Build a vibrant online community
Spice up your sleepy site with an all-singing bulletin board.
By Mike Slocombe for Internet Magazine, May 2004
If your site is tired, dull, unvisited and unloved, then perhaps its time to liven the thing up with a spanking new bulletin board.
A well run bulletin board can soon become the focus of a site, attracting new members, creating a sense of real community and - best of all - providing you with an endless stream of the one thing that keeps people coming back for more - content!
But as the legions of deserted bulletin boards all over the web testify, creating a successful online community isn't just about slapping up a suite of pretty forums with a funky interface.
Building a busy bulletin board takes time, effort and the kind of selfless dedication that can keep you away from the pub for weeks.
Down your local
Running a bulletin board is just like being the landlord of your own virtual pub (without the beer, sadly).
Your job is to create the kind of warm and friendly atmosphere that invites people to come in and get chatting - just like a real boozer!
You'll have to make the place look welcoming, fill it with interesting characters and be prepared to muck in and crank up the virtual karaoke if things go too quiet.
And because you're the guv'nor, you'll have to warn people when they're being "bang aht of orda!" and be prepared to sling out slimy toerags and dodgy geezers at the first sign of trouble.
And there's the rub with bulletin boards: as soon as they start to get popular you can guarantee that a whole slew of weirdos, racists, trollers and spammers will turn up, all keen to exploit their moment in the spotlight.
It doesn't even matter if your site is sleepier than an overstuffed sleepy sloth on slumber day: if there's a way it can be exploited, screwed up or generally messed about with, chances are it'll happen sooner or later.
Thankfully, most BB packages offer a range of tools to help harassed admins keep a firm grip on their empire. Using a web based interface, moderators can delete dodgy posts, edit out iffy content or completely ban errant users.
For maximum security, a board can even be configured so that the moderator gets to vet every single post before it can go live on the forum.
Naturally, this ultra-cautious policy is hardly likely to curry favour with argumentative posters looking for a late-night verbal tussle, but for commercial sites it can prove good practice. After all, the last thing you'd want is to wake up and find 100 posts telling the world how crap your product is!
Pretty in Pink
The days of bulletin boards looking like a dull page of company accounts are long gone.
Modern applications are colourful, powerful and easy to customise, offering an immense range of useful, fun and plain daft features. These can include Private Messaging, Polls, swear word filters, threading, user rating, private forums, avatars, 'sticky' threads and more.
Most of these boards use popular scripting languages like CGI, ASP and PHP, so you're going to have to check that your web host supports the appropriate technology before you start downloading.
Take a rummage through this comprehensive list of freeware, shareware and commercial packages and see which one matches your needs.
Installing your board
Installing a board involves uploading the bulletin board software to your server space using a FTP client like CuteFTP and then customising the script with your own server details.
Before you start, you'll need your web space log-in and password details along with technical info like your database name and password, server name, server port and script path - check with your web host if you don't know your details.
Some boards are more difficult to install and configure than others, but most popular packages offer wizards to make the task as painless as possible - although you'll probably still have to manually fiddle with your file permissions.
If all this sounds like the language of five-headed strangers from the Planet Zog, it might be best to bribe a techie chum to install the boards for you.
Failing that, some forum software companies will install a copy of their boards for you - for a fee. Bear in mind that you're going to have to give them all your log in details so double check who you're dealing with first - and change your details the second the board is installed.
If your site is hosted on the free server space bundled with your ISP account, it's likely that you won't be able to install your own boards, but that doesn't mean you can't join in the fun.
Community sites like Ezboard.com and Forumco.com offer free bulletin boards on their own servers so you don't have to worry about running out of server space or fiddling about with CGI scripts.
Naturally, their generosity knows some bounds: the free forums will be burdened with ads and if your site gets too busy, they'll be demanding that you hand over some loot to pay for their upgraded service or you'll be booted off pronto.