Ten years of CoasterBuzz

posted by Jeff | Saturday, January 30, 2010, 5:28 PM | comments: 0

You know, I'm not even sure where to start with this post. Today is, as visitors would know, the tenth anniversary of the launch of CoasterBuzz. This is important for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I can't think of anything that I've done for ten continuous years by choice.

The Internet was a very different place back then. We've seen a great inversion between the number of content creators and consumers. Back then, people went out of their way to build Web sites, rich with pictures, stories, communities, etc. Sorry, but posting when you take a crap on Facebook and Twitter is not creating content (it's more like noise). Meanwhile, the users of the Internet went from a tightly connected community to a mass of humanity that doesn't stop long enough to look at anything.

Shortly after CoasterBuzz launched, we had hundreds of sites in our site database that ranged from a site for Cedar Point employee photos to sites about specific parks. There was a real vitality to it all, as the Internet made it relatively easy to publish in great deal content around something you cared about. That's part of the reason that CoasterBuzz was built, to help you find all of that stuff. Later, search engines helped with that, but unfortunately there just isn't as much out there. I finally killed the database in the 2008 relaunch, as there were few sites left.

For me personally, as every year went on, the site provided me with two important outlets. The first is that it gave me a lab where I could develop my programming skills. The second thing it gave me was a place to publish content, which I enjoyed doing given my media background. The second thing got harder over time, particularly in that coaster building boom, and I backed off of doing that. The bigger goal with the site was always to facilitate the aggregation of content, which it still does. Only a few sites ever send in their updates these days, and I do a lot of the news linking myself, but it's still getting a lot of action. In fact, since the news forum syncs with news, it has grown exponentially.

One of the guiding principles of the site has been to do what made sense, not what others do. That took some time to get used to. Remember, in 2000, all that mattered was eyeballs, and that's what you were chasing. You just wanted as many people as possible, and then, profit! Later I'd figure out that it wasn't the quantity of visitors, but the quality (and willingness to give you money for running the site).

I never really planned to make more money with it than to cover the hosting expense, but several interesting things happened on that road. The first was that it got so popular, and bandwidth so expensive, that in the first few years I had to make revenue a priority. Because hosts were measuring bandwidth in the hundreds of megabytes and not thousands of gigabytes, the most cost-effective solution in 2001 was to get a T-1 to my house. At 1.5 mbits both ways, that's hardly impressive (my cable service is that fast upstream), but it was constant and I didn't have to pay by the bi t. But the pipe cost over a grand a month. After 9/11, I had a perfect storm: A one-year contract for the T-1, I lost my job and DoubleClick began its decline and they dropped their representation. I was on the hook for $12k+ that year and no way to pay for it all.

I asked a few people in the forum if they thought it would be worth it to join a club that got them the site ad-free and a membership card. A surprising number of people said yes. The club made up for the shortfall in ad revenue, and helped pay for the T-1, the server and the software. In fact, that was about the time I became a legitimate Photoshop owner! The club still shows strong numbers today, and turned into an institution on top of the institution, so to speak. We've been having great events ever since.

There was a period of time where a vocal minority of people had a real problem with the fact that I was treating the site like a business. Certainly, it started as a hobby, but making money from something you enjoy certainly isn't immoral! The problem (or perk, depending on how you look at it) is that I continuously reinvested all of the revenue back into things that would feed the site. This started in 2000, when I bought a Nikon Coolpix 990, which cost something like $800. It was the first digital camera that was usable enough for prints, had SLR-like features, and at 3 million pixels, was adequate for publishing pho tos to the Internet. I decided to get it for use covering the IAAPA show. It was fairly adequate, and the same-day turn around with no developing was awesome.

I got into a pattern of spending money on equipment like that for years, carrying a balance on the business credit card. In the middle part of the decade I never carried that much, except when I went all out. In 2006 I bought the HVX200 and all kinds of video gear that racked up a $10k bill. I was working full-time again, so it seemed low risk. I actually made up half that amount with a few freelance gigs, and I was grateful to own pro gear. Aside from computers, cameras were the thing that I spent the most money on. In 2008 I finally had a total zero balance, but I've since racked it back up.

Did all of the spending lead to a better site? In a lot of cases, yes, and particularly since the 2008 relaunch, I've had a lot of direct impact. It also helped out PointBuzz a great deal, and as you might expect, I've done a lot more video work over there.

There were some long-term experiments as well. CoasterBuzz Games was a pretty solid sister site that hosted thousands of save games and tracks for Rollercoaster Tycoon 1 through 3 (as well as a small number of No Limits and Hyper Rails files). I was really proud of that app, and it was smoking fast. When the 2008 relaunch rolled around, it would've been hard to modify, and traffic had dried up to almost nothing, so I let it go. It was pretty neat for its time though.

The editorial path was always evolving over the decade. At first I wrote opinion pieces now and then, but eventually stopped because it made just as much sense to post in the forums with those. I also had a rumor section, but I found in the first year that so much of it was bullshit anyway, and what was correct caused a lot of friction with parks. Since I was trying to line up events for the club, that wasn't in our best interest, so I stopped. Getting people to industry news really became the focus after that.

The forum has always been a balancing act. To some degree, you let the community govern itself. To this day, we don't do any real moderation other than move topics to the appropriate forum or delete spam and naughty words. Sometimes we close the repetitive boring topics that no one actually reads, like top ten lists or whatever. But generally speaking, we're very hands-off. By we I mean me and the moderators, all of whom I approached, not vice versa. I learned by watching other forums for other interests that anyone who wanted to be a moderator was probably not who you wanted doing the job.

It still took a lot of trial and error. In the first few years I'd often let myself get pulled into drama and people would make it about me. Eventually I learned how non-productive it was, and just headed off that kind of nonsense and moved on. The forum was better for it. We still struggle with conversation quality issues now and then, especially this time of year, but it's an up and down cycle I've learned to live with. There's a pretty good core group of people in there.

Then there was the period of neglect that I went through. Once my book was done, and the separation occurred, I lost interest in a lot of things. 2005 was a fairly insane year for me, between the separation and first post relationship, complete dissatisfaction from my job and volleyball teams I was very emotionally invested in for both spring and fall. For the next two years, I just let CoasterBuzz kind of decay in terms of content, discussion shaping and especially in the software development sense. The traffic stats made this very obvious. It just didn't seem very important.

Oddly enough, this period of time was also when I started the CoasterBuzz Podcast, and it has been one of my favorite things to come out of this whole endeavor. With my first job out of college being a radio gig, this has been the closest thing to the joy that used to bring me, only without all of the negatives that went along with broadcast radio. Most surprising is the very rich friendships I've gained from doing it since then. I went two years between seeing Mike, for example, and when we hooked up it was like we had just seen each other the week before. Ditto when I see Gonch, and now Carrie is starting to be that friend as well. If only we could get Tyler in. ;)

In 2008, after ICOM let me go, the realization of the decline in the site became obvious to me, and I finally decided to do something about it. I rebuilt everything in two months and had a solid starting point to expand and improve the app as I go. It was liberating and I was excited to be in to it again. Dating Cath and Diana allowed me to let my coaster freak flag fly during those years, but it wasn't until '08 that I embraced it and got back into it.

Traffic in terms of visitors has since climbed back up, but it's the quality of the visitors that has been overwhelmingly improved. People come there and do more stuff. Building and satisfying an audience is a totally different skill these days, and I've enjoyed working on that for the last year and a half. It's very different from the days when the site first opened. Back then, the site was easy to grow by simply advertising on GoTo.com (which became Overture, then Yahoo ads).

Looking back, the one thing I did not enjoy was screwing around with server hardware. I remember at one point the box would lock up now and then when I hosted it from home, and that was because I had a bad stick of memory. I've been hosting now in the same place for almost six years non-stop. Although, the guys at work have put the fear of God into me that it's probably about time for a server meltdown, perhaps a hard drive failure. Jerks. :)

The biggest perk of all, as much as I try to separate myself from the site, is the social benefits. I've made best friends and had relationships because of that site that I wouldn't have today without it. What's weird about that is we're mostly friends for reasons that have nothing to do with coasters today. The site only facilitated the initial connection.

The weird thing to understand is that despite the ten year commitment the site has so far required, I don't really identify with it as a key part of myself. I don't really talk about it or think about it except when I'm developing for it or using it. It's rare that I tell Diana, "Today on CoasterBuzz..." or whatever. And yet, after this long, how could it not be a part of my story? I tend to downplay the achievement of longevity, revenue and software development, which is probably a slight to myself. I tend to think of it as unimportant in the grand scope of things, until someone tells me, "Hey, I really value what you provide," and even that makes me uncomfortable for some reason.

In any case, what a ride. Let's see if I can keep it going for another ten years!


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