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Solving the other message board problem

Messages boards are a staple of internet life but they’re all horrible to manage and look at. I’ve made it a goal to solve some of that problem but I’m not trying to solve it for everyone, just myself.

An internet relic

One of the first web applications I built when I started programming was a message board for the now-defunct MoogWorld.com. At that time there weren’t a lot of nice (and free) options so I just built my own. It worked but wasn’t designed for the long haul. It also looked like every other message board of the time. Ugly.

Of course, the real problem is that message boards really haven’t changed all that much from a design standpoint. What was typical in 2001 is typical in 2013, although some are working on changing that. And while I do believe the experience for visitors of message boards is a huge problem, it is one that I think is relatively simple to execute on. Not easy to find a solution, just easy to make it happen once that design is found. I’m more interested in solving a problem I’ve been having with managing message boards, especially as of late.

My Redline Derby Racing web site has a rather successful message board that serves as the heart of the site. I don’t get millions of visitors a month but loyalty and engagement on the message board is through the roof, and that couldn’t make me happier…but it also makes me regret not having something nicer for all the members that have helped make it grow. I use phpBB right now and it works well when it comes to the basics – posting, replies, messaging and quick admin duties – but as more and more people come and share great content, the more I want need my message board to be a CMS.

My web site also has a standard blog running on WordPress. The strategy at first was to have the message boards for member discussions and quick sharing, and have the blog for “official” posts written by myself. That worked okay for a while until membership grew and until I ran out of “official” content topics. Thus the result was a sad, stagnant blog and a message board that was where the real action was going on. Naturally, if I needed to write something topical, I forwent the blog and just posted it in the forum where the people were actually spending time. So now I’m trying to solve a problem of how I can create a message board that is also a CMS. Something where quick discussion and sharing can happen but where I can also post and select topics to feature as straight up “news” articles. I know that sounds like a problem that has been solved already but I have yet to find one that does what I’m looking for (for free).

Arguing semantics

When you think about it, the difference between a blog and a message board is very little. Both involve someone starting a topic and then people comment on it. The only real difference is perception, style and management. Message boards suffer greatly from poor content findability and my phpBB board is no different. I see a lot of good topics being started and getting a lot of traction but no way to easily save them or organize them for future visitors. They get lost in the shuffle and I need a way to reduce that loss. High overheard in finding content results in duplication of content or people just giving up.

Like I said, making a message board prettier is not a new problem but most forums are just down right ugly. They’re tiny, cluttered and unpleasant to read. It would be straight forward to make a theme and slap it on top of phpBB but that doesn’t solve my management problems. So without wanting to otherwise bend WordPress or other CMS to do my bidding, I’m just going to build my own. I’m not really stoked for the headaches that come building such a tool but I am excited to tackle a problem that has irked me for far too long.

A tailored experience

I was quick to start thinking, “how do I make this a platform that I can let others user?” But I don’t need want that worry. I don’t want to recreate phpBB. I don’t need this creation to solve 100 problems, I need it to solve 10. It’s time to go back to my custom tailored roots. This is going to be boutique, not Walmart.

In theory, building this CMS to do only what I need should make things better, faster and easier for all involved, including site visitors. In recent years I’ve gotten lazy, just downloading add-ons and plugins do solve my problems. I didn’t want to put fourth the effort. But I also want my site to continue to succeed and grow and not putter-out like so many of my past projects. I need to remember a quote from the Prince of Persia diary:

“You’ve dug your way deep into an active gold mine and are holding off from digging the last two feet because you’re too dumb to appreciate what you’ve got and too lazy to finish what you’ve started.”

In the end I’m sure my custom CMS won’t be a silver bullet but I’m confident it will be better suited in helping manage message board content compared to anything available right now. I want my producer tools to go beyond making a topic “sticky” or by letting people up/down vote. I spent years in the media business watching them drop the ball with user-generated content so I like to thing that has taught me some things that I hope I can use on my own. We’ll see.

Originally posted on Aug 9, 2013

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