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Get them talking

phpBB is an excellent open-source Web forum tool. Get them talking phpBB is an excellent open-source Web forum tool.

In the content-producing realm, it’s easy to get used to the sound of your own voice. You get so busy being the one-way producer of material for your readers that you can forget to include them in the conversation. True online communities thrive on the ebb and flow of dialog, and dialog happens most effectively in forums.

CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy all started as glorified forums competing against the myriad of BBS sites that catered to almost every interest. In the early nineties, CompuServe was the place to go to find expert advice and answers on a variety of topics, from computers to books to home improvement. The potential of nearly instantaneous informal correspondence was realized.

Today, this task has fallen to Web site user forums. Whatever your interest, somewhere on the Internet a group of like-minded people is discussing topics near and dear to your heart.

So how do you bring this discussion to you? How do you host a forum on a topic or become a destination for thousands of people to discuss everything from the weather to politics? You need software, and that software may just be phpBB.

As the name implies, phpBB is another fine product developed with the PHP scripting language. It uses MySQL as a back-end database and has all the features found in many costly packages. Because it’s an open-source program, phpBB also offers you the option to change anything you don’t like.

While installation is not completely automated, a Web-based setup wizard will create the necessary database and tables and an administrative login, and it will generate about half of the configuration file. A text editor and about 30 seconds with the configuration file will settle any remaining configuration issues.

As the administrator, you then have the option to create any number of categories and topics within those categories. Other functions include administering users, screening for bad words, editing layout templates, creating themes, and more. User-defined themes are becoming increasingly common features and are easy to implement in phpBB. Themes are pre-defined color schemes and graphics that can be applied to a Web page or program, changing the design and color scheme instantaneously. Allowing users to choose colors and graphics they like results in a forum that they can consider to be their own, thus increasing their desire to return. (Regardless of the software, if your forum doesn’t have any posts, it might as well be a rock on Pluto, so any package you choose should have these types of user-customizable elements.)

Also on the user side, phpBB offers all the usual features you would expect, such as registered user or anonymous posting, searching, and automatic hyperlinking of URLs. It also offers a variety of ways to contact the original poster, including e-mail, ICQ, AIM or Yahoo! Instant Messenger. Posters who register can choose among different themes, 16 languages, and various levels of anonymity.

One unique feature of phpBB is BBcode, an HTML-like method to mark up forum posts without HTML. A fun feature is an automatic replacement of 31 different emoticons with cute little graphics.

Development is very active on phpBB, with converters available for users of Ikonboard, Blazeboard, or Phorum, as well as many many hacks (also known as user modifications) to further enhance the forum experience.

If you’re looking to expand the community of your Web site, this forum package will be hard to beat. It runs on any PHP-MySQL enabled server.

Garth Gillespie is architect and chief technologist for ComputerUser.com.

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