Online Communities in the Post-Facebook Era
Given his long view of the industry, Matt sees the timeline of online community as progressing through a few eras: The early years, when he began developing software. The middle years, where platforms became more cognizant of UI considerations and SEO. The recent years, Facebook opening to the public and the resulting impact. And now, which he refers to as the “post-Facebook era.” Where will online communities go in that era? Plus:
- The community software business shift from licensing to SaaS (software as a service)
- New features vs. bloat
- Why he turned down a job offer from vBulletin
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: Higher Logic.
“Running a good community is transcendent of the software you use.” –@mattmecham
“Facebook is very much about now, what’s happening now. You try and find, even in a group, even a moderately busy group, trying to find something from last week is chaos. It’s crazy. It’s really really hard to do, so I think people that have had success with Facebook Groups are now looking at the next step. What’s the next step that they’ve got to take? They understand that they can’t keep a Facebook group because it’s too chaotic, once you get to 5,000, 10,000 people posting.” –@mattmecham
About Matt Mecham
Matt Mecham is a print designer turned Perl developer turned PHP developer. He has been creating community software since 2001. Matt founded Ikonboard and then started Invision Power Services with Charles Warner in 2002. 15 years later, their product, Invision Community, powers countless communities. Matt leads development and social media marketing. He still codes and, even though he’s been doing it forever, really enjoys it.
- Sponsor: Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers
- Matt Mecham on Twitter
- Wikipedia page for Ikonboard, an old community software platform that Matt developed, starting in 1999
- Invision Community, community software by Invision Power Services, the company Matt co-founded with Charles Warner
- YaBB, a long-running community software platform, where Matt was once part of the development team
- “Jarvis Entertainment Group Acquires Ikonboard.com” press release
- Forumbee, Zendesk, CMNTY, Open Social, Discourse and vBulletin, community software platforms mentioned in our discussion about the shift from the licensing business model to SaaS
- Bravenet and ezboard (Wikipedia page), two services that essentially offered SaaS forum hosting in the 1990s
- Community Signal episode with Mike Creuzer, where we discussed vBulletin’s platform changes
- “Managing Online Forums,” Patrick’s book
- Invision Community on Facebook
[00:00:04] Speaker: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello. Thank you for downloading Community Signal. On this episode, we’re talking with veteran community software developer Matt Mecham. I’d like to take a moment to wish you a happy holiday season. 2017 has been a great year for me and I hope it has been one for you as well, but even if it hasn’t, I hope 2018 brings nothing but happiness, health, and success for you and those you care about. I appreciate you listening to the show. Thank you as well to our supporters on Patreon at communitysignal.com/innercircle, including Serena Snoad, Luke Zimmer, and Carol Benovic-Bradley.
If you’d like to participate in episode number 100 of the show, please let me know what Community Signal means to you or what your favorite moment, favorite episode, or favorite lesson has been thus far. Record yourself and send me the clip via communitysignal.com/contact or leave me a voicemail at 252-558-0130. If we receive enough clips, we’ll feature them on the show.
Our guest this week is Matt Mecham. Matt is a print designer turned pro developer, turned PHP developer. He has been creating community software since 2001. Matt founded Ikonboard and then started Invision Power Services with Charles Warner in 2002. 15 years later, their product innovation community powers countless online communities, Matt leads development and social media marketing. He still codes and even though he’s been doing it forever, he really enjoys it. Matt, welcome to the program.
[00:01:43] Matt Mecham: Thanks very much, I’m happy to be here.
[00:01:44] Patrick O’Keefe: I’ve been aware of your work since basically the beginning. I’ve been managing communities for as long as you’ve been developing software to power them and I remember Ikonboard. You’ve actually had a hand in at least three forum and community software platforms that have powered just a substantial, large number of online communities. Obviously, Invision and Ikonboard, but also yet another Bulletin Board or I guess…YABB. I’m trying to pronounce that one, but it’s still around. You’ve been a part of all of these community platforms, and I want to know why did you start developing forum software?
[00:02:20] Matt Mecham: Well, first of all, if you remember Ikonboard you’re probably showing your age because that’s pretty old now. We’re talking right way, way back in the early days of the web. It’s a PAL system and I’ve completely forgotten how to code PAL now. I got into it kind of by accident. I was about in my early 20s and my housemate and I used to play Quake III most nights. We, like a lot of gamers, we were very self-important, so we thought we’d start a clan and people started joining the clan, and then we needed somewhere to facilitate conversations so we could organize meetups and discuss tactics and all those gamery things.
It was an obvious choice to go with a forum and obviously back we’re talking probably 1999, 2000. It’s just after Google was invented, it predates Facebook, predates MySpace, we’re going way back. We are talking early days CompuSurvey, AOL, all that good stuff. Waiting 20 minutes to get online every night.
[00:03:16] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. US Robotics 56k Modem.
[00:03:19] Matt Mecham: Yes, AOL. That login screen is burned into my consciousness forever because I stared at it for so long. Willing the connection to connect. I’d look around and probably on Yahoo, I looked around Yahoo and found a couple of forum scripts and these were really, really basic, very unpolished scripts that people were doing in their spare time. It wasn’t really a profession back then. I came across one called Board Master I think. It was written by a Greek dentist, [laughs] so random, but it had the basic functionality, the core stuff that forums still have today. I set it up and learn a great deal about Perl on the way. It was buggy, it was missing stuff. I’ve always programmed. I’ve learned BASIC on the BBC Micro, program my Amiga. It’s always been an interest. Though, I think I naturally gravitated towards poking around the inside and seeing how it worked. We did that, we launched that. The Quake clan probably lasted about two weeks. It was ridiculous, we were terrible, we were awful. Well, no one wanted to join our clan. We were awful, but this love of community and this love of discussions stuck with me, and around the same time I was developing my own personal website. I’ve always been into Watts and at that time I was working as a graphic designer.
I was building this site as a place for people to submit artwork and other people to review it and using my mad Perl skills like picked up hacking these different products apart. I had written this review system. One night, I looked at it and thought, I’ve got like 80% of a forum system here. It’s very crude, it’s very basic, it lacks a lot of the features you need in the forum, but it is cool this is pretty close to a forum, so do I spend all my efforts working on someone else’s products?
Because I got to that point where I was developing mods and giving it away for free as everyone did back then. Do I invest more time in that or do I do my own thing? I decided to do my own thing and my website at the time was called IkonReview so it made sense calling it Ikonboard, and it all started from there.
[00:05:25] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a fun story. It seems like it came out of need more than anything else then the need for the clan ended quickly, but the need for the software continued.
[00:05:33] Matt Mecham: Well, exactly. It’s crazy really because my career path, I do know, I went to school, I did design in college and my career path was always in design. At that point, I was very invested in all the design tools and that’s where my love was and passion, but this swivel came out of nowhere and took me on a different path, so, yes, when I look back now, talking to you and reflecting, it’s crazy how life went in the way it did.
[00:05:58] Patrick O’Keefe: Now, Invision has been around for a long time, 15 years and you worked on some other platforms. Various, not coding standards but open source, closed source different things, right. Different programming approaches. What’s the reason that it was time to move away from Ikonboard? What’s the reason that you stepped away from yet another Bulletin Board? What made Invision the right move? I guess is really those experiences turn into Invision but what was it that made it time to go?
[00:06:23] Matt Mecham: Well, it was the catalyst. Well, actually, just quickly touching away BB actually because, again, completely a random event. I think in the early days of IkonBoards on some ridiculously underpowered free server we had managed to procure, it got taken down and the logs showed a bunch of Russian IP addresses.
[00:06:42] Patrick O’Keefe: Just like 2017.
[00:06:43] Matt Mecham: Nothing changes. Nothing new.
[00:06:45] Patrick O’Keefe: Insert the bad joke here. Sorry.
[00:06:49] Matt Mecham: I get you, let’s not go there. There was a product called YaBB and Zeff, who founded the project, he was at an incredibly successful career and now he’s got two kids. I’m still in touch with him on social media, so it’s nice to see him grow up and have his family, but taken right back, he was using a free domain that ended with RU which is Russian. Two and two together the genius says, “IkonBoard.” We’re like, “It’s this competitor, he’s trying to take us, man.” I had a conversation he was there and he was like, “No, you idiot. We’re nowhere near Russia. This just to free the mind.”
We got talking he was like, “Look, I start this project, we don’t have a search, if you can do us a favor just finish that for us.” He was like, “Okay, we’re not.” It’s back in those days where it’s all fun and this period of intense creativity where you feel like you’d do anything or invent something new because it was very primitive at that time.
There’s all that cool invention to do. That’s why I got involved with that, but the catalyst was this is business back. When it’s hackable it was just me. A guy called John Jarvis, and I keep this brief because we can go on all night right.
A guy called John Jarvis had found IkonBoard. He was was a very smooth talking Texan and he convinced me that if I gave him IkonBoard, he’d get me on as creative director. It sounded really important. He talked the good talk so I agreed. That’s when I met Charles, so, again, this weird force in the universe pushed me in a direction I met Charles in 2002, we got on really well, smart guy. The direction that John Jarvis wanted to take IkonBoard wasn’t really what we saw he wanted to create a hosted system and he wanted to monetize it. We weren’t really in agreement with his vision for it.
He saw it as a cash cow and we were still very much wanting just produce good work, and at that time, we were supported by a free community server, a bit of a slap. We had a conversation, it was, again, just “I’ve had enough of this, you’ve had enough of this?” “Yes.” We both had enough of this, let’s just our own thing and we did. It’s better it last this long,but that experience all at the time was pretty bad, losing control of my baby. I met Charles and during that time formed a really strong friendship. You know I’ve known him forever and here we are now with a company. It all worked out great.
[00:08:55] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s pause for a moment to recognize our excellent sponsor, Higher Logic.
Higher Logic is the community platform for community managers with over 25 million engaged users in more than 200,000 communities. Organizations worldwide use Higher Logic to bring like-minded people together by giving their community a home where they can meet, share ideas and stay connected. The platform’s granular permissions and powerful tools, including automated workflows and consolidated email digests, empower users to create their own interest-based communities, schedule and manage events, and participate in volunteer and mentoring programs. Tap into the power your community can generate for you. Higher Logic, all together.
There have been several community software acquisitions over the last year alone and they come in waves, but community software has been merging or being acquired for nearly as long as there has been community software. Going back to companies that build community businesses in the 90s and probably even earlier. I do remember when you sold IkonBoard to Jarvis Entertainment Group, and I remember that story and it happening at the time even though I wasn’t a user, I was still, I don’t know. I guess I was always plugged in and interested in the forums scene, forum software?
[00:10:01] Matt Mecham: That the thing. Charles and I often joke with our shared history that there is a good book in this. Maybe good book is overselling it slightly, but there’s a book in here. You’re right. It is a scene. There are so many facets of it that thread through different projects. It’s crazy.
[00:10:16] Patrick O’Keefe: In that deal, as you said, it just didn’t work out. I’ve read other things you’ve said about it and how you acquire stock in the company which ended up being worthless, and then, of course, you left.
[00:10:25] Matt Mecham: You can have it. I got the certificate. I’ll post it to you.
[00:10:29] Patrick O’Keefe: We are the sum of our experiences I guess. I would guess, given Invision success, certainly more successful than any other projects that we’ve referenced here today. You probably had some overtures once in a while or someone interested in doing something. I’m guessing that your early experiences as a developer in this space have, I don’t know, darkened your soul or anything, but you were seasoned a bit to offers and to acquisitions from other people.
[00:10:53] Matt Mecham: Exactly that. When Charles and I, again, had a conversation very early on. This was a time, we’re talking 2002, 2003.
[00:11:00] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. Just a few years ago.
[00:11:01] Matt Mecham: Yes, for me, it’s like yesterday, but, yes, as you say, there’s all that acquisitions and merges and we have this conversation because in the papers every other day, Google had just spent an obscene amount of money on this tiny software company. We always said, “Do we want to be a software company that has longevity? That this is our career, this is our life? Or do we want to just have a software company that we promote well with the view of selling it?” We chose the longevity. We had both had a passion for the project and we determined at that early stage really that we wanted to be in here for a long whole if we could.
There’s something on our mind certainly. Something that we considered.
[00:11:36] Patrick O’Keefe: It used to be that the licensing business was the big primary business for commercial community platforms, but that shifted to cloud hosting or software as a service side of things as software in general has, but especially forum software. Your pricing page emphasizes your cloud plans over your licensing. If you Google forum software, you see ads for Forumbee and Zendesk and CMNTY. All of which you can’t download as far I know, you can only pay for as a service. Most of the enterprise options, including the sponsor of this episode Higher Logic, work similarly. Open Social, another sponsor of this show and Discourse are both open source, but their business is based upon the plans. Paying them to install, spin it up, host it, vBulletin a long-term player in the space is pushing plans. What’s your take on that shift?
[00:12:23] Matt Mecham: I think that’s just really pushed by demand. We’ve been around forever, so we have a lot of long-standing customers and those customers are very technically adept. They know FTP, MySQL, and PHP, and they’re very comfortable managing their own service, but really we’re finding more and more people, especially enterprise customers, have zero interest in running their own hardware. It’s just a massive headache. They got to manage downtime, optimization, backups. We found really that it was pushed by demand.
People are asking us for it and we’ve always done cloud hosting, but it’s been really, in the last couple of years, especially this last year, there’s suddenly been a switch in terms of mindset. People want to just come pay a monthly fee and have us do the hard stuff. That’s great. At the end of the day, when I look for software packages whether it’s hosted or whatever, it’s a norm now to rent it or to pay a monthly fee. That the thought of downloading a six-megabyte bunch of files and then finding some space on the internet. It’s starting to feel a little bit archaic, so we’re very conscious of that and moving with the times really.
It’s very much driven by customer demand and expectation.
[00:13:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Is that the big part of your business? Is that where it’s going? What portion of your revenue comes from licensing these days?
[00:13:30] Matt Mecham: That’s a good question. I think still for us because we’re rooted so much in, I know it is the old way of thinking and such, but we got a lot of season and experienced administrators, so they’re very comfortable with it. I’ll say really for us now, self-hosted is not going to go away. It’s not something that we’re looking to get rid off. I would say probably the greater part of our revenues still comes from self-hosted stuff, but we’re certainly seeing a shift and doing that when we redesigned our sales page recently. We did have a conversation and thought that what we didn’t want to do is put off people that wanted a no fuss solution by making them read through the self-hosted stuff.
We figured that if you’re an experienced admin, you would find it underneath and you would gravitate towards that naturally. The focus is on cloud only because it’s the expectation now that you come, you pay a fee, and you have someone else deal with it for you.
[00:14:18] Patrick O’Keefe: I was curious if you saw a day when you would stop allowing people to download and self-host your software, but it sounds like the answer to that is no.
[00:14:25] Matt Mecham: As you know, I have been caught saying things on record, and then people quote you 10 years later and go, “Well, you said this.”
[00:14:32] Patrick O’Keefe: Right. Forever is a long time.
[00:14:35] Matt Mecham: Exactly right. All I can say is self-hosted is a really, really important part of our business still and we recognize that we have experienced admins. They run their own servers and they’re very happy to configure. Honestly, I don’t see it going away anytime soon. If there’s something that’s come up in conversation, do we switch to a software as a service? It’s not in our plans. It’s not something we are looking to do. It wouldn’t be practical or it would make financial sense for us to do that.
[00:14:57] Patrick O’Keefe: Do you think that, not just for Invision, but for any community software that if you take away that downloadable option or if you don’t have that downloadable option, that it has a negative impact on the developer community and an impact on quantity, quality of add-ons that people create for the platform?
[00:15:16] Matt Mecham: That’s a great question. Yes, I think that’s true. I think modification communities especially appreciate having a downloadable file. There’s always ways around it. You could have a development sys platform where people could poke around the code and such, but I learn through reading other people’s code and made modifications based on that code. I think if we took away self-hosted completely as an industry, not just us but everyone, I think it would reduce down that modification community. It’s fun. It’s fun writing most for other products.
[00:15:46] Patrick O’Keefe: Do you find any irony in this shift seeing as how since we both go this far back early on even before you wrote the first line in IkonBoard. The way that someone might be most likely to host a forum would essentially be on a cloud service before that term was coined like Bravenet or ezboard and now we’re going back to that?
[00:16:03] Matt Mecham: Yes, I think a lot of it really is just marketing. It’s not even marketing that we do. It’s just lingo in the way people think about things now that really encapsulates that movement towards cloud. Anyone that’s in IT knows cloud is just one outside computer. It is really one of those marketing things that simplify the technological aspects of it and make it easy to understand with data floating around somewhere. You don’t need to worry about it. Everything goes in cycles and a lot of what we’ve experienced today is just rebranded to other things. You and I have been in it a long time. We see the cycles come and go. You either fight it or you run with it.
[00:16:39] Patrick O’Keefe: I’m a big believer and have a nature of the cyclical way of things especially in this space. The things that come back over and over again and shifts that happen, but it’s funny to think about that because when I first started playing around with my own communities in the late 90s, I did use, I don’t know, some random hosted solution that I liked. It was free. It was like … ultimate. It wasn’t UBB, but it was like Ultra. Ultra Bulletin Board or something like that. I got off that and couldn’t take my data with me so that burned me forever.
We did it because it was hard or I did it because it was hard. To configure a software, to set up hosting in 98 or 98 or whenever that was, and then it became easier, let’s say. Hosting prices went down. People started to host things for themselves, but then we found new problems than managing software applications. We did it back then because it was hard and now it’s hard again. That’s why we’re doing it again.
[00:17:30] Matt Mecham: Yes, I agree. It’s like 10, 15 years ago where post is a very simple thing. You had a sever and you had your little bit of space and you threw everything on that little bit of space, and then it was done, but now you’ve got CDNs, and databases, and caching engines, and Cloudflare. It’s a really complicated thing unless you’re really included and it’s switched on. It’s way above my head, I don’t understand it. We’re lucky to have Charles and Linda in IPS to do this every day. It’s the run and joke that all goes over my head. I don’t think even I would have the skills really to administer a high-end community and make it run effectively. That’s probably beyond my skillset. I’m just being honest.
[00:18:07] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, I know I appreciate the honesty. I was just thinking about how it’s important for there to be options that are either free or low cost. Probably both for people to start online communities because it makes sense to focus our business or your business on the enterprise end of things because that’s where the money is and allows you to keep the business going, but the availability of software, in your case and Invision it’s not that expensive. It’s certainly very affordable for anyone to buy and install and play with. I think that’s important because it gives birth to people like us to start and be the next generation of community builders or community software developers.
The accessibility of the code. In my case, I didn’t run IkonBoard because, frankly, Perl was even more foreign to me and I had a PHP. I wanted a PHP language and I worked with PHP to be for many years and they had a great community, but I remember when I installed it, I had someone walk me through it over AIM and I didn’t know what localhost was. What do I put in there? Really, that’s legit. I probably I might have the transcript somewhere. What’s localhost? That’s really the catalyst in many ways for me learning so many things. It’s my career first of all.
It’s what I’ve done for the past 17 years, managing online communities, so this is how I make my livelihood, but also, anything that I’ve learned really code-wise, the little bit of PHP, a little bit of MYSQL, HTML, CSS, the catalyst for a lot of those things and learning those things has been running forums and then looking at the code and being able to change things. I’m not making a charitable argument or a greater good argument necessarily because I think there will always be software developers who work on that end which I think is the most impactful end. I think when you make a change that impacts the people at that end, you change the community world, right?
Because most people can’t afford Lithium or Jive or whatever, but the availability of those options is just so important to the further growth of the space and development of the featured talent within it.
[00:20:02] Matt Mecham: I agree with that. Looking at, in terms of affordability, not wishing to plug our hosting side, but our plans start from $30 a month which I think is affordable for most people looking to dip their toe to see if it’s viable. I agree with your point that if you make it too expensive or too high-end, then you will lose the potential for these creative people will never get involved in software, and never learn that way. I do think software development is becoming a little bit more separated. I consider myself a very jobbing middling developer. I’m not particularly specialized in database. I’m not particularly specialized in front-end.
[00:21:02] Patrick O’Keefe: When I had Mike Creuzer on this show, I talked about vBulletin a bit and how I’ve never run it but it was on a community I used for a long time, the SitePoint Forums where I was a staff member, but when they introduced groups and blogs, I thought it was so terrible that it actually represented a turning point in my mind for that software. It was just so poorly done. It popped up overnight. It seemed to be enabled by default. It was everywhere, but it was always dead or it was always a distraction. You have a lot of features in Invision including a new one called clubs. What’s the barometer for you of adding something without adding bloat and minimizing the impact on those who don’t want that thing?
[00:21:42] Matt Mecham: That’s a good question. The side note, actually, way back in the day when I was still with early days of IkonBoard, I had a job offer from John Percival over at vB. I think that was before Kier joined. In an alternate universe, I might still be involved in vBulletin. Who knows?
[00:21:55] Patrick O’Keefe: [chuckles] It’s like super, super geeky forum fantasy baseball. Crazy. We could have traded this short-stop. He could have been the shortstop for the Yankees or something else like that. That’s really funny.
[00:22:07] Matt Mecham: Exactly. Just going back to what you said earlier, the forum scene, if you pick it apart, it’s crazy.
Getting to your question, the benchmark for us for a feature is does it come up a lot? Does the feature request come up a lot? Does the solution the customer, the client, whoever is talking about it, is that a solution right for the problem they have? Something like Clubs which is quite recent was driven by customer demand. We were finding that more and more people wanted to run sub-communities that contain forums and galleries and things. That was a natural thing.
In terms of bloat, I think the way that the IPS-4 framework is designed is all lazy loaded. Nothing’s ever pre-loaded or not much is pre-loaded. In terms of efficiency, it’s not a problem. It’s all down to the UI. This is a theme we’re finding more and more now in the year 2017. The interface is more important. People crave simplicity now. Really, I think a lot of more of our time now is planning how we can put it into the interface without it looking crazy or stand out too much or be too hidden. That’s a starting point that we start with. How can we get this in here without it looking stuck on or crazy?
[00:23:18] Patrick O’Keefe: As an administrator or as a community owner and operator, I think a lot of it is when people bring in a new feature, it’s just the ability not to use that feature. I think it’s tough. You never want to feel like it’s forced upon you, like you have to use it.
[00:23:32] Matt Mecham: It’s funny, actually. I’m just working on a feature of 4.3. The top of the to-do list is add an off-switch because you’re right. Just because we think it’s a cool idea, doesn’t mean everyone does. We’re very, very much aware that we have such a diverse range of customers and such a diverse range of needs that there is no one configuration that is good for everyone. We always build in that configuration. You don’t want Clubs? Fine, switch it off and it’s gone. There’s a one toggle in the ACP, you’d never know it was there. That’s definitely an important part for us.
[00:24:02] Patrick O’Keefe: Why’d you turn down vBulletin?
[00:24:03] Matt Mecham: Well, actually, it goes back to that conversation about longevity. At that time, I was very invested at IkonBoard, I was enjoying it. I think also, it’s probably self-confidence. I didn’t feel good enough. I was tolerated on the vBulletin community on those days because I had the little power script, the cute little power scripts. The system people we’re going to once InfoPuppet messed up their product. I don’t know if I didn’t feel I had the skills. I was still very much in Perl. There were PHP. Also, just wanted to do my own thing. It was a sideline. I had a full-time job. It wasn’t a career at that point. It was just a bit of fun. I wanted to carry on having fun rather than make it serious.
[00:24:37] Patrick O’Keefe: Back in those days, this might still be the case especially in open-source platforms and I have a feeling it is because people are people, but back then, I was very knee-deep in phpBB. I ran the largest phpBB resource, phpBBHacks.com. There was enough community for hacks of modifications.
[00:24:52] Matt Mecham: phpBB was a great product in its day. Absolutely amazing product. It powered so many sites. It was everywhere.
[00:24:58] Patrick O’Keefe: It did. The market share was insane. It was incredibly powerful, but back in that day, and like I said, this still is true. To me, it felt like, and I resisted this, even as a teenager because that’s when I started managing communities. There was this almost what I would describe as a religion of software where people would believe or love this software in a way that approached, I don’t know, a zealotry or like they would their religion or their political party or whatever it was.
I don’t even know how to term it because it’s a bunch of people posting in forums, so it’s not like it’s a war, but it’s people who they just love the software so much that they hate the other software. You got to be phpBB loyal or you got to be loyal to this platform and it’s an either or thing. It seems like there were those people, and it wasn’t just a few people, it was a decent number of people who treated it like it was a battleground between the software option and it said something about them, the software that they supported. Now, at IkonBoard, and I guess probably not, I don’t know maybe at Invision but probably less so, did you see that at all? Is that something that you felt either for or against you?
[00:26:06] Matt Mecham: Yes, completely we still do. That’s a very strong feeling within a subsection of the community. It’s just human psychology, you pick your team and you stick with it. Also, I think people like to feel that they have the better opinion or the better way of thinking, so if they like product X superior to product Z then that’s pretty sure of we could not not be aware of that. We have people coming to us and going, “Tried your software and it’s actually not that bad.” It’s like, “Jeez, thanks.” They say, “Well, I’ve been over it, product Z and they slate you. They say you’re slow, you’re inefficient, but I’ve just used you and you’re actually fine.”
It’s quite well. Well, it’s just that perspective. There’s that group of people that defend their decision to run product X, so they’re going to say bad things about other products. It’s crazy really, but you said it’s like a political party, sports teams, car you drive, people make a choice and they stick with it. Not everyone but that subsection of community that hardened back, they love to talk up their product, but we still see now people who tend to gravitate towards, not so much recently but maybe two, three years ago. It was between us and XenForo. People defending their decision to run that platform over the other and we still get into the ripples in the pond from that still now actually.
People come over from XenForo and like, “Hey this is a decent product, I haven’t seen this in five years. This is really good.” Looks like we’ve moved on. We’ve moved on from those days it’s fine. It’s something we’re very much aware of.
[00:27:29] Patrick O’Keefe: It was always funny to me and I think I might outright ban those discussions, I don’t even know how I formed. For me, this has been true for a very long time is that there are many good options when it comes to powering your online community. There are many good software options out there and there are a bunch of good developers, and it’s very much dependent on use cases and what you want to get the most of, and what you want to run, and your budget, and all these things. I feel that’s true today. That was the worst, not the worst but it’s a bad question.
It’s a question I never answered with only one. What’s the best forum software and that’s the classic question on awful ones.
[00:28:00] Matt Mecham: You can’t answer that, you can’t. Exactly, you can’t answer that. The best one is the best one for you, go and try them out. We’ve all got demos and see which one you click with in terms of there was obviously psychology at work when designed interfaces based on how we interpret stimuli. Is that in line with your vision? If it’s not, that’s cool, but try them out. I can’t ask you what is the best product for me because we’re two different people. You got to try these things out for yourself. Yes, I agree, you can’t answer that question. You’re going to obviously say our product is the best.
Seriously, try it out, see what’s good for you. That’s the only way you can do it. Take other people’s opinions on board. This is for everything in life. Listen to other people but dilute it and weave in your own experience and see what you think.
[00:28:46] Patrick O’Keefe: I wrote a book about forums 10 years ago and it actually stands up really well contentwise but one of the things that I wish I hadn’t put in there because it was a software platform-agnostic book. My thing is I don’t care about software. My strategies that I wrote about are still good 10 years later. A lot of the things I talk about are still good but in a section, at the time, I guess I felt it would be incomplete. I mentioned one page out of 300. I mentioned specific software. I wanted to have a commercial solution to recommend and a free open source solution.
At that time, when I wrote that book in the mid-2000s, I mentioned phpBB and vBulletin and I wish that I had not because although those were the good options at the time, the fact is it did nothing for me to mention them. It only dates the book, and also neither of them like me. Like phpBB, the folks running phpBB did not like me and the vBulletin people, when I told them about the book they actually wanted to pre-read it before it went to publishing, and it was already gone anyway. I wouldn’t have allowed that. There was no game there to include software in the book so yes it’s just a funny side story.
[00:29:46] Matt Mecham: Well I think that’s true though. I think that’s a good point that running a good community is transcendent of the software you use. The software is only a platform, it’s what you make of it that makes it what it is. You got to mention software because there are so many well known platforms but really a community is always a community no matter where you put it.
[00:30:04] Patrick O’Keefe: Before the show, you gave me a rundown of how you see the timeline of forums in a general sense from the early days to the middle years, the recent years [laughs] and now what you call the post-Facebook era.
[00:30:14] Matt Mecham: [laughs] I’ve been around a long time.
[00:30:16] Patrick O’Keefe: I’d love to hear you take us through that. How you see the forums from the early days until today.
[00:30:21] Matt Mecham: Well, I have been around a long time. I’m getting old, as everyone in IPS loves to remind me. I think that what I tell one of our senior developers, Mark, I think he was probably six or seven years old when I started IkonBoard.
[00:30:35] Patrick O’Keefe: There you go.
[00:30:35] Matt Mecham: That blows my mind. The way I see it and this is my perspective, the early days, the ’90s, 2000s was a very creative time. People were doing things in their spare time but, really, you tended to attract people with complexity, you wanted to show off how much functionality you had. The more cluttered the interface and the more links you could stick on the better because it was like flying 747. So many cool buttons and toys to press. Really though, before Google became the all-conquering thing that it is today through a lot of more word of mouth and ICQ and now I have my things to get word out of your community.
If you had a dozen people in talking, you’d made, well done. You were now officially administrator. You can stick that on your desk. [laughs] So many people within that were like, “Wow, I’m speaking to an administrator.” I said, “Yes, son. Yes, you are.”
[00:31:26] Patrick O’Keefe: That plays into the narrative of everyone who’s ever managed a forum especially if you’ve been a young person when you were doing it, you always get that sort of, “Well, you’re ruining this because you’ve never had any authority in your life. You are power hungry or if you live in your mom’s basement.” Yes, you got that title there.
[00:31:44] Matt Mecham: Probably true in my case. No. Yes, exactly. In the early days of the web, if you were an administrator, it basically meant you had the ability to upload a script, configure the script, and learn about the scripts, and push outs. There was a little bit of respect there I guess but some people probably took it a bit too far and a bit too seriously, but moving on from that time, we get to the what I call the middle years, that’s 2003, 2012 where really there’s a start on simplicity. Facebook is founded, but doesn’t really gained traction till what? 2008,2009 before they opened it up before it was locked down to campus.
He’s insanely talented at what he does and I don’t understand 30% of what he does, but either you invest in those front-end technologies and that’s where that took off I think in that time. Obviously, Google was Google so there was a big push from our SEO and a million arguments from the internet about what is good SEOing and what’s bad SEOing. I do think anyone knows. Many people that know Google thy don’t tell anyone. That’s always a good conversation how it’s on. What’s good at SEOing? I think you go through the Facebook years where there’s a lot of anxiety about Facebook stealing members.
I think a lot of communities that didn’t have a strong focus or strong leadership or strong vision struggled because there was now a simpler place to have conversation where most of your friends already were. I think that a lot of those smaller, less-focused communities struggled a bit. I feel, personally, we’re moving onto an era where Facebook obviously they have their groups which are like simple forums but not really. Facebook is very much about now, what’s happening now. You try and find even in a group, even a moderately busy group trying to find something from last week what you’re looking for is chaos. It’s crazy.
It’s really really hard to do so I think people that have had success with Facebook groups are now looking at the next step. What’s the next that they’ve got to take? They understand that they can’t keep a Facebook group because it’s too chaotic. Once you get to 5,000, 10,000 people posting.
[00:34:00] Patrick O’Keefe: Yikes.
[00:34:01 ] Matt Mecham: Yes. It’s crazy.
[00:34:01] Patrick O’Keefe: You want to go for that I feel like too it just struggles.
[00:34:04] Matt Mecham: It really does and it’s great for what’s happening now, what’s on today but if you miss two days in a Facebook group, Oh, my gosh. You lose the texture in the context of what people are talking about, it just goes so quick, but also, weaving into that, Facebook are now challenged with their own success and they’re trying to work out how to optimize what you see in your news feed because the stats that are on the web and millions of things being posted every day. Organic reach is declining, they’re pushing their paid advertising platforms.
More recently, actually, we’ve been hearing just today just this morning on a Facebook group that I belong to, a friend had posted saying that her friends had been stuck in Facebook jail for posting too much, so she had lost access to her business, she’d lost that access to her Facebook group. It’s a worry when you think about the power that Facebook has. You’re investing all that information and all that trust in that platform. It’s a single point of failure, I think it has unsettled a lot of people on the Facebook platform. We are finding now through pre-sales, people coming to us and going, “What’s the next step?” I have a fully successful Facebook group.
I’m concerned that, for one, we don’t own the data. They could pull the plug tomorrow and we have no recourse. They could ban us all. If my competitor reports my account, will Facebook ban me for a week? I get a feeling that these bannings are almost based on an algorithm rather than the human reviews. There’s the anxiety there. We are really feeling now that Facebook has almost established a new needs for that user, that administrator that has a group. Of course, it’s a special challenge because Facebook is mobile fast. It’s very instant, it’s very easy, very simple interface. We are finding now that we’re moving along those lines, mobile fast is something that everyone should be doing.
I access the web outside of work constantly on my mobile, so everything has to work on mobile and user experience is a lot more along the lines of simplicity. You know that everyone also bans. It’s a unique challenge that we responded to in 4.2, 4.3. Yes, we are finding more and more that people are outgrowing Facebook. It’s as simple as that, they are outgrowing Facebook. Facebook is a great platform for promotion. I think you should still share your articles and links and things with Facebook because it has the potential to reach a broad audience. In terms of managing a community, we are living in a, maybe not quite but again towards almost post-Facebook era.
[00:36:22] Patrick O’Keefe: That’s an interesting way to put it though. That Facebook has created a need almost because they have a lot of things going on obviously [laughs]. They have a lot of pots of soup on the stove so to speak. They don’t necessarily all get the attention equally. Facebook groups, I use Facebook groups on my day jobs. That’s our preferred means of community development right now. Coming from a world where I could control practically everything, I’ll be honest it’s not great [laughs]. It’s not exactly where I wanted to be. We are there for this specific reason, which you hinted that which is number one people are there and we can get into their newsfeed, but that stuff can go away.
As you also you hinted that, we have a staff number, for example. We welcome people to the community and we have been doing that through Facebook Messenger and then guess what? No more of that. You have to stop because you’ve got rate limited. Also, we can’t risk our employees losing their accounts because Facebook decided that they are sending too many messages to new members in our group. Then the other thing is that, we welcome people in the post in the group and we tag them when they are already in the group, and Facebook rate limited that because we couldn’t tag people in our own group within a post within our own group when they’ve already opted into our group.
People should feel uneasy. People should feel uncomfortable if they’re relying on Facebook 100%.
[00:37:35] Matt Mecham: Exactly. Like this one person whether it’s an algorithm or whether it’s human reviews, I don’t know, because she opposed that she had contributed to a lot of groups in a short space of time, they just locked her account for two weeks and there’s nothing she can do about it. She has got her own group she needs to manage and she can’t even log in to manage that group. She can’t manage her community. She monetizes her community to pay her bills. It’s a real headache.
[00:37:55] Patrick O’Keefe: You talking maybe if you should think about Facebook groups as the hybrid between forums and Slack almost because of how they move fast and how things go by the community and there’s no organization of the discussions. It’s not fully live, but it’s live in the sense that if you are not there within a short period of time, it’s not asynchronous discussions. That’s not what’s happening on Facebook groups. People rarely go back unless you tag them and bring them back. It’s just gone.
[00:38:18] Matt Mecham: Yes, exactly. That’s the thing that forums have always been good at is storing data and making it archivable. How many times, even know when I’m Googling something and I find it in most information if it’s not Stack Overflow is on the forum somewhere. It’s almost always on the forum and I always have a special kind of joy when I see it’s our product. I say, “Okay, that works. Cool.”
[00:38:39] Patrick O’Keefe: The tragedy is that people are going to lose their data when they transfer to Invision or to something else. That’s the great sad thing.
[00:38:46] Matt Mecham: Yes, exactly that. Also, you think about our product, our features set that we’ve got obviously the community support forums. A massive part of the suite. It’s the focus of our suite, but we also have an e-commerce engine, bugging engine, go engine. We are finding more and more fitness professionals of which Facebook is awash of that sell fitness plans which usually ends up being accessed to a closed group. This is a common thing. That guy who’s running his business needs to get someone to pay on Paypal, then they need to go and manually verify the email address and name. Find them, then add them to the private group. There’s a lot of manual overhead where a good system, a good suite you remove all of that administration and does it for you.
I think there’s a lot of people in that field, especially, they’re looking to monetize their community. More looking for other options now because it is such a headache. With all the things you’ve mentioned too, rate limit, what works one day, it doesn’t work the next. Which makes onboarding new members a headache. You can’t onboard them like you’d like to.
It’s almost to the point where you fear for the talking too much to people because you might get rate limited or banned which is the opposite of what community should be doing for you.
[00:39:53] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. You mentioned the depth of conversations in the forums when you Google, you find things. I’ve been thinking recently that Facebook may have ruined a generation of community builders because, and I say that like tongue in cheek but not, also, realistic in how they and what they can do with the platform and the types of things that they do to make up for Facebook shortcomings like tagging people constantly in discussions. You always bring people into conversations, invite people, build your community but constantly tagging people in Facebook posts is not necessarily what great communities have been.
Then also software wise, if we’re just wiping out a percentage of data, a percentage of conversation on the Internet where from, let’s say, up to 2000 and something since 1980 or from 1990 I say, but 1980 there’s still communities around that have been around that long, but from the ’90s to 2010, let’s say, for 20 years, we got this great depth of conversation online. You could argue some of it is bad some of it is good just like our discourse in the greater world, but Facebook comes around and everything’s in a group. Nothing is indexed, nothing is there and if that’s their preferred platform which is the case in a lot of industries and articles, that’s gone.
That’s not going to be public anymore, that’s going to be a black hole when we look back 10, 20 years.
[00:41:05] Matt Mecham: Yes, excellent point. That is exactly that is a black hole whether that’s by a design or by accident, but I think it represents a shift in terms of consumption. People consume more than they create now I feel going back to where I started, I feel like everyone was creating something, that everyone had a forum product, that everyone had a script, everyone had something they were doing and other people seemed quite content just to say read the tags and memes on Facebook and hit up a few YouTube videos and do it on Twitter and that’s it. They’re consuming more than they’re creating which I think is a shame. I think it is a great shame. I wish I had the answer.
[00:41:40] Patrick O’Keefe: Believe me. Believe me, so do I. Going off that depressing note, what excites you right now about forum software?
[00:41:47] Matt Mecham: What excites me right now, I don’t know. I am always excited about what’s next and I’m always excited about reflecting on the last few years and see what we can learn from where we are, from where we were. I don’t know, I’m curious to see where the next step is, am I right? Is my prediction right? Are we in a post-Facebook world or is Facebook going to unveil a brand new community platform of its own that could cause more anxiety among forum owners, who knows? All I can do is control our little corner of the web and make sure that we are producing the best we can and creating the tools that people need today and tomorrow rather than what they needed yesterday.
I think some forum software is so entrenched in old ideas and technology, they don’t really advance very far. The first name, something like VB who was once a giant in the field. VB was immense, it was massive. I personally feel that they are failing to innovate anymore. They just regurgitating the same concepts and I think that’s a shame. You’ve always got to be thinking what’s the next step. What we’d like to do at IPS is take a tentative little step in a direction and see if it works. When we create new features, we tend to strip it down to its basic element like we’ve got one now that I’m doing and there’s a million things we can do with it, but I always want to make it very quick, very simple.
If it gets picked up and run with, great, we’ll flash it out. If not, we can just cut it. I think you’ve got to have that license to do that still. This quite a good being the position we’re in that we can do that still. We have such good culture at IPS where discussions happen very organically and very quickly we action them. We’re on a huge corporate base that has to go through 16 layers of management before anything happens. We can still move quite fast. I really enjoy that. That’s what I enjoy. In terms of community as a whole, I think simplification. I’m quite excited about that, I quite like seeing how we can present complex ideas in a very simple way.
I feel that’s definitely the way forward and I think that’s the way communities going to go that almost the chrome of the software is almost invisible now and you bring in the context back which is good.
[00:43:38] Patrick O’Keefe: Matt, thank you so much for stopping by the show, it’s been great to chat with you.
[00:43:42] Matt Mecham: Sure, yes, thank you for having me.
[00:43:43] Patrick O’Keefe: I can’t believe that we’re first podcast after all these years in the space. I don’t know that happened.
[00:43:46] Matt Mecham: I know. Today it’s like most of the developers like hiding in darkened rooms with the blinds drawn, so they’re not very good with talking with other people certainly, that’s probably what it is.
[00:43:55] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Matt Mecham, lead developer at Invision Power Services, the company behind Invision community. Find out more at invisioncommunity.com and check out their Facebook page at facebook.com/invisioncommunityofficial.
For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad. Happy holidays.
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