"A funny thing happened on the way to the forum": Article in Indo about 10 years of boards.ie

20080214a.png Irish Independent > Business > Technology > A funny thing happened on the way to the forum
After 10 years, John Breslin’s online forum on everything from personal relationships to motors and mustard, boards.ie, is still blazing a trail

By Marie Boran
Thursday February 14 2008

Want to know where you can buy the cheapest digital camera, or how to go about claiming rent relief, or maybe if buying cowboy boots would be a fashion disaster?

The world relies on Google but the Irish have boards.ie. On this online bulletin board no question is too trivial or too bizarre and with an average 900,000 visitors to the site every month, there are plenty of answers on offer.

It is hard to believe that a decade ago, on 12 February, 1998, boards.ie founder John Breslin wrote expectantly: “The first of many messages, I hope.”

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Of course, there are four other people who have made boards.ie possible: Tom Murphy, Dan King, Gerry Shanahan, and Jerry Connolly. Without them and our amazing team of voluntary moderators, I doubt boards.ie would even exist today. Original questions and answers follow.

Firstly I’d like to ask you how boards.ie started – I remember playing Quake on networked computers in secondary school and it was great – how did such a huge online Irish community spring from a love of killing pixelated monsters?

In 1997, I started running a site called quake.ie (with Ed Curry’s Irish Games Network) which was dedicated to the third-person shooter game “Quake”. There had been an explosion of people playing the game that year, and we were also running some multiplayer servers for the Irish Quake-playing community. When I was in college, I’d seen how popular online bulletin boards could be (on our VAX/VMX mainframe I’d been fascinated by a service called BULLETIN>), so on the 12th February 1998, I set up a message board at quake.ie where people could organise games, talk about Quake in Ireland, etc. It really took off, and I quickly had to hack to the Perl code to allow archiving and paginated views due to the sheer volume of posts. Later that year, I added some more areas where people could talk about other stuff: recreation, TV, computers, etc. In 1999, one of my fellow gamers, Tom Murphy, suggested that we evolve these message boards into a full site (and associated company, boards.ie Ltd.) the next year where Irish communities could talk about anything of interest – we’ve grown from about 20-30 forums at that stage to over 700 forums discussing various topics today.

boards.ie gets a sizeable amount of visitors per day – what is the attraction in the face (pardon the pun) of graphic heavy, instant gratification networks like Facebook?

We had about 900,000 visitors (15 million page views) last month (January 2008), and 70% of those came from Ireland, so that’s about 600,000 Irish people checking in to our site (and growing). It’s still a moderate success by Irish and international standards, but one we are still quite proud of considering that most of our exposure has come from word of mouth, media coverage, and the wealth of user-generated content that is picked up by search engines. I read an interesting quote about discussion boards recently from KickApps that said the “message board space […] represents not only social media’s past, but its future”, talking about the value of niche micro-communities in comparison to “mega portals”. In comparison to other global social networking services and social media sites, the “social objects” that draw people back to boards.ie are the interesting discussions on a wide range of topics (there is something for nearly everyone now I think); on Bebo, people come back to check out their comment walls and their friend’s photos from the night before, and on Facebook, the activity streams are one of the primary draws. The time spent on site for a social networking service like Bebo varies from 75 minutes for under 17s to half that (38 minutes) for 18 to 24 year olds, and less again for those over 25. On average, our boards.ie visitors last month spent 10 minutes on site, but we would also have a lot of occasional search engine traffic as well as regular “lurkers” and logged-on members coming to the site to get updates on various topics.

Are there any legendary discussions on boards.ie that never really ended or ran for years?

There have been a few very long-lived threads, I’m not sure how legendary they are but the longest one has 1,932 pages (over 38,000 posts) and is all about writing something about the person who posted just before you. It started in 2004 and is still going! There’s also a drinking thread with people happily serving each other drinks (18,000 posts), a poker ranting / boasting thread and a “what song are you listening to now” thread (16,000 posts each). But the most viewed threads include discussions about freebies, luxury cars seen in Ireland, and Garda recruitment.

What is the future for boards.ie? Will it become more seamlessly interlinked with social.ie?

social.ie is still really an experiment at this stage, but I envisage it becoming a portal to social networking functionality embedded within boards.ie itself. In fact, while we have had that facility for some time now (I added it in 2004 when I first started learning about online social networks), the software that powers our discussion service will soon be offering an integrated friends system which we will build on.

Where does boards.ie pull its revenue from? Is it mostly advertising?

Yes, primarily our revenue comes from a combination of Google Adsense and targetted banner adverts purchased through our sales representative. We can deliver ads to specific topic forums on our site, which has proven quite popular with advertisers who have an idea of what areas their target audiences are visiting on boards.ie. Making up a smaller part of our revenues, we also have premium subscriber services (custom images, titles, larger message storage, a bmail.ie address) and commercial interaction forums (where companies can interact with customers on their products / services, building on the existing momentum from the boards.ie user base).

What ballpark figure in revenue does boards.ie pull in on an annual basis?

I can’t give a figure but I can say that it is enough for our hosting equipment needs and for our two hires: the Managing Director (Gerry Shanahan), and our first full-time developer who starts in mid-February. And of course, since our visits are increasing, this gives us more opportunities to grow our staff and competencies. BTW, I am happy to say that we used boards.ie to advertise the developer position, and the new developer also happens to be a well-known moderator from the boards.ie community.

The majority of boards.ie members (according to the boards.ie polls) is overwhelmingly male and quite a lot are in the IT community yet the topics are still quite diverse – do you think the male/female ratio will eventually even out?

Our census is nearly three years old now, and for now I can only give a gut feeling from my perception of the discussion topics now prevalent on boards.ie that the ratio has changed in that time (I would hope that the female proportion will increase beyond a third of the total user base, if it hasn’t done so already – time for a new census!).

Can you tell me a bit about the boards.ie evolution, when it started expanding and adding more forums? What tends to be the most popular forum(s)?

Even since 2005, the topics being discussed have changed with increases in recreation, sports, regional issues and education and corresponding decreases in computer games and technology (see here). Currently, our most popular forums are after hours (i.e., recreation and non-work stuff), motors, soccer, computers and technology, and poker.

[Question about ongoing court case removed.]

boards.ie is your baby – is there an point where you felt it became something you no longer recognised or couldn’t control – is there a time when you will feel that you have developed it to its potential and will move on to something new?

I think that boards.ie became big enough that you couldn’t keep track of every major topic being discussed soon after we launched as a company in 2000. Thankfully, I then had four other administrators to help out with the tasks associated with our growth.

boards.ie is now making more money than would be required to just “keep the site alive”, and since it has become such a prominent source of knowledge for various Irish communities, there is more expectation that a certain standard or level of service will be provided from this Irish “institution”. Running it as a non-profit effort no longer makes sense if we want to continue the growth of boards.ie – as a company, we have to use our proceeds to maintain and sustain the site, to provide for the staff and directors who will continue to work on the site, and to further develop future opportunities (or to prepare for the unexpected).

While my personal day-to-day “hands-on” involvement in boards.ie has diminished due to a lack of time, I am deeply involved in the future direction of the site and am constantly considering how new developments in the social software world can influence what we do in boards.ie (especially as this is the main focus of my job as a Semantic Web researcher at DERI, National University of Ireland, Galway). As regards moving on to something new, I have no plans at the moment other than to examine what aspects of boards.ie can be grown or to see what other services in the social media space we can provide by leveraging the critical mass that we’ve built up so far (we also run some blogging and wiki sites as part of our offerings).

Although the boards.ie community seems great overall have there ever been problems with security, abuse, filtering, etc.?

In relation to security, we’ve been fortunate not to have had any major intrusions since we moved from Windows to Unix (FreeBSD and more recently CentOS) in 2001. One of the boards.ie owners, Jerry Connolly, has expertise in this field which has been extremely useful. No site is impenetrable of course! On the issues of abuse and filtering, we do not edit people’s content before it goes live on the site, as we are merely a conduit for people’s opinions. Of course, there will be some topics that may be libellous or defamatory, and through our combination of moderators and administrators, we do look at and remove such topics as soon as they are brought to our attention. There are some swear words that are blocked by an automatic regular expression system, but this is commonplace on most discussion forums.

Can you tell me about the DERI/boards.ie competition and how the Semantic Web fits in with boards.ie?

Yes. SIOC is an initiative I’ve been working for the past four years at DERI (funded by Science Foundation Ireland) in NUI Galway that aims to make semantic data available from online communities and Web 2.0 spaces, and to use and leverage that data in interesting and useful ways. As well as being the Irish word for frost, SIOC stands for “Semantically-Interlinked Online Communities” and the schema or vocabulary of terms that serves as its basis was recently submitted as a Member Submission to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). We have about 30 or 40 SIOC applications and modules that use and consume SIOC data already, but it is also good to have a nice big dataset of SIOC data to test applications on. boards.ie, with its 10 years of discussion history, can serve as a useful source of such structured information. For four years, boards.ie has been publishing public social graph information online in the FOAF (or Friend-of-a-Friend format), along with RSS feeds of recent posts. Thomas Schandl, a visiting researcher working at DERI, has been developing a SIOC data producer for the vBulletin system (that powers boards.ie and many other large discussion sites), which we will use to produce semantic “RDF” data from boards.ie just as other efforts like microformats are doing from Yahoo! and many other sites. The associated information we intend to “SIOC-ify” is already all publicly viewable, but it is somewhat difficult to leverage without the added semantics due to the fact that it is mainly embedded in heavily-styled HTML pages.

We haven’t launched the competition just yet, as we are waiting to complete the SIOC data exporter and aggregate set of data once boards.ie passes its 10th anniversary, but DERI will be sponsoring a competition in conjunction with boards.ie which will offer a prize (of around €3000) to whoever can produce the most interesting application that makes use of the SIOC data coming from boards.ie.

How does boards.ie fit in with SIOC? What are the main benefits of SIOC? Does linking up information from one site to another pose a problem as regards privacy on the net?

Message boards like boards.ie remain hugely popular on the Web, and exhibit much of the functionality made popular by Web 2.0, although they pre-date Web 2.0 by some time. It was estimated last year that there are 300 million registered members on message boards, consisting of over 50 billion posts. However, message boards are still islands that remain disconnected, with complementary discussions on topics related to a particular community of interest taking place across a variety of sites. There is a large amount of structured related information contained within these boards, and this can be leveraged in interesting ways by exposing the semantic data using SIOC for new applications to use. By producing SIOC data from boards.ie, we can not only allow better use of the information within our site, but we can combine resources from outside boards.ie with topics that are being discussed internally.

Certainly, privacy is an issue not only for explicitly-linked data but for knowledge that can be mined from unstructured data that is already out there. People should be aware of the amount of information about themselves that is publicly viewable and mineable in any case, and they should take care when filling out profiles or when creating content to ensure that they know exactly who is allowed to access this information directly through a site or via third-party agreements.

You have talked with Tim Berners-Lee when he was at DERI a few years ago – is his vision of the Semantic Web like DERI’s? Can you give me examples of how the Semantic Web will affect the lives of ordinary people in the years to come?

I met Tim briefly in MIT last year, and while I can’t speak for him, I know that he is very interested in current developments in the social graph, especially how semantics can be used in the world of social networking and the Social Web, and more generally in what he terms the Giant Global Graph (see here). The social graph looks at how people are connected together (friends, colleagues, neighbours, etc.), and how such connections can be leveraged across websites. The GGG is another meme for the idea of the Semantic Web, where it is not just people who are connected together in some meaningful way, but documents, events, places, hobbies, pictures, you name it!

Basically, the idea of the Semantic Web is to add more meaning to the Web. We have lots of web pages with bundles of text describing everything from commercial products to historical artefacts, but it is difficult to answer relatively simple questions like “find me all the people John knows who like to discuss sport” based on the content of these pages. This is because the metadata attributes about various things on the Web (e.g., the populations of towns, the colours of paper currencies) are either not present or they are not defined in any way that is easy to reuse. Also, the meanings of relationships between things (e.g., John, who is the subject of this page, is an employee of NUI Galway, the topic of that page) are often absent or are described in vague terms in associated texts.

There are two main ways to add semantics to the Web. Firstly, in a bottom up approach, we can have people add semantic relations and annotations to new content they are creating, and this can be combined with semantics from the database structures that are inherent in many social software applications. This is being done in some manner with tagging, with blogrolls, with Wikipedia categories and infoboxes, where people are voluntarily adding metadata and “typed links” (as opposed to a regular hyperlink between two pages, a typed link will say what the connection means, e.g., Dan is a founder of boards.ie) to pages.

Secondly, in a top down alternative, information can be mined using linguistic approaches and semantic relationships can be derived from paragraphs of text (search company Powerset is taking this approach). This is harder to do of course, but may eventually yield much more metadata than can be created manually by people. It’s not a case of one or the other; efforts so far have mainly focussed on the “bottom up” approach, but as the technologies required by the “top down” approach improve, a hybrid approach will probably evolve as predicted by Nova Spivack (see here).

Nova will give a keynote talk at BlogTalk 2008 (2nd-4th March 2008) next month, as CEO of one of the companies that is practically applying Semantic Web technologies to social software applications. Radar Networks have a product called Twine, which is a “knowledge networking” application that allows users to share, organise, and find information with people they trust.

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