The Origins of Writing Forums

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  1. #1

    The Origins of Writing Forums

    Have you ever stopped to wonder how Writing Forums got its start? We log in here day after day and spend hours perusing the boards. We read stories, poems, join in on discussions and even some light-hearted writing games. We post our own work and receive some wonderful feedback and helpful advice. But most of us probably never pause to ask, “Who started this place”?


    Meet our Founding Father, Chrispian H. Burks!








    WF: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Chrispian. There are so many questions we have about the beginnings of Writing Forums! This place has become home to a large number of people from all over the world. And it all began with you and an idea. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?


    First, thanks for inviting me to do this interview. I still think about WritingForums.com and Lit.Org quite often so it's a pleasure getting to revisit like this.

    My name is Chrispian H. Burks. I'm half German & American though my DNA and auburn in my beard show a strong bit of Irish. I've always been a bit of a geek, I love comics, roleplaying (tabletop), science fiction, fantasy, computers, photography, gaming, etc. I've always been drawn to problem solving and I got bit with the computer bug at the right time. I was about to graduate high school and saved enough money to get a car but my parents said they would buy me one. And they did, it was an awesome primer gray 68 Camero. Literally a dream car for stupid teenager. So my friend showed me his computer and said I should get one but I wasn't impressed. The games were all text based for the most part and the screens were monochrome. But then he showed me something that blew my mind. He used his modem to dial into a local BBS, really an early version of forums only accessible by phone lines + modems, and he left a few messages and played a game and then logged off. Waited a bit and logged back in and actual human beings had replied to his messages and made moves against him in the game (Tradewars for those who remember it!). I was hooked right there. We found a guy selling a computer, I bought it and started calling BBS's immediately. About a week later, my parents sold the car they bought me because money was tight and so I suddenly had nowhere to go and lots of time to learn computers. I'm glad it worked out that way. I still remember building my first system from scratch listening to Stone Temple Pilots first album. Great memory.

    I started dabbling in programming for my BBS, eventually started upgrading my own computer and then building my own, working for a PC repair shop and eventually into Programming/Sysadmin type stuff. I worked as a pizza cook all through high school and a little after, ended up working at the movie theater and Movie Gallery and other local video stores before finally ending up working on computers full time a short few years after I got my first one. Seemed like a long time then but it was maybe 4-5 years. Once I started dabbling in websites, php wasn't far behind and I started building my own sites for fun and some, to make money. Lit.Org and WritingForums.com were created because I wanted a place like that for myself since I'm interested in writing.

    I sold Lit.Org, WritingForums.com and a few others to help pay for medical bills for my wife, she was diagnosed with Cervical Cancer (she's been in remission for almost 10 years or so now!) and even with insurance the bills were staggering. I still miss running the sites, it was a lot of fun.

    Later, I even started my own blog network with a partner, 451 Press. I'm not sure if the posts are still on WritingForums.com but quite a few writers became bloggers for us there. But it wasn't meant to be. Timing wasn't great for the idea. Online Advertising had trouble figuring out what to do with a company like us with so many sites and Blog Networks in the style we were doing ours were really on the way out. Just a couple years later every major blog network had folded or pivoted into something else. It was also not the right partners for the venture - just not the same ideas about company culture and that kind of thing, so I left the company I started, to go back to work.

    A few months ago the company I've been at for 13 years closed. Thankfully, Erin and I had started dabbling in making handmade leather goods about 3 years ago. Our brand is Makers South (makerssouth.com). We started out making covers for the Traveler's Notebook and after selling a couple of those we tried an A5 cover and we've been selling and growing steadily since. We just delivered our largest order to date - 150 Full Focus Planner Covers.


    WF: When did you start WF and what was your vision for the site?



    I started WF at the end of 2002. When I started WF I had already been running Lit.Org for a few years, ironically enough starting off on some hacked together forums software from Matt's wwwboard, when I decided to start WritingForums. I'm not a big vision guy, it's just how I do things. I wanted to add forums to Lit.Org and it was built on custom code. My friend Justin wrote a good bit of it before I started hacking it into the code that still runs the site to this day. To add forums to Lit.Org would have been a technical challenge I didn't want to deal with at the time and I started thinking that Lit.Org would stay focused on people posting their writing and the critiques. There wasn't much room for discussion outside of on the actual works themselves so that kept things focused on the work. I wanted WF to become a place about writing, not just the writing itself. I wanted a place for people to talk about the process. I wanted people to share rejection letters and success stories and network with other writers. And of course they could share and workshop ideas. So that was the main difference in the two, even if I had originally planned for Lit.Org to be all things writing.


    WF: Chrispian, you launched WritingForums.com in December 2002. How has forum software evolved over the last sixteen years?



    Honestly, not much. The things that have changed the most is the completely insane amount of information coming at us at any given time. When I started out it was on a BBS, which was very much like the forum software that powers WF. You were limited to calling the computer with the software on it with your own computer. That meant most people were local and time on the forum was limited to 1 hour per day, max, in most cases. Forum software always seemed to me to be emulating the early BBS feel. BBS stands for Bulletin Board System, another name for "forum". What's changed is less about the software and more about how many different things are competing for our attention, especially online. You've got things like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and on and on. When you build an online community now, it's not just in the space you create it in. Those people connect on these other services too. Forums still have their place and I think they are often over looked for the flashy new social media trends. But don't let them fool you. Facebook is a complicated, resource intensive "forum" with no focus, no direction and no purpose other than to be a virtual water cooler and make money. Twitter is a forum in a linear update style, with a bit of an ephemeral nature that barely has threaded replies in 2018/2019.


    WF: This is how WF looked in 2002:

    WritingForums.com - Index - Forums & Discussions for Writers


    With the advance of alternative free platforms such as FaceBook and LinkedIn groups, how do you think forums such as WF will survive into the 2020s?



    I think more focused, niche communities like this will thrive just by existing. That won't be enough, because anyone can create a facebook group for writers now and not even worry about a site. You stay relevant by focusing on quality of quantity. You focus on the core values of the community and provide a strong, safe place for people to talk about writing and network with fellow writers. Facebook and the other big providers give you a cheap version of a community with no way to enforce rules or keep things as focused as you can on your own platform. This advice isn't exclusive to forum software. You can publish blog posts or stories or photos, anything you want on facebook. But if you build our own thing you can stand out from the noise on these platforms and build a community around your idea. And that's the other part, your community is not your platform. It's wherever your community is. You need to be engaging your community on Facebook, Twitter and the "gram" if that's what the kids are still calling it. But mostly, it's about staying focused on the core idea and providing real value. I think WF has that and potential for a lot more to come.


    WF: We followed the link in your WF signature to your blog where we noticed the last entry was promoting a book by Patrick O'Keefe Managing Online Forums.

    When Carole(PiP) worked as a community manager on a large expat website the owner actually sent her this book and it was her bible for many years.

    She asks how do you feel forum communities have evolved since 2008?


    Early on the idea of forums and community online was still pretty foreign to most people. Patrick is now the Director of Community at The Community Company (Ad Age Collective, Forbes Councils, YEC) and like Patrick, Community has really matured. But there are still companies that don't value you or devote too little resources to it when it's a big part, maybe the biggest part of your brand. The challenges I think we are facing more now than back in 2008 is the scale of it all. How do you deal with trolls with this many people online? How does your platform scale to support more users? Communities have been around for a lot longer than the internet, even in computer terms. The main thing that's evolved is the number of tools available to use to manage a community in a virtual space like this. But the concerns that come up, like member safety and well being, strong focus and moderation, shared goals and strong communication, these are part of every good community.


    WF: What do you think Forums need to do these days to survive?



    Nothing, they'll continue to survive. Focus on your core purpose and provide a fun, safe space and you'll always have members. However, that's not the whole thing. How do you grow it, right? How do you keep it relevant against facebook? That's less to do with forums and more to do with what you want for the site. If you want it to stay a bit smaller space on the web for writers to gather and share stories and ideas then all you have to do is keep doing what you're doing. If it was me, I would put some effort into reaching out into some of these other social media platforms to try and pull in new members. If you want to grow, you'll need to do that and set yourself apart even more. Do the best you can to provide a great space and great content and learn to promote yourself relentlessly. Being a forum won't be the thing that holds you back from growing. Though I'm biased, naturally.


    WF: If you were still running WF today, what would you be looking to do to move the site forward?



    I think about this more than I should. I think the forums are pretty great as they are. I would probably make sure someone was in charge of kick starting conversations on a regular basis to help keep the forums lively. If possible, several people. I know this can be tough, but I think setting the tone and pace is part of the job. Some members don't like starting topics but are more than happy to jump in. But there's so much more I'd want to do, if I had the resources. Like with the Lit.Org/WF idea, I've always wanted to have a single site focused on the process of writing as well as the critique/community side of posting your own work. On the process side I'd love to see articles, interviews, tools, books, job opportunities, contests I could enter, grants I could get, anything related to the process of writing. I know that takes writers and staff and that's why I never really got around to doing it myself, I didn't have the money. I hated having to sell the sites. We got hit with a ton of medical bills from Erin's cancer and it was the only thing we could do at the time. I still miss running them. I remember stopping in to moderate posts on WF and validate submission on Lit.Org in New Orleans at an internet kiosk in Crystal's and the Mall!

    (These next three question are from rcallaci)

    WF: What were the differences between your older site Lit.org which was a top writing site in 2002 and WF?


    I touched on this a bit in earlier questions but the main difference was that Lit was focused on the works and reactions to the works while WF was focused on the craft. At least that was the goal. Of course they both drifted into the others territory a bit and there was some overlap but that's the main difference and where I drew the line between them mentally.


    WF: Why did you think there was need for a forum based writing site?



    I wanted one to exist and I didn't like the ones I found at the time. When I created Lit.Org there was no other site quite like it or I would have just become a member. And when I started WF, a lot of the sites for writers were constantly trying to get people to pay for memberships. In hindsight, I wish I had done more of that. But I always wanted to have a free site where writers could share ideas, collaborate and get better at the craft together. I'm also a maker at heart. If I want something to exist and it doesn't, I'll build it. If it exists and I don't like it, I'll make one that suits my needs. That's just who I am.


    WF: What are your thoughts on why WF has lasted for all these years?



    The longevity of a community depends on the people who run it and the members. If you have toxic people in either role that will kill your community sure as anything. I think being about writing also helps. Writers tend to be a wordy, chatty bunch! Works out well for a community. The fact that WF is still around with active users is a testament to the people there, no question.


    WF: Why did you see a need that a new site needed to be launched?


    I think seeing a need might be giving me too much credit. I just wanted to do it, so I did. I wish it was more glamorous than that, but I'm pretty simple that way. I just get a lot of joy out of the creating and building process and I love giving people a platform to create. Give people the tools and freedom to use them as they see fit and they'll always surprise you. The community will help drive and shape what it becomes. You steer it, but let the needs of the community be the guide.


    WF: A few years ago you started Makers South (makerssouth.com
    ) producing handmade leather goods. Please tell us more about this business venture. What inspired its creation, what is your most successful product, and how do you see the brand evolving in the future?


    This has been a fun adventure for our family. Erin and I run the business together and it's been a ton of hard work and a blast at the same time. I've always liked things made of leather. I remember loving my Dads's leather satchel that he used for college. I got into notebooks and writing early on and eventually into leather covers for them. I had gotten into the Midori Traveler's Notebooks and been using them for a while and decided I wanted to make my own custom cover, for the same reason I learned to build computers, it was expensive to pay someone else to do it and I like doing things myself. Almost to a fault. So we went and bought an entire side of leather at Tandy. Three whole sides, in fact. With limited tools and zero knowledge, we made an ugly first attempt and then the second one was almost perfect and by the third, we already had orders for them. We haven't stopped making notebook covers (and other items) since and it's been growing steadily. There is a real market out there for great quality handmade goods. Just a couple months ago we had our first big corporate order for 150 Full Focus covers and we make stuff for a couple of other small makers as well. I've since gone back to work full time and Erin is focusing on the daily stuff for Makers South while I do the admin, social, marketing and helping out in the shop at nights and on weekends as needed. One day we'll both get to work in the shop full time. That's the goal anyway!


    WF: You have recently returned to the work world and are now on the team of webdev Studios. Can you tell us
    what exactly webdev does and what your work there entails?


    I work for Maintainn.com, a smaller sub division within WebDevStudios.com, and our focus in on support for people who run WordPress powered sites. We do things like update plugins, backups, site migrations, custom code, etc. We deal with a large variety of work and problems during the week from very trivial tasks like updating the phone number on someone's web site to fixing catastrophic errors that has someone's ecommerce website down. I've worked on websites in one way or another for a long, long time now and I'm learning so much at this job. It's a fast paced job and a completely different way of doing things than my last company. I work remotely and as someone who was there when the first web page when online, I'm super excited to finally be able to work from home. I wish everyone could. It's liberating.


    WF: And lastly, Chrispian, how does your wife feel about this change in your lives?



    She's happy because we get to pay bills and have insurance and I'm still home all day. I still have a lot of code left in me to write so it's going to be a while before I retire. The hope is that I'll have the freedom to make that choice in the next 5-10 years with the leather business growing like it has been. I'll likely always dabble in tech. It's been a persistent calling in my life and I absolutely love it. Except for the days I hate it!


    Thanks for inviting me to do the interview! It's been fun.

    There is no life I know
    To compare with pure imagination.
    Living there you’ll be free
    If you truly wish to be.~ Willy Wonka

  2. #2
    Thanks Cindy and Chrispian for the interview, it sheds some light on the process and the business of running an internet site. Some of the same rules apply to all things, business is always changing and evolving and understanding the customers needs and wants is the key to success.

    The methods of mass communication has certainly changed quite bit over the last 15 years. At one time I considered myself an expert at internet marketing and getting free exposer, today I am a dinosaur who fails to see the wisdom or worth of Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. The three all seemed geared towards people with short attention spans looking for instant gratification in the number of followers or likes.

    Forum life certainly offers some challenges but the ability to know more about people than just superficial stuff is kind of nice. One good thing about writing is you can't fake it, and the ability to perform it, is genuinely appreciated also struggle to be good at it.

    Good luck in new venture Crispian.
    God hates a coward Revelation 21:8

    “Good writin' ain't necessarily good readin'.”

    Hidden Content ,

    To encourage and facilitate "me"

  3. #3
    I have enjoyed this interview. I also think it is interesting to see how in the Internet world, where everything changes so much so fast, forums have remained more or less the same. Small gadgets may have been added, but it has stayed the same overall.
    Also great to read more about you Chrispian, it was a great read, great interview. Thank you, Gumby
    Hidden Content Hidden Content

    I write word after line after paragraph
    testimony by a testified lunatic
    -Darren White, from "Crazy"


  4. #4
    Great, the name has a voice now

    We used to do leather work back in the 60's-70's. Key tags is a good way to use up left overs, we used to have punches that embossed the leather and make small strips into wrist bands with flowers embossed on them. Letter punches to emboss a name and make a note cover really personal might work well. My friend Tom noticed a heap in one corner of a farm yard, and discovered it was where they had dumped all the harness when they stopped using horses, we recovered a load of brass buckles from it, they polished up well, the steel tangs had all rotted but we got them replaced and made a bunch of really classy belts with them. I used to enjoy that work, later I got into making bits for falconry as well, wishing you all the best for the new year Chrispian, and thank you for the insight.
    Visit my website to read and connect to my 'soundcloud', where you can listen to stories songs and more
    Hidden Content

    A thread of links useful to writers wishing to learn
    Piglet's picks. Hidden Content

  5. #5
    Great Interview. It's great to hear your thoughts. I love both sites you created. The wonder of it all is that Writing Forums is still going strong while Lit Org the original powerhouse has sadly declined to almost a whisper. Knowing that I was part of the decline of Lit.org by pandering to the devil saddens me to this day.

    You were a great owner and although you won't admit it, a true visionary. When you sold your sites both of them floundered for years , WF survived, prospered and grew, first by a few band-aides by staff who kept the fires still burning while the owners were mainly absent and then by Baron who gave it renewed life and by Cran who made it great with the help of his three fabulous admins, Pip, Dan and our sweet and current senior admin-owner the ever Great Gumby aka Cindy.

    I want to thank you for creating wonderful writing venues and for nominating me and a few others as your first Mods for the writing forums. If not for you I may have never taken writing and poetry seriously . It became my passion and you were the guiding light that lit my fire.

    my warmest
    bob
    Last edited by rcallaci; January 9th, 2019 at 05:09 AM.
    Nature weeps, the devil sings
    at mans greed and pride
    and what it brings

    Just lots of useless
    little things

  6. #6
    I definitely prefer a focused community like this one. Forums are great for this kind of thing. I think a lot of developers / creators today want to have the volume of like a facebook group or the like but there's so much noise there and very little tools for the people who run communities on those platforms. Also, Lit.Org and WritingForums.com are still around - I've seen at least 2-3 major social networks come and go in that time period. There's just some magic about dedicated communities that those big sites can't replicate.

  7. #7
    Gumby! Totally agree. I love seeing that as much as it's changed it's still largely the same core/soul of what it was originally. That's amazing in it's own right.

  8. #8
    Wow, that's very cool! Harness and Western Tac style work would last several lifetimes with a little TLC. I bet it was pretty cool finding all that old hardware. I love finding older stuff like that and giving it a new lease on life. I'm seeing a pretty solid trend of people who prefer to own quality stuff vs the throw away culture of today. Very nice to see that. I much prefer something worn and broken in to a new item any way. I even buy most of my tech gadgets refurbished when I can. Cheers!

  9. #9
    Bob, wow, thanks for the kind words! The owner of Lit.Org has been in touch with me about possibly reviving it so we may see a new era there. I currently host it for them and would love to tinker around with it again. The spam was so bad that they had to shut down new sign ups like 3 years ago so no new blood has been killing the site. We'll see how that goes but I'd love to see it thriving again.

    I'm very happy to see WF has carried on. Any site this old is going to have some slumps here and there. And with the tug of volume that social media provides less people spend time on stuff like this but I kinda like it that way. It means the people who are here really want to be here and are interested in what's being done here and not just a place for them to shout "LOOK AT ME". We'll let Twitter/Facebook etc. have those people lol.

    Glad you are still haunting the place sir!

  10. #10
    Wow! A join date of 2002. Awesome.
    I wish I'd found a site like this sooner but I didn't realise I had the potential back then to be vaguely-reasonable writer. That only happened when I went back to school in my mid-late 50s in order to help out a friend's kid with his English course. It probably ended up helping me more than him - such is life.

    There are a few places on Facebook that are okay, sort of, but I haven't found the more in-depth discussions on there.

    Also, the workshop areas on here are of great benefit because we don't have spiders crawling all over our work.

    Thanks for being one of the pioneers who made a place like this possible.


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