A Forums-Focused Digital Agency
Founder and owner Mike Creuzer has been working in forums since he was 11, starting on an MSN TV, and they’ve had a massive impact on his life. Though currently focused on XenForo, Mike and Audentio have worked with many forum platforms over the years, giving him an interesting perspective on the space, and where it’s headed. Plus:
- How a Harry Potter forum taught him more about being a person, than about Harry Potter
- Why being a developer-friendly forum platform is important
- The forum platform Audentio is migrating people from the most
Our Podcast is Made Possible By…
If you enjoy our show, please know that it’s only possible with the generous support of our sponsor: Open Social.
“Being [in forums when I was] 11 or 12, I learned how to formulate an argument and present it. The good thing about forums is you actually get to take your time researching, or putting together some type of thought. … Not only did I learn about managing forums, but interpersonal skills.” -@mikecreuzer
“I don’t know where I would be without forums. I don’t know. It’s my career. It’s what I do. I wanted to play baseball, but instead I got forums. That’s just the way life works.” -@patrickokeefe
“[At some point, vBulletin wasn’t giving developers] the tools that they need. That’s the thing a lot of software companies forget. Who do you have to make happy first? The developers and the designers. They are the ones who are actually going to build out the third party resources. Every forum that I know of has at least a couple of add-ons that are third party. The developers are the ones who actually go out there and build those tools. And the developers are what make your community sustainable and powerful and a place where people will sometimes come to your platform just because of these certain features and tools. And I feel like [vBulletin] didn’t listen to what the developers were needing but other platforms were, and it wasn’t even a hard decision for a lot of people [to leave them].” -@mikecreuzer
About Mike Creuzer
Mike Creuzer is a UI/UX and digital strategist from northern Illinois in the United States, and has worked in communities and forums since he was around 11. It started as a hobby, and after wanting to grow his forum and getting quotes for astronomical sums of money (that he’d later grow up to learn were quite reasonable), and being a kid unable to afford these quotes, Mike set out to learn the skills himself. Some 15 years later, he now runs Audentio, a small agency that solves problems all over the world, most known for their forum-focused services offered under the ThemeHouse name.
- Sponsor: Open Social, community building for nonprofits
- Mike on LinkedIn
- Audentio, the digital agency that Mike founded and owns
- ThemeHouse, owned by Audentio
- Community Signal episode with Serena Snoad of Alzheimer’s Society, whose Talking Point community was recently developed by Audentio
- XenForo, a forum platform that Audentio currently does a lot of work with
- vBulletin, a forum platform that Mike worked more with in the past, and now sees a lot of migrations away from
- Android Forums, AVForums and Mac Rumors, other clients of Audentio
- phpBB, a forum platform that Patrick currently uses and has used more in the past
- CoSForums, or Chamber of Secrets, the official forums of MuggleNet.com, the first online community that Mike was heavily involved in
- Wikipedia page for MSN TV, a set top box that provided web browsing capabilities to your TV
- “DWx Has Been a Moderator for 10 Years,” a thread at KarateForums.com about a moderator that has been on Patrick’s team for more than 10 years
- “UCL Reconstruction,” a thread about that moderator’s recent UCL reconstruction surgery
- Digital Point, an online community that some people use to make money, as Mike did in the past
- Simple Machines, MyBB, ProBoards, Invision Community (referred to as IPB or IPS), NodeBB, Discourse and Flarum, other forum platforms mentioned during this episode
- Community Signal episode with Emily Temple-Wood, former Wikipedian of the Year, where we also discussed being a kid online
- WikiProject Women Scientists, led by Emily Temple-Wood
- Chuck Wadlow of cPanel, another Audentio client
- SitePoint, and SitePoint Forums, an online community that has been impactful in Patrick’s life
- Matt Mecham of Invision Community, formerly of Ikonboard
- ZetaBoards, which acquired InvisionFree Skin Zone
- Kier Darby and Mike Sullivan, XenForo developers
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Open Social: community building for nonprofits. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host: Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for listening to Community Signal. We took a week off as I caught a bug and it just wasn’t happening. Sorry about that. But it’s good to be back. Our guest this week is Mike Creuzer, who runs an agency that focuses on online forums. We’re talking about the forum software space and the impact forums can have on you as a kid. Thank you so much to our supporters on Patreon, including Serena Snoad, Dave Gertler, and Carol Benovic-Bradley. I’m amazed by your kindness and support, and grateful. If you enjoy the show, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle for more information.
Mike Creuzer is a UI/UX and digital strategist from northern Illinois in the United States and has worked in communities and forums since he was around 11. It started as a hobby, and after wanting to grow his forum and getting quotes for astronomical sums of money (that he’d later grow up to learn was quite reasonable), And being a kid unable to afford those quotes, Mike set out to learn the skills himself. Some 15 years later, he now runs Audentio, a small agency that solves digital problems all over the world. Most known for their forum-focused services offered under the ThemeHouse name. Mike, welcome to the program.
[00:01:29] Mike Creuzer: Thank you. Glad to be here.
[00:01:31] Patrick O’Keefe: I had Serena Snoad on our last episode, and she’s a community manager for the Alzheimer’s Society. Their Talking Point online community, recently launched a new version on XenForo, as we discussed on that episode. Serena talked about the cost savings of hosting their own forum and paying an agency to develop a site for them as opposed to using more expensive software as a service forum provider. I went, and I looked, and I saw who they work with, and they worked with Audentio because you were the agency that helped them migrate their forum from vBulletin to XenForo and design the community.
You’ve worked with some high profile forums including Android Forums, AVForums and Mac Rumors, all well-known communities in the forums space. As I looked at your Website, it became clear that forums are really a focus of your agency and a focus of your larger business. And off the top of my head, I can’t think of another “agency” that I would describe that way. Of course, with my deep interest in forums is noted by people who listen to the show, I had to have you on the program. So I’ll start with this: Why forums?
[00:02:38] Mike Creuzer: Well, it’s a great question. You can definitely say that that’s what we’re focused on. Why I guess simply comes down to just my upbringing into the internet and forums are just kind of what I happen to gravitate towards. The long and short of it is I started with managing forums when I was younger, and when I got more involved into learning how to use the software and understanding how to run a community, and then I started getting into the costs, server bills and hiring odd contractors to help with things I wasn’t familiar with, I started getting bills that were way outside the scope of what a 11-, 12-year-old could afford.
One of those projects was a new theme. The platform back then that I started playing with was vB2 to vB3. From there, I learned graphic design. I learned coding. It at all came from this need to just have a better forum for myself.
[00:03:39] Patrick O’Keefe: As I think about it and thinking about – because I’m not a programmer – there was a time, once upon a time, that I thought of myself as a web designer. I had a few clients, but that actually became more of the coding standards-based coding thing that is actually real design. But as a teenager, I had a few clients here and there.
[00:03:56] Mike Creuzer: For sure.
[00:03:57] Patrick O’Keefe: But a lot of my own knowledge is pushing the knowledge I do have of HTML, and CSS, and PHP, a little bit of MySQL, is the need to learn how to do it because I had to. And it was in your bio that you mentioned to me of how you started, obviously, as a hobby and you wanted to grow your forum, and then you got quotes for “astronomical sums of money (what I’d later grow up to learn was quite reasonable)”
I can sympathize with that totally because I was launching forums. First, I used remotely hosted forum, and I quickly got off that. I quickly thought better of it and that was the right choice because it went away. But in using phpBB 1 right after it came out, which is what I really use. I remember the first time I installed it, someone had to walk me through it on AIM. Someone literally had to walk me through, like, “What’s localhost?” It was a legitimate question. I asked, “What the heck is localhost? What do I do with that?”
Then I learned how to edit the templates, how to edit the code, and it really was because, as a teenager, I didn’t have any money. I wasn’t going to pay anybody, paying for the web hosting $10 a month, and my first domain name was $70 for two years on Network Solutions. That was more than enough.
[00:05:09] Mike Creuzer: For sure, I had the same exact issue. It just so happened that one of my good buddies, who got me involved in the forums a little bit, he started up a hosting company around the same time we were all managing forums and whatnot. I still paid him what he asked for. I think it was $120 a year. I had to ask my grandma for the money. I’d never spent so much money in my life, and I made sure to pay her back as soon as I could. It only ended up being a few weeks or whatever, because I started doing this once I started learning the basics. People started asking for work, and I’d do it mostly for free.
But over time, I could tell that there was something there. It was an afterthought. The forum was first. It was just – like you said, I had to go through those walkthroughs as well, just what are things? In fact, what drove me to learn the specific things I did was, I would try and emulate what CoSForums was doing with their site, and I would see how they would integrate certain designs.
I remember one of the first challenges that I made a mission to solve was, they had a shoutbox. They were on vB3, I believe. They had the shoutbox, and they moved it into a private forum, and I was like, “Man, that’s so cool. How do you do that?” Believe it or not, it sounds easy. It was really complicated. I had to mess with PHP a little bit and the add-on. I had to mess with the views and the templates. All I would do is I would change one little thing, see what it did, refresh the page. There weren’t even inspector tools or developer tools back then, so you literally just refreshed the page. At least that’s how I worked.
[00:06:47] Patrick O’Keefe: Yep, definitely. Many a CSS file, at some point, where it was change one hex code, and-
[00:06:54] Mike Creuzer: [laughs]
[00:06:54] Patrick O’Keefe: -see what the heck changed on the page. I would usually change it to bright red or a neon so it would stand out, so I could just know, what did that do? And then figure it out.
[00:07:04] Mike Creuzer: For sure. I still use that tactic to this day if I’m in an unfamiliar software and I need to learn something pretty quickly. Just see what’s going on, these little concepts of familiarizing yourself with an abstraction. That’s what a forum software is, or that’s what any third party distributed software is. It’s some form of abstraction to simplify, but yet they have their own variables, their own methodologies. To get brought up to speed, the right way, I guess, takes a lot of digging and stuff like that. So as a tinkerer, you start to learn little tricks to help you start to get familiar with the software really fast. That’s definitely one of the ways.
[00:07:39] Patrick O’Keefe: Another thing in your bio is that you started working in forums and communities when you were around 11. What were you doing at 11?
[00:07:46] Mike Creuzer: Yes. Oh man. I think back then I was heavily into sports and being social, and then I moved. [chuckles] I moved to a different place, I moved from, I think it was Des Plaines, Illinois, to Rockford, Illinois. During that period, that summer of not knowing anybody, no one in my neighborhood really, at least that I knew of, I started reading a lot. I read all kinds of books, every fantasy novel I could get my hands on. Probably, I read 67 books that summer, and one of those sets, or at least that I continue to read, was Harry Potter. I didn’t even have a computer back then. We had an MSN TV. I’m not sure if anyone knows what that is. Do you know what it is?
[00:08:31] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. I didn’t have one, but I saw the ads. I know what it is.
[00:08:34] Mike Creuzer: Yes. The funny thing about it, for those that don’t know, MSN TV, is like a browser that – I think it has a wire that plugs into sound, the red, yellow, white wires. Then you get like a browser experience. You don’t get a mouse; it’s just a keyboard. You have to use tab and be a little clever, if I remember correctly, on how to navigate about. But the funny thing is, is that I learned to code on that thing without a mouse. I did tutorials between that, and, of course, the library, and wherever else. But this little MSN TV without a mouse- oh my God, 800 by 600 resolution at best, I don’t really remember. I try not to think about those days. [laughs]
[00:09:16] Patrick O’Keefe: Wow. I was just looking at the Wikipedia page. MSN TV was before that WebTV and Microsoft bought it, so it became MSN TV. But, my goodness, yes, I never used one, but that’s the start to your career.
[00:09:27] Mike Creuzer: It was, for sure.
[00:09:28] Patrick O’Keefe: It was that MSN TV [chuckles].
[00:09:30] Mike Creuzer: Yes. I don’t know why. I mean, I didn’t really plan on getting into web development, but it just kind of- you had to tab about to open up pages, and you had to use arrow keys and shift, and different things, just select text, and copy things. Back then I was an editor for- various people would reach out to me and ask me to proofread their fan section, and various subworlds of a novel like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or whatever else. I would proofread it, and I had to bold things and make things red, and use strikethrough, and all these other things to help them out.
I was 11 or 12 at the time. I had to master this little keyboard thing. Coding wasn’t so bad once I had to learn how to use the tool in that way.
[00:10:11] Patrick O’Keefe: Moderating without a mouse. It reminds me, I have a moderator now who has been with me, actually, it’s 10 years. We just celebrated it. She just had to have Tommy John surgery. She basically just has the use of one arm right now while her other arm heals and recovers. She’s still in there moderating as the same moderator as ever. It’s not the same as your MSN TV, but man, that must have been just such an experience.
I’ve read on the Wikipedia page – here’s a ’90s sounding line for you, “In May 1999, America Online announced that it was going to compete directly with Microsoft in delivering Internet over television sets by introducing AOL TV.” What a line.
[00:10:52] Mike Creuzer: Wow. We’re a world away from that. That’s crazy. That was the scope of the product. As soon as I could, actually- my family didn’t really have very much money. I had to find ways to make my own lunch money. If I needed shoes, I had to figure that out. How am I going to get a computer? I had to do jobs. I used Digital Point, and friends, and however else I can find work. To do, sometimes, free jobs to get my name out, or they were $5, or I would write content. I would create dummy posts and things like that. You do 100 posts for $5.
[00:11:32] Patrick O’Keefe: To be clear, were you still on MSN TV here or were you at a library? Where were you doing that from?
[00:11:37] Mike Creuzer: It was the school library. It was our neighborhood library. Yes, it was the MSN TV. I had to save up to buy my own machine. It was an interesting time, for sure. It was parallel to managing forums and doing all that. There aren’t a lot of people doing- for sure, not anymore, but back then, not a whole lot of people freelancing to do forum-related services. Knowing how to make a theme for a software- there was more people doing it back then, but it was still a pretty selective thing. The demand was through the roof.
But, of course, the forum itself – phpBB is free. SMF, or MyBB, a lot of forum platforms, ProBoards, what have you, were free. The people who were asking for services weren’t really expecting anything crazy. Then again, I wasn’t asking for it. $5 here, $10 here.
For the platform vBulletin, my astronomical reference would be to $2,000 or something, which our company is probably considered one of the more expensive companies. That’s because I ended up learning how intricate the details are to having a forum that works on every device, for every user. Some forums are powering millions and millions of people. You have to concern yourself with the connection speeds, and all kinds of things. They are actually quite intricate pieces of software.
[00:12:57] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s pause for a moment and talk about our great sponsor, Open Social.
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Building on what you said about having moved and contributing and participating in online forums as a means of connecting with people, before the show you told me, “My first forum I was quite active on, if I can remember correctly, was CoS forum, a Harry Potter discussion forum. Suffice to say, I learned more about what it means to be a person than I did necessarily about Harry Potter.” Talk about that.
[00:13:52] Mike Creuzer: For sure. Being, like I said, 11, or 12, or however, I learned how to formulate an argument, or formulate an opinion and present it. The good thing about forums is you actually get to take your time researching, or putting together some type of thought. The rest of the community, at CoSForums, it was a heavily moderated forum. They didn’t allow any duplicate content. If you had something to present, it had to be unique. In retrospect, it’s the only forum I’ve ever seen that strict. If there was two threads, they got merged and you got essentially a small, friendly reminder not to do that. Using search was a requirement there.
A lot of places, moderators, probably like your listeners, it’s an age-old argument. There, it was for sure, required. Not only did I learn about managing forums and things like that, but also, interpersonal skills. Not to go into great detail about it, but just how to interact with people, how to accomplish a project. The great thing about forums is that they are projects. They are things that you can work with other people on and bring other people’s skill sets in and optimize time and money and actually see results.
They’re great skill builders, they’re great collaborative tools not only, obviously, what they do as a social platform but also just getting moderators, and admins, and theme designers, and add-on builders, and what have you together to complete a common goal is a difficult task. I learned a lot about working together with other people.
[00:15:25] Patrick O’Keefe: The great thing about forums, as a teenager is that, when you talk to people face-to-face as a teenager, especially, when you talk to adults as a teenager, they talk to you like you’re a teenager.
[00:15:37] Mike Creuzer: For sure.
[00:15:37] Patrick O’Keefe: But when you talk to someone on a forum, often times, they just talk to you as if you’re the same age they are, or as if you’re just another person, or as if you are an adult because, who knows? Unless you self-disclose or it becomes clear some other way, you’re just a person contributing to that forum just like them, so your words don’t have the either handicap or baggage of looking a certain way, age, race, gender, anything. However, you are presented on the forum- for most forums, is based upon your words.
[00:16:11] Mike Creuzer: Absolutely.
[00:16:11] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s an empowering thing. There were always jokes, I’m sure you heard this too. It’s not even jokes, it’s just nasty comments. When you would manage your forum or you would remove a post you would ban someone, you’re living in your mother’s basement. You’re a teenager. You’re hungry for power. This is only power you ever had in your life. You don’t know what to do with it. And worse, obviously, people would say things about awful, awful things. But it really gave you the opportunity to test things out and figure out how to communicate in a wider world.
[00:16:41] Mike Creuzer: For sure. That’s exactly correct. The point you make about you are a faceless, or at least you’re an avatar, and you don’t necessarily run into a lot of the same issues that you would, like you said, face-to-face. I would argue that, at least in my experience, race, gender, age, whatever you might be normally discriminated against in “real life”, at least are a significantly smaller factor online. Honestly, I attribute that very concept to why I was able to grow online as I was able to.
People would work with me; they never cared about who I was or anything like that. I was probably 12, or 13, or 14 or however old. They never asked. They never cared. They just wanted work done. I was able to hold the job when in real life I might not be able to because age laws or what have you. I was able to pay for my lunch because of forums in a sense. This industry has given me everything that I have; put me to college, whatever it is. Again, I was able to get that head start with a job and a career online, and especially, of course, forums.
People don’t really care about that. They care about what can you do, what are your skills, can you formulate an argument, can you work well with others, these kinds of skills are the most important thing and the rest isn’t as important, which is, in my mind, an idealist perspective, and in many ways is refreshing to be able to work in that world and for sure was when I was getting started.
[00:18:11] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, definitely can be a beautiful thing. Ironically, the thing, as we get more comfortable and we reveal more about ourselves, that creates an opportunity for people to, as you say, discriminate more based upon that. I had Emily Temple-Wood on the program a while back. She is a prominent Wikipedian, Wikipedian of the Year, doing an amazing project on women scientists on Wikipedia. She basically says, “The abuse started when they found out I was a girl.” For that brief moment, it wasn’t there, then here we have- to the teenager point again in her case.
She’s written these amazing Wikipedia pages. Basically it’s like this is the preeminent biographer of this person. Who may not have a book about herself, but she’s just a teenager who did a lot of research and spent a lot of time writing this amazing biography. It’s definitely given a lot of us, as teenagers, the opportunity to flourish- internet forums, however you want to look at it. Similarly, I don’t know where I would be without forums. I don’t know. It’s just my career. It’s what I do. I wanted to play baseball, but [laughs] instead I got forums. That’s just the way life works.
[00:19:18] Mike Creuzer: For sure. It’s unfortunate that happens to people in real life when- if people were able look past these petty things, they would see that there is true talent in people that- and who knows what would happen if people just were able to see what you’re able to bring to the world. It’s a lot more objective. It comes down to personally what are you good at and nothing more, nothing else as to get in way or complicate things.
[00:19:41] Patrick O’Keefe: What is unique in your opinion as a business, as an agency, in dealing with forum owners and forums as opposed to someone just needing a new website for their local business?
[00:19:51] Mike Creuzer: They are indeed very, very different. A forum admin- and typically that’s who we work with. If we work with cPanel or whatever the client is, we work with their community manager who is typically very invested. They know what’s going on like Serena or Chuck at cPanel, whoever. They are very committed people and they listen. All the successful forums, you have to, you have to listen to your community.
I feel like a forum admin is very close to the people that use their platform and that they engage with. Whereas a mom and pop or whatever, there isn’t that relationship, at least, for sure, not at a digital level. So a foreign project is extremely specific. There are a lot of goals to meet thousands upon thousands of tasks.
A lot of people don’t really think about that when they go to hire somebody like me, but there are thousands of things that you have on your wish list. And if I do a normal website or whatever, those specifics aren’t always laid out for me. But I am able to use what I’ve learned from community admins and the specifics that they know that people in their niche are asking for and I haven’t been able to apply that to all projects that I’m a part of. I would say that the unique thing – and there are many – is for sure, at least from an agency perspective, is just how many things there are to accomplish on any given project.
[00:21:13] Patrick O’Keefe: For those of us in the space, one of the things we talk about when it comes to redesigns or any massive change is how sensitive online communities can be to change. And that used to be a bigger issue than it is now because every website has some social component and every website has these features. The site can become a part of someone’s life, a lot of the most popular websites in the world, but it’s especially true for online communities and forums where you almost expect is the joke or the serious statement, really, among forum admins.
You almost expect that change, a new design especially would be the big one, change in the community they come to every day and putting a different code of paint on it. The response to that is going to be displeasure, is going to be unhappiness, and I have to think that is one of the things that also makes forum admins unique. You touched on the level of investment the community has in it, but just how resistant those communities can often be to change in their daily routine?
[00:22:12] Mike Creuzer: Well, I’ve broken that down because from the very beginning, people would- whenever we built, we’d release and we’d be super proud of it, and we’d get such negative feedback. But I actually stuck around in those threads, and I’d ask them why? What’s going on? What is it that you don’t like? Forums could be that medium, of course, to facilitate that communication channel but still I would actually find out the specifics. And it would always be something rather small. It might be a specific device that just didn’t work well because when I was younger, I maybe not had considered that situation.
My favorite was actually Mac Rumors. We had a beautiful product and yet every single response that we saw was about how we made the avatars rounded. And we’ve come to conclusion that avatars shouldn’t be rounded. And Mac Rumors helped me to understand why that was. I listened to what people were saying, and they said, well, this isn’t a profile picture. The trend at that time was rounded profile pictures, and rounded profile pictures are fine, but avatars, no, they’re different than profile pictures. They should not be rounded. And therefore, we don’t round avatars and projects, not typically, at least. And there’s a lot of the specifics.
There’s thousands, tens of thousands of them, and I started paying attention to the point where typically when we do a release, I mean, sure, there might be a few little discrepancies again, forums are complicated, complicated interfaces; there are so many things going on. But accumulation of all this feedback that I’ve received at a very low level as I would argue, started to counteract that always negative feeling. In fact, we get typically great feedback or what I like to see sometimes is no feedback at all. It’s a given. Your website or your forum is a given. People take it for granted. They just expect it to work, look good, I know what I’m doing, things like that. So I just really paid attention and was able to learn from individuals over the last 10 years I’ve been doing this.
[00:23:58] Patrick O’Keefe: You do a lot of migrations to XenForo, your agency is focused on XenForo, but what are you mostly migrating people from?
[00:24:06] Mike Creuzer: It’s an overwhelming amount of vB3. The funny thing is you’d think vB4, vB5, but I think that the same thing happened in my mind. When I saw vB 3.8, I can’t remember the sub-versions and then later security patches, what had happened around that time was IPB was doing amazing things, and XenForo, this new platform, it was like 2010 I think, I want to say 2011. It was like July, I can’t remember. As soon as I saw it, I fell in love.
And we were mostly doing vB3. We had just started doing vB4. Back then, we were even a larger team than we are now. Everybody was a contractor at Audentio back then. We literally jumped ship. We bought the software, we had a special beta release. We were one of the first people to use the platform, and we saw the trend right away, that vBulletin was going in the wrong direction.
And since then, I think admins as a whole, not always, but many of them saw the trend and decided to stay under vB3. And if you went to vB4 or 5, some people are happy with it or they spent all this money moving and there is no way really to go back. So vB3 is still, in my opinion, one of my favorite platforms. But once you get the control from the developers perspective for IPB and XenForo, you can’t look back. And so, yes, I think a lot of admins agree, and that’s where they’re coming from.
[00:25:27] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s interesting, vB4 was so bad for vBulletin. It’s definitely something that I’ve heard plenty of times. I’m sure it’s something that you’ve heard a lot, obviously, it’s bearing out in what you see in the migrations. People just got scared off by different things. Might be security patches, might just be the direction they went into with the software. I never used vBulletin in my community, but SitePoint used it, and I was moderator there for a long time.
And when they went and tried to do the portal and social networking thing, that was really the moment where- I remember when we changed over at SitePoint and people had profile comments, and then all of a sudden, all these groups that they could create, these private groups and public groups they could create, and it was almost like it was on by default because I don’t know if the SitePoint forum, at the time, knew they were there, when they made the conversion. But you had all these places and all it did was spread people out into places that people didn’t read anyway. And it just was too much. It was just too much, and it was a tough time.
[00:26:23] Mike Creuzer: For sure. What you’re saying with those features, they had groups and profile comments and what ended up happening to me is that they were features and they weren’t a platform anymore. There’s a difference between just adding features and things like that haphazardly and making everything work together. It’s what, in my opinion, makes Facebook, Facebook. It’s because they’ve pulled all these kinds of things and everything just works together. Google as well, it’s a platform. It’s not just features anymore. And vB3 even had, if I remember correctly, comments. Things like that they had enshrouded into the platform at the end of vB3 but they rebuilt vB4 under these weird UI assumptions and a lot of things had to be repelled at this time as well, so developers weren’t happy.
They weren’t given the tools that they need, and that’s the thing a lot of software companies forget. Who do you have to make happy first? That’s the developers and the designers. They are the ones who are actually going to build out the third party resources. Every forum that I know of has at least a couple of add-ons that are third party. The developers are the ones who actually go out there and build those tools. And the developers are what make your community sustainable and powerful and a place where people will sometimes come to your platform just because of these certain features and tools. And I feel like they didn’t listen to what the developers were needing but other platforms were, and it wasn’t even a hard decision for a lot of people.
They were just like, “This was the last straw. We’ll go on to another platform where the developer environment is beautiful and very quick and easy to use,” not to ramble on too much, but to make a vB3 theme as an example, even a good premium one, a week or so to make a really nice one, right? To do the same project in vB4 was three to four times the time. And it was typically more prone to bugs. So theme designers weren’t super thrilled and developers as well for other reasons.
[00:28:14] Patrick O’Keefe: The developer point is a good one. Jay Z has a song, “A Star is Born,” and on that song, he says, Mase had it, Puff Daddy had it, “no one could touch Puff back when Puff had it,” and he goes through all these rappers that had “it” for a while. And I don’t know why I just thought of that randomly, but there’s something to be said for forum software, community software that has “it” and the “it” to me has always been that it has a strong developer community around it.
I have one legacy community that I want to migrate, that runs an old version of phpBB 2 that I need to move over at some point but phpBB had “it” and what was strong about phpBB was that they had, at one time, the most amazing community of people making add-ons for it. I ran the largest resource, phpBBHacks.com. That’s why I loved phpBB.
It’s not that it was itself great software, which I’m not saying at the time it was bad or good, but to me, as a user, it was that when I wanted a feature, it was there or people could make it because it was a large community of people. And phpBB doesn’t have that “it” in the same way anymore, and it does feel like right now the “it” for this moment in time anyway, is XenForo. And they have a stronger community of people making add-ons. There’s a lot of nickel and diming going on in that community. I feel like, as a user, when I look at it, here’s a $5, $10, $20-add-on, where it’s just not the same spirit as open source, and I miss that.
I’m not begrudging anyone making money, or making a profit, or having paid add-ons, I respect that business and understand it. And I’m going to buy some myself if move to XenForo, as I’m planning to with that one community. But XenForo has “it” right now. It has the strong developer community.
[00:30:00] Mike Creuzer: For sure, and IPS as well. The things that I’ve seen from IPS over the last few years, I feel like IPS used to be what I would call the difference between features and platform where it would have all these features, and it just didn’t jive. Over the years, at least in my opinion, I’m starting to see it become more like a platform. It’s just so clean. People want XenForo and IPS for different reasons typically. Because people ask us on the daily, weekly basis what platform should they choose? The feasibility, and obviously, we’re big supporters of XenForo and continue to be. The forum space is, for sure, are changing and the forefront of what a forum will look like is kind of up for grabs right now. I’m very curious to see what that ends up looking like.
[00:30:48] Patrick O’Keefe: You are mostly XenForo, focused on XenForo, as I noted. Your company has moved around; you began working with Invision Power Board 1.3. I never really got into IPB, to be honest with you. I knew Matt Mecham for Ikonboard way back when which was a Perl software. I didn’t use it because I didn’t use Perl. I wanted to use PHP. So that ruled it out for me. I never really got into IPB.
[00:31:12] Mike Creuzer: IPB 1.3 there was many influences that I had to get into UI design and things like that. As I mentioned, the MuggleNet.com themes were a huge inspiration, but also the InvisionFree Skin Zone. They got bought up by ZetaBoards. In my opinion, they just threw it all away. I never followed exactly what happened. But InvisionFree had so many talented designers. They were all free. It was in the name; it was IF, InvisionFree Skin Zone.
It was just two files. There was the HTML part and the CSS part, I can actually remember. It was a super quick installation, and you had so many thousands of beautiful designs, and I used to wish I could be one of these people who are just super talented at creating these themes for all types of different industries. That was IPB 1.3 I want to say, IF, they bought the rights because InvisionFree was a separate service then, IF Skin Zone, if I remember correctly. IF bought the rights to 1.3 or something like that, and they did amazing things with it. I’ve owned dozens of boards on IF.
[00:32:18] Patrick O’Keefe: Where I was kind of going with that is, yes, you’re on XenForo, but you moved from software platform to platform. You started with IPB 1.3, as you noted, but you moved to vBulletin 2, 3 and 4 for a little while and then went back to Invision Power Board and kind of considered-
[00:32:32] Mike Creuzer: Yes. All over the place.
[00:32:34] Patrick O’Keefe: -phpBB, Simple Machines, and others and settled on XenForo 1 and soon 2. You seem like you’re loyal- you’re pointing out IBP being a good place right now kind of speaks to this. But you seem to be loyal to where your agency should go to get clients, sub-clients, or where clients are headed to because you’re a business. [laughs] You’re a growing business. If XenForo turns tomorrow and goes in a direction that isn’t good and people start to move from it, you’re going to move to a different platform. My point in saying that is when talked about it’s up for grabs, but what do you make of the current forum software market? Is there anything that is exciting to you about it? Is there anyone you’re keeping an eye on? Where do you think about where it’s going to go?
[00:33:11] Mike Creuzer: Obviously, there’s, of course, NodeBB, Discourse and, of course, Flarum. They don’t have the experience that the team at IPS has or the team at XenForo have. For business-critical applications, which most of our clients are typically mission-critical, most of our clients are big boards. I definitely still recommend XenForo or IPS, typically, as their main platform of choice over these other tools, simply because, at least, I haven’t seen in my experience enough reason to see, like I said, the developer support or the maturity Kier and Mike have so much experience in building forums. They have been doing it their whole lives, and Matt as well.
Matt’s put together an amazing team of people over there as well. For me, I think that the future of interface in general- I call myself an interface UI/UX expert, a digital strategist. I look at what helps our clients make the most money, what helps get us the most community interactions as a platform. There’s so many different things that that encompasses. Those are my goals, and therefore I always reach for XenForo or IPS, predominately XenForo it to be honest. But the future to me, I’m curious to see what the interface of a forum will look like, and that’s something our company is actively developing.
At the end of the day, what a forum is, is it’s a way to ask a question with peers or with people that are like-minded, and maybe they won’t be called a forum anymore. Arguably, forums are too limiting, at least, as a data structure. You want tag-based discussion, that’s what Flarum offers, for example.
The concept though, I use forum interchangeably with community, BB, BBS, what have you, but that world of what the interface will be, how you’ll interact. I think that the problem is that you will always want to interact with somebody, it’s just what that medium will look like, I’m not sure. But like I said, we’re actively involved in pushing the bounds of what is the best way to, at the end of the day, get people together to talk and share and grow and get their questions answered and make friends, that’s the goal.
It’s up to engineers, and developers, and creative, and freethinkers to derive what this is, but I’m happy to be a part of that. Yes, I’m super excited to see where things are going to be going for the forum market as a whole.
[00:35:59] Patrick O’Keefe: You’re speaking my language, Mike. You’re [laughs] speaking my language. Thank you so much for coming on this show. It’s been a lot of fun to chat with you.
[00:36:06] Mike Creuzer: For sure. I very much appreciate this. It’s been great talking.
[00:36:10] Patrick O’Keefe: We have been talking with Mike Creuzer, owner of digital agency, Audentio, parent of forum-focused service provider ThemeHouse. Visit themehouse.com and audent.io, that is, A U D E N T.io for more information. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we’ve mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad. We’ll see you soon.
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