In December 2003, Joi Ito announced he’d be quitting alcohol, set up (as one did in those days) a blog on TypePad, and invited a few others to join him in documenting their quit. The blog quickly stalled, work and life getting in the way of blogging (another 2004 reality), but the comments section lived with vibrant discussions between strangers, telling about their struggles and successes.
Having just started a vacation, I decided to spend an afternoon setting up a forum with logins and permanent usernames. WQD, “We Quit Drinking” was born a few days later and, third 2004 reality, quickly forgotten.
August 2004, an email arrived in my admin inbox. “The Cue” had passed 100 members.
This was the beginning of an amazing 12-year run. Through two server crashes, hard disk failures, deaths of dear members, mariages between members, coming-outs, and more than one hundred “Cue Stock” real life meetings in nine countries, and on three continents.
The day after my father’s funeral, sitting in my old bedroom in a small town in rural Germany, the site was hit with an average of 12 signups a minute — Oprah had mentioned us on TV. A user tracked me down, found my German landline number, and called. My cousin drove me to the next biggest city, found me an open WiFi network (not that easy in technophobe Germany in 2008), and we spun up a new database server and coded a quick reverse-DNS based cache system.
For a long time, we were the biggest “quit drinking” forum on the Internet. The biggest online resource. And the fastest growing community registered on vBulletin’s own tracker.
We owed this to a number of, often coincidental, factors.
- Because I didn’t think the forum would grow over 150 members, I never registered a domain. WQD ran, from its inception to this day, on a rather non-descript domain, wqd.netwarriors.org. Despite the thousands of books and blog posts written about the value of a descriptive domain, this turned out to be a great thing: members didn’t mind coming by, even when bosses, schools, or spouses might read browser logs… nothing pointed at a quit drinking resource.
- We never advertised. This led to a feeling of community that other, more aggressively recruiting, resources simply could not replicate. “The Cue” felt less like a neon-signed office building or clinic and more like a cabin in the woods, open to anyone wandering by but, even at 15,000 members and more, unassuming and comfortably warm.
- We had an amazing mod/admin team, recruited from long time users. Geographic diversity and an angelic level of patience allowed for fast, and always friendly, resolutions of all drama that could happen.
- We never charged money. There were no premium tiers, no features locked behind pay walls. This opened the site to those who needed it most, the ones who had hit rock bottom. Some members joined from public computers (see domain name) in libraries, and later updated the community on their slow climb out of home- and worklessness. We ran NPR style pledge drives, but even when money was tight, I could run the site without much financial help.
- We kept the rules to an absolute minimum. No restrictions to strictly quit related topics, no ten page acceptable use policy. Members policed themselves through kindness that, infectious as it is, propagated through the “generations” of users. When the rest of the Internet fell more and more into comment disrepair, caved to trolls, shitstormers, and worse, WQD remained civil, because that’s the tone of the site since its inception.
After twelve years, I am shutting down WQD. January 1st 2017 will see a landing page with resources, links to new and other venues.
This has little to do with the site itself, but with the problems imposed on us by outside forces. Forums have become, thanks to Facebook and others, less and less important. With shrinking numbers of high performance / high user count forums, so does the admin community, which — for years — compensated for the utter lack of advancements and customer centric design and service in the world of forum code.
Internet Brands, who acquired the makers of vBulletin, Jelsoft, and later spun the whole thing off into a wholly owned subsidiary, are callous, arrogant, bastards with no love for customers, a legendary disdain for bug reports and feature requests, and an approach to coding that is more aimed at obfuscating the source than optimising performance.
vBulletin 4 was a clusterfsck of epic proportions, but the community managed to compensate from within. When vBulletin employees spent days insulting paying users, someone from the outside would jump in, spend days reading through the worst kind of code that is still able to run, and code a solution. When vBulletin removed features with little to no notice, someone would write an extension, using a plugin API that might have been invented by Gitmo torturers or Satan’s own coding team.
vBulletin 5 made it worse. More than two thirds of the “old guard” extension writers and regulars jumped ship (it’s telling when your own autocorrect suggests “shit”), whomever paid the $299 for an upgrade found themselves unable to roll back, deprived of essential functionality that was core to many communities, and called names by vBulletin staff for asking for those features back.
My community is a community of humans going through changes in their lives. Many for the better, some are painful. Nothing upsets it more than change, when stability is what is needed. A switch to another forum software is more or less out of question. The associated work on my side to implement features they have come to love and expect, and the new learning curve (my users are construction workers and seamstresses, not coders) of a whole new software, adds to this.
For twelve years, we’ve hung on. We weathered the DDoS attacks, the Spam, the release of vBulletin 4. We’ve lived through the rise of Facebook, the demise of its competitors. We’ve fought frivolous lawsuits by companies trying to copy WQD and sue the free alternative to monetize what they saw as a huge opportunity to cash in on ex addicts.
I am a former cook and current medic and psychologist, not a coder. My users deserve better than the broken shit sold by vBulletin and its ilk for huge sums, they deserve a coder team that can implement all those things they need. A company couldn’t offer the freedoms I could while starting the site from a cramped room in Los Gatos, CA, and so this is how WQD ends.
It’s been a wild, fun, and at times somewhat scary ride. I didn’t want it to end, but here we are.