We last interviewed Erwin, the man with many hats, 5 1/2 years ago. If you haven't read it lately you should do so before you continue - it's Here. As you can imagine, he's been a busy boy since then, but he agreed to do another interview with us. I really appreciate the time he took to give us such wonderful responses to our questions.
If you have any questions for Erwin post them here, as he indicated he would be willing to answer them.
It's hard to believe our first interview with you was well over 5 years ago. Where does the time go?
That's a very good question - where does the time go? I suspect this is both a quantum physics question and a philosophical, existential question. Does time even exist? Is it a product of the universe expanding? 5 years sound like a long time, but really, in the scheme of things, is relatively short. But in the internet world, 5 years is a long time. We've seen the birth and growth of some major websites in that time, like Twitter, and we've seen major shifts in the way people use the web. Having said that, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Good, simple web design is still crucial, and usability is paramount for websites. As forum software become more complicated, be careful that your members don't get bogged down with features they don't need.
How have you been?
I have been well. Since my last interview, lots have changed. The most important and significant update I can give you is that a month ago, my wife and I had our first child, a daughter. That has meant that, right now, sleep is a privilege, but it also gives me time between feeds and nappy changes, to do some coding in the middle of the night. Otherwise, life is good. God has been good to me and my family.
Please tell us a little more about your wife and daughter.
My wife is a psychiatrist. My daughter is the most beautiful person in the world - she is just over a month old now, and already has a fairly strong personality.
What else is new and exciting in your life?
Good questions! I intend to complete my PhD, move into a more academic type of life by doing more teaching, have more babies, and continue in my current career as a specialist medical administrator. From an online point of view, I intend to continue to nurture Avatar Chat, and see what it evolves into. The members seem to love it, and like any webmaster out there, it makes me happy that people out there are enjoying it.
Is it true that in addition to being a doctor and a lawyer, you're an MBA? What do you do with that?
I have an MBA, and also a Master of Health Services Management. In fact, if you do a Google search for me, you'll find a biography of me around the place now, as I'm active on a few medical and legal committees and boards. Right now, I'm also currently undertaking a PhD (something I started years ago, but now have decided to take up again, and actually finish) - probably not a good idea considering that I now am a father. I have quit a couple of my external committees and other commitments so that I have more free time. In relation to what do I do with my qualifications - at the moment, I am in the business of running hospitals, managing doctors and looking after health services. I have dual specialty training in medical administration and legal medicine, and practise mainly in the former, but still do some of the latter.
Are you still practicing Legal Medicine? What kind of cases do you handle?
Yes, I do, but this is not my major focus now, although I still teach it as a subject both in university and professionally. The cases are mainly medical negligence type cases, but other health law issues do come up, such as breach of privacy, consent issues, and unprofessional conduct. I am still registered as a barrister and solicitor in my state.
What's next for you, an MPH?
No, not an MPH - 2 Masters is enough! As mentioned, I am enrolled to do a PhD. I'm doing it part-time so it will take me 5-6 years. Besides that, I am trying to finish up another Fellowship in another health management-related College.
What is the area of specialization for your PhD?
If you really want to know, it's look at the definition of the complex medical patient with multimorbidity, and how we best manage this group of patients.
What is your ultimate career goal?
To be half-time in academia, and the other half doing something useful for society.
Are you still as busy as ever?
Yes, more than ever, as I am now a dad! A bit of advice - however hard you believe it is to be a parent, multiply it by 10, and then it will still be harder when you become one! At least that's how it feels like at the moment. But it will be the best thing you will ever do, and you will love it!
I heard that you sold the ChristianForums? How come? And how has it been doing since then?
I sold ChristianForums in the second half of 2007. At the time, because of work, I had hardly any time to be online, let alone maintain the site and do coding for it. I didn't feel I was able to give the website the best attention it needed. Truth be told, I had also made a few changes to the site, which a lot of the members did not like, for example, changing the name, in an attempt to widen the scope of its membership and reach out to a wider community - looking back now, this was a mistake, and I hope that other forum admins learn from this - major changes to a growing and successful community is unwise without sufficient consultation with the membership, and even the staff - and don't mess with somethinig that is working, you can only make it worse (in other words, if it ain't broke, don't try to fix it). At that time, I had felt that the site had become too "inward focussed" and was alienating certain parts of the membership - in an attempt to be more ecumenical, I made certain changes that were, in retrospect, carried out too quickly - such changes should have been done through evolution rather than revolution - in any case, there was a lot of stress at the time, and I didn't see any of this while I was in the midst of it. The buyer of the site had already approached me previously as being interested, and the buyer at the time was a pastor who was also a web entrepreneur - I felt that he was best able to take ChristianForums to the next level, especially with his apparent resources and knowledge. So I made the decision to sell the site to him. I did believe that ChristianForums, being the largest online Christian community at the time, was poised to hit the next level of expansion that required a more professional input.
Do I regret selling the site now? I have to say yes, because I miss it greatly, both the site, and the people. However, decisions were made, and we have to move on. A lot of people have asked me, if time was an issue, why did I decide to start a new web community. Well, I didn't immediately run a forum site after selling ChristianForums - however, you and I both know, being webmasters, that we do start to miss it after a while. I was managing a couple of small association websites, but nothing major, and I missed doing major coding! I had all these ideas still in my head, that I had wanted to try out at ChristianForums, that keep popping back into my head. This is how Avatar Chat started.
Tell us about your new forum, Avatar Chat, in some detail. Start with the community itself.
Avatar Chat initially came into being as a simple social network based on a free remotely-hosted social network platform at the end of 2007, a couple of months or so after I sold ChristianForums - this platform was totally maintenance free, so I just left it as it is. The site got around 400 members over approximately 9 months, with no input from me. It was really a placeholder for the domain name, while I was busy with real life and work, and juggled ideas in my head. I looked around for open source and free code, and decided to relaunch a forum site, but this time, using my own ideas and custom code, based on concepts that I had always wanted to try at ChristianForums, but never did, either because of lack of time, or because hacking vBulletin is not as easy as it looks. In the end, Avatar Chat version 2, the forum version, was launched on 1 September 2008. I got rid of the 400 members from version 1, and started again from scratch. And the site has grown from there since, with lots of hard work on my part.
What about the forum software powering the community - vBulletin?
It's not vBulletin. The site is custom coded, based on freely available source code around, and open source code, but modified by myself quite extensively, all hooked up together by a central code engine. The site is quite AJAX-heavy, with real-time updating of new threads and posts. As you can see, my original ideas of a virtual reality community is coming to past at Avatar Chat - it was only within the last month that I added a virtual 3d world to the site, that links the custom avatars, rooms, houses and land, together in 1 place. One of the other ideas that I did try to implement, not very successfully, at ChristianForums, was a Wiki and Self-Moderating System - I was trying to have a system in place where the community itself decides the rules for themselves, and moderate itself. This didn't work for ChristianForums, but I started Avatar Chat with no moderators and a self-rating/ moderating system, where posts and threads get buried if rated down. This worked well for the first 6 months, but as the site got bigger, I added moderators to the site, because I realise a large community does require independent moderation. I still managed to keep the rules simple. So, the principles are still the same - simple, effective, and clear rules, and good and effective moderation, keeps a community healthy and growing.
What are some of the customizations you've added?
There are just too many to count. I've modified the code so much, I don't even remember some of the changes I've made now, when I look at the code. The beauty of using my own custom code, is that I am not subject to a commercial product's frequent updates and upgrades. The downside, however, is that there is no support, and no guarantees of security - I've had to double check my own code myself, and there is always a risk when you use your own code. This is still outweighed by the freedom I have to modify the code whenever I want, at any time. I also know every single line of code back to front now, so I know where everything fits, and that also helps a lot.
What kind of server cluster are you running?
The idea with hosting is to keep it modular and scalable. The site originally started on a shared server, as most do. I then moved to a virtual server, and now the site is on a dedicated Quad Xeon server with web on a SCSI 15k drive, and mysql on another. There is no need for a cluster as yet - I've coded it so that server load is monitored, and I get emails if it gets too high, and that has not been an issue since the site went dedicated about 2 months ago. But the host I am using allows me to add more servers if needed, and that's important. As the site grows, I will be adding web servers, and an image server, but not at the moment. The site, because it is graphics-heavy, does chew up bandwidth a lot. It's important for me to ensure my hosting plan covers this.
In your first interview you made a series of suggestions for forum administrators which was quite excellent. For this interview, can you summarize the steps you undertook in planning and implementing the creation of a new community which grew into a big board with 55,000 members and 6 and a half million posts in just over a year?
It is true that Avatar Chat has grown quite quickly, even more so than ChristianForums when it first started. Part of the reason is that a lot of members that join tend to use the site as an avatar community and avatar chat site, rather than as a forum site. However, we do get a lot of posts as it is. I'll try to summarise my steps the best way I can.
1. I had to identify a good and easy to remember site name. I then bought the domain name for the name, and as many variations as possible (I own not only avatarchat.com, but also avatarchat.net, avatar-chat.com, avatarchat.info, avatarchat.biz, avatarchat.mobi) - this is to prevent cyber-squatting. I also went ahead and trademarked Avatar Chat as a name.
2. I had to come up with a focus for the community. I intentionally did not want the site to be just for Christians, but I did want it run on Christian principles, being a Christian myself. In the end, I kep the site focus fairly broad, and left it as a generic chat forum. However, I had to make the site unique and differentiate it from the millions of site out there. I already had an avatar system at ChristianForums, and I decided to expand that idea, but added custom rooms, and then houses and land, to it. I also had custom coded AJAX chat rooms, a 3d world as mentioned, as well as the usual wikis, blogs, arcade, multiplayer chess, as well as friends, pets etc. everything that I really liked and I thought worked well at ChristianForums, I expanded and made better for Avatar Chat. The ability for members to connect and communicate is important, and I made that a central theme to the site. Custom profiles, social network feeds etc were all things I custom coded and added to the site as well.
3. Search Engine Optimisation is crucial - Avatarchat is on the first page of Google for all its major keywords, and to have done this took some time. As I was using custom code, I was able to ensure all my URLs were search engine friendly. The site still has a fair way to go, as it's only PR3, but it ranks reasonably well so far. Ensuring that people know about it is essential - I do have a link to my site in my sig on the other forums I post at (such as this one ).
4. Listening to suggestions and acting on them is also important - my members are my best ideas generators - I have a suggestions forum, and any suggestion that I like, I will code up and implement - I did this at ChristianForums, and I still do it at Avatar Chat.
5. Enjoy your site - Avatar Chat, to me, is my hobby and I run it for fun. I do not run ads on it, and it is sucking up thousands of dollars of hosting and other costs. I do have a Site Supporter donation system running, which I had custom coded to link in automatically with Paypal, but I don't have that many site supporters (less than 10). The site, at the moment, is mainly used by younger members, and so the demographic is not right for people who would pay. However, as I mentioned, Avatar Chat is really a playground for me to experiment with my coding ideas, and online concepts - the virtual 3d world is one aspect, but there are other ideas I do have that I want to play with slowly. As the site grows, and with more traffic, I will entertain putting ads on, but not at the moment. I do have partnerships with some other sites - at the moment, one of our prizes is being sponsored by a company - but we don't receive money from these companies, at least not yet.
What are your thoughts regarding the current state of affairs at Internet Brands/Jelsoft/vBulletin?
I don't have any thoughts in relation to Jelsoft or vBulletin, although I look on with interest at vBulletin 4.0, which looks like an impressive piece of software. However, software should server your needs and the needs of your community, and not the other way around - just because the software offers you things, does not mean you or your members need it - on the other hand, you should make the software do what you want it to do, and what you dream it should do - hence why I decided to go down the custom code route. It helps that I can code (although I am a bad coder, as the coders who helped the new owner of ChristianForums found out - my code is not clear or nice, but it works). For new forum admins who don't have much experience in coding, software like vBulletin is excellent, especially with the many modifications out there that are easily installable. For more experienced web admins who also can code, you may want to consider taking an open source code out there and modifying it to suit your own needs.
Since your last interview with us, what do you find most surprising in the goings on of the real world?
In the real world, since 2004, I find the following most surprising:
1. The culture wars that seem to be still brewing between Islamists and the West - both physically in the form of terrorist acts that our children's children will look back and wonder in awe that it happened this way, as well as the philosophical, ideological conflict that comes with the clash of two very different paradigms and viewpoints.
2. The global financial crisis happened in such a precipitous way when it was more or less almost predictable.
3. We are still arguing over climate change when the evidence is happening right before our eyes.
4. We have still not returned to the Moon, or sent a space mission to Mars. The invention of the space shuttle is the worse idea that NASA ever had for spaceflight.
5. We are still not driving electric cars.
How about in the virtual/online world?
I am surprised that...
1. The Internet is still too slow.
2. Simple ideas still reign - great example is the success of Twitter.
3. Porn, especially extreme unsavoury stuff, is still too easily accessible by young children - I find this concerning now that I have a baby.
4. The Matrix still hasn't arrived - I want my direct interface.
5. Web technologies are still relatively unchanged.
6. We are still arguing over file sharing and copyright - let's move on and agree that the Internet has changed everything, and let's try to make the most of it. Good example that is current is the fact that some newspapers want to charge for content.
7. Google still hasn't officially taken over the world.
8. People still use Microsoft products. Consider Apple or open source, people.
9. Dot com is still king, even though there are other tlds available.
10. There are plenty of opportunities still available, and the online world is still a new frontier that is in its infancy - we have yet to see it truly reach its potential, so all of us are pioneers here.
What do you know now that you wish you knew 10 years ago?
Good question. Consider I started ChristianForums in 2001, one could say that I've been running forums for almost 10 years. I wish I had known more about the importance of usability and good web design, and search engine optimisation. I wish I had known that real estate prices would shoot up so much - I would have spent money investing in property. I wish I had the idea of microblogging, or even social networks, or easy to access online videos - all these things came AFTER I started my first forum. Mind you, I've run sites before my first forum, but never did have that special idea that took off.
What's your next big adventure?
As above. Thank you for the privilege of doing this interview. I hope it has been helpful. I'm happy for any questions if there are any.
You can read more about Erwin's Avatar Chat community Here!