Search This Blog

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Robyn Wardlaw on Running a Fan Site

Robyn Wardlaw set up the fan site, Triune, way back in 2002, when she was 16 – well before I had my own site up and running! She has been runningTriune ever since. Who could be better qualified to talk about the challenges, the troubles and the rewards of running a fan site. 

Robyn is 25 years old and runs the Ian Irvine fan site Triune from her home in Scotland. She has a degree in Maths along with a vast array of skills and talents that people are currently refusing to pay her for.

Imagine you open up your inbox one day to find an email from one of your favourite authors. Imagine that you're not entirely surprised by this because you have, after all, been running a website about this author for over nine years – wait what, nine? – and you've had semi-regular contact with the author throughout that. Then imagine the email is a very polite invitation asking if you'd be interested in doing a guest-post on the author's own newly started blog.

If you're anything like me your response to this would be an incoherent garble of keyboard mashes followed, some very long time later, by a quiet “Yes please.”

This is not something I could have imagined happening nine years ago - come on, seriously, nine? I started my site for one reason and one reason only: because nowhere on the vast internet could I find another site devoted to Ian Irvine. I had been using the internet pretty heavily for about three years at that point, and had some use of it for a couple of years before that. Being a teenager with somewhat geekish tendencies I used it mainly as a source of information and to socialise with other geeks. A friend of mine that I met on one such discussion forum had recommended a series of books to me and I had hunted them down, devoured them, and desperately desired more. I took to Google (at least I think I was using Google at the time) and searched high and low for information on these new books.

Other than online book stores selling the books, I found all of three pages. They were all interviews that had been conducted with Ian about the time of the initial releases of the View from the Mirror books, on various book news/reviews sites. They had a complete lack of useful bits of information – more books were planned, three whole different series even – but nothing particularly recent.

This was somewhat aggravating. The internet had never before failed me in such a catastrophic manner. I couldn't believe there was not one single website out there devoted solely to the works of Ian Irvine.

I decided to do something about it.

Aside from my heroic attempts to rescue the internet from this dire lack-of-author-website predicament, my desire to make the site also probably had something to do with the fact that I'd been wanting to make a site for ages but never found a good subject matter. Finally getting to put these new found HTML skills to use, I began constructing the layout for the site. But then came the next problem – content. I didn't really know how to go about finding out the information that I wanted to put on my site. My experience of finding out information mostly consisted of Googling it, and that just got me right back where I started.

So I opened the book again, and I re-read the “About the Author” page, which I recalled had an email address in it. Scrounging up some courage I sent an email telling Ian I was making a website about the View from the Mirror series and asking for some information on his forthcoming books. Although I probably didn't use the word 'forthcoming' – I tried to check, but apparently Hotmail has taken to deleting emails from accounts that are largely inactive. [Ian: The date of that fateful email was August 17, 2002, and you're right, Robyn, you didn't. You said 'new']

To my great surprise I received a response within about a day. It had never occurred to me that I would hear back from him so soon, him being a busy famous author and all, but there it was, in my inbox, Ian telling me he'd be delighted to give me whatever information I wanted for the website. Awesome.

The first site that went up looked atrocious. I can barely remember it but I know that much. That said, it had the most up to date information of any version since then, so its key desired outcome was a success. It didn't take me long to revamp it into something less offensive to the eye, and it was at the point that I added something else: a forum. A horrible, freely hosted by someone else piece of discussion board software, but a forum all the same.

That particular version of the board probably had in total about ten registered members, and maybe about five of them posted regularly, but it was the start of a real community. I always felt we were limited by the board software and I wanted to host my own forums, but that would involve actually paying for my own web host, and I was an unemployed teenager living off of pocket money. It was almost a year before I got a job and could convince my parents to loan me the use of their credit card (since that's the only payment method the hosting companies took).

With the move to a new host, I was going all-out. No longer would this be some childishly-designed, Geocities-hosted, unprofessional array of large buttons. This thing would have its own domain name, and that's a coming of age for a website. It got a new name, it got a new look, and – yes – it got its own forums.

So was born Triune. The original layout of the site is what I would consider the alpha version of the current look (it's still essentially the same layout and colour scheme, just with some added functionality as I picked up one or two more bits of web design knowledge).  The improvements from the previous site were tremendous, and the forums provided the ideal place for the newly formed community of Ian Irvine fans to grow.

I learned something then that I've recently re-learned in Real World work: communities are hard. They require a lot of time and effort to keep them going. Mostly they have one or two key individuals that put in this time and effort, and when sufficient time and effort are put in the whole thing just looks effortless. But as soon as your life starts getting a bit busier – the very moment that you decide you just can't be bothered for a while – you come back and find it's gone.

The Triune Forums have always been like that. There are periods of high activity – usually surrounding the release of new books, but not always – and there are times when you'll be lucky to see a tumbleweed. Occasional events such as The Great Web Host Screw Up of  2008, which included three months of site-wide downtime and precipitated a change of hosts, not to mention domain names, haven't exactly help such matters.

Or alternatively the What The Hell Has Happened To My Database of 2011 (Ongoing), an issue I had hoped to have resolved before sending this off (and in fact delayed its writing somewhat – sorry Ian!). I am almost at the point where I don't know if it can be fixed, and I'm wondering if I should just start fresh. At the same time, I'm not sure exactly how much discussion forums fit in to the Ian Irvine fan community these days. He's gotten much better at it himself recently – his website is updated frequently (far more frequently than mine), he blogs often, and he's even gotten on-board with this newfangled Facebook concept.

Robyn and Ian at Worldcon, Glasgow, 2005
During the bad days it's easy to start thinking about packing it all in, letting someone else take over, maybe just shutting it down altogether. Not too long ago, after spending almost an entire day trying countless fixes for my current problems, I thought to myself “Why am I doing this?” But then you remember the good days. Making friends. Meeting Ian at WorldCon. Silly word association games. Marriage proposals based on internet-rare good grammar (and refused because that's no reason to get married). Invitations to post on Ian's blog. Yes, today is a very good day.

Imagine that all this happened to you, then go and check your emails. Maybe tomorrow will be a good day for you.

In 05, Robyn travelled right across Scotland to meet me at Worldcon in Glasgow, and kindly came to my exclusive 'reading for one' there – the most focused audience I've ever had. Thank you for that, Robyn, and for the past 9+ years of Triune.

Triune can be found at

No comments: