Derek Liu, Gaia Online, the one year later interview
A year ago Big Boards was interviewing Derek Liu, the administrator of Gaia Online, which being only a few months old already featured millions of posts. A year later, the board has grown into the largest forum on the web, with close to 200 million posts, and more than 2000 people online at any time. Derek has kindly accepted to tell us about this past year's changes, and the upcoming ones.
Hello again Derek. When you first answered our questions one year ago, Gaia Online was 6 months old, had about 5 million posts and 100000 members. Today, your forum has received more than 180 million posts and is close to a million members. The first question will be, are you happy with this growth ? Surprised ?
Gaia's growth rate was nothing we anticipated. :) We were expecting two or three times the popularity of other forums which I've hosted in the past, but the figures prooved us wrong just a month after the site opened. We've never felt this happy to be proven wrong. :)
Plenty of new features have been implemented in a year. Gaians can now visit new shops, get a haircut in the hair salon, there is an auction system, a bank, users can create journals, guilds or enter a matchmaking area... Ultimately, what is your goal with Gaia ? What would you like it to be that it is not already ?
Gaia's mission statement remained the same - to be a free and fun hangout for everyone. To fulfill our mission is our goal. If we sit back one day and figured that "this idea would be cool", we would put it on the whiteboard and wait for the chance to realize the idea. :) A lot of our upcoming ideas are related to games and quests, so things will start to take a different turn than the community related features that we've been implementing. A year ago we mentioned that Gaia will be more like a game than a forum, finally that statement will be realized in the coming months.
What is your target audience and what are its main characteristics ? What aspects of your site is it the most responsive to ?
We've recently hosted a poll which told us almost all our audiences are within the 14 to 25 year old age range. We have very strong interest groups in different forums, though just as much of our members are interested in the sheer ability to collect and customize their avatars. Of course, both aspect must play off each other. There's little sense in building your own avatar if your avatar isn't used to communicate to anyone else. ;)
How do you and your moderators keep up with such a large community ? How do you take into account user input, monitor spam, and in the meantime create a forum culture ?
We owe a lot to our current moderators. Between the 90 or so moderators and staff members we help take care of numerous forum moderation tasks. Moderators also help compile user input, report bugs, and within the moderators is a community within itself which focusses on how we can improve Gaia. Soon, a new member of the development team will be responsible for making features for our moderators as a first priority. In general we stick with providing our users the freedom of expression, and only to moderate when it's necessary. Variety is the culture we strive for, and to maintain quality while providing freedom is the challenge we all battle with.
"Gaia's mission statement remained the same - to be a free and fun hangout for everyone."
Where do you look for inspiration ? What websites do you find particularly innovative ? Or do you prefer to search for ideas offline ?
I believe a creator's inspiration is only limited by the person's experiences on-line and off-line, so there's no limit as to where we perform our research. For interface ideas we look at things that are esthetically pleasing, such as video games, RPG in particular. For community ideas we look at all the popular web services and try to harvest features which will proove useful to Gaia members.
Last year you were searching for new developers to get involved in the
project. How many members does your team contain now, what are their respective roles, and how do you manage them ?
We were extremely fortunate to have found friends, referrals and volunteers that are dedicating their time as developers. Today there are about 10 of us handling the duties of hardware planning and installation, server software upgrades and security, software development from new features, sustaining features, bug fixes, performance enhancements, to database auditing. Aside from engineering, we also have our art team, flash programmers, member support, moderator support, and accounting plus administration. That's definitely more jobs than what 10 people can handle. All of us wear different hats to get the job done, and everyone's opinions are crutial to the development of the site. We're all very experienced and competent in what we do, so I don't need to manage anyone per say. The only thing which I need to manage is the direction of the site as a whole, which involves the maintenance and release of all the features and co-ordination between team members. Even that aspect is handled as a team. It's an easy job when everyone love the site and we all get along plus we all love what we do. :)