What should an Information Technology and Security community look like ? Here’s our answer.
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If you had to create a new type of community that was flexible, allowed members to come and go (yet be notified when someone replies to their posts, or when something new was posted), suited your needs, came with all the modern trappings you’d expect from today’s technology, and didn’t, well….. suck, what would it look like ? What would it be called ? Get a coffee, and a comfy chair….

The story

I decided early on that I wanted something

  • Eye catching
  • Different
  • Trendy
  • To have a distinct purpose

I decided to use the increasingly popular marketing theme of taking a word, substituting characters, and shortening it by removing a couple of letters. I landed up with “inocul8r” (to be pronounced “inoculator”). To me, it looked clear, trendy, and easy to understand. I chose the .net TLD (top level domain) in an effort to make it stand out. I decided to also change the underlying technology. Despite using a mature platform with active development (most of it from me directly – development is one of the tools in my arsenal), the platform experience was admittedly clunky – even by my own admission. It also struggled to gain traction – it’s main focus was cyber security – another niche I’d shoehorned myself into without even realising it. The problem with this arena, which dawned on me after spending over 10,000 hours developing what I thought was going to be a next generation platform, is that it’s been “done to death”. There are a number of established products that already do what I was looking to do very well, are mature, and have a loyal user base.

To make matters worse, during its announcement, someone asked me how the domain name was pronounced. That’s pretty devastating 😡 – especially when you think it’s great, but in actual fact, it isn’t. Not having a huge research or marketing budget for design etc is something of a double edged sword – a blessing from the cost perspective, but without a team of enthusiastic people specialising in brand creativity, It’s very easy to see now that this was destined to fall flat. Despite some confusion around the name, the platform did eventually gain traction – mostly around the content that it held – and thanks to those hardcore loyalists who contributed so much to help get the platform off the ground in its early days. Phenomlab no longer focused solely on security, and this did help in a way – I received a lot of interest from all areas, but being concerned that the site was security centric, they kept their distance. I didn’t and still don’t blame them one bit. Clearly, I had a decision to make.

I literally went back to pen and paper – not even a whiteboard – and started writing down all of my personal experiences with similar platforms.

What did they have that I didn’t ?

How did they become so popular ?

Are forums really “dead” ?

Are forums still relevant ?

What do people really want from a modern community ?

How do you keep those users who registered engaged so they come back often ?

……

[truncated for the sake of sanity]

So many questions, and yet, so few answers – at least, answers that made any sense or had any form of actionable content. Communities aren’t cults. They are driven by a desire to learn and be a part of something. How can anyone draw the conclusion that forums are dead when both Reddit and Quora have such a loyal user base, with interactions daily on an unprecedented scale. Additionally, how does a platform like Reddit, which looks like it was designed in the 80’s, garner so much activity from all four corners of the earth ?

The answer ? The content.

Be it informed, educational, or even just banter, members seem to be actively involved – and that’s what I wanted to design, develop, and ultimately build. Not a supposed replacement for Reddit – that’s never been the goal – nor would it be realistically achievable given how long that same platform has been established.

Any new platform I created needed to offer something different. As a full stack developer (and like others in the same field as I), there’s always that one stack you’re completely comfortable with, used for years, and know you can produce something both worthy and functional in a short space of time. The problem with this is the old saying of “familiarity breeds contempt”, and it’s true. You get so comfortable doing something a certain way that when a much better alternative is presented, you’re reluctant to adopt it because it’s out of your comfort zone, or you don’t feel you have enough time (or inclination) to fully explore it or even embrace it. You don’t feel like reinventing the wheel and learning something new.

However, there are always new heights to be conquered, and, rather like trying to climb Mount Everest using only your bare hands without supplemental oxygen or a guide in the form of a Sherpa made these new heights both unattractive when viewed from the ground – and unreachable without some flexibility around learning a new development framework, or at the very least, a willingness to explore new areas of technology previously considered uninhabitable based on the prerequisite skills needed to harness the potential capabilities on offer.

Learning new technology is either painful beyond belief, or fulfilling and interesting. Mastering a new framework isn’t difficult if you understand the technologies that underpin it. Another decision to make, it seems. And, having taken that decision, the “Phenomlab of today” is the result.

The hub isn’t like any other product I’ve developed in the sense that it doesn’t concentrate or focus on one particular area of technology. Taking this route makes discussions broad – in the sense that “sub discussions” can easily emerge that can take the conversation down a “forked path” – away from the original content, but ready to re-converge at any given point. The product also makes no distinction between members – there is a ranking system, although this is entirely community driven. If you find something useful in what others have to say, then up-vote it. There’s no mechanism to “like” – this isn’t Facebook (thankfully), and you also can’t down-vote – if you don’t like it, simply move on.

In a nutshell, Phenomlab is about the art of conversation, taking into account all opinions, views, reactions, and literally everything else to create a platform where the content is entirely driven by its members. There is, of course, an acceptable usage policy in place that governs how the platform is used (which can be found here). Most of this is focused around well established standards, and self governing techniques, and there is no age restriction or limit imposed for members. We’re all here for the conversation, and by definition, should respect other member’s views, opinions, feelings, and just about everything else. In other words, we do not tolerate keyboard warriors / trolls / aggressive or threatening behaviour or any other actions that would be considered unacceptable in today’s society. In a similar vein, discussions around anything considered illegal, or likely to cause tension (such as extremist content, content to incite racial hatred as an example, but not limited to) are not welcome – and by definition, are not permissible discussion topics.

Essentially, Phenomlab was created as a means for people from all walks of life with an interest in technology to step forward – rediscover the art of conversation, communication, friendship, and so much more – without the threat of “going off topic”, “multiple posting”, and other such limitations we see in forum more “crusty” in their approach to what true discussion should look like.

If you’re into technology from simply starting out, to a seasoned professional, I’d strongly encourage you to find your voice and join. You won’t regret it.

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