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Interview: Derek Liu, Gaia Online Anime Community

The Gaia Online Community is an anime and manga related website, featuring a bank of links, an anime art repository, and a role-playing oriented message board. These forums present a number of innovative and original ideas such as a cartoon-like discussions layout, completely customizable avatars for which you can buy items in a shop, or a rather sophisticated money system allowing you to spend and earn gold in various ways. Online only since a few months, the boards have known since a faster-than-imaginable growth, now featuring more than 5 million posts and 100000 users.

Known on the boards as Lanzer, Derek Liu, board admin and founder, has accepted to answer our questions.

A few details about the boards before we get to the interview:

Hardware config
1 x Celeron 1.3 w/512k RAM, single HD
4 x P4 2.6Ghz w/2GB RAM, single HD
1 x Dual Xeon 2.6 w/4GG RAM, 4 80GB HD running as 2 sets of RAID 0 arrays
1 x Dual Opteron 240 w/4GG RAM, 4 x 15,000RPM 16GB HD as 2 sets of RAID 0 arrays from Raid Array controller, 1 80GB HD for OS

The dual Opteron setup is for the MYSQL server, while the dual Xeon is the main web server for the forums. Within the 4 smaller servers, one is used to serve static information such as graphics and avatars. The rest serves all the other pages like the art rating page, the character item stores, and the link list. The slowest machine is used strictly for displaying the non-vital graphics such as frame borders and forum buttons since the site is very graphic intensive.

Creation date of the board
February 18, 2003

Number of moderators
We just went from 14 to about 20 mods.

About yourself.

Could you please introduce yourself and describe your background before your involvement in the Gaia Community ?

With a background in wide area networking, I used to work for networking companies like Ascend, Lucent, and Alcatel. I have interest in too many hobbies for my own good, and in particular Iím into Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime), plus anything related to computers and technology. I was still learning how to draw, with ping pong, skateboarding and video gaming as my past-time before involving in Gaia. Now I have no life. ^_^

What was the first internet community you became a member of ? What other forums than yours do you still regularly visit ?

I ďsurfedĒ the net when I was finishing high school. Keeping up with posts in Usenet in video gaming and anime forums was a pastime for me. That was when the internet had less than 200 anime fans. ^_^; The culture of the net has changed dramatically since then. Now days I frequent communities related to site building and communication between web masters. Occasionally I visit a few art related communities.

"Gaia will be as much of a game as it is a forum"

How did you start building the go-gaia website, what was your goal back then, and did you have any idea of what it would become in the future ?

Gaia Online was an idea that me and my roommates came up with. It started out as a small project to create an anime link list with a small community. We thought we could do something we all enjoy working for, as we earn a little bit on the side from advertising. Though due to our video game influences we came up with adding a role playing aspect into the community, and eventually the ideas for the role playing aspects had gotten so big that I knew this is going to be quite an on-going project for us. We never anticipated big growth. We only knew that the community would be a lot of fun, and our goal had been to make the forum as entertaining as possible. Currently all our ideas revolve around role playing. Gaia will be as much of a game as it is a forum.

What does a day in Derek Liu's life look like ?

Itís a vicious cycle of sleep (occasionally on the floor), eat, and 16 hours of development. ^_^; As this is the first year of development, Iím giving it all Iíve got, so I now found myself glued to my chair, either coding, maintaining or researching for the community.

Please tell us something great and something horrible Gaia brings to you.

Gaia is a representation of me and my friendsí inspirations. Having a community of thousands of users enjoying your creation is the most splendid feeling, and having the freedom to realize ideas and exercise personal ethics is an experience like no other. At the same time, Iíve founded many businesses before and none had the level of involvement, work load, and stress that Gaia had brought me. Gaia had probably shortened my lifespan for a few years. ^_^
About the Go-Gaia message boards

How did you come up with the idea behind your roleplaying system ? Was it all thought about or did you compose with your visitors' input ?

Most of our ideas were derived from existing video games in the market. We are true believers in research and we studied every single game that we liked as we extracted all the applicable aspects from them when we developed the system. After the opening day, we got the best research tool of all, which is our live audience. Everyone was very open in giving positive and constructive feedback. We then noticed how little we knew as we receive more and more ideas and suggestions. Everything then slowly come together after that.

Because they are one of the first things new visitors come across when discovering your site, and because of the extended visual customization they offer compared with traditional avatars, the custom characters are without any doubt one of the reasons of the success of your forums and website. Where did you get this idea from, and who is designing their graphics ?

The main source of our inspiration was from role playing games like Ragnarok Online and Final Fantasy. The elements of why these games are so popular or addictive for us is what drove us to keep digging for more ideas. I actually live with 4 (now 3) roommates that are some of the best artists in the industry, so we had the luxury of having the site visually a duplicate of how we wanted it to look and feel.

What in your opinions makes people addicted to your site ?

The ability to exercise self expression, packed with a collecting game of customizing items and rare items is the main aspects, though the fundamental aspect of the site is the community aspect. Without interaction between members as friends or as guilds, the novelty of any game related elements will not last long.

"To me a social life on the internet is just as real as a social life outside of it"

General or serious discussion, bars, guilds, business, auctions, entertainment, artists, an amazing virtual life is going on in gaia. Do you realize that some people probably spend all their day on your boards, replacing part or most of their social life with their gaia life, and what does it inspire to you ?

Todayís internet is a melting pot of different cultures, personalities, knowledge, and ideas. Users on Gaia are able to harness many aspects of which the internet provides because Gaia attracts other audiences of similar age and interests. The value of friendship and acceptance on your likes and hobbies from members in a community is priceless, and many of that community aspect is also what I grew up with. Many try to separate a virtual life from reality. But today Iím living with friends who I couldnít have met if it wasnít for the internet. To me a social life on the internet is just as real as a social life outside of it.

The number of moderators on go-gaia is rather small compared to the number of posts and users. Is the community easy to moderate ? Do you and your team read all posts ? Are you subject to spammers of any sort and how do you handle them ?

Itís amazingly difficult to maintain the community. To keep up with the culture, events, gossip, rumors, news, and people is a full time job. Because it takes time to find good moderators, and the community is growing so fast, we must create new mentalities and methods to accommodate everyone. We currently get 120,000 to 180,000 posts a day, so instead of trying to monitor everything, we allow spamming on an area we call the chatterbox. The result not only gained an acceptance from the general audience, but a nice sub-culture was also formed within that forum.

Success often brings tons of problems. Are you subject to hackers attacks, sue threats, death letters ?

Hacking is a daily issue on Gaia. As any administrators would know, all that we can do is to keep up with software updates and keep an eye on system logs and activities. Other than that, Iím lucky to not have gotten anything threatening like hate mail or threat letters of any sort.

What would be your advice to someone managing a middle sized anime or role-playing board to see his traffic hit the sky ?

Never talk yourself out of spending the extra time in interacting with your users, no matter how busy things might become. I believe that an adminís love for the community is clearly shown through his/her communication. Thatís something a growing community cannot lack. Problems will always be there, they wonít go away. So might as well focus on whatís important, which are the users themselves.
General Board administration

What made you choose phpBB, and are you happy with your choice ?

Yes. phpBB rocks. Iíve learned so much from phpBB I canít thank the developers enough.

Did you program all board alterations yourself or are you using public mods or hacks ?

A little bit of everything I guess. There isnít one mod where I install every line of code, while there isnít one script that I havenít left alone. If there is something I donít need loaded, I take it away. Like wise, Iíve added a lot of codes for features that I implemented around the site. At the same time the numerous mods spun tons of great ideas everywhere that I could never have thought of if I went with a single forum package.

Some posts in the forums have more than 50000 replies, that is more posts than on 99% of internet's message boards. I guess your are experiencing terrible load and bandwidth problems. how much do you have to prune posts and users to help with that issue ?

The database server needed upgrading constantly. At first it was to allow for more connections, then as we gotten more posts, each page took exponentially longer to load. While bandwidth could be solved by just paying our ISP, the load on the database server had been a problem. Luckily Iíve came up with a few changes in the database queries recently that should be able to let me keep growing the database without much degradation in speed.

You probably had to tweak a lot phpBB, mysql and more generally your server configuration. On which side was it the easiest to improve performance ? Was phpBB easy to modify to suit your needs ?

On the php side of things, improving the performance of the scripts seem to yield a linear increase in speed, while I can always drop in another server to handle the load on handling php web pages, so itís not a big deal. Itís the tweaks in the SQL queries which yielded terrific improvements in speed. phpBB is easy to modify. Itís well structured so itís easy to read and understand.
Iíve been gathering notes on some of the major changes that I made on a thread on the phpBB forum. Donít know how many people would benefit from it, but I just needed to do my bit in contributing back to the community.

How do you handle the search feature on you boards ?

Cripple it. (lol) After some serious thinking Iíve thought of a few ways that will truly make a fast search engine, but itíll take tremendous time involvement in writing the code to support my theories that have yet to be proven. So in return I setup a lot of filters to index only posts within certain criteria from size, location, number of replies, to only making the first 100 words searchable, etc. The main goal is to keep the search table having less than ten million entries so it wonít bog the server down while maintaining a level of usability. The wordlist table also includes a post_id field that allows me to prune it when the time comes. Though I think a more permanent solution is to gear up with a real search engine like Google. No matter what I do the search engine will never be 10% as good as what a real search engine can do.

"Anything free is great! Users pay not in money but in sharing experience and submitting contribution plus ideas to constantly improve itself"

In your opinion, what are the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of phpBB ?

Why is phpBB so great? Anything free is great! ^_^ Users pay not in money but in sharing experience and submitting contribution plus ideas to constantly improve itself. Even if phpBB is poorly written, with all the user input it has the potential of being the best forum out there. But phpBB is NOT poorly written, it is a beautifully crafted piece of software and the latest version looks even more promising. The greatest weakness to any software that is so versatile is the sacrifice in speed. Though I often wonder if phpBBís concern in speed performance is related to php or SQL related issues.

What were the milestones of the board development (in terms of users, posts, and functionality) which needed improvement in hardware, or important software modifications such as switching some tasks to cron jobs ?

Many features such as the handling of user sessions had already been switched to cron jobs to reduce the systemís load. Most of these changes are pretty much behind the scenes so the user wonít really notice the changes from a regular forum. Those jobs include pruning, updating of ďdynamicĒ data such as post and user count, etc. There were no milestones because the bottlenecks that we came across were never anticipated. We just went through phases where the server was running slow, me making some changes to speed things up, then days or weeks later weíre running slow againÖ and the cycle just repeats itself. Yes, Iím very inexperienced. ^_^;

Did you have to promote your website, or did your members generate enough publicity by themselves ?

We did promote our site. The forth month after itís debut we handed out a lot of postcards to anime fans on the two biggest anime convention that we attend annually. We also have an ad in a comic book thanks to a good friend in the business. Other than that, the growth had been pretty consistent, and doesnít seem to be particularly affected by the advertisements. Just goes to proof that Iím not a good marketing guy. ^_^ It seems that the growth of Gaia relied mainly on the word of mouth from our users.

What have you learned from administering the Gaia boards ?

To put into the simplest terms, I learned that everybody deserves the same level of respect. To discriminate in accordance to a userís level of etiquette had been my mistake in the past and working on Gaia let me place a high level of control over myself to be an admin thatís fair with everyone. I didnít realize any of the essentials by myself. Itís all from insights handed down by my friends who I developed the site with. Technically I learned an immense amount of php, MySQL, DHTML, and server administration. The structure of phpBB also taught me a lot in terms of writing structured and optimized codes.

Has the rapid and impressive success of your site brought to you job offers, unexpected partnerships or extravagant propositions ?

One can always dream. ^_^ We havenít gotten any offers so far. We started the site as a labor of love and today it still is. Iím hoping for the day that weíre big enough that we can start getting support from large sponsors so that we donít have to worry about covering costs. Until then, though weíre growing, weíre still pretty tiny compared to successful ventures on the net.

It is written on the home page of the website: "GAIA Online is currently in the Alpha Testing phase". Well then it is a hell of an alpha phase, do you have many plans for the future and evolution of your community and can you share some of them with us ?

Right now weíre still on alpha development, meaning that we havenít got our basic features done yet. The basic features are stuff that arenít necessarily tied in with the forum itself. One of which is a chat environment that Iím developing, for example. When weíre ready to freeze the major features and start debugging them, thatís when the work on the gaming aspects will begin. Weíll then be on beta stage as far as the site goes. Thatís when things are going to be interesting for our users. Everyone on the forums are hungry for activities. I just canít wait to tell them that every character that theyíre customizing actually contains an array of stats, and you can build your character in ways that not only affects your performance in the activities, but theyíll also influence the features that theyíll get on the site also. -_^

If I may add a request for help, Iíd like to say that weíre desperately seeking programmers with skills in php, javascript and possibly flash to help out on the siteís development. Please contact us at gaia at anihq dot com if interested. Thank you.

Thank you Derek !

Note : All this informatoin are from
Thanks for the huge copy and paste without quote marks to earn some points and cash Smile.

We appreciate that Smile.

Next time, post in quote marks when copy and pasting Razz.

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