I’ve always had a nostalgia for the old school bulletin board forums. There was something about them. Something that made you want to stick around. Most of the old school forums were hyper focused and attracted lots of fanatics interested in the same thing. I remember the old J!NX hacker forums, and there was one called Information Leak. Sadly, these forums are no longer with us. Social media took over and forums disappeared into the background. When I started gaining traction with my Nootropics site and Youtube channel I toyed with the idea of setting up a forum for my growing subscriber base.
I had a few questions. Would people even care? Could I make the board mobile friendly?
Finding forum software
Having a mobile friendly theme was on the top of my list of requirements. People simply do not care nor do they have time for content that’s not mobile optimized. The ONLY problem I saw with forums was that they were not mobile friendly. They required you to drag your fingers and zoom in to find buttons, fill out forms, and to even read threads. Because of this reason I actively avoided clicking on forum results in Google. This in my mind was not acceptable.
Ideally I wanted free open source software. I’m not against payed for software if I believe I’ll get a return on the investment. Forums like Xenforo immediately stuck out as the industry leaders in terms of new developments and best of all, mobile friendly forums. But being a hacker by nature I wanted to see if I could get something open source, or at the very least free, to work. The forums became a project.
For whatever reason the Mybb forums stuck out to me. I think the active community on the site sold me despite the software being seemingly stuck in a development rut. Out of the box Mybb is not mobile friendly but I found a few themes which promised such features.
Tracking down a mobile friendly theme
After hours of frustration I stumbled on a theme called NetPen. NetPen is a mobile responsive theme for Mybb and does what it promises – makes your MyBB forum mobile friendly. It has some rather annoying quirks which I may cover in another post. Overall the forum looks great on both desktop and mobile.
After installing both the MyBB software and the NetPen theme on my Digital Ocean VPS, I got to work with the small details of the forum – creating Forums for various topics, and creating some base level content people could read if they landed on the board. Nobody likes an empty forum. I created a place people could introduce themselves as well as a general forum for the majority of discussions. I believe it’s a good idea to keep the forum minimal until it gains traction and then sub divide with different categories later on. With no user input the content becomes thinly spread across too many categories and the whole forum appears dead.
Gaining user activity and traction
From there I sent out an email blast, wrote a blog post, and shot a video highlighting the new forums. This seeded the initial user base.
Slowly people started to filter in and ask questions. People began sticking around.
My current stats are modest but growth appears steady.
I am pleasantly surprised to see the forums are actually ranking in Google. Certain threads are popping up for various search terms. The cool thing about forums is all the user generated content. It’s traffic you don’t have to work hard to build. Since the traffic is user generated, it takes all the guess work out of writing content that people actually care about. It literally writes itself. That is, if you can manage to get a healthy user base and activity level which is arguably the hardest aspect of starting any forum.
Initial administration headaches involved problems with the user registration activation process and spam bots. Solving the first problem was a matter of getting the technical details of my email server correct, and syncing things over with my Google SMTP server. I solved the spam problem by adding a simple security question to the registration process. The default security question is easily deduced by the bots. This is something I recommend you do if you’re setting up a forum.
Overall, basic tasks like moving threads and managing users is simple point and click stuff.
I plan on sticking with MyBB for the foreseeable future. The problem with forum software is they aren’t easily transferred to other platforms if you decide to jump ship. Whatever forum you go with, make sure it’s the one that will suit your needs for the long haul. I don’t expect to run into problems with too much traffic or content. If MyBB decides to update, I also hope the developer of the NetPen theme follows suit! Otherwise, I will be potentially stuck with the old version of MyBB. For now, MyBB works. I will continue to promote and grow the forum. The idea is self sustainability with little to no input from me.