Interview With Stuart Wright - Founder Of AVForums!

  1. The Sandman
    Stuart Wright (AKA Spinball) is a familiar name to most people who frequent XenForo.com (or who have more than a passing interest in all things audio/visual). That's because he's just recently completed a conversion of the AVForums he founded from vBulletin 3.8 to XenForo 1.2. That's a big deal for a forum with over 18 million posts and tons of custom features. A project like that doesn't happen overnight, and it's not the work of a single person, but Stuart is the driving force behind it all. I really appreciate the time and effort he put into responding to my long list of questions (and getting them back to me within 24 hours)!

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    Can you give us a brief biography?

    I got fascinated by computers on a school trip to the London Science museum in about 1977 aged 12. I learned coding in BASIC on the school Commodore PET (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodore_PET) and later on my Video Genie (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_Genie). I did badly in my A levels because A level courses in computer studies did not exist at that time, so I went to Sunderland Polytechnic (now University) to study HND computer studies. But I dropped out after the second year because computer studies was about accounting, business and programming on COBOL on mainframes by submitting your programs on punch cards and I could never be interested in that.

    I started my first job on my 21st birthday in Sheffield computer programming on mini systems (PCs weren't invented, yet). I packed my job in a couple of years later to be a drummer in a rock band and a few years after that, I returned to programming computers in Birmingham where I met the wife.

    In 1999 I contacted the owners of Home Cinema Choice magazine and offered to set up and run their website in exchange for keeping the advertising revenue. This expanded to several tech publications and by 2000 I had given up my programming job and started M2N Ltd. (Magazine 2 'Net). I started AVForums shortly after in early 2000. A few years later the company who took over the magazines cancelled the contract, but by then running AVForums was a full time job.

    What is your educational background?

    Good 'O' levels (aged 16), bad 'A' levels (aged 18) and dropped out of higher education.

    What do you consider as your accomplishments up to this point?

    Growing AVForums to be one of the bigger communities in the UK. And of course a couple of kids to be proud of.

    Any failures you'd like to tell us about?

    Some of the initiatives related to AVForums have not gone as planned. The most recent was the decision to use a non web-safe font. Disappointing from an aesthetics point of view that we reverted back to Verdana a week later. But it's quite an important attribute of a forum that people can read it!

    What is the significance of your username (Spinball) and avatar (C3PO)?

    Spinball comes from the name of the game in the Death Game 1999 story in the UK 70's comic called Action. It was an extremely violent comic which got banned in 1979. Details at http://www.sevenpennynightmare.co.uk/. And I'm a huge Star Wars fan.

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    What is your full time occupation?

    Running AVForums.

    Can you give us a brief history of AVForums?

    The only online community for UK people into home cinema (home theater in the US) in 2000 was a newsgroup where swearing, abuse and cliques were common. So I decided to start a forum for home cinema enthusiasts which would be a welcoming place, free from bad language and abuse. I linked to it from the tech magazine websites I ran and a little later I secured avforums.com and rebranded the site. The wife has helped me from the start, mainly handling the financial side. Being self employed, we work over 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. In 2004 the site hit 'critical mass' and traffic and membership increased exponentially for a while.

    Can you give us a perspective on just how large and how busy it is (stats, server setup, staff size, personal time commitment, etc.)?

    About 250 forums, 1.6 million threads, 18.8 million posts and 272,000 members. We have 30,000 banned member accounts! Mostly, of course, from spammers who we dispose of rapidly.

    We have one web and one database server with an additional sandbox server. I have no idea what their specifications are as I let Tim Dunton at Nimbus Hosting deal with all the server side of things.

    Aside from the wife and I, we have one employee, Phil Hinton, who manages editorial. We use a company who sell advertising on the site and manage all the commercial enquiries. They know the forums and the industry very well. We have a couple of virtually full time freelance editorial writers and several more part timers. And we have about 60 volunteer moderators.

    The wife and I have separate offices at home and we communicate by Skype, emails and shouting across the hallway. Everyone else working for and with AVForums does so from home.

    I start work at about 7am most days and clock off at 9pm. The wife is about the same. Of course we take time out as we want, but even when on a beach I have my iPad handy.

    What's it like to manage the AVForums community?

    Interesting and rewarding most of the time. Occasionally challenging, frustrating and infuriating. Like most jobs if you're lucky. I really like working from home, though it means I have pretty much lost my ability to communicate with humans face to face.

    Tell us about the AVForums staff?

    Vicki is extremely conscientious and reliable. Mistakes on the financial front are virtually unheard of. She's applies a steadying hand to the business. Phil works incredibly hard to produce editorial news, reviews, articles, podcasts and videos with his team. He's multi-skilled, extremely dedicated and fiercely maintains our editorial impartiality. As a result our editorial is something I am extremely proud of. The freelancers are all hard working and dedicated, too. Some volunteer spare time to appearing in the podcasts despite having young families. The moderators are heroic in the amount of crap they have to put up with sometimes. A good moderating team is invaluable.

    Tell us about the team you put together for converting/migrating AVForums to XenForo.

    Our first import test in 2012 failed after 48 hours so I put the migration on indefinite hold. Later, thanks to Digial Point's fast importer, the prospect of migrating with little down time made the migrating a reality again and it was suggested on Xenforo that I approach Jake Bunce of the XF moderating team to manage the import. He prepared the data and performed numerous tests over a period of about 6 weeks. Working with Jake has been a pleasure. Not only did he work well with Tim at Nimbus to get our servers set up correctly, but he also helped import non-standard data such as vB Post Thanks and iTrader ratings.

    The list of functionality we relied on with vB which didn't exist in XF was quite long. Some elements were available in existing addons (e.g. user notes and BB code management). Where some addons didn't quite do what we needed, I spoke with authors and most were extremely friendly and understanding, and my coding background enabled me to put forward some strong arguments for functionality improvements. Most got implemented and sometimes without paying a fee :)

    I haven't yet had time to learn coding in XF, though I plan to. As a result I contacted a number of coders on Xenforo.com to produce the additional functionality we need. Chris Deeming did most of the work. We're working with him still and I hope to continue to do so as he's very, very good. His familiarity with Xenforo means the addons we have produced fit naturally into the core Xenforo software and are slick, feature rich and efficient. XF members Waindigo and ExtraLicense also coded some additional addons for us. Most of the addons we produced haven't been released yet simply because Chris doesn't have the time to. Hopefully we will release them soon.

    A design company created the new look for AVForums editorial pages, but by July 2103, I wasn't confident that I knew Xenforo well enough to efficiently apply it to Xenforo, so we used Mike Creuzer of Audentio. He did an excellent, efficient, future-proof job. Most of the css changes are in a separate template so that upgrades will require less editing of outdated templates. Notably, Mike created the animated, sticky header which is so impressive.

    We had hoped to launch September 1st, but our editorial system was too far behind, so we delayed until the end of October. That delay actually gave me useful extra time to prepare. On the day, I had a huge Skype chat going with Jake, Chris, Tim, the editorial developer, Phil, Vicki and the lead moderator all handling various elements. AVForums was offline for 9.5 hours and the core forums worked from the get go without any problems thanks mainly to Jake.

    How and when did you decide to convert to XenForo?

    In 2010, pretty much as soon as I heard rumours that Kier and Mike were developing new software. By then I had already lost faith in vBulletin and was tentatively looking around for an alternative. Based solely on their track record with vB3, I had a good idea that the new software from Kier and Mike would be good. However, the Internet Brands lawsuit was filed in October 2010. Having the responsibility of securing the future of AVForums meant I couldn't migrate until Xenforo's future was secured. So as soon as the lawsuit was dismissed, I started preparing for the migration. That lawsuit delayed the migration by about a year.

    Can you summarize the process of switching over from beginning to end?

    With the help of the right people and enough time to prepare the switch was actually relatively easy. I would say the process took maybe six months of preparation on and off.

    What surprises/issues cropped up during the process?

    There was a bug in the last minute addition of a regex of some of the AME (automatic media embedder) bb code in posts, so we had to import the post table (18.8 million records) again without it. That delayed us by an hour. Otherwise it was straightforward.

    What's left on your To Do list?

    That relates mostly to the editorial side of the site. There are a few 'nice to have' addons which we need to produce and to be honest, I can see us evolving the site with style tweaks and addon refinements indefinitely. We have to write a mailing list addon so members can subscribe to newsletters which we will mail using Sendy.

    What is your opinion on the current state of affairs in forum software in general and specifically for vBulletin, Invision Power Board, and XenForo?

    One of my favourite subjects. Ok so we stayed at vB3.8.2 because once Kier had followed Mike out of the Jelsoft door, I didn't know who was developing vBulletin or how good they were. I decided to hold off upgrading further until the software had proven to be good.

    So I was tentatively looking around for software to migrate to for a long time. I had got advice that Invision was both good and bad. To be honest the advice against it had put me off the software and all the while I was hoping that Kier and Mike's then unnamed new software would fit the bill.

    Meanwhile vBulletin 4 was never any good, arguably, until 4.2, by which time Xenforo was on the cards. A lot of admin must agree with me because over 45% of current vB installations are still at version 3 (source:https://tools.digitalpoint.com/cookie-search).

    I have strong feelings about Internet Brands. First the way they treated the people who built up vBulletin to be the market leading software was a disgrace. By refusing to do the sensible thing and rewrite vB from scratch to produce vB4, and by demoting them, Internet Brands (and specifically Bob Brisco) put the key developers in a position where they felt they had to resign. At a stroke, that strategic misstep robbed vBulletin its best chance of a decent future.

    Then Internet Brands launched the lawsuit against Xenforo. As it would for anyone, that must have been a horrific burden for Kier and Mike, and probably made their lives pretty miserable for a long time. There's reason enough for me to dislike Internet Brands. But the lawsuit also delayed the development of Xenforo for months and the migration of AVForums to Xenforo for maybe a year.

    We've been with vBulletin for 12 years, but rather than sentimentally bidding it a fond farewell, I feel happy to have severed my link with Internet Brands.

    The way Internet Brands are mismanaging the development of vBulletin (with vBulletin 5 Connect being kindly described as a horrific mess) is irrelevant to me now, but I have to admit I'm reveling in watching the slow motion car wreck. Anyone wanting advice on migrating from vBulletin to Xenforo will find it flowing enthusiastically from me.

    What advice do you have for people just starting out as forum administrators?

    This question can go one of two very different ways depending on whether the new administrator is launching a new forum or not. I'll assume we're talking about launching a new forum.

    If you're doing it for fun, try to always enjoy it. It should really be a subject that you are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about. If you plan to make it into a commercial enterprise, pick a subject for your forum which has the potential to attract advertisers on. Home Consumer Electronics has that. Stamp Collecting, perhaps less so.

    Being the first forum in a particular subject is nigh on impossible these days, so if you want to be the biggest, then you will need to offer something significantly better and/or different than the opposition. If you can, associate with an organisation which has traffic but no forum so you can get a boost in visitors.

    Put the community first. Make the forum welcoming for new people so it will grow. If you need to cover server costs or grow the forum as a business, put adverts on from the start because it's easier to take nasty things away than add them later on. The same applies to price comparison data and services like Skimlinks.

    Try not to use adsense unless you have to. Try direct sales ads if you can. Associate with a company who will sell your ads for a commission if you can't sell yourself.

    Arm your moderators with all the tools they need to keep your forum on an even keel. Keep control of your community. Don't let yourself be bullied into doing something you don't feel is right and listen to the advice of the moderators. If you're wife takes an interest, get her involved. A second opinion from someone who knows you well can add a valuable angle when making decisions.

    What is your personal moderation style?

    I don't moderate any more. The AVForums rules have matured over 13 years. They are pretty detailed, and we are strict in some areas. But they are all designed to ensure the forum remains somewhere that people want to come back to.

    What does your daily schedule look like?

    Sitting at the computer. Gym a few days a week. That's it.

    What are your favorite books? Movies? TV shows? Music? Games? Foods? Beverages?

    Big movie fan. Star Wars 4,5,6 and Dances with Wolves being among my favourite. As a family we watched 12 Monkeys last night. That's a good film. The wife and I make a point of shutting down work at 9pm and watching TV together. It's the usual favourites like Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Walking Dead, Person of Interest, The Dome, Blacklist, Homeland. Basically the more mature themes, explicit language, sex and violence, the better.

    I do play Call of Duty a fair amount. Black Ops II at the moment.

    Heavy rock will always be my favourite music. From Rainbow to Ratt. Ronnie James Dio (RIP) is my favourite singer, Joe Satriani is my favourite guitarist and Neil Peart my favourite drummer.

    My favourite food is unfortunately custard creams and McD's strawberry thick shake.

    Which websites do you visit regularly?

    YouTube a lot watching atheist videos from the likes of Thuderf00t, Aronra, The Thinking Atheist, The Atheist Experience and the Magic Sandwich Show. BBC news on my iPhone. Xenforo.com. Nothing much else at the moment.

    What do you do for fun and relaxation?

    Play Call of Duty, rant about the evil of organised religion, listen to heavy rock, watch movies and I go to the Gym regularly.

    What are your musical tastes and preferences?

    Pre-'95 heavy rock and some movie music. Virtually nothing else. Hate reggae.

    Tell us about your musical career.

    Started playing drums when I was about 12 on and off. Started playing in a band with my school friends but stopped when we went off to higher education. When we all finished University, we all gathered in Sheffield to form a rock band and I packed my computer programming job in when we went professional. We played hundreds of gigs, including a couple of tours of the British forces bases in Germany. We shared dressing rooms with strippers and comics who went on to be Coronation Street actors. We were on TV a couple of times, won the Friday Rock Show once and recorded some tracks in the BBC's Maida Vale studio. We recorded a couple of self funded demos and we won a competition to release an album but there was no producer so it didn't do anything. Do a search for Big Chill Halfway to Heaven. Most important was that we have, despite all the back breaking lugging of flight cases, hours in the back of cold vans and playing to empty venues, some of the most unique, bizarre, hilarious and special memories to cherish. The band remain the best of friends.

    What's your personal home audio/video system setup?

    We are lucky enough to have a pretty special dedicated home cinema which was completed in the Spring of 2013. Details here: http://www.avforums.com/showcase/the-avforums-home-cinema.1/

    What do you know now that you wish you'd known 10 years ago?

    Work related, I wish I'd known the future of vBulletin and Xenforo. I would have learned how to code in Xenforo the day it was released and migrated to it ASAP. Non work related, I wish I'd known 10 years ago how important and fun it can be to get fit. I always looked disdainfully on exercise, but now I'm enjoying doing it and reaping the benefits.

    Tell us something about yourself that most people don't already know.

    I enjoy playing with my Aerobie.

    What does the future hold for Stuart Wright?

    This migration to Xenforo and redesign is intended to give AVForums a big boost in terms of attractiveness to visitors and advertisers. We still have a lot to do, but we're on track, and I hope we can come out of the recession strong with the ability to grow. That's our focus.

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