It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it.
There’s a good chance you are a user of at least one online discussion forum. Some are used for discussion of a variety of topics, others fill a niche for a specific topic or industry, and still others serve as a form of support for various products and services. Whatever they’re used for, all forums deal with basically the same issues, good and bad.
In this article, I’d like to share some of my experiences, what I’ve learned and how I deal with various issues involved with owning and operating a popular discussion forum.
A Little Background
Currently, I’m the owner and operator of a popular niche discussion forum called RPLS Today. Land Surveyors from all over the world (but mostly the U.S.) come to RPLS Today for discussions about equipment, software and various support topics relating to the hardware and software they use to conduct business. They also have other non-surveying discussions, and I’ll be touching on that later. We’ve recently hit a milestone of over 36,000 unique visitors during a one month period. On the backend, we are using a rather obscure software to fill the desire of our audience to have an old-school tree-style forum. This software definitely has its limitations, so we’ve customized it extensively. But that’s an entirely different topic for a separate article.
But this isn’t my first rodeo. Just the most successful.
You see, before I was a full-time web developer, I was a Land Surveyor. I went to school for it, got licensed in two states and worked in the industry for about 26 years. But my interest in computers and the web had always been a huge distraction for me. After moonlighting in IT and web development for over a quarter century, I finally felt like I had what it took to go full-time.
Back in 1992, I ran a bulletin board system (BBS) called When Pigs Fly. It became pretty popular in Southern California, where I was living, to a point where I was making t-shirts for my users. Soon, however, BBS’s became obsolete and eventually I took the site down. In the early 2000’s, I partnered with a couple of other guys to start a Land Surveying forum based on a cartoon character. Unfortunately, there were some issues between the partners (that I’m not at liberty to discuss), so we shut it down. Then in 2010, the de facto Land Surveying forum at the time changed its format and lost most of its users. Several surveyors that knew me and my web development expertise asked if I’d start a new forum for them utilizing a legacy tree-style format. RPLS Today was born.
The first several months were great. There were lots of happy surveyors rejoicing in the streets over their new-found forum made just for them. So happy, in fact, that many of them were sending generous donations to ensure its survival. From the beginning I knew it was a long shot, but by some magic, it happened. It didn’t take long before it was obviously the most popular website for Land Surveyors.
In addition to the monetary donations, we were also receiving many emails of gratitude and thanks for creating RPLS Today. You would have thought that the site was the most incredible piece of work on the internet (I beg to differ) based on the praise we received. Before we knew it, our users were wanting to have local gatherings where they could meet fellow professionals while consuming a few adult beverages. It was a pretty amazing feeling for me as well, since I’d never had such an incredible response to anything I’d built as my pet project.
Not Without Hurdles
Through all the happiness, there were some hurdles that popped up. Initially, the most prominent issue was the tirade of threats and spam sent to us from the jealous owner of another land surveying related website. He claimed we stole his ideas, which is absurd; we didn’t even know he existed in the first place. There are thousands of online communities representing most any topic you can think of. Plus we were using a legacy style forum that pretty much everyone had abandoned or forgotten about. But I digress. After some brief legal counseling, we determined he was just an arrogant moron with an attitude, so we moved on.
Of course, as with any popular community, there will be trolls and other assorted problematic users. I had little experience dealing with these kinds of users, so it was pretty difficult and stressful at first. My eyes were opened once I realized that they were similar to having pests in my home. Why would I want to let these people get to me? After some trial and error on the process, I finally realized that banning them before things got out of hand was the ultimate solution. In the beginning, I found myself arguing with them, which only extenuated the problem. Eventually I realized that I needed to ban them as soon as I detected they were not good for our forum.
And then there’s the politics. Oh, the politics. When we first launched the website, we had a “Politics & Religion” category. During the category creation process, before the site was live, I did actually pause before entering P&R into the list. I was apprehensive because I had seen how troublesome that category had become in other forums. Still, I wanted to offer my users with a place to talk about anything they wanted to talk about. It went on for quite a while before I finally shut it down. People are so passionate about politics that they become different people in the heat of battle. This was easily the most stressful part of building and growing the forum because it was ongoing and never-ending. That is until I removed the category and announced that political discussions in the forum would not be tolerated.
Finally, there is one last hurdle that we are working on fixing as of this article. The software we’ve used to run our forum is outdated plus the developer offers very few updates and support. In fact, we’ve modified the software so much that it would probably be considered a fork of the original. So we are working on moving to a new platform while maintaining as many of the features and style as possible. Most importantly, we have paid very close attention to the feature requests from the users. They are what have made the forum as popular as it is today and we want to fulfill as many of those feature requests as possible.
Where Are We Now?
We are actually in a very good place now. We’ve tackled most of the hurdles and are now looking at the future. Things are looking very positive. We have advertisers on board and we’ve launched some new features to encourage more advertisers. We certainly aren’t getting rich or even making a living from this venture, but the Land Surveying profession is close to my heart. And now that we’ve weeded out the trolls and immature users (and continue to ban new ones), the forum has become a fun, engaging place to be. Our growth continues and at a much quicker pace than ever before. Things are looking bright.
Well, What Have We Learned?
Creating and managing a forum is a bigger deal than one might initially imagine, especially if it becomes the de facto standard for a particular profession, industry or topic. But with a little patience and perseverance, it can be a fun project to work on and might even bring in a little side income. Got questions? Feel free to comment on this article and I’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have.