My First Impressions on Creating SocialEngine 4 Themes

For those of you that don’t know, SocialEngine is a PHP script that allows you to create a social networking website. Months ago they made the announcement that the all new version 4.0 was coming out. They didn’t give an actual release date. It really screwed over a site I run,, where I sell templates for the software. My sales dropped completely over the last few months with this announcement, as everyone is waiting for the all new version.

It’s here. . . finally!

Well, they finally released the beta version of SocialEngine 4 yesterday and I have to say I was excited to get it installed and play around with it. I was also excited to start designing and coding all new themes for it.

I installed it and started clicking around the admin panel and figuring how it works. I have to say that initially I was kind of in shock at what I found – a little pissed actually. For the user, it’s totally awesome, but for me, the theme developer, not so much. Basically, within the admin panel you control all of the elements throughout the pages. You drag elements around to different areas of the layout sort of like widgets in WordPress. Imagine a WordPress theme where literally every element of the website was a widget in a widget area, including the header and footer areas.

So, what does it all mean for me?

It means I can’t touch any HTML markup! Yes, I could probably figure out ways to sneak in little changes in the markup if I dig into the core files, but I don’t feel like that would be smart in making a theme that is supposed to be easily installed by customers. In other words, I’m stuck with just selling a CSS file with an images folder.

Moving forward. It’s really not that bad.

After getting over the initial shock of what these changes mean for my online store, I’ve had some time to think about it and I’m actually a little excited. Developing themes for the new SocialEngine 4 is going to be like the old days of creating CSS templates for CSS Zen Garden, a showcase of designs all based on the same HTML markup.

And after going through SocialEngine 4’s HTML markup, I have to say that they did a really good job. It truly leaves many possibilities to change the look of your site with purely CSS.

Also, a big plus with how SocialEngine 4 handles themes now is that they really are classified as “themes.” In the admin panel there’s actually a section where you can manage all of your uploaded themes, and with the HTML markup never changing, they’re basically like interchangeable skins. Flip one off and another one on with no effort.

As I let it grow on me a bit, I’m starting to like the idea. This is so much more intuitive than previous versions of SocialEngine where I had to sell the customer template files that they had to upload to their site, overwriting the old files. I’d have to write in the instructions, “remember to back up all files!” So, I guess those days are over.

A new business plan for

UPDATE: I wrote this awhile ago… And I’m not sure when or if I’ll ever be getting back into the SE theme business. Who knows? We’ll see!

I am, however, going to have rethink the way my site operates with these significant changes to SocialEngine. Currently I sell themes for about $40-$80. I have full demos where customers can click through an entire installation of SocialEngine with a particular theme in place. When the customer purchases a theme they are given a pretty big zip package with everything they need. I only kept about five themes on the site at at time because keeping them compatible with SocialEngine every time it was updated was a real pain.

With the hassle of always keeping my themes up-to-date with the current version of SocialEngine seemingly gone, I’ll finally have a chance to produce a lot of themes and really pack the website with a true variety of SocialEngine themes. It’ll also be a lot quicker to develop the themes as they are just going to be essentially a single CSS file combined with a folder of images. I’m sure as I become more familiar with SocialEngine 4’s HTML markup, I’ll be able to speed up the process, as well. However, one bad thing is that I’ll have to get rid of online demos because it would be too easy for people to steal the themes.

Overall, I have to say that I think this all means I’ll be lowering prices for my themes, too, which I think everyone will enjoy!

17 comments on “My First Impressions on Creating SocialEngine 4 Themes

  1. Hey Jason, this is Noam over at SocialEngine. Great blog post, it’s always nice to hear positive feedback. One of the big goals with SE4 was to make development easier so I hope you find the simplified theme system much easier to work with. We’ll probably be running a design contest soon for SE4 and I’d love for you to participate so make sure to follow us on twitter (@webligo). Thanks for your contribution to the community!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Noam. I’ve already started putting together my first series of SocialEngine themes. I’ve been doing my best to use the constants file to really put the core “constants” at the top that control key elements of the theme, and just overall, trying to make everything flow with the way you guys intended. And even though I was initially not too happy with everything, I have to say it’s really grown on me, and good job with all of your team’s hard work! Aside from the obvious changes to the user interface, anyone that digs into the code can also appreciate the work you guys have done on an even deeper level.

    • Sorry. Honestly I have no idea. I haven’t really spent any time looking into these types of things. I’m really only planning on building themes. I’m not actually running SocialEngine anywhere that involves real users.

      This would be an interesting thing for SocialEngine to address. I would imagine they are planning some sort of migration feature. I noticed in their documentation for the beta, they mention something about the fact that there will be upgrade instructions to come later.

      Also, they put all the effort into promoting SocialEngine and making sales before SE4 ever came out, saying that the upgrade will be free of cost. I can’t imagine that they won’t address this at some point. Good Luck!


      For anyone else interested in this, Webligo did confirm they will be releasing an upgrade script for the final, stable version of SE4:

  2. Hi,
    I always find relieve reading your stuff. I taste truth in your words more than any web developer I have met online. Can you give me other places you post so I can read them? I am looking forward to making in better social network for talented people using socialengine4. I want to be your client

  3. Hi I want to order from you for making themes
    SocialEngine 4 design I made myself. Manufacturing period of 1-2 weeks. My budget is $ 500 well how to make themes for my layout PSD?

    • @Joann Sorry I don’t do any custom or freelance work any more. And a custom SE4 theme would have been a lot more than $500 anyway 😉

  4. Hi Jason. with interest I read your posts here. I’ve been surfing all night for good posts on how to make your own themes for SE but only found the tuts by the SE team themselves wich is good for users but not so much for theme developers. Especialy for me cause I’m used to working with wordpress where acces and searching for the right codes in the template files is soo much easier (cause I’m used to it I suppose). I’ve been changing the theme.css and the constants.css over and over again to no results. Not directly to the server and not in the SE editor. As if other codes come first and are not overrided. Do you have the same problems now?

    • @Maria

      SE4 caches all of the code to make faster browsing through the front end. So, sounds like you’re not working in development mode. When you first login to your SE admin panel. In the right column you can turn on “development” mode. This will allow you to actually start editing the files and seeing changes instantly.

  5. Hi Jason,

    I’m really looking forward to your social engine releases the current themes available for se 4 are just rubbish and repeats of Facebook. i bought a few of your themes for wordpress and have to say was really impressed with your work.

    if your going to release any cool se4 themes anytime soon please , please please do a nightlife community one as there are loads of social engine powered nightlife sites .


  6. hi this is venu. im working with se4 themes. can you just say the basic steps to start . actually im a front end devloper…

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