The forum: how did we get here, where are we going...

HuwHuw Brickset Towers, Hampshire, UKAdministrator Posts: 6,441
edited April 2011 in Forum Operation
Wow, we've been open for business less than a week and 400 people have signed up in that time! Clearly there's a demand for the forum, which I have to confess, I didn't think there was.

I thought it might be worthwhile to explain how we got to where we are and what the future might hold for the forum.

So, those of you that have been using Brickset for some time will probably remember that I've always dismissed the idea of having a forum, citing reasons such as 'there are already too many LEGO forums', 'too hard to moderate', 'too much time needed to write one'.

In February this year @rocao contacted me asking whether I'd considered a forum for Brickset and presented a fairly strong case for having one which convinced me it would be worth a try.

As it happened I had written the core of a discussion forum for a project at work a year or so and got the code working at Brickset, but never launched it. So, for a start I thought I'd ressurect it and rope in a team of people to test it (who are now the current moderation team). It soon become apparent that it was woefully inadequate, particularly in the moderating department (there was none), so that idea was quickly shelved.

I then started looking round for other forum software that could be used on the Brickset server platform (IIS/asp.net) and we tried http://www.jitbit.com/asp-net-forum/. It showed promise but I didn't like the fact it was an 'old-fashioned' table based forum, plus the fact that the markup it generates is truly awful. I could have purchased the source code and sorted it out but doing so would have prevented upgrading to future official releases which would not have been desirable. It integrated fairly will with Brickset's login system/look and feel but it wasn't quite seamless.

I also looked at Yet Another Forum (http://yetanotherforum.net/) which is an incredibly fully featured forum system and very easily deployed. However it couldn't be integrated with Brickset's login system, so single-sign-on (SSO) would not have been possible.

I had always intended to have SSO, but having failed to get it working properly, I questioned whether it was actually a 'show-stopper' or not, and if it wasn't, then other options could be explored. I had read about Vanilla on a tech blog I subscribe to (http://boagworld.com/reviews/vanilla/) but as it was based on the LAMP platform it was not something I could host at Brickset.com (using the skills I have, anyway) and certainly wouldn't integrate in any way with Brickset. But it could of course be hosted elsewhere. So I signed up for the free plan at http://www.vanillaforums.com and the team of us tested it.

First impressions were not good. After all it was totally different to anything we'd used before. But after a few days we started to appreciate it cleanness and simplicity. How would it scale when loads of people were using it? We didn't know. So I signed up for a monthly payment plan (which also allowed me to 'skin' it to match Brickset) and invited c.80 regular commenters/reviewers to come and join us in testing it. Around 30 did so (the rest were probably <16 and I asked them not to join) and we played with for a couple of weeks. Despite the initial lack of familiarity most of the testers came round to liking it. (they must have done, most are still here :-) )

It held up well. Discussions were interesting and everything looked good. We thought it was time to open the floodgates and do an extended beta. That brings right up to last weekend, the April Fools' day article and the real launch on Saturday.

So, what about the future? As I said above the forum is hosted at vanillaforums.com and can be considered as SaaS (software as a service) which means I don't have to worry about servers, security, configuration, Linux, PHP, capacity, bandwidth, or anything: I'm just paying for a service and the service provider does all the worrying. That leaves me with more time to concentrate on the main site, which is where I think my efforts are best expended.

That's all well and good but it does limit what customisation can be done to Vanilla. If you visit http://www.vanillaforums.org/ you'll see there's a vibrant community developing add-ons for the open source Vanilla platform, some of which would be useful to have here. It's possible to get some of them (the approved ones) added (I got the 'quote' one added) but I'm reliant on their tech support and customising them is generally not possible.

So, if it's felt that this is too restrictive and prevents growth of the forum, there is the option of hosting Vanilla somewhere else where we do have full access to the server and the code. That's not something I'd personally be able to do, since I've not even seen a Linux server let alone installed something on one. But it might be an avenue to explore if expertise is available. I've been told by the company behind Vanilla that they are hoping to make their hosted offering a lot more flexible in the future so that may not be necessary.

The lack of SSO is an annoyance but I don't see it as a show-stopper: after all you've all made the transition here OK, and it does allow us to have one set of rules and roles for the main site and another set here.

Personally, I like it as is: there are things that could be improved upon, but the simplicity is a virtue, both of the forum itself and the 'hassle free' hosting. The decision to transition from beta to live is more likely to be based on whether we can moderate it successfully and if it's 'fun' in here rather than any technical or hosting consideration.

What do you think of it so far, and what do you think the future holds?

Comments

  • yys4uyys4u USA SoCalMember Posts: 1,092
    Sorry for not helping out more during testing! I must have only posted once and figured it wouldn't work .... but it did and I like it!
    I definitely am very fond of the simplicity of the layout. It's a lot like the main the site, all the active posts are on the first page but there is are categories for the forum on the margins that are nice and small and don't take up the whole page like many other forums.
    I'm definitely slowly moving onto to constantly checking the brickset forum as opposed to the eurobricks one
  • prof1515prof1515 EarthMember Posts: 1,561
    edited April 2011
    Keep it clear of children, immature sycophancy and self-aggrandizement which pervades most other Lego forums and it will definitely be a place I'll come back to. The AFOL community has thus far been lacking a place where adults can engage in critical conversation about Lego and this forum can really fit the bill.
  • YellowcastleYellowcastle Member Posts: 4,401
    While it would certainly be nice to know a poster's region or for mods to be able to move individ posts around, neither of these is a dealbreaker. I find myself spending all my free time reading here that I haven't yet had a chance to post some new topics I've been mulling. So I'm very much good to go as-is, though my wife may want to have a few words with you, Huw. :o)
  • drdavewatforddrdavewatford Hertfordshire, UKAdministrator Posts: 6,258
    OK, so my thoughts....

    I've been a tester on this forum from the beginning, through multiple iterations, and even back when there were only about 5 of us guinea pigs registered ! As Roland (@Rocao) will tell you with amusement, I was constantly arguing that we didn't need this forum, but I've been gradually won over, and it's been the depth and intelligence of much of the discussion that's done it.

    In this world of style over substance, it's refreshing to find a LEGO forum which is defined by the quality of the discussion and the knowledge and experience of the contributors rather than glitzy presentation, competitions and ancillary stuff. From a technical perspective, there are certainly features which in an ideal world I'd like to have available on here, but in the end what matters is the content, and so far this forum is exactly what I've been looking for - a passionate, intelligent membership who share the same interests and who can discuss things in a mature way.

    The simplicity of the interface means that everything boils down to the quality of the content - there's nothing to hide behind. I'd therefore be very happy to continue with this clean, simple format, and the fact that it appears to be relatively low maintenance makes it doubly attractive as it means that Huw can invest his time in continuing to improve Brickset (ACM please !) rather than just keeping the forum running.
  • meyerc13meyerc13 Member Posts: 227
    At first the interface took some adjustment, since it isn't the familiar interface used by many other forums I've joined and moderated that are running on phpBB or IP.Board. However, the functionality seems to be there so I can't say that I have any complaints. You can post, find new posts... all the basics.

    One thing I'm curious about... now that all the regulars are spending their time on the forums, has there been an impact to other parts of the site, such as more or less reviews, more or less people ranking reviews as helpful, etc. I think that would be an interesting angle to look at as to whether the board is helpful or hurting the overall brickset community.

    I must say that I've seen some very useful discussions on here already about sharing the LEGO hobby with your kids and finding time for the hobby. I can't say that I've noticed similar discussions elsewhere and I regularly visit Eurobricks and several other LEGO boards. I'll keep visiting each, but it will be interesting to see what personality this forum community takes on. I think fbtb is the Star Wars site, toysnbricks always seems to have the latest sales/deals, Eurobricks seems to be the best all around forum... it will be interesting to see where bricksetforum goes.

    For me Brickset has always been the go-to site to find out how a set scores with the community, check out a quick review, look up a set number to see what it was, etc. So far, interestingly enough, it doesn't seem like much of the conversation on the forums has been about that stuff. Plus, I doubt we'll see a staple of many forums here - reviews, since the main brickset page will most likely be the place to post your reviews for sharing with the brickset community.

    This is an interesting ride so far, and I'm glad to be part of the journey.
  • mkoeselmkoesel USAMember Posts: 97
    Honestly, given the collection of AFOLs that seems to have registered here, I suspect that this will become the premier Lego forum on the web - the single most valuable place to discuss the Lego hobby ever created. I don't think I am being overly optimistic or hedging bets. Just look at how valuable Brickset itself has become over the years - it's THE Lego database now. I expect the forum to grow and follow suit.

    With all of that said, I do hope that in time there will be ways to marry the brickset forum and brickset-proper to produce any even more valuable Lego resource. For now, I am just enjoying the best discussion I've had with AFOLs since the days of rec.toys.lego. :)
  • PaulTRPaulTR Member Posts: 115
    I think the forum is turning out to be a smash hit. With just a single glance, I can talk to experienced AFOLs, get advice on LEGO issues, find out the latest deals with pin-point accuracy, voice my own thoughts, and get the latest 'dope' in the LEGO community. For me, the interface is clean and easy to use, and I have the tech skills of a dead trout; if someone as dumb as me can learn how to use it, I think anyone can! When you throw in the fact that the entire forum is protected by an umbrella of 'no stupidity/trolling/flaming/immaturity allowed', you've got an absolutely essential resource for any true, mature fan of LEGO. While I think new features would be very cool (and I am salivating over what Huw might add next), I think the forum is in great shape the way it is; I would hate to see meaningful discussions get swept under the rug by 'Instant message' tabs or 'animated avatar' icons.

    So, to sum up, I see this forum as representing the best of Brickset, and by extension, what a fan-created LEGO discussion board should look like: cleanly designed, simple to use, nearly limitless raw LEGO data, mature conversations about meaningful subjects, and a lightning fast news service that allows people to get a better grip on which way the LEGO community is heading. Could you get any better than this? I doubt it! Great work, Huw!
  • korkor Member Posts: 392
    Honestly, given the collection of AFOLs that seems to have registered here, I suspect that this will become the premier Lego forum on the web - the single most valuable place to discuss the Lego hobby ever created. I don't think I am being overly optimistic or hedging bets. Just look at how valuable Brickset itself has become over the years - it's THE Lego database now. I expect the forum to grow and follow suit.
    I completely agree. I've "lurked" on a number of forums for years but there have been very few discussions that I've feel the need or desire to take place in. I have posted more on this forum during its week or so of life than all other LEGO forums combined in the past 7-9 years.

    I really like the interface for the forum as well. Its easy to navigate and understand. Not to say there couldn't be some other features added here or there as time goes on, but simple is often best.

  • knuclear200xknuclear200x Member Posts: 45
    Brickset was always THE primary source for lego information, also the first, at least for me. I've always wanted to ask you for a forum but the comment sections seemed fine already
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