The Nature of the Problem (forum)

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madbolter1

Big Wall climber
Denver, CO
Topic Author's Original Post - May 22, 2019 - 12:57pm PT
I've watched for weeks as various proposals have been, well, proposed to replace the ST forum. My company provides enterprise-grade applications (hosted) for colleges and universities, and I'd like to at least list the problems with these proposals, which will, I hope, lead to some ideas that might actually work.

It's been repeatedly stated: "You could put up a forum for under $500, so anybody that isn't willing to put up $500 of their own money doesn't have credibility to run such a forum."

False! Such claims are based on demonstrable and sweeping ignorance. Oh, yes, you could put up a toy site for under $500. But, ironically, such a toy site has precisely the lack of credibility that such posters say that a site would gain by going up so cheaply!

We colocate out of a SOC3 data center, and just the overhead costs of redundant power and networking into our racks is more expensive than most people's mortgages. That doesn't touch the costs of the hardware, firewalls, etc. required to put up a "cloud" sufficient to handle the traffic/load that a site like ST generates. It doesn't touch the storage requirements (terabytes) and backup capacity needed.

Oh, okay, so just put up a cheap Linode server. You can do that for, like, $20 per month. Right?

Wrong! If you want a toy site that has a mere 4 cores and 4GB of memory, that will bog down radically under load, and that has a mere 80GB of storage, then, yeah, sure. Put up a Linode VM and see how far that gets you. You also give up redundancy/reliability. So, put up two such VMs and mirror them. Okay, that's the start of an idea, but such quick and easy suggestions overlook the complexities of WHAT "mirroring" you are talking about. And the storage issue still isn't addressed.

I could go on and on, but I don't want y'all's eyes to glaze over. I'll sum up by saying that it would cost HUNDREDS per MONTH to have just the appropriate infrastructure in place. And that's still not paying anybody to manage the beast!

Moderation or the lack thereof.

If you put up a forum that allows just anybody to sign up anonymously and then is largely or entirely unmoderated, well, then you get the very whack-a-mole mess that infected ST at times. By contrast, if you make people sign up with real names and do any sort of validation of accounts and moderate the content, you take on legal responsibilities as well as eliminate much of the "wild, wild west" sense that actually made the ST forum successful. Catch-22!

Is the site to be a "family friendly" site or an "anything goes" site? What should be the nature of user-validation and moderation? These are MUCH thornier questions than most "ST Alternative" posters here are really taking seriously, IMO.

Legal responsibilities

To the extent that the forum is "wild, wild west" and with no-copyright-material terms of use in place, you can effectively reduce your legal exposure to about nil under safe-harbor. But then, as we have all seen at times here, anonymous/unverified users can quickly create a toxic environment. And you'll actually spend your entire life managing the vast quantities of copyrighted material that such users will post up, sucking up storage and resources that you have to make good-faith and ongoing efforts to remove.

To the extent that you actively manage the forum, to that extent you are not merely a "venue provider," to that extent safe-harbor less and less saves you, and to that extent you must devote vast resources to ACTUALLY managing the forum and it's users, while fending off copyright cease-and-desists and lawsuits.

Motivation

Most of the ST users that have suggested putting up a forum, or have suggested that some other known-personality put up a forum, ignore the "ax to grind" problem. I personally would have nothing to do with the "history sites" that some have proposed, as these purported "historians" are, flatly, not; and their ax to grind is well known. Being among some of the most flagrant copyright-violators on the Taco Stand, they have destroyed their own credibility on multiple levels.

So, the struggle is that the sort of person who would be motivated today to put up that "ST Alternative" is not the sort of person who SHOULD do it, and such a site will not enjoy the usage that ST has. It is almost impossible to recreate-on-demand the organic evolution that ST experienced. Moreover, in today's legal climate, that evolution is almost entirely disallowed at the outset (see just above).

Summary

I could go on and on (and you all know that, so I won't try to prove it)! LOL

The problems are significant, and no toy site is going to even START to get the job done or have the sense of permanence that will attract the sort of community that organically evolved here on the Taco Stand. The expenses of just infrastructure are significant, and most people are not going to ante up for a multi-hundred dollar per-month commitment. But, as we know, subscription models usually don't work.

So, the nature of the problem is that people want a "ST Alternative" right now, they want it to be free, they want it to be "wild, wild west," and they want it to have have a sense of permanence and credibility that, frankly, the former criteria render almost impossible in today's legal climate.

It strikes me that what COULD work would cost hundreds per month in just infrastructure, not to mention paying somebody a tiny amount to be more than a mere hobbiest to maintain the beast. So, it would take some significant outlay, both initially and ongoing. Then, with such an environment, you either have to code up a good interface or modify an existing open-source one enough to make it really appealing. And then you have to have a validated/moderated forum, so that the snake-droppings anonymous users don't legally destroy what the community has built. In short, it takes "upping the game" significantly to get an "ST Alternative" to be genuinely viable for the long term.

It's possible, but it's unclear to me whether the ST community is ready for the paradigm shift it would take. Probably the present community is going to be diluted among a variety of other sites and/or drop off entirely. Starting a genuine "ST Alternative" forum is a serious project, and it would take some serious support/commitment from a large subset of the community to make it happen.

My rambling thoughts, such as they are. I'd like to see something happen, but I don't know what the community thinks should be done.
johntp

Trad climber
Punter, Little Rock
May 22, 2019 - 01:02pm PT
but I don't know what the community thinks should be done.

Should be done? Chris could weigh in on how to keep it alive.

If you are so f*#king smart, suggest something.
madbolter1

Big Wall climber
Denver, CO
Topic Author's Reply - May 22, 2019 - 01:16pm PT
^^^ Chris has weighed in. I read him as saying that he's not motivated to keep solving the increasing problems.

And I'm not trying to be "so fvking smart." I'm trying to outline what the problems really are, so that if people have a genuine interest in solving the problem, they can at least grasp what they are really up against.

I've stated what I think it will take, but I don't have any idea if enough people are enough serious to make it happen.
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
May 22, 2019 - 01:56pm PT
but I don't know what the community thinks should be done.

Isnít the main problem that dirtbags arenít gonna dig into their trust funds to stop whining?
madbolter1

Big Wall climber
Denver, CO
Topic Author's Reply - May 22, 2019 - 01:59pm PT
^^^ LOL... indeed.

Money is a significant problem, and there's no good way to monetize such a forum. The subscription model is all but dead.

It would take a crowd-funding approach to make it viable, but once that money (quickly) dries up, then you're back to facing what Cmac and RJ were facing.
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
May 22, 2019 - 02:07pm PT
The Nikonians website allows free perusal but ya gotta subscribe to post.
Course if yer buying Nikons $25/year ainít a biggie. Course dirtbags could cut back on their medicinal herb intake plus itís more fun to whine than to act, right Ms Pelosi?
Iíll throw down a grand BUT



I get to be da moderator! 😈
Contractor

Boulder climber
CA
May 22, 2019 - 02:15pm PT
I think the moderators did a fine job. The format and content was and is entertaining, often informative and has become historical.

What I didn't really appreciate was the culture that tried to turn threads into part Howard Stern, part Jim Rome, and part Club Penguin- I mostly agreed with who they axed and banning political discussions was reasonable.

Having visited a couple of other sites like "Wide Whatever" and having absolutely zero tolerance for Facebook and Instagram, this site will be missed.
johntp

Trad climber
Punter, Little Rock
May 22, 2019 - 02:17pm PT
but once that money (quickly) dries up, then you're back to facing what Cmac and RJ were facing.

Haven't seen their numbers. Have you?

I've posted it before; hang on a backpacking forum that is 100% member funded and moderated. I throw in $50/year.
paul roehl

Boulder climber
california
May 22, 2019 - 02:39pm PT
Seems easy: require folks to use their real names and charge a fee to join the site. So much good history on this site, so much effort by some, as well. What a shame for it all to vanish.
madbolter1

Big Wall climber
Denver, CO
Topic Author's Reply - May 22, 2019 - 03:58pm PT
Haven't seen their numbers. Have you?

Do you need to see their specific numbers to read what they've written?

The Taco Stand is a significant loss of money. Put that together with the legal implications, and it's not viable. No rocket science to figure out the broad strokes of why it's going away. And any site that can't solve the broad-strokes problem isn't going to be around long.

I agree with Paul that it's going to take some sort of membership model to make it work. I'm not hearing enough people committing to paying, say, $25 per year to make the whole thing sound viable to me.

Perhaps somebody will need to take a stab at, "If I build it, they will come."
Climbnrok

Trad climber
LA
May 22, 2019 - 04:35pm PT
That was a really good breakdown. Thanks for writing that.
I'm not an expert in web solutions but I'm involved with a few people that are and I'm not sure I totally agree with your breakdown of the infrastructure requirements for running one single web forum. It strikes me there is a path to success with a cloud solution on something like Amazon AWS that is easily scalable without having to own physical hardware that you have to maintain and expand. It can start out small and scale with the demand both in size and cost. I'm not saying this would be significantly less expensive at high usage (storage/bandwidth has to get paid for regardless), but it's a lower bar from a infrastructure standpoint.

Which moves to the finance question...
I'm not saying this is for sure a viable solution in this case, but there is a sort of revolution going on right now with independent content producers using voluntary monthly donations (like through Patreon) to fund their work, which they then make available at no direct charge to their fans. Think youtube and podcasts and such. Instead of selling their work for $50 a shot to hundreds of people, they have thousands of people willing to pay something like $3 a month and some producers end up with more money and a pretty stable revenue stream with less burden on any individual user. There should be some perks for subscribers but it doesn't have to be a lot and they still get the exposure of having a mostly "free" service. It's fundamentally changing the way content creators fund their work and their relationship with their users (changing for the better.. ads suck..). It's sorta PBS for the 21st century. This can also be a supplement for traditional ad revenue and other old school monetization for whoever runs the place.
So the question would be: would enough people be willing to pop for a smaller voluntary amount like $3 a month (or however much they think the place is worth to them), with the understanding that they are helping fund something for themselves and everyone?
madbolter1

Big Wall climber
Denver, CO
Topic Author's Reply - May 22, 2019 - 04:53pm PT
^^^ You make a sensible point about "starting small" and scaling. And I wasn't advocating colocation in particular, just using that as a benchmark for the sorts of expenses that are involved. Even if you go cloud-hosting (like Amazon or Linode), you're going to pay more buck for the relative bang than colocation (which is why we do our own cloud). There is a threshold, of course. Below that threshold, if you cloud-host you are paying less in real dollars in exchange for less bang-for-buck. Above that threshold, and it costs significantly less to create your own cloud via leased rack-space.

My main point is that an "ST Alternative" that would actually sustain anything approaching the present usage of ST would need to start pretty big from the outset. Just the storage needs would be significant, and a 4-core Amazon or Linode instance won't cut it. So, "starting small" would be kicking the can not very far down the road before the realities of what you'd need to scale up to would emerge.

Piggybacking on something like freeforums also isn't going to scale well. It can appear to "work" for awhile, but traffic like we see here on the Taco Stand won't be sustainable, imo. But, more power to the people that want to try it! Something is better than nothing.

But I believe that it's going to take a membership model of some sort to make it long-term sustainable.
tolman_paul

Trad climber
Anchorage, AK
May 22, 2019 - 05:01pm PT
I've been involved in several forums related to my hobbies over the past 20+ years. For a forum to run well it takes real money, and paid professionals to run the forum.

I've seen two models that work. You have the mega corporation such as Facebook that makes it's money by advertising and data mining, and you have the wealthy site owner who funds the forum because of his or her passion for the hobby. I have yet to see the self funded method work on a large professional run forum.

In the case of the wealthy site owner of which I was a moderator of a few forums I thought it would be nice if the forum members chipped in for a gift for the forum patron. I commissioned a piece of art and figured there would be no problem getting a percentage of the members to chip in $5, 10, 20 or whatever. Boy was I wrong! When I changed the model to include a print of the original artwork for a donation I was able to pull it off, but it was PITA and as I recall took the better part of a year to get enough donations for the ~$3k to cover the artwork, copies etc.

I hate to be a naysayer, but I have serious doubts on the crowd funding method working. Expect maybe 5% of forum members to actually cough up some $ to pay for it, and then expect 100 times the complaints about the service because, hey man I paid for it and it should be better...
Ksolem

Trad climber
Monrovia, California
May 22, 2019 - 05:24pm PT
Have a look at this.

http://www.supertopo.com/climbers-forum/3199719/New-Discussion-Forum-Climbers-Taco-Salad
Climbnrok

Trad climber
LA
May 22, 2019 - 05:25pm PT
One of the other forums I hang out on is run by an engineer that also has a youtube channel. According to him he's not independently wealthy or a professional web guy. It's just a simplemachines forum on a normal host so nothing custom or extravagant infrastructure wise. He actually got most of his money from the forum ads even before Patreon subscribers. Unless he's lying, he runs the place himself with the help of a couple volunteers. At the moment there are 50K members, 1.7M total posts (since 2009), and an overall average of 511 posts a day, so it's decent size. It's very sparsely moderated and he's pretty open about the process when they do have to step in which makes people much more comfortable (ahem CMac and RJ).

The trick with monthly subscriptions is that you can't make it about buying one thing like a specific painting or page or something. You have to make it about supporting an ongoing service that you find valuable and will continue to find valuable. The question you need people to ask themselves is: "does (the forum) add more than $3 a month of value to my life, and if I don't support it and it goes away will it cost me more than $3 to find an alternative?". If the answer is yes, then you get your supporters.
JLP

Social climber
The internet
May 22, 2019 - 06:07pm PT
I'm trying to outline what the problems really are, so that if people have a genuine interest in solving the problem, they can at least grasp what they are really up against.
Why donít one of you with the time to produce these walls of text and go file a freedom of information request in Cheyenne to find out what the REAL issue here is.

Meanwhile, yer just whackín off.
StahlBro

Trad climber
San Diego, CA
May 22, 2019 - 06:12pm PT
The condescension is palpable
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
May 22, 2019 - 06:15pm PT
Bro, DONíT TOUCH THAT DOORKNOB!
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
May 22, 2019 - 06:52pm PT
@madbolter1: Your points are very good.
Especially the one about level of moderation.

It seems the nature of most climbers is that they like climbing as a break from the usual responsibilities of work, family, etc.
They like to feel "free", even if somewhat constrained by having to deal with risk assessment.
This works great if you are off in some obscure place just by yourself or with another friend or two.
Not so great in a crowded environment where it helps to be sensitive to the similar desires of relative strangers also trying to have fun.

A forum is rather similar to a crowded crag - relative and complete strangers are common.
And it may feel like less fun to change some of your plans / actions to help them out.
So it's back to that basic human problem of dealing with tribes and strangers - are we friendly, neutral or unfriendly?
And how do we judge them based on very limited info?

Added to this is the problem of (even a small number of) people who enjoy attacking a forum / members.
It is a dilemma - how to welcome first time users, but block the attackers?
It is impossible to do, because you don't know which is which until after they post (and even then maybe not for awhile).
The facebook (and original mountainproject) solution is for people to use their real names.
Another way is for people to invest something (like time or money) to be able to post.
Or a "points" system, where you accumulate points based on how much people value your posts,
and this enables you to do more things.
People with low points might have their posts hidden fairly quickly unless they get upvoted by others.
Once you have invested time/effort to accumulate points,
you might be less inclined to burn them all in an attack.
Reddit has a system like this.
Still, a determined attacker can always get through to some extent.

Similarly, there are people who enjoy testing the boundaries / rules of the moderators.
Very much like adolescents testing the limits of what their parents will allow.
So ideally there is an automated points system that limits attackers
and it does not correspond to a human moderator that the attacker enjoys testing.

It seems many of the clientele here on supertopo are former climbers,
perhaps due to injuries suffered over time.
(I am getting closer to being in this category myself.)
It seems like many people spend time on non-climbing topics / politics.
Discussing politics seems like a good way to get into negative arguments.
Some people simply enjoy a fight. It's not my thing.

Personally I like to focus on climbing - cool stories / photo trip reports.
And sharing what beta I think I've gathered from climbs over the years.
MountainProject has a good format for sharing beta, as it's organized by geographic area and even climb specific.
And anyone can add climbs, which was never possible on supertopo.
So I plan to use their site for this.
burnin' vernon

climber
May 22, 2019 - 08:17pm PT
madhatter1 - spot on analysis! Check your member to member email.

The condescending asshats are merely demonstrating their ignorance of the complexities of SCALE and the kind of infrastructure necessary to handle such. It's like gym climbing versus a BIG WALL. Takes a bit more prep, planning, and money to do it safely.

Peace--

Edit: Lol Reilly. Long live the BOFH ;-)
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