After 10 years, John Breslin’s online forum on everything from personal relationships to motors and mustard, Boards.ie, is still blazing a trail.
Want to know where you can buy the cheapest digital camera, or how to go about claiming rent relief, or maybe if buying cowboy boots would be a fashion disaster?
The world relies on Google but the Irish have Boards.ie. On this online bulletin board no question is too trivial or too bizarre and with an average 900,000 visitors to the site every month, there are plenty of answers on offer.
It is hard to believe that a decade ago, on 12 February, 1998, Boards.ie founder John Breslin wrote expectantly: “The first of many messages, I hope.”
Breslin explains that the site started out as a place for chatting about third-person shooter game Quake and just grew from there. Presently, there are over 700 unique forums with topics ranging from commerce to Chuck Norris.
Boards.ie started out as a non-profit company with Breslin running the site on the sidelines while tending to his day job as researcher in the National University of Ireland, Galway. Now the digital bulletin board is making more money than would be required to keep it ticking over.
“Running it as a non-profit effort no longer makes sense if we want to continue its growth,” Breslin observes.
“Since it has become such a prominent source of knowledge for various Irish communities, there is more expectation that a certain standard or level of service will be provided.
“We have to use our proceeds to maintain and sustain the site, to provide for the staff and directors who will continue to work on the site and to further develop future opportunities or to prepare for the unexpected.”
The primary source of revenue for Boards.ie comes from a combination of Google AdSense and targeted banner adverts that are bought through the site’s sales representative.
“We can deliver ads to specific topic forums on our site, which has proven quite popular with advertisers who have an idea of what areas their target audiences are visiting on Boards.ie.
“Making up a smaller part of our revenues, we also have premium subscriber services such as custom images and larger message storage, as well as commercial interaction forums where companies can interact with customers on their products or services, building on the existing momentum from the Boards.ie user base.”
Times are good for Boards.ie with enough revenue beginning to come in to cover its hosting equipment needs, as well as paying for managing director Gerry Shanahan and the site’s first full-time developer who will start later this month.
“It’s still a moderate success by Irish and international standards, but one we are quite proud of considering that most of our exposure has come from word of mouth and the wealth of user-generated content which is picked up by search engines,” adds Breslin.
With the advent of social networking sites like Facebook or Bebo and in an era when communication seems to consist of the visual process of sending YouTube clips, posting photos or adding pictures to someone’s site, it is hard to imagine hundreds of thousands of people content with something as straightforward as conversation.
For Breslin the proof of the pudding is the 15 million page views on Boards.ie in the last month.
“In comparison with other global social networking services and social media sites, the ‘social objects’ that draw people back to Boards.ie are the interesting discussions on a wide range of topics.
“The thing about a conversation with hundreds of thousands of people is that it might never end, especially as we Irish are known to have the gift of the gab.”
Breslin said the longest conversation on Boards.ie is over 1,932 pages consisting of 38,000 posts. The purpose of the post is to write something about the person who posted just before you.
This conversation began in 2004 and is still going, a testament to the community spirit Breslin has cultivated on the site.
Breslin is eager to link Boards.ie with the next generation of the internet: the semantic web, his specialist area of research in the DERI (Digital Enterprise Research Institute) at NUI Galway.
“The idea of the semantic web is to add more meaning to the web. We have lots of webpages with bundles of text describing everything from commercial products to historical artefacts but it is difficult to answer relatively simple questions like ‘find me all the people John knows who like to discuss sport’ based on the content of these pages.”
Semantically Interlinked Online Communities (SIOC) is an initiative Breslin has been working on for the past four years at DERI, which aims to make semantic data available from online communities and Web 2.0 spaces and use that data in interesting and useful ways.
With its 10 years of discussion history, Breslin says Boards.ie can serve as a useful source of the kind of structured information needed to test SIOC. So it looks like all that time we devoted to talking about David Hasselhoff and Chuck Norris has finally paid off.
By Marie Boran