What to do about the Folbot Forum?

{Warning: This weblog has been kidnapped, briefly, by the Folbot webmaster (who actually prefers to be called “Jay”). Regular programming will continue after this message.}

Recently I’ve been hearing increased grumbling about performance issues with the Folbot web forum. A couple of weeks ago there was a flurry of discussion on the forum itself about these complaints and I decided it was time to bite the bullet and bring this whole thing out into the open. It’s been on my mind for about a year now, particularly the last 6 months, and even more the past 2 months. So, I asked Phil if I could borrow his weblog for a bit of forum-related discussion and he agreed.

Without further ado, here are my feelings about the current web forum:

1) It’s pretty darn slow. But you already know that.

2) Other than being slow, it has a nice interface. Our forum doesn’t have a million widgets and animated gif images vying for your attention: it stays to the point and, once you’ve gotten used to the wait, it stays out of your way and provides for a pretty good user experience. Of course, this is largely due to the efforts of John Haide who has worked tirelessly to keep the forum organized and up to date since it was introduced.

3) The forum interface is nevertheless not good enough for the search engines. The various search engines’ web bots have apparently decided to ignore the contents of Folbot’s web forum when they make their rounds indexing the web. Is it a latency issue? (Do the robots simply timeout after 10 or so seconds? I doubt it.) Is it the default frames-based layout? (Lots of people say the search engine robots don’t bother indexing websites with complicated multiple frame navigation. For the non-webgeeks among us, “frames” are basically separate web pages that appear in the same window of your browser, and you can learn more about the controversy surrounding frames-based web design here.) For whatever reason, when somebody goes onto the web and searches “kayak duct-tape flamingo” (as we all have at one time or another!), they miss out on the hundreds (thousands?) of insightful and humorous results that they could get if only the search engines were indexing our forum. I would like to see this change.

4) It’s not our forum. This is the biggest problem that I have with the current forum. We don’t own the forum any more than we own our internet connection. It is provided as a service by our web host, and it’s provided “as is,” and we can take it or leave it. This makes good business sense in a lot of ways: Folbot is not a web company and would prefer to concentrate on building innovative folding kayaks, not web forums. If we let our web host handle the details of the forum, then we can have our cake and eat it too. Right? Well, not exactly. It might be more apt to say we can have our cake and chew it too. I count two major problems having to do with our lack of forum ownership:

First, if the forum is too slow, or if it stops running altogether, all we can do is beg for mercy. We can’t try to identify the bottleneck. We can’t switch to a different, faster database. We can’t troubleshoot *at all*. That’s the first problem. The second problem is a much bigger problem: when we are ready to switch hosts or perhaps to switch to a new forum software package, we have no easy way of exporting our data.

A few months ago I started to get serious about shopping around for a new web forum software solution. The first thing I did was email our host to ask how to export the data from the current forum. My question was basically, “Where is the export button?” It didn’t even occur to me that there would be *no* way to export the data. When I got my response, it was something to the effect of, “We do not provide this service.”

I was shocked to discover this. I’ve always been naively appalled when I encounter software that is designed to hobble the user in place. But there it is. It definitely slowed my departure and left me worried about how we would or could abandon the thousands of posts to the forum that record the growth of an active and helpful online community. At the time, Phil and I agreed that if we did start a new forum, we would leave the old one in place for an indefinite amount of time so that people could read from the old and post to the new. But I don’t think either of us felt particularly good about that “solution.” Since then I’ve been looking into alternative ways of gathering the data from the forum, and I think I’ve found a solution to that problem at least.

So,

What do you want to do about the Folbot Forum?

The current forum is an active community of Folbot users. I don’t want to change that. I don’t want to mess it up. I wouldn’t bother trying to fix this if it wasn’t broken, but I’ve come to believe that it is broken and that we should start discussing ways to transition to a new forum that is OURS and that we can be confident will exist and continue to grow in the future. If you agree with me, I hope that you will help us make the next decisions. If you don’t agree, I want to hear why. You can participate in this discussion by commenting on this post or by sending email to Folbot if you’d like to be more private (or more long winded!).

If we agree to go forward with a new forum, one of the first things that needs to be decided is what software to use. I am going to propose that we use a certain package that many of you might be familiar with, but I’m open to alternative suggestions. Here are the qualities that I’ve been looking for in a forum software package:

1) Flexibility. I’d like to be able to use the software in a variety of web and database server environments. If we decide to rearrange our website infrastructure, I’d like to be confident that we will be able to move our forum from one environment to another with a minimum of fuss. I don’t want the implementation of the forum to be tied to any proprietary operating system or database, if possible.

2) Customizability. If I am able to find a forum package that has the above qualities, it would be a shame to not use it because it doesn’t meet my needs aesthetically or from a user interface standpoint. Switching to a new forum is going to be a fair amount of work, and I would like to be proud of the result from an aesthetic standpoint as well as a functional one.

3) Easy to backup and export data. For me, this is a no-brainer and I certainly wouldn’t be interested in going to all this trouble without these critical features.

4) Active user base. By which I mean, lots of other people and companies should be actively using the package, and it should come highly recommended. This helps insure that the software will continue to be developed and supported in the future.

The presence of the above qualities, plus the fact that it came highly recommended from some friends, plus the fact that I’m familiar with the language in which it’s written, have me leaning toward a forum software package called phpBB.

Over the past few months I’ve installed phpBB on several machines: an old Linux desktop that barely runs (it worked fine), on my Mac laptop (it worked fine), and on a server that would be capable of hosting the new forum if we go there (it worked fine). It works with several different databases, and I’m currently using it with a popular, open-source database called MySQL. It is plenty fast at the moment, but of course there is hardly any data yet. The real test will be how it handles the thousands of posts that the current forum is juggling but I am pretty confident that it will do just fine. (Actually, I suspect the current forum software is juggling hundreds of thousands (maybe over a million?) posts, because it seems to be one process shared by many forums, not just Folbot. Which, of course, is one of the problems…)

My only criticism of phpBB is that the default, out-of-the-box “look and feel” is a little busy for my taste, but this really isn’t fair because phpBB is reputed to be 100% customizable. If we were to decide to use phpBB for the new forum, my first task would be to simplify the interface somewhat. (Also, in my research, I was unable to find any software package that left me entirely pleased me in the “look and feel” department. In fact, I think phpBB does a pretty good job compared to most.)

Ok, I’m tired of typing and you’re no doubt tired of reading. If you’re interested, take a look at phpBB’s website. If you’re a forum user, let me know what you think. Are you ready to make the switch to a new forum?

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25 thoughts on “What to do about the Folbot Forum?

  1. Jay, I have many of the same concerns you do about a switch, but no expertise in the nuts and bolts of it. I can not evaluate the phpBB S/W without using it interactively, but any FAST text-based system with decent search capabilities and the ability to post pictures would satisfy me. Archiving is also a prime concern.

    Being able to search for Forum tidbits using one of the search engines such as Google is NOT a desirable aspect of any forum I want to participate in. Lots of privacy issues there.

  2. Dave, I’m glad we share some of the same concerns. I think that phpBB will more than provide the features that you’re looking for: speed, decent search, photo uploading support, archiving, etc.

    As far as the search engines are concerned, I don’t know how we can really enforce any level of privacy on a public web forum – unless we decide to make it private. The current forum is quite public and if Google (or another search engine) wanted to, they would be well within their rights to index it. Why they haven’t done that already is a mystery to me. I was thinking that the added exposure would actually benefit the Folbot community (and the kayaking community in general).

  3. I agree with Dave. I like the privacy. As you say it may be possible for Google etc. to index the forum but up to now they haven’t and that’s a good thing. People can find Folbot.com using any search engine and if they have a genuine interest in Folbot they’ll find the forum. That should satisfy the business interests of Folbot. I wouldn’t like to see web surfers who have no interest in Folbot randomly finding the forum and posting. That would not be in the best interest of Folbot or the forum users. Some day search engines may index the forum but why encourage it.

    Yes it’s slow but I have dial up so if I really needed a faster connection I’d pay the extra $10 a month for a high speed connection.

    Dickc

  4. “Google (or another search engine) wanted to, they would be well within their rights to index it. Why they haven’t done that already is a mystery to me.”

    A)-Human nature, they’re focused on other things like selling eyeballs and are in a hurry. I actually prize the cozy privacy of the current forum and put up with the slow speed – laughing at the pace of modern life. But I’m a slow blowboater kind-a-guy. I think of the forum as a special secret ‘gunkhole’- good place to hang out with folbot friends.

    I subscribe to a bunch of the web based boating groups and they are constantly bombarded by all manner of inane jabber, or whipped by some stuffy “moderator”.

    Thanks for your attention to the matter, I’m confident that you and Mr. Cotton will come up with something suitable. That’s the Folbot Way.

  5. Jay, Glad you’re looking into the “slowness”. Since I don’t know how the forum sofeware is configured, I can’t help with suggestions. Perhaps archiving posts older than 3 months would help if the database is loaded on every access? The forum speed isn’t of much concern to me. As sailboy, I also enjoy the slow paddle/sail type of existence. Best of skill to you. PeteS

  6. Be careful what you wish for. We get numerous emails and phone calls about the slowness of our Users’ Forum. In an effort to respond to those concerns, I asked son Jay (our Web Guy) to see what could be done. (After all, we take customer service very seriously). He and I both know we are treading on very dangerous waters here. Our existing forum is a comfortable and safe place to hang out, populated by the finest folks on earth who have a genuine and caring interest in the product and the company. Woe be the person who even thinks about tampering with our sacred shrine. No wonder I assigned the project to him!

    But if we are to perpetuate our existence so that we are here for the next generation, it actually will be a good thing for the websurfer to stumble into our community and want to become a participant.

    The curious visitor to our site who checks out the Users’ Forum is typically a lurker and goes in as a ‘Guest’. If he or she doesn’t think the computer has frozen up, he or she will eventually get to posts from 2002, roughly 21000 entries and 3500 photos prior to the current stuff. Independent of ISP connection type (from dial up to cable), a wait of 2 minutes is typical and then an attempt to get to the front of the line via the ‘bottom’ button times out or takes roughly three minutes. Actual posts are still not available without another excruciating wait. By this time, they have formed an ugly opinion of the Forum and the company.

    I challenge each of you to go on the Users’ Forum as a ‘Guest’ and not give up until you have read the most recent post (7/28/04) in the General Yak category. Please email me your results if you like.

    The ‘Member’ experience is totally different, with only minor waits to get where you want to go, but few folks register on their first visit, although we practically beg them to do so when he are lucky enough to have phone contact first.

    SO OUR GOAL: make the forum a fun experience for the member and the guest. Right away, this eliminates the current O’Reilly WebBoard because of the way it operates, that is, many forums on one server. We have made numerous attempts to improve the speed on the existing board (including archiving older posts) and the answer is always the same: the O’Reilly WebBoard will not go faster because organizations and companies are all lumped together on the same server.

    OUR SUBGOALS:
    1. Make the look and feel of the new forum as much like the old one as is feasible so as to not alienate our current users.
    2. Make the functionality of the new forum as much like the old one as is feasible for the same reason.
    3. Leave the forum to our customers without company intervention. In other words, no moderators.
    4. Discourage use of the Forum by anyone but the well-intended by requiring legitimate, verifiable registration to post, and maintaining a high level of decency and ethics within the posts.
    5. Move the old posts and images to the new forum.
    6. Find forum software that is open-source and well supported by the development community.
    7. Find forum software that will be recognized by search engines so as to increase the company’s presence on the Web.

    Should we be able to meet these goals, we beg the indulgence of our existing users for a reasonable trial period while leaving the old forum intact and in place. If you agree, you have our solemn promise that should the new forum be unsatisfactory in your view, we will take it down and rip its heart out. The final decision will be yours.

  7. I too am thrilled that Folbot is looking into improving this… I’ve found it restrictive from the start.

    I am quite a fan of the phpBB’s interface actually and find that it is a pretty fast for all the forums I belong to. Also like “vbulletin” sites.

    I suggest you enlist some help exporting the current material into an “archive” folder under each category in the new forum. I’d be willing to donate some time to pour through a few catagories and methodically cut and paste text while in front of the TV… Even if it took a year it would get all the text into the new format and enable searches to find past posts.

    I would suggest that you keep all category headings, and then cut and paste entire discussions into the new format by sub heading. As a test I just cut and paste a whole string from one frame into notepad and it worked great… this coukld then go into a forum archive post. This would create around 500-700 archive headings under each category. though the dates would be wrong on the posts, they would be maintained in the text.

  8. I’ve looked at phpBB, too, and it looks like a good system. No doubt having a dedicated server and a proper database behind the forum will help speed it up. The current system is so slow that often I just don’t have the time to read it.

  9. Phil’s account of a newbie’s initial experience with the Forum squares with my suspicions … and explains why we see so little new blood there while dozens of new Folbots each week are going out the door at the factory.

    If those experienced with phpBB think it fits, go for it. I’d even give up on what we have for archives in the existing Forum if we had to. But, the fact that every nuance we post there does NOT appear on Google makes for a more open exchange … and is less intimidating to newbies.

    Jason, can you point us to some phpBB sites so we can try it out “live?”

  10. Jay, can phpBB be configured to run in two windows similar to the existing Forum (are those frames?). It is really handy to be able to see all the categories and where activity has occurred, and then select the conference that interests you to see what has come up.

    I may be missing something in the Paddle.Net message phpBB, but it looks hard to get a sense of what has gone before. Could be this is because I’m jumping into it cold, while I ma not for the Folbot site.]

    Also, can phpBB search for recent users, etc., just like the OReilly S/W?

    Thanks.

  11. go for it. virtually anything will be an improvment. I applaud your willingness to improve. thank you

  12. I’m an old school programmer – I work with Clipper, primarily. Can the entire forum be archived and the archives copied? There must be some way to hack the archives and put them into another format. That’s all I do all day long. It isn’t as glorious as putting up pretty web pages, you just do little read operations, writes, and let it plod through the mountains of characters.

    Or, as another alternative (beyond my humble skill set) is a robot on a computer that goes through each post in the forum and copies information into a local file for future retreival. It would be slow and could take a few days, but it could be thorough and trap all the data for import into a new forum.

    Just a thought. I would be interested in taking a look and picking a few brains at work if the possibility exists…

    pk

  13. pk:

    I was hesitant to mention it before confirming that it would actually do the job, but I’ve been working on a little robot in Perl to do the work that you suggested: go through the current forum as a user and collect each post and write it to local disk. And it works, so I guess I’m safe mentioning it 🙂 It took it about 8 hours to get the entire thing.

    Glad to have you on board, though. We’re likely to have more programming challenges up the road, and I won’t be afraid to ask for help!

  14. Dave:

    I know what you’re talking about (less sense of what has gone before, etc.) and I hope that it is, at least in part, because it’s not familiar yet. phpBB is not configured to run in two windows (yep, those are the frames), but I think it makes a good effort to give you other visual clues as to where you are and where you’ve been. I guess these will take some time to get used to.

    Also, phpBB offers up a lot of user stats: how many are online, who are the newest registered users, etc. There are actually quite a few nifty features and I’m still learning them. Perhaps one of the first things we should do is create a new Conference for helping one another adjust to the changes, sharing tips and tricks, etc.

  15. I have concerns and wishes for a new forum..
    My first concern is privacy…. and that would be a biggie for “searchers” to have access to profiles and e-mail address’s….
    if some form of security could be offered in this area.. I’m all for a change.. such as a request for e-mail address from a potential writer.. to be offered as security and must be approved by the addressee..
    Old friends have it already and it shows on our fairly secretive forum…. but no sense just having it show or easily and quickly findable to any searcher who happens by.. be it robot or human..
    Assurances or “approval” items to release personal data on Members is a biggie for me.. something like a request for private info in the “Attn” area of the present forum.. otherwise only responses in the message content would be approved automatically…
    yes.. I’d like change…..

    The internet is not a benign place..
    Security.. and then change..

  16. I agree with most of the above. Privacy – don’t display posters’ e-mail addresses or personal details. We don’t want to get spammed. Also, you need some kind of control of posters to make sure they are talking about kayaks, and not trying to sell us some unrelated product.

    And yes, you really want to save all the existing comments; it’s great resource.
    Mary

  17. Good points, Cliffy.

    One of the features of phpBB is that you can “turn off” the display of your email address by default. I would actually recommend that you leave this turned off. If somebody wants to contact you privately, phpBB will allow them to send a private message to your username (without actually knowing your email address – it goes to your “private messages” section on the forum, which is another one of phpBB’s features).

    In order to register as a user on the new forum, you will need to give a verifiable email address as Phil mentioned above. This is the only bit of private information that you need to include (I will probably use my actual first name as a username, but this isn’t necessary). It doesn’t ask for your real name or your address, and, in my opinion, this sort of information isn’t really appropriate for a public forum anyway.

    It also will accept personal information such as your occupation, interests, location (not address, but general location), website, etc. This stuff is completely optional, and you can be as vague as you like. I’m not sure if there is a built-in feature for making other users request this information, but I will look into it.

    phpBB provides more privacy-related features than the current forum, but I wouldn’t recommend including any information that you consider sensitive or private.

  18. Hi Mary,

    See my above post for info about email addresses and personal details. Spam is another good reason to turn off display of your email address on the new forum.

    As far as keeping posters “on topic” so to speak, I hope to avoid the bulk of that potential problem by having a fairly rigorous registration process – you will have to recieve and respond to an email confirming that you are who you claim to be, which is actually more than we require for the current forum.

    As Phil mentioned in an earlier comment, if possible we would like to leave the forum to our customers without official company intervention. John Haide has done a great job managing the current forum, and he has expressed an interest in continuing to volunteer his time with the new forum. If it becomes necessary, John will have the ability to ban any users that are using the forum inappropriately (such as selling an unrelated product).

  19. I only recently discovered Folbot and hadn’t yet joined (or for that matter visited) the forum. So decided to take Phil’s challenge and hunt for the latest General Yak post. Took me 2-3 minutes from the reasonably fast connection I have at work. Not as bad as I expected from reading what Jay said and the comments here, but still unpleasantly slow and a bit discouraging.

    Good luck with your efforts in upgrading the forum!

    Mark

  20. From what you are saying there can be security features with other board software. Trusting you to figure out that side of things, my comment would be: Keep it simple. I’m not a highly knowledgeable computer guy, so would appreciate being treated as if I didn’t know much. Have to add I am grateful and pleased you’re taking all this trouble for us. Thanks

  21. I am all for the upgrade to better software. I have a DSL connection, and even so, the board speed has been a frustration. It sounds as if you have done a good job in examining the capabilities of phpBB, and it seems to offer a great improvement over O’Reiley.

    Of course, the back-end database needs to be robust enough, too. MySQL is widely used, but I have no personal experience with it. [I am a systems administrator for Microsoft SQL Servers, and I know that M$ SQLServer can provide all the database muscle you would need. It also cost $$, and gets periodically upgraded(for more $$.)] If MySQL can provide similar capacity, especially if it does not have an upper limit on storage, then it sounds like open source is the way to go.

  22. I’ve been lurking on the forum for a few weeks now, waiting for my cooper to arrive. Some observations:

    1. I still haven’t been able to use the side bar to browse topics further than 17 topics or so. Searching brings up additional topics the next and bottom button both collapse a topic.

    2. I can search for messages between dates or messages for the current day, I can’t view messages since my last log on. Even as a non registered user, this would be very convenient and should get the non registered hooked into becoming registered users.

    3. Before ordering my cooper I did a fair amount of search engine research. The folbot forums are the richest source aside from foldingkayaks.org I’ve found, yet they don’t show up in the search engines. You want the forums to show up in the search engines. Does your ISP block search engines? Regardless indexing a database driven site always seems to be a bit sketchy.

    4. Privacy concerns should be limited to protecting a users email address and profile. Moderation issues may follow an increase in popularity but I wouldn’t try to prevent a problem that hasn’t happened yet. Search engine indexing should be considered important.

    5. I’m not a fan of the current interface. I can deal with it, but it’s not that great for browsing. I’m not a fan of frames but frames may be the only to make the forum follow the design standards of the rest of the site. That should be a goal of the new forum and frames may be the only way to accomplish that. The forums should be part of the folbot site, not a separate site.

    6. The speed issue is embarrassing…

    7. Looking forward to joining the forum once my cooper arrives.

  23. I want to thank everyone for their comments. Now I think it’s time for me to get back to work on the new forum. I’ll let you know when it’s ready for some testing.

    ps – Warren, congratulations on your new Cooper!

  24. Ok Jay !!! sound like youre on top of our concerns.. and .. ahead of us even..
    I’m likely more sold on the new ideas than most others now.. looking forward .. high hopes.
    go get ’em..
    cliffy

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