This week we reviewed Discourse, the new open source forum software.
At the same time as that version 1.0 of Discourse was released, I saw that SitePoint moved their community forums to this new platform. SitePoint has over 5 million posts in that forum, so that was a huge vote of confidence in Discourse.
So, I reached out to Sarah Hawk, who’s the community manager at SitePoint. I asked Sarah why and how they made the move to such a new platform.
1) Hi Sarah. Can you introduce yourself?
Sure. My name is Sarah Hawk – most often just Hawk.
I was an application developer in the corporate world, and then transitioned into social media.
These days I freelance as an enterprise community manager and I’m passionate about the science behind community management.
2) What’s your role at SitePoint?
I am Community Manager. I telecommute from home in NZ, and manage a staff of about 50 volunteers across the world.
I’ve been doing this role at SitePoint for almost 5 years, but have been a member of the forums for more than 10 years.
3) Can you describe the SitePoint forums and what they mean to your site and business?
Our story is fairly unique in that our business actually grew out of the forums. They were started by Matt Mickiewicz back around 1998 (webmaster-resources.com at the time) as a way to help new web developers and designers back when web development was just becoming a thing.
From there we spun out a publishing business (SitePoint), a marketplace (Flippa), a crowdsourced design business (99designs) and an online learning site (Learnable).
The forums still exist today for the same reason they did back then – to help new designers and developers learn the ropes. We are lucky enough to have picked up thousands of experienced practitioners along the way, and 15 years on we are still going strong. That’s a long time on the internet!
4) What forum software have you used before on SitePoint?
We have been on vBulletin since it began in 1999. I imagine we used a hosted service before that. Over the years our platform became so customised with plugins and hacks that it had become painfully cumbersome, but the idea of moving something so huge seemed insurmountable. We got to the point that even upgrading vB was a mammoth task.
Software aside, the community needed a fresh start. The way that people consume the internet has changed a lot over the time that we’ve been going, and sometimes you need to take a step back and have a think about the way that you do things. It becomes very easy to fall into patterns of moderating to your tools, rather than to your community.
5) What forum options did you investigate as options for this move?
We talked a lot about Xenforo but my concerns with that were that we’d try too hard to replicate our existing moderation processes and procedures rather than looking at things with fresh eyes. The opportunity to work in partnership with Discourse came up so the decision became a bit of a no brainer for me.
6) Why did you choose Discourse?
And secondly because I love the concept of crowdsourced moderation. I think it’s awesome if you can empower individuals in your community to model the kind of behaviour that they want to see, and to influence the type of content that they want to read. Moderators end up feeling like policemen on vBulletin, whereas I want to manage a team of skilled professionals that spend time helping people to become great web developers.
7) How did you go about migrating such a huge board?
It took 9 months of painstaking planning, coding, testing, and communicating, so I’ll give you the abbreviated version.
We started out back in January (when Discourse was in beta). We set up production and staging sandboxes, got the staff onto it so that could get familiar, and then went about designing and theming. Our dev team started submitting PRs, while the forum staff started documenting necessary processes and procedures. We made a decision about how much data we were going to migrate over (all active accounts, and any thread that had been viewed within the last 5 years) and then worked with Discourse to export data and write migration scripts. At that point I made the first announcement to the community so that we could start to mitigate any backlash.
We spent time writing plugins and tweaking existing ones, and when Discourse launched V1.0.0 (which was coincidental, rather than planned timing) we ran the data extraction and migrated. It took most of a week to run. Once we were ready, we put vB into read-only mode, did a final differential data extract, redirected all active threads from vB to Discourse, emailed all migrated users with a login procedure, and flicked the proverbial switch. We plan to HTML archive the vBulletin forum so that people still have access to their historical posts, at least in the medium term.
I stood by to answer support tickets and pacify the angry hordes. There were 6 support tickets and nothing but positive feedback. I’m still pinching myself.