A quick chat with: James Eling, founder and owner of 4X4 Earth

4X4 Earth is Australia’s largest web forum for offroaders. We talk to the man in charge…

WHAT IS IT LIKE to run a huge offroader’s forum? James Eling tell us…

Q. How have forums changed over the last 5 years or so?

The biggest change to 4X4 Earth has been the upgrade to the new forum software. It was a major upgrade, but has provided us with a lot more benefits for members and is more secure. That has seen the forum power ahead and grow to 62,000 members.

Q. In 5 years time how do you think online discussion will have changed?

There will definitely be a lot more video. I think that is going to make a big difference in the forum, allowing us to do a lot better job of preparing people to go out 4 wheel driving with better knowledge. We have a pretty exciting roadmap for the forum which will see some new and exciting features.

The podcast will also continue to grow. I have been amazed at the reach that it has and the fact that it has become the largest Australian produced automotive podcast. We are looking forward to doing a lot more podcasts.

Q. Back in the day we had Usenet and listservs. Then came web forums. And now there’s Facebook…yet 4X4 Earth manages to be successful with a web forum. How so?

4×4 Earth isn’t powered by the forum, it is powered by our members. We have an incredibly passionate group of members, which is growing all the time and it is those members that are the key to the growth of the site. A lot of them are very experienced and they are very giving of their time and their knowledge and that is the strength of the forum.

Q. How do you deal with difficult users?

We have a great team of moderators and team members who manage the users. Every now and then someone comes along who doesn’t fit in with our community. We give them a warning and then ban them. People get the message pretty quickly.

We are very clear on who our members are and want they want. We don’t like massive muddies. We don’t like tearing up the tracks. We don’t like panel damage. We don’t like people who are rude in the forum either. Some forums are very aggressive and macho related, but we’ve worked to be inclusive of everyone who enjoys responsible 4 wheel driving. There are forums out there with reputations for dangerous trips, intimidating newbies into doing tracks that they shouldn’t and who frequently damage their vehicles on their 4WD trips, but that isn’t us and we don’t encourage that. Being clear on that helps us attract our kind of people to the community.

Q. Maintaining the site is a huge effort. How do you do it?

The workload is shared between the team of awesome moderators, myself and I am lucky to have a team of developers and designers who help with the complex tasks to keep the site running. Even with an in house developer team, the upgrade to the new forum cost us $25,000. I think that this is the main reason that a lot of the other forums have fallen away, the costs of running large volume forums is quite high.

We also have a range of people who are very talented at organising the Gatherings. The best things are meeting members out on the tracks (on the rare opportunities that I get to go offroad!) To me, that is really exciting and it is exciting for the members who have been with us from the start of the journey. I love going out on the big 4x4earth Gatherings. We run Australia’s largest free and independent 4 wheel drive weekends and I know a lot of people have had their first exposure to 4 wheel driving from that.

Q. Has anyone or any company ever got upset about anything posted on 4X4 Earth?

We’ve been threatened with legal action on multiple occasions. Always camper trailer companies! Some of them have very dodgey practices and they don’t like people talking about them in a bad way, so every time a user makes a complaint online, they threaten the website with legal action.

The first time it happened it was quite expensive and intimidating. I was surprised to find that in Australia, we have no right to fair speech. There are two companies that if any member mentions, whether it is good, bad or indifferent, we delete the post immediately. When researching online, if you can’t find balanced comments about a camper trailer manufacturer, you should probably look at another brand, because there are a couple that have threatened a few forums with legal action and now everyone is to afraid to have any negative comments on their website about them. We now have a standard response that works quite well.

Q. Have there been any moments when you’ve thought “this makes it all worth it” ?

I am quite humbled by the extent that members go to help other members when they have problems. It is a really tight community and whether it is problems with their vehicle, problems with a track or just life problems, a lot of members do a lot to look after other members and I that really makes it all worthwhile

Q. How do you think 4X4 beginners can get the best from a forum?

The biggest thing they can do is to do their first post. 90% of people on any forum never post or post very rarely. We see that from the statistics. The newbies who get the most value are the ones who post in the New Member Introductions or to ask a question. The should start listening to the 4x4earth podcasts. We have a range of topics covered that can really help educate them to some of the techniques that they need to understand before they head offroad. The next thing to do is to go on a 4x4earth trip!

Further reading (and listening!)

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper