Anyone who has seen Dr. Erwin Loh's Avatar knows something about him already - he wears many hats. He is a physician and a lawyer, owns and administrates the largest Christian Forums on the planet, endlessly modifies code for his Board, graciously shares his work with the vBulletin Community, and still manages to find time for the really important things in his life - family and spirituality. And even the occasional comic book...
Note: After this interview was published, Erwin sold the Christian Forums and created a new Big Board, Avatar Chat.
> Please tell us a little about your personal life, family, and home.
I'm married to a wonderful woman. We have no kids (yet).
> Can you summarize your educational experience for us?
I have a medical degree from the University of Melbourne, and a law degree from Monash University - both are well-known universities in Australia.
> Which Medical Specialty do you practice?
I am a Specialist in Legal Medicine, and a Fellow of both the American and the Australian Colleges of Legal Medicine.
>What made you decide to attend Law School?
It's an interest of mine.
> What direction will your career take now?
I work mainly in health law, defending doctors, hospitals, insurance companies etc. I plan to get more involved in medical defence.
> How do you manage your time?
With a lot of discipline and a Treo 270.
> Will you describe what you do on a daily and/or weekly basis?
I have a very busy life. On weekdays, I generally wake up early to check on my forum site. I answer support questions, fix up bugs, etc. I then drive to work in the city. At work, I review medical files, draft medicolegal advice and when I have time, check on my forum during my lunch break (I am typing this now from work during my lunch break!).
I get home usually late in the evening, and cook dinner if it's my turn to cook, eat and watch some TV, then do my daily gym workout. I then log on and check on my forum again, and do server maintenance and other stuff I need to do.
On weekends, I spend more time online doing server and site maintenance. I also try to spend time with my wife, by relaxing with friends or catching up on the latest movie.
On Sundays we attend our local church, where I play bass.
> How did you become interested in Online Communities?
Actually, I was originally involved with dialup BBSes that predate the internet. In the 80s and early 90s, I ran 3 BBSes in Australia - these were the days before the web. I remember using things like SuperBBS, RemoteAccess etc. I remember when RoboBBS came up which had graphics - were we impressed! Those were the days when AOL was actually a BBS as well. I remember the arrival of text-based internet and using Lynx - the popularity of email being used, the onset of USENET newsgroups (I can still find my really old posts in some of them). I remember the arrival of Mosaic, then Netscape, which offered web with graphics.
I remember the day AOL logged onto the net, the arrival of AOL newbies into the newsgroups and the public outcry... ahhh, those were the days. I remember when domain names were free... was I stupid - I should have registered more!!!
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I was running a medical search engine site (www.medlinepro.com - which I sold 3-4 years ago) when I got involved with www.searchengineforums.com - I became a moderator there and learned a lot about SEO techniques etc. I then decided to start my own community.
I started with ezboard, and moved from there to UBB, and then to vBulletin, and the rest is history.
> Are they an important part of the internet? Of people's lives?
Absolutely, for some more than others. There are a lot of disconnected and lonely people out there. Online communities offer a chance for people to connect with people with whom they will probably never meet otherwise, from all over the world.
> You're a very well respected vBulletin hacker. Is this because you enjoy modifying code or did it come about out of necessity in order to create the features you want in a Community?
A bit of both.
I started out as a teenager coding in Basic for MS-DOS. I remember a game called "Michael the Bear" that I made in Basic for my sister when I was 12 years old. Wish I still had it.
It was partly for fun, because I like the intellectual challenge, and partly to modify my own forum.
> Tell us about your time as Administrator on vBulletin.org.
It was for about a year, around 2002 - 2003. I was asked by the previous Admin and Owner, Chen (Firefly) to become an administrator of vB.org with Stefan (Xenon).
It was a great time. Stefan was and is a great person to work with.
I stepped down last year basically because my own forums became larger and larger and needed more time, and my work was also becoming busier.
vBulletin.org remains a vibrant community of vBulletin enthusiasts - I will continue to contribute there as much as I can.
> ChristianForums is an amazing Communtiy - I can hardly believe it's less than three years old. Tell us about it.
Well, it's the largest Christian forum site in the world at the moment. It's ranked as the 4th largest vBulletin forum by Big-Boards, and is in their Top 20th largest forums ever.
I started it as a hobby, but feel that it has become an "online ministry" for myself - a way I can contribute my time and services to Christianity.
> Did your ever dream it would grow so large?
Well, it was always a dream that it would become a place where ALL Christians could gather on the internet.
> The Community itself - the members and staff - are fantastic. You must be very proud of them!
I am. I have around 80 volunteer staff, and we are always actively recruiting. We have a complex staff hierarchy system organised into different staff teams, with staff team leaders, and a chain of accountability. We also have a system of staff protocol where complaints get channeled up the chain of command. Appeals, warnings, bannings, are all part of this system.
> I'm almost afraid to ask, but how much time do you have into the vBulletin customizations you've made there?
I'm almost afraid to answer!
Almost every vBulletin file has been modified.
We have a virtual community where people can get jobs, equip themselves with items, exchange points with each other, etc. - it's a lot of hacks all integrated together.
> What server(s) are you running your Forum on, and how much time do you spend per week administering it?
We keep outgrowing our hardware. We are migrating to a server cluster with a dedicated database server.
I spend on average at least 10 hours a week maintaining the server and the site.
> How would you describe your Moderating Style?
I don't moderate CF. I have my staff to do that. I tend to hang around in the background and do the rest of the software/ hardware stuff, and pay all the bills too.
> What are the common mistakes you see Forum Administrators making?
Enough thoughts from me.
- Starting too big.
I see many forums which are new and have a small number of members, but they have complicated sites with too many forums. Always start small, start simple, get a core group of members first, and build from there.
- Sites that are too complicated.
Newbies get confused. Make your design nice but simple.
- Too many hacks.
Only add hacks that would be useful to your particular community.
- Overconfidence and poor security.
CF was hacked into recently because I was overconfident and thought I had it secured - I overlooked a bbcode that allowed input variables - I knew it was not secure, but I didn't think anyone would know about it - I found out that hackers were copying cookies and logging into my staff accounts - this apparently went on for months. Thank God the hackers involved were not malicious, and I was told of this breach, which is now fixed. But overconfidence and pride can lead to serious consequences - always be overcautious when it comes to security.
- Too much graphics.
If you do have lots of graphics at least offer a text-based style as well.
- No plan for growth.
A lot of forum admins start a forum, but when it gets bigger, the forum closes down because:
- Not enough staff to moderate
- The server is not powerful enough so too slow
- The community splits into factions and splits
- Always assume your site will grow, and have a plan - how do you plan to pay for upgrades?
- Poor selection of staff, and poor staff management.
Members are the blood of a forum. The moderators is like the heart of a forum that controls the circulation of the blood. Without good moderators, a forum WILL fail. When it comes to moderators, a forum admin needs to:
- Figure out how many mods a forum needs - don't have too many if your forum is too small, but you need enough so that mods do not burn out.
- Choose mods from members who are dedicated
- Offer a way for members to apply
- Be strict in accepting staff - it is HARDER to fire a mod than to hire one.
- Always have a live interview process
- Always have a training process
- Always have a probationary period - For example, at CF, we have a live interview with senior staff, then training for 30 days, and a probationary period of 60 days - during the first 90 days, you may be asked to step down as a mod if you are found to be unsuitable.
- Poor people skills.
Forum admins are not just administering a forum - they are administering PEOPLE too - so they need good people skills - they need to observer good netiquette, be polite, and treat their staff and members well.
- Poor promotional skills.
What frustrates me is when forum admins go to other forums and spam for more members - to me that breaches basic netiquette. The only way a forum would grow is through:
- Good search engine positioning - CF is ranked number one for the terms "christian forum" and "christian forums" on ALL search engines.
- Word of mouth - if you're good, people will find out.
- Finding a niche vs doing what you enjoy.
On the one hand, forum admins keep opening forums about similar topics and saturate the online world with the same types of communities. On the other hand, forum admins need to run forums relating to topics they enjoy - it's a fine balance. For example, instead of another RPG forum, why not make an RPG forum that appeals to a subgroup - this way, you can capture a niche market.
> What Websites do you visit for fun and relaxation?
vBulletin.org, vBulletin.com, ev1servers.net/forums, CF, and some other sites.
> How has the internet changed in the last 10 years, and where do you see it heading in the next 10?
The internet is still in its infancy. As bandwidth grows bigger, I foresee that the internet will become more interactive and multimedia-oriented. It would be more an immersive environment, where all of a person's senses would be involved. Technology will improve and so will the internet experience.
In the same way, online communities will change from being 2-dimensional to 3-dimensional places. There will be a convergence between 3-D first person online games and online forums, where lines between the 2 will be blurred.
That will be an exciting time for online communities - we should all be excited to be part of this phenomenon at its infancy.
> What offline activities do you enjoy in your spare time?
1) Read science-fiction and fantasy
2) Play bass
3) Watch movies
4) Cook and eat
> Tell us something about yourself that we don't already know.
I have the first issue of the Batman comic from 1942.
> What else would you like to add?
There is more to life than money and material wealth. The value of a man is not in what he has or what he has achieved - it is in how many lives he has changed for the better. So go out there, and make a difference in someone's life. We are not here long - so make it count.