I opted to respond to some questions and concerns here in a blog rather than a forum post. The length made more sense away from the forum and this will let it stand alone better. It is more a case of providing insight rather than answering questions or debating ways to do things. This is just a look inside what drove the changes and why we made the choices we did.
I want to make it clear we made the decisions, just the two of us. We didn’t take a vote or anything like that. Since we run and own the site and do not have any staff beyond us, it was on us to do this. We have a couple of friends who help look over things when we travel, but that is it in terms of help on the site.
Go ahead and settle in – it will be a long one.
From my perspective I can say the change has been mostly positive. However I had different goals in mind with the change and upgrade. And my perspective is different than that of a reader.
JJJ thought we changed the format because the previous version was not moderated. That isn’t correct, the Buzz was always moderated. The problem is that it looked like it wasn’t due to the volume of spam we had. You could literally not walk away for more than an hour without getting a massive spam attack. It was very stressful as we had to constantly check to clear it out, and due to the technology it required trimming by hand, sometimes even altering the html code by hand. It was not automated.
We did add words to a language filter that helped with the spam. It really isn’t good when your spam filter starts to look like the OED though.
What we wanted to accomplish with the site from the upgrade and change is as follows. Keep in mind we are looking at the whole site and not just the forum. The forum is a part (and important one to be sure) but still just a part.
It was unworkable to have the forum the old way and the rest of the site completely changed for technical and design reasons.
Spam control – we needed a better way to manage posts and limit the amount of spam. As a very popular site, and with a very easy to spam forum format, we had lots of it. Just by changing format it eliminated a lot. The CAPTCHA for anonymous posting has worked well. The forum is a million times easier to moderate overall. There is also the ability to send an abuse report (before you just had to e-mail us), which helps.
Registration – we wanted to offer and allow registration for users who wanted it. Registration makes it easier to track things you have read, prove you are who you say you are (if you remember your password!) and also limit some of the spam. Note that registration is not mandatory. You can still post anonymously if you like. The intent was never to remove anonymous posting, just to offer advantages to registration. We don’t feel a forum should have mandatory registration to be able to post.
Allow advanced user features – we wanted to be able to add functionality to the site and improve it. Unlike many sites the registration is not a forum registration but a site registration. It means you can post comments with the same login throughout the site and it also allows the ability to have other features and functions that would need authentication. More user features is a long term goal, not a short term one.
Allow archiving – We wanted to be able to retain posts for longer periods of time. The prior software would not allow that. The old format also does not really lend itself to long-term archiving. A ‘stream of consciousness’ conversation doesn’t last a week, much less months or years. It loses relevance in a week or less and needs to be trimmed.
Upgrade the news posting – we needed a better way to handle the news posts and allow the system to be able to index and categorize them. This helps archiving and site searching. Changing the overall site software (and moving to a new server) accomplished this perfectly. This makes posting news and images much easier now, and indexing and archiving easy as well. This isn't something you really see from reading the site but it is a big improvement on the administration side.
Upgrade other content creation – we wanted to have something better than the old tools for content creation (like Custom Con) so it can be indexed and archived easily. Again, this was not a forum-specific requirement but a site-wide concern.
Updated and consistent design – we wanted to whole site (including the forum) to be unified in look and design. We didn’t want the forum to look completely different, and so it made sense to use an integrated approach. This worked with the current set-up, even if it isn’t eye-popping or trend-setting design-wise.
The threaded, stream of conscious format and feel was unique. However, in the greater scheme of the internet it isn’t a popular or oft-used format. That is why it was so hard to find ready-made software to use.
What would have been our ideal solution? To add in all the things above and be able to have the forum look and work exactly as it did but with the ability to archive posts and sign-in. Also, to keep it with the same look and feel as the rest of the site and not move it off to a new URL or program, like independent forum software(which was an option we researched as well).
The reality is that no such software exists out of the box. We could have it custom programmed, but it was be expensive, time-consuming and require technical assistance long term (which makes it even more expensive). This just wasn’t practical for many reasons.
As for finding more band-aids to keep the old forum running, we have been doing that for years. The forum was like a tooth with cavities and fillings that ran out of tooth and had fillings attached to fillings. Eventually you have to draw the line, and meanwhile it continued to get harder and more time-consuming to try and moderate.
We knew making the change of the forum would have consequences. We really went through a lot to decide on it and tried to find ways to avoid it, but there were too many other things to ignore.
The new design of the forum reduces pageviews simply by grouping more forum posts on a single page. This is certainly a factor and we expected it.
Registration and changes in format were going to alienate some people. We knew this and expected people to leave. We didn’t want them to go, but we knew this was unavoidable with the changes we made. We also knew we would lose some people who were long-time posters and well known.
We expected a loss in traffic. And there has been one. Really it has resulted in a shift to less return visits and more new visits by percentage. It has also resulted in more overall unique visitors site-wide than we had before. Overall less page views because they are shorter visits. It was a lot less of a drop than we expected, though the drop is most profoundly in the forum area.
The community has been reduced, and that is a painful loss. We knew we would lose some people, but still expected that the community would survive overall. It has survived, but it is different and has less of a ‘vibe’ than it did before.
We always felt the Buzz was more influenced by the people who were in the community rather than the forum format. And looking at some other forums with similar format to the old Buzz, clearly it isn’t just the format. It was the mix we had here.
There are a lot of people who just read the forum, and that is it. That’s fine, everyone can choose to read what interests them. But the overall majority of people who read the site are not forum readers or users. They also have a voice in what we do on the site, even if they don’t voice things on the forum. So this ‘silent majority’ has weight as well as the ‘very unsilent’ forum community.
Am I saying that the forum community wasn’t important in this decision? No, it was (and is) very important. But it wasn’t the only factor in our decisions. The overall site was the overriding factor.
People have asked for archived posts, registration in some form and reducing or eliminating the spam for some time now. A few (though a minority) have even asked for a new format.
We tried to find a solution to satisfy everyone, which of course may not exist. How well it worked depends on what kind of reader of the site you were.
On our end we have seen much less stress with moderation and updating the site. It is much easier to work with. And we still believe the long term success will outweigh the short term troubles.
We knew some people weren’t going to like it and would leave. We respect this and understand. We’re sad to see people go but we wish them the best. There may be more, and that is okay. Everyone should make their own decision about what they want to read and which sites they would prefer to frequent.