We had the unique pleasure to ask Eldorion, the creator of The Hobbit Movie Forum, how he grew his site to be filled with so many active and passionate members.
What we received back was some of the most wise, in-depth, and helpful advice you’ll be able to find online for starting a forum and standing out from the crowd.
Please enjoy the interview!
The Hobbit Movie Forum is an community website for people who are interested in the works of JRR Tolkien and the cinematic adaptations thereof. We take a generally laid-back and low-moderation approach, grounded in the belief that this encourages the growth of a creative and engaging community. We have a relatively small number of members but are pretty active and have a healthy fanfic community and an open but respectful subforum for the discussion of religion and politics.
I think we attracted attention by operating in an unusual way compared to other (older and more established) Tolkien forums. Many forums are insistent on strict adherence to the original topic of threads and crack down on “chatty” posts. We encourage free-ranging conversation, and have found that most people are capable of distinguishing between serious threads and frivolous ones on their own, without heavy-handed moderation. I think that having discussions on a large number of topics and encouraging people to get to know each other better makes the forum a stronger community. While this open atmosphere has occasionally attracted people who want to take advantage of that environment to troll in, the community rejects such attempts. And we have moderators in several time zones who are able to clean up obvious trolling or spamming quite efficiently.
I had an atypical start to my career as a forum administrator because our forum was founded by refugees from a site that had just been bought and seen its forum shut down, which gave us a small, dedicated core of members from which to build. But anyone thinking about creating a forum should seek to fill a niche and reach out to the broader online community for support when first making the forum. There are so many people online that all sorts of obscure topics can be the foundation of a community. While social networking is great at connecting people who already know each other, a lot of people don’t know anyone in real life who is as passionate about their interests (Tolkien stuff in our case) as they are. Forums fulfill the desire to meet other people who are as excited as you and won’t look down on your interests. We benefited from our Google ranking in searches by fans of The Hobbit, while many older forums lagged behind at the time and only showed up in LOTR-related searches. We also had many members join from other Hobbit forums as a result of word-of-mouth between regular members (we did not have an organized advertising campaign, in part because most forums do not allow that).
It’s very important to have help in running a forum. One of the basic functions of moderation is deleting spam, but spambots don’t follow any set schedule, so having multiple moderators (especially ones from distant time zones) who can watch the forums around the clock, or as near as practical, is a big help. This is also important when keeping an eye on any controversial or potentially combative threads. I had a fellow moderator from day one, and promoted several other mods as the forum grew significantly larger. On the other hand, promoting people just because they registered with the forum early isn’t a great idea. As important as admins are, moderators are the ones who interact with the membership of the forum the most, and they are often the ones who make or break a community. If you carefully pick people who are knowledgeable about the forum’s subject AND good at interacting with other people, it will be a godsend for your forum. But someone who is overly abrasive or arbitrary will often result in members abandoning the forum in droves, especially new members. Promoting from within the membership is, in my opinion, the best option since such mods will already have connections with the other members. Whereas when promoting
admins, there’s more leeway to choose someone you know from outside the forum who may not be a hugely active poster themselves, since they’ll probably be doing more behind-the-scenes work.
Because I was only 16 when I started as admin, I didn’t have the money for an independent hosting solution, which is why I went with a forum farm. The service I chose, Forumotion, has been good to us and taken care of the technical side of things really well. One thing that we did ourselves though was customizing the forum skin. The default phpBB theme is clean and effective, but because it’s the default you see it all the time. I appointed a teach admin and she did a great job customizing the color scheme, creating new icons, and securing permission for us to use a prominent Tolkien artists’ work in our banner. I think this helped solidify the sense of identity in our community.
The founder of a forum is the crucial personality, and they have an unparalleled impact on the growth of the forum’s culture and the direction it takes. A brand new forum is a vacuum, but most people will respect that the forum is someone’s personal property. As a community takes root though, it will grow larger than you and take on its own identity. This is good if you want people to keep coming back to your forum, but it means there’s a time limit on when you can establish the norms for the forum. However, the original founder always maintains a certain intangible sway that cannot be passed on to someone else, even if you give up the position of webmaster. One of the most important things an admin can do is to post a lot: starting new threads with interesting topics, giving substantial replies to other people’s threads (even if it’s not your personal favorite topic), greeting newbies, and getting to know the members of the forum on a personal level. Too many admins see their forum as simply an accessory to their main site and barely post there, which can lead to alienation or even conflict with their members and/or moderators. Granted, forums can be a huge time sink and not everyone has time to engage in all the social aspects of the forum. If that is the case, I would recommend appointing someone you trust to be a deputy admin for the forum and that you check in on the forum as frequently as you can.
I know that I take a somewhat uncommon approach to running a forum (at least compared to the online circles I move in), but I think it’s worthwhile to let the community grow organically, to talk about other topics in addition to the forum’s main point, and to participate in defining the forum’s culture instead of having to abide by numerous and strict rules of behavior. Certainly it is crucial to value the forum as the home of a community and not simply as something you can brag to advertisers about having. The defining characteristic of a successful forum, for me, is that it keeps people coming back because they like that *specific* forum. There are countless forums out there on all manner of topics, but once people have used your forum to build friendships and acquaintances, your site will have gained something that cannot be copied by anyone else. But if you don’t respect the community and take their opinions into account (while still holding to your vision of what the forum should be), you can lose that community if they decide to abandon your site en masse (which is difficult to coordinate but can happen). That’s what happened when our original home site was bought and I founded Forumshire as an alternative.