merging into the main branch. Once the pull request is merged, Netlify immediately deploys the changes to production.

Eleventy is, of course, a static site generator, and several hosts offer webhooks to trigger a build. Netlify’s build plugins are a good example of that. But if you need to refresh data more often than each time a PR is merged, one option is to use IFTTT or Zapier to set up daily deploys, or deploys based on a variety of other triggers.

Example of completed setup of a daily deploy via webhook from IFTTT

It’s worth noting that what we’re talking about here does limit your contributor audience to having a GitHub account. However, GitHub contributions can be done entirely via the web interface, so it’s very possible to provide guidance so that other users — even those who don’t code — can still participate.

4. Choose a method for contributor and community updates

The first consideration here is to decide how critical it is for contributors to know about updates to your site by evaluating the likely impact of the change.

In the case of Style Stage, the core will be unchanging, but there is some planned optional functionality. I went with a weekly(-ish) newsletter. That way, it is something folks can opt into and there is value for contributors and users alike.

Matthew Ström’s “Using Netlify Forms and Netlify Functions to Build an Email Sign-Up Widget” is a great place to learn how to add subscribers to your newsletter with a static form in Eleventy. It also covers a function for sending the subscriber’s email to Buttondown, a lightweight email service. For an example of how to manage your Buttondown email template and content in Eleventy, review the Style Stage setup which shows how to exclude the newsletter from the published site build.

If you’re only expecting low priority updates, then GitHub’s repo notifications might be sufficient for communication. Creating releases is another way to go. Or, hey, it’s even possible to to incorporate notifications on the site itself.

5. Find and engage with potential contributors

Style Stage was an idea that I vetted by tossing out a poll on Twitter. I then put out a “call for contributors” and engaged with responders as well as those who retweeted me. A short timeline also helped find motivated contributors who helped Style Stage avoid launching without any submissions. Many of those contributors became evangelists that introduced Style Stage to even more people. I also promoted a launch livestream which doubled as promotional material.

This is what it means to “engage” with contributors. Creating avenues for engagement and staying engaged with them helps turn casual contributors into “fans” who encourage others to participate.

Remember that the site content is a great place to encourage participation! Style Stage dedicates its entire page to encouraging submissions. If that’s not possible for you, then you might consider using prompts for contributions where it makes sense.

6. Finalize repo settings and include community health files

Finally, ensure that your repository is published publicly and that it includes applicable “community health” files. These are meant to be documents that help establish guidelines, set good expectations with community members, define a code of conduct, and other information that contribute to the overall “health” of the community. There are a bunch of examples, suggestions and tips on how to do this in the GitHub docs.

While there are a half dozen files noted in the documentation, in my experience so far, the three files you’ll need at minimum are:

  • a README.md file at the root of the project that includes the project’s name and a good description of what it is. GitHub will display the contents below the list of files in the repo.
  • a CONTRIBUTING.md file that describes the submission process for contributions. Be explicit as far as what steps are involved and what constitutes a “good” submission.
  • a pull request template. I wouldn’t exactly say this is a mandatory thing, but it’s worth adding to this list because it further solidifies the expectations for submitting contributions. Many templates will even include a checklist that details requirements for approval.

Oh, and having a branch protection rule on the main branch is another good idea. You can do this by going to SettingsBranches from the repo and selecting the “Add rule” option. “Require pull request reviews before merging” and “Require review from Code Owners” are the two key settings to enable. You can check the GitHub docs to learn more about this protection.

Coming up next…

What we covered here is a starting point for creating a community-driven site with Eleventy. The point is that there are several things that need to be considered before we jump straight into code. Communities need care and that requires a few steps that help establish an engaged and healthy community.

You’re probably getting anxious to start coding a community site with Eleventy! Well, that’s coming up in the next installment of this two-parter.  Together, we’ll develop an Eleventy starter from scratch that you can extend for your own community (or personal) site.

Article Series:

  1. Preparing for Contributions (You are here!)
  2. Building the Site (Coming tomorrow!)