Mecha Hub is a new website and forum to gather LEGO mecha builders all in one place. Zerostuds is another new forum that is associated with Brickshelf. I've just added these to the list of community sites in the right-hand column of the front page. I've also removed a few sites - Piratebricks has disappeared from the web and Dragonhall and Batbrick seem to have never gone anywhere since the initial updates (though I would love to see these come back). There has been past speculation on the future of Lugnet, but new administrators seem to be busily fixing many of the technical issues there, so perhaps that general LEGO forum has a brighter future. The forums on LEGOfan, another general LEGO site, have been dead for two months, but they are busy trying to fix server issues. There also seems to be a growing amount of conversation through blogs and comments on blogs and Flickr. It seems that LEGO forums are somewhat in flux. I figured I'd use this as an opportunity to post some musings about the creation and nurturing of LEGO forums. As a disclaimer I should say that I've never actually created a forum (I have considered starting a stand-alone vignette forum but decided against it), but I am part of the admin team of Classic-Castle and a frequent reader of other forums.
Anyway, before you start, there are several questions you need to ask yourself. First, what is the scope of your forum? Is this going to be a potentially worldwide forum to attract LEGO builders from all over, or just a place for you to chat with a few friends? If the latter, you can pretty much ignore the rest of this post, so we'll assume you're looking to create a larger forum.
What will be the theme of your forum? Will this be LEGO in general (such as Lugnet or Eurobricks etc.), or focused on a specific theme (such as FBTB or Classic-Castle etc.)?. There are already several general forums, but lots of themes that have no stand-alone forum.
Will your site be a simple forum, or will it be part of a larger site? In my experience, you really need some sort of larger site with real content (frequently updated) to attract people, who can then participate in the forum. If you simply set up a forum and say "come post in my forum" you will not get much traffic.
Is there a real audience for your particular forum? It may just be that your particular theme of choice doesn't attract enough traffic. For instance, if you wanted to create a Belville forum, you're fighting an uphill battle as the Belville section gets a post every few months. On the other hand, you may have a very active theme, but the builders involved may prefer to post on one of the more general forums. For instance, while the train and CAD sections of the community are very active and have important community websites (ILTCO.org and LDraw.org, they seem to have decided to leave the discussion forums on Lugnet. On the other hand, the space community was pretty much all on Lugnet, but then the bulk of the discussion moved to Classic Space. You should also make sure you're not duplicating an existing popular forum, unless there are real shortcomings there and you feel you can offer a very viable alternative.
What software do you want to use? I'll leave this discussion for others, as I don't really have experience installing the different forum software packages that are available. Some of these involve free web space, but for others you may need some capital investment.
Okay, let's say you have decided there is a real need for a forum devoted to your particular theme. What next? For the sake of discussion, let's say this is Harry Potter (though, for the record, HP forums have not gotten much traffic, so I don't know if this is the best example).
First up, you probably don't want to do this alone. Moderating an active forum is hard enough, let alone building any real site content, that multiple people will make this much easier. You might want to raise the question of a HP site on the various general forums or at a fest and see who is interested. Or surf around the web and find who has HP MOCs and contact them directly. Also, if you start with a team, it will be much easier to get some conversation going. If the members of the team are already having conversations in the forum, it will be much easier to get others to join in. If your team involves prominent members of the community, it will also encourage more people to join.
Okay, now you want to put together a site. You really should have some of the content there before you go public, even if other sections of the site are still under construction at the time of launch. Content for our putative HP site could include set reviews (certainly at least a couple should be in place at launch, with the promise of more to come), featured MOCs (scan through Brickshelf or other sites and make links to cool creations), link lists (both to LEGO HP sites and also to general HP sites) and inspirational art. Your site should have regular updates with new content - articles, new featured MOCs, new set reviews, contests, news about upcoming sets, news about the upcoming books or movies. Other themes might involve other things, like historical reference material for pirtes, or technical material for robotics, depending on your theme of choice.
Okay, you and your team have put together a site, created content and checked all the links, installed the forum software and made sure everything is working. Now what? You need to advertise. I'd suggest doing some covert advertising first - directly contact prominent builders in your theme of choice and invite them to try out the forums. This will make it look much more enticing when you do general advertising, because people will see that respected members of the community are already there. Then go fully public. Put posts on all the general sites inviting people to come check your forum out. Ask the administrators on the various specialized sites if it is okay to advertise in their forums (some will not like this, others won't mind). Post some good graphics with your site url embedded in Brickshelf. Also be sure to post on non-LEGO sites. For instance, for our imagined HP site, you would post in the forums on Mugglenet, which is one of the more popular Harry Potter fan sites.
Once people start showing up on your forum, you need to moderate the heck out of it. Now, I'm not saying that you should rule with an iron fist, deleting posts and banning users. I mean that you should be on top of the various conversations, putting in helpful comments, starting intelligent threads, and generally raising the level of discourse. You should regularly post cool MOCs in the forums (by yourself or things you find on Brickshelf). Give real feedback to others' MOCs (not just "that's cool"). Where there are violations of your terms of service, (e.g. if you say no off topic threads or no swearing), you should correct those quickly (though politely - always clearly tell people why a thread was locked or a post was removed). Keep an eye on your member list for spammers, as these pop up all the time. Mainly, though, it is the example of you and your team that will keep things going down the road you want. The higher quality posts you make and threads you start, the higher quality posting you'll get from your members. This will, in turn, further attract new members who will also strive to quality conversations.
Anyway, good luck! What do you all think? What is the future of LEGO forums? What else do we need to do to encourage quality?