Pet Projects, TDO-Mini-Forms and Forums

Following on from my previous post (“for fun or for success”), I keep thinking about a blog post I read from Jeff Vogel called The Bottom Feeder: Three Reasons Creators Should Never Read Their Forums.

If I have learned anything from writing Indie games for a living for fifteen years and there are plenty who would say that I haven’t, it is that it is usually a bad idea for creators to visit online forums discussing them and their work. It doesn’t lead to happy ends.

He offers three salient points:

  1. It’s Not Productive To Read How Much People Hate You
  2. It’s Not Going To Be Helpful
  3. You Might Get Suckered Into Getting Angry

I think there is certainly some truth in what he says. I’m only thinking of TDO-Mini-Forms, a project that was done for fun but became something else.

When I started it, I had a small group of users from the WordPress forums, I listened to them, made releases to address there issues and enjoyed the feedback. I setup this forum (I thought I was being clever using TDO-Mini-Forms to power a WordPress blog as a forum!) as a place to informally handle discussion, feedback, feature suggestions, bugs, etc. It was very open creative time and it was with pride that I saw people creating interesting sites using my plugin. This one-on-one feeling with users is great. It really motivates you to help them. Some bought me books or gave me donations as thanks.

For the profit-oriented readers, working with users directly like this, I got bigger and more donations than any other method. It seems people are quite happy to use your plugin for free but if they spend end up interacting with the author in a positive (not necessarily successful) way, they often give something back where they might not have done so before.

But user numbers grew and grew. And it hit a certain critical mass of users where I wasn’t meaningfully engaging with any of them. I think I hit what Jeff Vogel is talking about, though I didn’t have fans, I had users.

Every new feature or change I made would both be liked or derided by users including those same features previously demanded. Coupled with WordPress upgrades/changes that occasionally broke TDOMF outright, introduced new subtle bugs, or highlighted ones that no-one noticed before, users demanded fixes and patches. The stuff I wanted to do, I couldn’t.

Forums contain a cacophony of people telling you to do diametrically opposite things, very loudly, often for bad reasons. There will be plenty of good ideas, but picking them out from the bad ones is unreliable and a lot of work. If you try to make too many people happy at once, you will drive yourself mad. You have to be very, very careful who you let into your head.

I fell into this trap big time. My reaction? Dragging my heels until I stopped working on TDO-Mini-Forms completely. It was a slow long process, though. I still tried for a long time, replying to emails, offering advice over twitter, trying desperately to keep up with the forums, etc. But it poisoned my enjoyment.

I was creating/maintaining TDO-Mini-Forms for fun, a pet project. I was learning PHP, WordPress, web programming, DB management, etc. as I went a long. Many of my early mistakes are buried in TDO-Mini-Forms (and occasionally loud users remind me of these failures). I felt I couldn’t evolve or play with TDO-Mini-Forms, in case I broke people’s existing set-ups, so it became stale. Work on it was maintenance, backwards compatibility testing, etc. and I wasn’t getting much out of it. Even the few donations I got, which I heartily appreciated, were not enough incentive. I was trying to please everyone and ended up not just frustrating people, but frustrating myself.

If I were to do things different, I’d treat TDO-Mini-Forms more as a product (as I suggested in my previous post). Create a layer between myself and the users and even try to make some money off it (in fact many users have suggested I do this). Of course hindsight is great and by now there are a few alternatives out there, and where do I find the time?

I still get the occasionally email about TDO-Mini-Forms, sometimes I reply, sometimes I just leave there unread, which is unfair to the sender and myself. I see the occasionally tweet or blog entry, sometimes positive, sometimes negative (those make me sad). But I rarely respond. I’ve so far managed to avoid, number 3: You Might Get Suckered Into Getting Angry.

I never read the forums that I setup and I think I may end up deleting it outright. I no longer link to them directly from my home page. I’m not sure about the best approach to this as there are new posts every day on it but has it’s own forums for TDO-Mini-Forms (like it does for every plugin). I may just redirect there one day and leave it at that. I’d be inclined to keep the forums if they readership spilled out into other topics that I do have an interest in, like roleplaying or writing, but that’s not going to happen. I barely blog about WordPress as it is. There isn’t much overlap. Even when TDO-Mini-Form users comment on my blog, they are looking for advice or help.

I often evaluate WordPress plugins that I use for my own blog(s) through the lens of my experience of TDO-Mini-Forms. If it’s a simple, one-job, type of plugin then that’s normally okay, if it works. If it’s a big popular plugin and the author seems to be serious about making something off it (such as they work with WordPress professionally, or they have big donate panels on the plugin), that’s a good thing. Means they are going to support it across versions of WordPress etc. (I wish I had done this with TDO-Mini-Forms).

Also, if they themselves are using the plugin on their own blog, that’s a very hot indicator. It’s core functionality will be maintained across WordPress upgrades. (I no longer use TDO-Mini-Forms actively anywhere).

Anything in-between, I get a little suspicious, fearful it won’t get updated with the next major WordPress overhaul or that minor bugs will never get fixed. I wouldn’t depend on such plugins. (That’s where TDO-Mini-Forms now lies, big plugin but not actively in use by author and not “productized” in any way).

Now hopefully I’ve gotten all that TDO-Mini-Forms angst out of me! Next rules for Lost Heroes RPG and a blog post about dream worlds in roleplaying settings.

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