Volunteers, commitment and a lifelong fan. How to run a successful football community. The story of Brighton’s “North Stand Chat”

As Brighton and Hove Albion’s popular forum enters its 15th year, the man who runs its talks about what makes it work, why its for Albion fans but not an Albion site and why its the first thing he’s looks at in the morning and the last thing he looks at, at night.

North Stand Chat…

12 months ago this week; An Albion fan from Polegate who uses the pseudonym; Withdean Wanderer, started a new thread on the internet forum; North Stand Chat (NSC). One of the 40 or so new discussions started by fans every day and one of over 20,000 posts by “Wanderer” himself in the last 10 years; “Spanish Dave — what exactly does he do?” ; was a rather provocative and negative summary of the ex Athletico Bilbao midfielder who’d had a quiet start to last season. There followed, within minutes, a typical NSC response; some agreement, a fair few articulate rebuttals “He’ll come good”, ad hominem attacks on Wanderer himself (“the biggest wind up merchant on here”) , and weak jokes (he’s awesome on Fifa13").

The majority of threads on NSC, usually then die, never to be seen again replaced by that days normal discussion; a blur of transfer gossip, delusion, wild rumours, and the half full/half empty emotions of diehard football fans. But, “Spanish Dave”,proved hard to shake off. Every time Lopez scored crucial penalties last winter, memorably after *that* free kick and inevitably after he came good at Doncaster, the thread is bumped to the front page of the forum. And it makes us laugh again. But then someone genuinely asks again “Yes, yes but what does he do ?”. And so it starts over.

“We’re loose”. Don’t ask.

Over a decade old now; reading North Stand Chat is part of the daily routine of supporting the club for the 18,000 fans who have registered their details and the 6000 who regularly write and post online including myself, with a growing group of thousands of users who just lurk. Most fans are probably completely unaware but keeping Chat running smoothly, paying to keep it online and organising a group of volunteer moderators who strive to keep it safe and free from legal interference is quite a task. That extensive role falls to lifelong fan; Darren McKay or “Bozza” as he is known to Chat regulars. A Goldstone veteran who used to stand on a milk crate in the East Stand with his Dad. He still gets to more than 30 matches a season and one of his daughters has the middle name of “Zamora”. One of the gang behind pre-TSLR zine; Scars and Stripes, he now lives in Somerset and his season ticket involves a 400 mile round trips to the Amex. Supporting the Albion can often turn, as we know, into quite a commitment.

Darren, How did North Stand Chat begin ?

- Around 2001/2, the internet was becoming more accessible and through Scars and Stripes I had met a few of the ‘internet Seagulls’,as they were known then including Gary Crittenden who had founded Seagull Server, a rudimentary bulletin board. The pre-cursor to North Stand Chat. The zine had been wound up and I liked the idea of a new project so I offered to take it on.

- I expect most users think websites, like NSC, run themselves for free. Of course there’s substantial hosting costs especially when traffic is high.

At first it was probably costing me £40–50 a month, but this soon escalated. It became a constant juggling act in terms of minimising hosting costs, but ensuring there was enough capacity to handle demand peaks which, for NSC, typically occurred when managers came and went, and when signings were being made. In the old days, when NSC got busy it slowed down and then died.

Today we have, essentially, unlimited hosting capacity and we pay for what we use. Most months NSC costs in the region of £500–600 a month in hosting.Most of the time when UK users are likely to be awake NSC will tick along with 1000–1200 people online. Peak periods will bring over 3000 and our hosting arrangements are such that the site still skips along at a rapid rate. Our current record is 3,704 concurrent users which happened on transfer window day; August 31st last year.

So, all in all, NSC probably costs around £8000 a year to run. This is funded by advertising with the most notable contribution coming from Google AdSense. Most users will be familiar with the big banner on the top right of every page. Those who are not logged into NSC, which are thought of as ‘guests’ see slightly more intrusive advertising but that seems a fair compromise — join the site and contribute to the community and you’ll see less adverts when you visit. Currently NSC is cash positive month on month which enables the site to support Albion related charitable causes such as REMF, AITC and Cancer Research.

- Users are often unaware of their legal responsibilities when posting on forums and knowledge of libel is poor. How hard was it run the forum during “recent events” ?

During the court case and during Gus-gate it all got a bit tense. It was suggested to me that I should either shut NSC down for a while or set the site up such that each post was manually reviewed prior to being published. I didn’t want to do either of those, so we tried to keep things running by doing things such as having a single discussion thread with very explicit rules. Most users understood this and NSC’s excellent group of volunteer moderators were able to react when required. There were still many heated telephone conversations but I think we did about as well as we could.

Perhaps users self censor but the tone of the forum is remarkably friendly or users sort things out for themselves even when Palace fans turn up. How often do you intervene. How often do you ban users ?

My ethos has always been to run the site with a light moderating touch, which i appreciate is not to everyone’s liking. There is a considerable amount of self-moderation amongst the community — those who post rubbish will generally be told as much pretty quickly and that shapes future behaviour.

Every post has a ‘report’ button alongside it and we encourage users to use this rather than responding to abuse with abuse — it triggers an email allowing action to be taken if required. The site runs a points system that will be familiar to drivers. If a series of relatively minor offences are made the site will impose a 3 day posting restriction. More infringements will see this gradually ramp up to an indefinite ban for repeat offenders. Moderators can also impose an immediate ban if they deem it appropriate. This happens very infrequently however — I don’t run a message board to stop people posting messages. Fortunately most users react very positively to their first warning and no further action is required.

- You must have good contacts and occasionally post information about contracts and transfers that stand up. How does the club itself use NSC ?

I have friends at the club but our respective roles are such that anything they tell me is considered ‘off record’ and wouldn’t make it onto NSC or our Twitter and Facebook feeds. Anything I write — typically transfer gossip — will come from other sources. The Albion is a sizeable organisation now and it will always be difficult for them to stop information leaking out on occasion.

Club management do read the site — that much is clear from how often my phone rings when contentious matters are being discussed! It makes sense for them to do so though — it has to be the quickest and easiest way to get a quick barometer reading on how Albion fans are feeling.

I’ve been told that some players delve in and out. I would imagine human nature makes it difficult to not have a quick look, particularly in the day or two following a match.

- Your relationship with The Argus seems fractious. You once closed the forum temporarily in response to a piece in the paper where Argus journalist; Andy Naylor criticised “internet moaners”

Most of the time we just poke a bit of fun at Andy. I don’t envy his job at all — having to fill column inches, and pixels, with Albion content each and every day can not be easy.

We have the advantage of being able to say things he can’t. I won’t pretend it’s not good fun though when, for example, he posted that there is no way CMS would be joining us yet we were posting that he was 100% joining us.

The other advantage NSC has is simple crowd-sourcing. People who work in certain Brighton hotels know when prospective players are booked in. People who do Gatwick to Brighton taxi runs sometimes pick up players when they arrive . These people often like to share their gossip and turn to NSC to do so.

NSC is a site for Albion fans, not an Albion site

NSC is known as a football forum obviously. Yet for me the best and most knowledgeable threads are about music, food, and travel recommendations…

NSC is a site for Albion fans, not an Albion site. The difference in those terms may seem small, but it reflects the way the site works — it’s Albion fans talking about stuff and not people talking about the Albion. If someone doesn’t look at NSC very frequently they may view it as a somewhat testosterone filled hive of aggression, but I don’t think that is the case at all. If an NSCer has troubles, and some can be very serious, then the community really does rally round helping users with family bereavements, addictions and life-threatening illnesses.

- The role of fans in saving the club is well known. How important a role did it play in the last decade ?

‘The war years’ were before my time as custodian of NSC, but it was vital then in allowing co-ordination of activities in the battle against Archer et al. My time at the helm of the site has been about working with the club, not against it, as we campaigned for what is now the Amex and in that I think NSC was pivotal both in the creation of imaginative campaign ideas as well as allowing the rapid cascading of initiatives such as letter-writing . Would the Amex have been secured without NSC? Almost certainly, yes, but I think the site was a great help in rapidly getting Albion into action when required.

What keeps you doing this ?

I think it’s a fantastic community that I’m proud to be part of. It’s the first thing I look at in the morning, and the last thing I look at before I go to bed. It’s been ever-present in my life, which has had ups and downs, over the past 12 years or so and I’ve made many very good friends through it, and I know the same is true for many, many others. I still love being just a user of NSC and there will be stuff that makes me laugh out loud every day, often from the most unexpected sources. The positive effect it has on the club we all support is icing on the cake.

This was first published in The Seagull Love Review in 2013.

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