I was interviewed by Rory Gannon of PC Live! magazine for an article in this month’s issue about boards.ie. The article includes a nice summary of a slightly longer set of interview questions, which I am including here for your interest.
Where did the idea for boards.ie come from?
Initially, it started off life as a single message board about a computer game called Quake on the Irish Games Network. There was an associated community of Irish gamers, and I set up the board in February 1998 (so we’re nearing a historic 10 years since our first post) to discuss events, games, etc. The board was very busy, so much so that I had to customise it fairly quickly to allow archiving and avoid overloading people and browsers with content. Then, based on community feedback and their needs, we added some new areas to talk about other topics like TV, computers, and after hours stuff in 1999. One of my fellow gamers and a big user of the boards, Tom Murphy, put it to me that we should jointly set up a new site that could be a hub for Irish communities of all types, and he suggested that we call this site boards.ie. At the time, it was prohibitively difficult to get .ie domain names, so he had to change the name of his own company for a day, register the domain, and change the name back again. Together with Tom and three other directors, boards.ie Ltd. was founded in 2000 and we’ve been on the go since. Our managing director is Gerry Shanahan, and we are now looking for our second employee.
How does the site work?
The main component of the site is a message board discussion area. People post discussion “threads”, starting off with a starter topic on which they receive replies from other people (which may consist of answers to questions, differences of opinion, useful related resources, etc.) When you go to http://www.boards.ie, you see an entry page that shows the latest 25 discussion threads from our entire site. This gives you an idea of what people are talking about right now. There’s a navigation menu up top (tip: which offers a lot more functionality when you actually login to the site) that shows the main categories (ranging from Arts to Tech) under which there are tens of sub-boards in each category. If you click on a category, you’ll see the appropriate forums contained in there: e.g., Arts contains Literature, TV, Radio, etc. We have around 700 active boards, with diverse topic areas including Politics, Motors, Poker, and even Wanderley Wagon!
Do you regulate the site? Are there restrictions on content and “etiquette” (what rules, regulations and user criteria are observed)?
Each of the boards is moderated, which means that there are two or three voluntary moderators on each board who will try and keep conversations on topic, will report offensive content, and will also (normally) be a recognised expert on the corresponding topic area. We also have what are called “Super Moderators”, each of whom is able to patrol and moderate any public board on the site. Serious problems can be attended to be the administrators (at the moment, that’s us, the owners of the boards.ie Ltd.). We have a public feedback forum for site suggestions, a feature for reporting problematic posts, and an area where moderators can discuss potential issues or contribute to our “Zen and the Art of Moderation” guide for new moderators.
What problems you have encountered with the site?
From time to time, we have encountered requests for the removal of defamatory material about individuals or companies. We comply with all legitimate requests as quickly as possible. Also, increased usage of boards.ie has meant that we’ve had a stream of hardware upgrade over the past few years. We started off with one machine, then had to separate the web and database components onto different servers, and now we have 14 machines in operation (including those for our various spin-off sites).
Has the site developed as you expected?
I would say much more than we could have imagined. I would never have guessed that the growth would have progressed in such a continuous and almost “nature-like” fashion. When I drew some graphs last year showing our user and discussion post growth, I was suprised at how smooth the curves were (see here) – I was really expecting lots of dips and surges. We get over 750,000 unique visitors a month, with over two-thirds coming from Ireland. Arguably, that’s possibly 1 in 10 of our population that visits the site each month.
What potential does the site have in your opinion – what direction do you see it going in the future?
The site has been hugely successful in being the place to find information or get answers about anything related to Ireland, a community-oriented alternative to static information and other media sites. When I’m looking for something via search engines, I often end up back at boards.ie. Through word-of-mouth primarily, we’re now ranked somewhere in the top 10,000 sites worldwide (Netcraft estimates that there are at least 100 million websites), and I’d hope that we will continue to improve in terms of coverage both at a micro (localised communities in Ireland) and macro level (i.e., internationally).
We’ve tried to identify the areas where boards.ie services could be enhanced in order to continue to offer competitive functionality that users would want from our site (rather than going somewhere else) – a lot of players have entered this market since 1998. The first main example of this was adverts.ie, a classified ads subsite we launched when we realised that the popularity of our boards.ie “For Sale” forums was something that could be expanded and improved upon by moving it to a separate site. We’ve also been playing with a social networking spin-off (social.ie) – this is a little more complex as the social interaction aspects of boards.ie are quite tied into the site, and it’s more difficult to separate. It may be that social.ie will serve as a portal to embedded social networking functionality within boards.ie itself, rather than existing on its own. For now though, I believe that we should concentrate on strengthening what we have, rather than diversifying in too many directions.
We also need to look at how new users can move to and from boards.ie with ease, e.g., through portable profiles or single sign-on efforts like OpenID (there will be a workshop on this topic in Cork next March). Adding an OpenSocial layer (Google’s API for application portability across social networking platforms) may also be of interest, allowing us to integrate interesting widgets from third parties. We also hope to run a competition in conjunction with DERI, NUI Galway (my employer) sometime in Q1 2008, with a prize for the most innovative use of “SIOC” community metadata from the boards.ie site.