Archive for March, 2011

Interview with Patrick O’Keefe, iFroggy

Patrick O’Keefe is the founder of the iFroggy Network, a network of websites covering various interests. He has been managing online communities since 2000 and is the author of “Managing Online Forums,” a practical guide to managing online social spaces. He has been responsible for the cultivation of communities like phpBBHacks.com,KarateForums.com and PhotoshopForums.com.

Tell us some about your background? What is Patrick O’Keefe’s backstory?

I began to play around with the web back in the mid-90s. I believe we bought our first computer in 1993 – it was a Mac Centris 610. Somewhere around 1995, we were online and shortly thereafter, I discovered free website services – first Angelfire, then Geocities and put up some truly ugly things, as we all do.

I began developing websites for over people in the fall of 1998 and I launched my “real” first site with it’s own domain name, iFroggy.com, on January 01, 2000 — Y2K. Planes were falling out of the sky, computers were exploding across the nation, and I was on NetworkSolutions.com registering a domain name. At that time, domains were $70 for two years and that was it. We didn’t have any $10 a year domain name registration. That was, and is, a nice amount of money and I was only 15 so I didn’t see myself registering lots of domain names.

I started the site as a web portal. My inspiration came from Yahoo and, even though they get a lot of heat these days, I still like them. I wanted to create a portal where I covered as many subject areas as I could. I did that for a little over a year and during the same period I began creating niche communities or websites. I put the focus on one specific thing, like martial arts or Photoshop, and found that I enjoyed how feasible it was for me to function as a one-man operation.

So what would you say iFroggy is today?

The iFroggy Network is a network of websites covering various interests, including communities, blogs and (somewhat) static content sites.

Basically I will launch any site that I find exciting. It doesn’t have to fit into any particular mold. Most of my websites have some sort of community driven tie, however, as most websites popular do these days.

The first pure community that I launched was a sports forum, and then I launched a couple more communities, some of which I manage to this day. phpBBHacks.com is an example – I launched it almost 10 years ago and it is the largest unofficial resource for the phpBB forum software.

At that time, there was no organized list of customizations for people who ran these forums. I wanted one, so I created the site out of need. Forums were primitive but very exciting spaces at that time. In early 2001, the forum community basically had vBulletin 1.0 and phpBB 1.0. So, the major platforms available today came out of that era.

Another community I created, KarateForums.com, is also having it’s 10th anniversary this year. It’s a martial arts community with close to 500,000 posts, although numbers aren’t as important to me as is the atmosphere and the people that are a part of it. The people-aspects of community are the things that I’m really attracted to.

You start sites when you have an interest and when you sense a need. Did the book emerge this way?

I liked the idea of writing a book and sharing what I know. Also, personal writing tends to lead me right back to my passions: social media, online community, and forums — all things I talk and write about a lot. Forums are the backbone of “social media”, this relatively new term we use to describe overall social interaction online.

It took five years to complete the book project, from conception to holding the book in my hands. That’s not normal. Publishers’ schedules generally dictate terms. But I had a couple of concerns. First, I had a number of websites to run and, at that time, I had high school to contend with as well. As a homeschooler, I had a greater amount of flexibility, which was very helpful.

First off, I wanted to make sure I could even write a book. So while I would be managing an online community, I’d notice what was interesting and write it down. What happened and how I handled it. Whether the end result was good or bad. I’d make this long list of notes just based on my experiences at first. Eventually I’d organize those notes into written chapters. I kept going back, adding sections, and it continued to get longer and longer.

Two and half years into it, I started pitching it to publishers myself. That didn’t work out so I talked to my friend Jeremy Wright who had just published “Blog Marketing” for McGraw-Hill and asked if he would introduce me to his agent. He did and I signed on with the agent and worked to make the manuscript proposal better. After getting turned down approximately 89 times, the 90th publisher said yes.

Is your book really the Bible for forums?

One of the great, extremely meaningful things to me about writing the book is how it has been received. When you write a book, you are putting yourself out there and you never know how people will take you. It’s a vulnerable position. I’m so thankful for the support and kind words that I have received. It means a lot to me.

That said, it is for other people to say, whether or not the book is valuable to them or holds any level of importance for those managing an online forum. So, I don’t feel comfortable speaking to that.

What I have noticed is that a small selection of people who have read it seem to take the book as “this is the way everything should be done.” That’s not my intention. The book is everything that I’ve learned. But I’m not a consultant. I’m not trying to get you to pay me to consult. For sixteen dollars, you get what I’ve learned over the course of eight years (now over ten) of managing communities.

You can take it and use however you wish. If you are a veteran, maybe it will confirm what you already do or maybe you’ll get a new way to approach something. I learn from others, always trying to improve. At the very least, I hope that it will make you think. If you are brand-new, then you’ve got a resource from someone who has done this for a long time.

There is not just one way to manage an online community. There are many.

What is the next 3 years like for forums?

I’m not one for predictions. I believe that innovation happens because we make it happen, not because we predict it. And then, after it’s done, we talk about it, praise it and criticize it.

However, I will say that I see forums as being extremely relevant. Some people, for whatever reason, want to divide forums from what they view as the hot social media tools, like Facebook or Twitter.

What gets lost is that these spaces are all related and deeply connected in many ways. For instance, what is the backbone of Facebook? Threaded, text-based conversations. That’s what forums are. Boil forums down to their essence, they are threaded text-based conversations. And in my lifetime, it’s hard for me to see that going away. Maybe 50 years from now I’ll look like a fool in this interview, but I don’t know that we are not going to want to type with each other in a thread of some kind! Today, we opt for text over the phone sometimes because of convenience, because of comfort, because of any number of reasons.

That’s what forums are to me. I know some people try to put forums in a box, because they think forums can’t be anything different – ever. It’s like Facebook has the patent on anything new, right?

That’s just not true. I just responded to a comment on Quora where the person wrote: “Forums are still partying like it’s 1999.” And that the forum space hadn’t evolved in ten years. I thought about that for a moment and said, “That’s not right at all.”

Even so, this a fairly common belief, especially among people who are relatively new to social media and think it’s the greatest thing in the world. It’s as if forums were alien and different from social media, when it’s really all the same. If you were to go back to 2000 and pulled out the latest versions of vBulletin and phpBB and then you installed the latest versions of vBulletin, phpBB, Invision Power Board and Vanilla — you would see a startling difference and a lot of new things.

But what will not change is the text-based conversation. It’s here to stay and it will remain as the staple of what a forum is. And because of that, forums are very much similar to Facebook. Quora is more or less a forum. Just because somebody adds new features, makes it slicker or run better, doesn’t mean it’s some entirely new form of communication.

I think text is here to stay and that will be the core or forums. Sure, you can have video “forums” and already do and bandwidth adoption continues to grow, making it easier to share video and audio content on forums – but that goes for the whole web.

All of these spaces are influenced by each other and learn from each other and that is great. Forums will be affected by a lot of the trends that you see on the web as a whole, whether that is through mobile browsing, more seamless sharing or something else. One of the great things the social space does for people who run communities is that they learn from each other very well. Facebook has pulled a lot from “forums” and “forums” will learn from Facebook.

The bottom line is that everyone is learning from everyone else, and all of us are getting better and that’s good. It’s not a competition.

What is the hardest part of what you are doing?

The thing I struggle with as a one-man operation is balancing out my time and figuring out how to best spend that time. I have at least two or three ideas of things I’d really love to do right now that would be fun and (I believe) successful, as far as traffic and monetization. Yet I have these commitments already and that’s part of the challenge.

This is a problem for a lot of entrepreneurial people working online. It’s a lot of hustling and trying to get a lot done. And then you have to balance that out with having some semblance of a life. It’s about balancing out work, personal health, and family.

Tell us what a day in Patrick O’Keefe’s life is like?

I’ll take this from a professional angle and put aside personal responsibilities. I am responsible for the entire iFroggy Network. Everything that you see, I probably touch. This includes everything from keeping software up to date and writing content to managing finances and selling advertising. I am the point of contact for everything that happens.

Part of my day is routine, part of it is tackling other items on the to do list or working on new things. The routine consists of visiting various social sites where I maintain presences, checking and responding to e-mail (I’m at Inbox Zero most every day), visiting my forums and making sure everything is on track, reading new items in my feedreader for the blogs that I author, writing blog posts and more.

With my forums, as the administrator, I’m responsible for the management of those communities, completely. Updating software, making design tweaks, talking with members, monetizing, promoting and more.

This includes day to day operations – viewing new content, handling moderation related tasks, managing staff and more. When I visit my forums, I first read and respond to any private messages and outstanding post reports and then I view the staff forums, reading and replying as necessary and reviewing any and all post removal decisions that have been made by members of my staff. Most of them are good, but sometimes I will have to make a correction of some kind.

I’m also an active member on the forums I manage, posting and contributing where I can. Most days run smoothly enough but once in a while, you have some situation that takes a substantial portion of time to sort through.

As I mentioned, I also author a few blogs covering topics I am really passionate about. In addition to my personal blog, I also author ManagingCommunities.com and BadBoyBlog.com. For these sites, I also subscribe to and read various related publications and news sources, allowing me to stay on top of new information that I might have to cover or want to write about.

At ManagingCommunities.com, I write about online community and forums. At BadBoyBlog.com, I write about my favorite record label, Bad Boy Entertainment, founded by Sean “Diddy” Combs. I like writing about online community and I am a big fan of Bad Boy and Mr. Combs. It’s a lot of fun for me.

I also have some professional pursuits that aren’t specifically tied to iFroggy, such as the book and speaking at conferences and events. I spoke over a dozen times last year, giving solo and panel presentations.

I also co-host two weekly podcasts, the Copyright 2.0 Show with Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today, where we talk about copyright and plagiarism-themed news, and and the SitePoint Podcast with Brad Williams, Kevin Yank and Stephan Segraves. It’s a web development themed show and SitePoint is one of the largest web development communities in the world – a top-1000 site according to Alexa. It’s a fairly popular show and won the Podcast of the Year award during the most recent .net Magazine Awards.

What is your advice for anyone launching a forum?

I’ll provide some very general advice, as it’s a general question. If at all possible, try to start up with the structure you want, speaking specifically of your guidelines and policies. Don’t think “well, I won’t have any rules until we actually have some activity.” People get used to not having guidelines and then, when you add them in, it’s as if you’ve sprung it on them. You’re changing the rules and people don’t like change.

Change is important and will happen – you’ll need to change your guidelines, you’re design and who knows what else. But, there is no reason not to set some ground rules from the start, so that people know the type of community they are getting into. I’d say the same about ads. If you plan to have ads, start with some — even if they are just placeholders. Start with those things beforehand so that the proper expectations are set. I think that leads to a better experience for everyone down the road.

I also believe it is important to have a focus or a niche. Know whom you want to reach. One of the things that many people try to do is to be there for everyone. So they’ll say, “I want this community to be for everyone interested in subject ‘X’”. The reality is that not everyone wants a community that is for everyone. Every online community is like it’s own country. So two communities built around the same topic could be quite different from one another because they both have their own social norms and guidelines.

Know who you are, who you want to be and allow your actions to speak to that. Every decision you make, every guideline you write, they should all speak to what you are as a community. For me, my communities, the guidelines put paramount emphasis on respect for all members, speaking to each other in a respectful manner. Stricter than many other communities in that regard, I would say.

A few times a year, I find myself telling a member that the community might not be for them. They’ll complain that I have guidelines that are too strict or that I’m moderating in a heavy-handed manner. But, what is usually happening is that they want to be allowed to do something that isn’t welcome in our community. Our community isn’t for everyone – no community is.

You can’t be everything for everybody. Realize that early on and try to stay focused on your audience. If you chase everyone, you’ll probably lose the ones you really want.


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March 2011
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