Some years ago we published a couple of interviews in TidBITS, including one with Peter N Lewis of Anarchie fame and another with Daryl Peck, founder of Outpost.com. However, despite the fact that we received tremendous positive feedback on those interviews, we somehow stopped doing them, a move I’ve long regretted.
However, when Neil Shapiro, a legend from the early days of online communities in the Macintosh world, popped up in my email to tell me that he was bringing back MAUG on a Web site called ForumsAmerica.com, I immediately realized that an interview would be the best way to explain what MAUG was and to introduce the new MAUG.
[Adam] First off, tell me a bit about how MAUG got started back in…
[Neil] 1979! I had just bought an Apple II computer and had no idea how to use it. I was one of the journalists beta-testing the new CompuServe (then called MicroNet) network. So I left a note pleading for help on the main bulletin board (there were no Forums) and some people met me in the CB Simulator (what Chat was then called). It developed into weekly Sunday night meetings. We were originally called the MicroNet Apple Users Group (MAUG). After a year of meetings we started one of the very first Forums. In 1984 we expanded into the Macintosh and wound up with more than twenty Forums devoted to Macintosh topics. We kept the MAUG acronym, but it became a registered trademark (now owned by my company eFriends, Inc.) and now stands for Micronetworked Apple Users Group, somewhat of a mouthful.
[Adam] So in the days before the Internet hit big, MAUG was one of the main online Macintosh communities. When would you say that MAUG hit its peak?
[Neil] I think the entire online world on all the various networks seemed, to me anyway, most active in the early nineties. People were then discovering it as a mass market, rather than a service just for experts. It was around then that, at dinner parties, I found most people at the table at least knew what a modem was, and that was a huge change from the seventies and eighties.
[Adam] Although AOL has purchased CompuServe, the service is still around. What happened that caused MAUG and CompuServe to part ways?
[Neil] Sorry but I can’t comment on that other than to say that I had many good years with CompuServe and still have some good friends who work there.
[Adam] Fair enough. You’ve probably spent more time on CompuServe than almost anyone, though – what future do you see for proprietary online services like AOL and CompuServe, whether or not they provide varying degrees of access to the Internet? It would seem that the Internet is the big deal now, but that hasn’t stopped AOL from signing up 20 million subscribers, or whatever they’re up to now.
[Neil] I think that proprietary networks in general (not speaking here specifically of any one) are becoming learning areas – places where people go because it is easy both to install the software and to sign on. Two forces are moving though to where they may find it increasingly difficult to maintain market share. First, hardware is becoming more and more Internet-ready, the iMac being a wonderful example. Second, large ISPs are bundling their access software on CD-ROM with easy-to-use installers. I don’t know what the future of the proprietary services will be.
[Adam] But now you’re back, on ForumsAmerica.com They’re still in beta – what can you tell us about them?
[Neil] ForumsAmerica.com is the most exciting thing I have been involved with for many years. It is a breakthrough both in conception and execution.
The concept was to design a message base (reachable by any major browser/platform combination) that did not have the drawbacks of present Web forums. We wanted to create a message base that felt more like a community (the word is way overused, but since I was one of the first to use it I still feel entitled). To do this we stepped out of the box of topic-oriented messaging and moved toward the area of conversational threads. For instance, this means that if you leave a message and I respond, then others see my response right after your message and attached to it. And when you return to the forum, the software tells you that you have messages waiting for you. It’s a little hard to explain, but the effect is that people talk to other people, rather than just posting in a topic. Yet it’s fast and easy to use, far easier in my opinion than the few other thread-oriented message boards one may find.
[Adam] I’m racking my brains to remember the old CompuServe interface, but this is sounding similar. Perhaps one way to think of it is as a cross between a Usenet news thread and email, in the sense that the conversation is public, but the forum encourages people to converse with one another?
[Neil] It is less like email and much more like Usenet. But when I go onto Usenet, I find myself often confused about why someone is saying something because the message they are responding about may have happened far back in the topic. On ForumsAmerica.com the progression of the discussion is far easier to track. Threaded messaging began, I think, back in the seventies on BBS systems that ran on TRS-80 Model Ones. They then evolved further on networks like Delphi and CompuServe. We have continued the evolution by designing an interface that we knew, from the ground up, was going to be Internet-based and read via a Web browser.
[Adam] Of course, trying to create a usable interface in a Web browser is a difficult task, especially when you have to support multiple platforms.
[Neil] One thing I appreciate is that the ForumsAmerica.com programmers spent an incredible amount of time ensuring that the service would be truly multi-platform and that Macintosh users in particular wouldn’t feel like second-class citizens. When you log onto ForumsAmerica.com the first thing the software does is identify your computer and browser. Macintosh users wind up with their own style sheet that customizes fonts and other design elements for display on the Mac. Have you ever gone to a Web site with your Mac, maybe after seeing it on a friend’s PC, and noticed the fonts are squashed or the layout screwed up? ForumsAmerica.com looks great – and the same – on both PC and Mac. It wasn’t an easy thing to do!
[Adam] Indeed – we ran into many of the same issues with the recent redesign of our home page, except that we were trying to make it look better for those people who read TidBITS from a PC. Geoff Duncan also wrote an excellent article for us explaining the difference in font display between the Mac and PC. But I digress. How does the MAUG setup on ForumsAmerica.com compare to the old setup on CompuServe in terms of forums and libraries and the like?
[Neil] We have chat, and we have the message boards of course, but we’re not planning on having file libraries right now. I feel that there are many great places to go now for software online. I see our mission as being the place to go to find out from your friends what new software is cool and what not to bother with. We do have features and releases up that have links to take people to the places to download or find out more information. There are so many people doing so many wonderful things for Mac owners on the Internet that we don’t want to duplicate effort or do something poorly. What we do is messaging, nothing more. I truly feel that we are the best for that now on the Internet, and I hope other Mac owners will agree with me once they try it!
[Adam] Is MAUG the only topic discussed on ForumsAmerica.com right now?
[Neil] Nope. The breadth of topics covered on ForumsAmerica.com will, I think and hope, keep people thinking of it as an online home to discuss most anything. Along with MAUG, I run the News and Politics area along with the Books and Reading area. Then there are areas in Gaming and in Cooking, Men, Home Improvement, Space, and even something called Windows. There are many more on the way. All will be managed by professional moderators – people who know what it takes to make a message board feel like a safe and fun place to be.
[Adam] Moderation is extremely important – in many ways it’s another form of editing, and the most important people to have when information becomes overwhelming are editors, because they’re trained to separate the wheat from the chaff.
[Neil] Wow, Adam – I never thought of it as editing. Given my background (an editor at Popular Mechanics for years and founding editor of MacUser) I admit I am surprised at myself! It does have a lot to do with the same communication skills that go into editing. In our new area these are even more important as we have a special area of "features." These features can be press releases, publicity from other sites, original articles, whatever, all with links, graphics and so on. I’ve been trying to find interesting features and then start messages going about the topics. For example, a popular game (Might and Magic III) is finally coming to the Mac. So one of our features was the press release and we had a thread about cross-platform games. From the front page people could click to read the feature or click to discuss the topic. We’re aiming to create a synergy of information.
[Adam] In the past, being a forum moderator was a big deal, since time on CompuServe was expensive, so there were some major financial benefits as well. That won’t happen on ForumsAmerica.com, I assume, so what benefits will moderators receive? For that matter, what is ForumAmerica.com’s business model?
[Neil] ForumsAmerica.com is completely free to users but carries banner ads for revenue. Like many Web sites we charge advertisers for the impressions generated by users seeing the ads. ForumsAmerica.com plans to share ad revenues with the moderators or, as we call them Community Managers. By the way, ForumsAmerica.com is open to new Forum proposals so this is a chance for people to get in on a ground floor. If anyone is interested in running an online community (particularly if they have experience doing so), they can send a proposal to <[email protected]>.
[Adam] You talk a lot about community, so here’s a question. What role do you see real world user groups playing in today’s wired world? We’ve seen BMUG and LAMUG suffer significant problems, and other user groups have had troubles as well. Real world user groups probably hit their peak in the early nineties as well; does the return of MAUG indicate that community in general might be making a comeback?
[Neil] I’m not an expert concerning real world user groups but I recall how Apple used to evangelize for them, helped them get speakers and software for review, and generally supported them. The Macintosh is still a computer that attracts people who are not worried about being different or going against the grain. Apple’s slogan of Think Different is right on target. So, it seems to me that people who buy Macs are still differentiated enough from the overall audience of computer buyers to form a community bonding via this choice of platforms. It would not surprise me to see user groups make a comeback generally in the next year.
[Adam] Have you seen similar levels of community in the Windows world? The Mac world may be smaller, but small size seems to have fostered a sense of togetherness that often seems lost on PC users.
[Neil] There is no community of PC users! At least, no community based around their choice of computer. Most people with PCs think of them as simply a hammer they use to knock together some projects around the office. Many people with Macs still think of their machines as being exciting, they – we – see them as empowering. It’s a completely different mindset.
[Adam] Not to imply damning analogies, but the online world has changed since MAUG ruled the earth. How has MAUG evolved to fit into today’s Internet?
[Neil] I surf the Internet for hours each day and have for a long time, so I know that we’re not still in Kansas. It really is like the magic of Oz with all sorts of colorful characters, amazing feats and, yes, even a few dark and scary places. But to extend this analogy – there’s no place like home! I have yet to find a message board that isn’t tied to a single publication, product, company, or portal and that delivers the whole world of the Mac in an open-ended way. If we have evolved then I think it is in realizing that our strength is in the independence of our information and in letting people treat the place like their home.
[Adam] Perhaps this was already covered in the previous question, but with the vast number of mailing lists, Web sites, and other resources on the Internet, what does MAUG have to offer that’s unique?
[Neil] I hope that our uniqueness is still in what it has always been – how the staffers and I feel about the Macintosh community and our role in it. We are here for you, for anyone with a Macintosh. It’s a free service, you don’t have to buy anything, and we are as wide open as we can be. Lofty Becker, Charlie Downs, Bill Cook, Alan August, Marty Silbernik, David Ramsey, David Rose – these guys have been with me some for upwards of two decades. It is not because I am so lovable! Rather, it is because we all love what we do – we love the Macintosh community.
We’re glad to be back!
[Adam] Thanks for your time, and I’d encourage everyone to check out the new MAUG on ForumsAmerica.com. It’s a little sparse still, having been open for only a short time, but it’s good to see such a pillar of the Macintosh community return to action.