Online Life - Featured Forum [Big Boards]


Tazmanian Veteran
Jan 1, 2004
Congrats to Erwin for another online success! Read on for information about Avatar Chat!

What is the name of your website and a brief description of the theme/topic of the forums. What is the url?

The name is "Avatar Chat". The slogan is "Avatar Community Chat Forums". The description of the site can be put as such: "Create your own custom avatar community chat room, explore our 3d virtual world, buy or sell avatar chat items, own a virtual pet, post in community forums, play chess and arcade games, make a quiz, create or join a club and live your online life." Essentially, it's an online community that allows members to live out their online lives. You are able to create a custom avatar, build a custom room in a custom house, and have the house on land, all existing in a 3d virtual world.

List some of the most popular forums and describe its discussions.

The 3 most popular forums are "Idle Chit Chat", for obvious reasons, "Avatar Discussions", where a lot of avatar-based contests are held, and "Forum Games". In "Idle Chit Chat", basically anything goes. People chat about random things that are essentially off-topic. I think such a forum exists at most other forum sites. Avatars are a main focus of the site, so the "Avatar Discussions" forum does get quite busy with people discussing their avatars. "Forum Games" is the forum for all forum-based word and counting games - the membership of my current forums tend to be younger, so games are quite popular.

What prompted you to start your forum? What was your launch date?

I used to own and run, but sold this in 2007, for a variety of reasons, one of which was lack of time. Having sold that forum, I really began to miss running an online community, and coding and hacking software. The current version of the site, which is a forum site, was launched officially on 1 September 2008. Since then, the site has grown exponentially. The forum is really still a hobby of mine - I do enjoy coding for the fun of it, and I love to dream up ideas, and attempt to make them reality. This is why a lot of features on my site remain quite unique, as they have been custom coded and modified.

Do you have any special forum features or activities?

Yes, Avatar Chat has quite a few special and unique features. We have a virtual 3d world, that allows members to walk their avatar around and visit the houses of other members. We have an editor for custom avatars, houses, rooms and even land in the 3d virtual world. Initially, the site did not have any moderators, and used a self-moderating system where members rated each other's posts, threads and chats up or down, and low-rated posts get buried. But this has changed recently as the membership has grown, and official moderators have had to be appointed. We do also have other things like chat, wikis, arcade, blogs, quizzes, pets, friends - the list goes on. One unique thing is that I offer members custom profiles, using HTML, and also have a feature where they can receive real-time updates from their other social network accounts such as Twitter, Flickr or YouTube, or follow another member's social network feeds. One other special feature we have is multiplayer chess - members can challenge each other to chess for gOLd, the site currency. In relation to activities, our forum members run a lot of contests - e.g. best avatar for Christmas etc. We give out gOLd for winners and recently have collaborated with companies to give our real life prizes - currently we are running an end of year posting competition and giving out a special edition Nintendo DS Lite console.

Which software do you use for your forums?

I currently use open source and free code which I have modified extensively. The main advantage of using my own code is that I know the code back to front. In addition, I am able to make as many changes as I like. I also avoid the need to have to keep upgrading and relearning new code everytime a commercial forum software gets updated. The disadvantage, however, is that I do not get any external support, and I have to keep up with any security issues that do come up. The forum is based on php and mysql. I have self-learnt all the coding, by experimenting and reading up on the web. My code is never pretty, but so far, seems to work okay. :) As mentioned, it is a hobby of mine, and I enjoy coding. You can tell when I go into a "coding trance" - I have a saying - you can always fix a bug, an error or a coding dilemma - just keep persisting - and so far, that has not failed me. When faced with a problem, keep at it - Google is your friend. :)

Do you use any add-ons scripts to enhance your site? Which ones?

This question doesn't really apply to me as I am using custom code. I do sometimes find an add-on that looks interesting, that I may modify to make it fit the software engine I am using. But I don't really use any "off-the-shelf" add-on scripts.

What is your current server set-up? Do you have multiple servers for your big board forum? Who manages your servers?

The site is currently running on a dedicated server running 2 fast SCSI disks, one for php, the other for mysql, and so far the server loads are very manageable, and the site is running smoothly. I am currently self-managing this server. This keeps me busy, as I have to keep up with the latest security patches, and remember my command lines. :)

Membership stats? How many members?

We currently have almost 55,000 members who have made 6.5 million posts, in little over a year.

What are the demographics of your site? (Percentage of men, women, age groups, locality related)

The members are equally divided between men and women, and are mostly from the US, but also a large contingent from Australia, the Philippines, the UK, and all over the world. The members tend to be younger, but there is a large age range. They are mostly English-speaking, but occasionally a foreign language does pop up in posts. We do have a rule that English must be used in the public forums, basically to enable proper moderation of posts.

Tell us a about your staff including how many admins (and their functions), moderators, mentors, web-developers, etc. Explain how your staff is organized.

I am the webmaster and really the only admin. I maintain the server, the site and do all the coding, fixing of the bugs and adding of the features to the site. I am therefore also the only web developer. Our site has the following type of moderators, with their numbers in brackets:

Post Moderators (9) - they edit, move and delete posts.
Member Moderators (4) - they edit member pages and suspend or ban members.
Item Moderators (9) - these are members who can approve, edit, move and delete items in the store.
Map Moderators (4) - these are members who can edit the 3d world map, move or delete land items.
RPG Moderators (4) - these are post moderators who moderate the RPG forum.
Wiki Moderators (lots!) - any member with a reputation above 100 can become a wiki editor and moderator.

Some Post Moderators are also Member Moderators etc. We have a Team leader for the Moderators, who assists in managing moderator issues. So far, the system has worked well for us.

How do you generate revenue to cover your expenses? (Ecommerce, subscriptions, advertising, affiliate links, etc)

At the moment, the only revenue comes from Site Supporter donations, which allows members to become CoOL (Champions of Online Life) members. I custom coded it so that the site is directly linked to Paypal via IPN. This provides a tiny fraction of support, as our members tend to be younger, so not many become Site Supporters. So far, I have resisted putting advertising up, so the site is costing me money for the past year, but I see it as something I do as a hobby, so I am not currently overly concerned. We shall need to see how sustainable this is in the long-term. :) I am resistant to putting up ads, and will do so for as long as possible. My day job pays me well enough to support this.

Do you offer upgraded members groups for a fee? What benefits do they get for subscribing/upgrading?

Yes, as mentioned, people can donate and become a CoOL (Champions of Online Life) member. So far, they get access to a special forum, and get a nice icon under their avatar in posts and profiles. I have been meaning to code up so they get special CoOL items as well, but this is proving harder than it looks.

What is your name?

Erwin Loh

Please share a few things about yourself. (Bio, family, education, background, hobbies, your favorite pizza topping, your favorite vacation spot, your choice of transportation, etc)

I am getting older, married, just had a daughter (she is 1 month old). I have an addiction to studying and have a medical degree, a law degree, and 2 masters in management, and currently enrolled as a PhD student. I am active in my local church, and am an elder there. I love reading, and as you already know, running online communities and coding. My favourite pizza topping is Aussie (you'll have to search to find out what that means). I loved New York when I was there last year. And I love driving. :) I work as a specialist medical administrator as well as a medicolegal adviser.

How do you spend a typical day as admin on your site? What do you enjoy about your job as admin of your site/forums? Do you office in your home or in a separate office space away from your house?

A typical day as an admin is spent updating my forum blog, then checking out my Private Messages, and then the "Bug Reports" forum, and the "Suggestions & Feedback" forum. I fix any bugs that show up, and there are always a couple, and carry out coding work on some of the good suggestions. I do have to do this in the context of my day job, and carry out most work after-hours. I enjoy doing coding, and interacting with different people from all over the world. Like all webmasters, I get a lot of joy seeing others use my site and enjoying it. I run my site from home, but obviously for my day job work in a separate office (in a hospital).

What has been the biggest obstacle you have faced in starting or running your forums? How did you/do you handle it?

The biggest obstacle is always promotion, and getting the site known initially - that is the hardest thing for a new forum that is starting out. This is why search engine optimisation is essential to a site's success - people need to know you exist. Of course, good design and content is also important. Once you have a well-designed forum, and people know it's there and like it, you will get members, and posts, which will lead to more content and sustain long-term growth. Experience is also important - I'm using all the knowledge I have gained from running online communities over the past 10 years and applying it to this forum now.

What 3 things have helped your forums to be a success?

1. Good ideas that can be implemented and made reality - this requires inspiration and an ability to code (even if as an amateur).

2. A nice, well-designed site (at least I think so) that is easy to use, that appeals to users.

3. Search engine optimisation - my forum is on the first page of most search engines for its major keywords - this leads to traffic. Word of mouth referrals are also important.

I hope this interview helps other forum admins, and thank you for this opportunity to share. :)

You can learn more about Erwin from his recent Interview!