SoFurry 2.0 launched; interview with Toumal
When the original SoFurry launched at the end of 2009 there was a certain amount of displeasure with the new site. Despite this, the user count more than doubled, and by June 2011 SoFurry had over 150 000 users. Staff then launched the SoFurry 2.0 beta, an attempt to completely redo SoFurry, improving the code and addressing user complaints.
During the seven-month beta period, there were regular bug fixes (and a public list of upcoming features). This wasn't limited to submitted bugs; SoFurry owner Toumal also responded to criticisms about the site, for example on Chipotle's review of furry story sites. The project was not without problems, however, and the site at one point seemed to face copyright challenges concerning part of it's code, namely for the chat feature.
The team worked hard and on 23 January, after about three days of down time, SoFurry was reborn. I took the time to ask Toumal a few questions regarding its development and future.
Rakuen: So first off it's great you're willing to do this but it is a bit disappointing this has to be done over gtalk instead of the SoFurry chat. It's a big feature that you didn't have active when you launched SoFurry 2.0. What's the status over there?
Toumal: Heh, the status is that we've fixed many of the showstopper bugs in the new chat, I'm currently implementing the mini-profiles and implement the user status changes into the userlist of the chat, while my colleagues are working on friend-messaging, private chats and the chat design. We've selected a group of chat testers and they will help us stress-test the new chat. I can't tell dates yet because we are also busy responding to user feedback about the 2.0 launch, fixing bugs, implementing improvements etc. - more than 110 individual bugfixes in less than 5 days. We'll get there!
Rakuen: That certainly sounds impressive, although I don't have any programming experience to really give me an idea of how fast these things usually move. Just going by the number of bug fixes I'm assuming that is a pretty sizable investment of your time, even with a large coding team, and all done on your own time too. Looking back at SoFurry 1 and what you have now, do you think the all the extra coding has been worth it or do you think it might've been better to simply adjust SoFurry 1?
Toumal: SoFurry 1 was based on the same code as Yiffstar, which I coded back in 2002. Sure, we could've patched up the old site. But when we sat down planning SF 2.0 we weighted the pros and cons, evaluated possible frameworks and libraries, and ultimately came to use a very powerful library that strikes just the right balance of included functionality and the freedom to really do what we want. To give you an idea what I mean: Coding the ad management module in SF 1 took a week. The same feature, with much better functionality, in SF 2.0, allowing advertisers to manage their own ads as they please, took a single day. We rewrote the search from scratch in one-and-a-half days in SF 2.0, a task that would've taken at least a week on SF 1, considering you'd have to integrate it with an older codebase.
We didn't just want a new design. We wanted to be able to be more efficient, achieve more with less lines of code. Yes it was worth it, and then some. It might've taken a bit longer to get started, but the speed at which we're moving would not be possible with the old grown codebase which is now almost 10 years old. Mind you, the new site is also pretty darn fast, something we always had issues with on SF 1.
Now that we have a good codebase, we can start doing the really fun things, like work on additional designs. Some people asked for a Yiffstar-like theme, and we might just do something like that ;)
Rakuen: So a commitment of that level means that we won't be seeing a SoFurry 3.0 any time soon? I ask because there was a lot of hype over SoFurry but you have now ditched that for SoFurry 2.0 after it wasn't all that well received. There are people know that prefer SoFurry 1 over SoFurry 2.0 and I believe in the SoFurry 1 period you more than doubled the number of users. Any complaints will be addressed in SoFurry 2.0 rather than a full rewrite?
Toumal: Well, SF 1 was operating for over 2 years. Some spring cleaning every now and then is a healthy thing, no? That said, I expect SoFurry 2 to be our mainstay for much longer. Another full rewrite isn't likely in the next couple of years. It's much easier now to change, update or upgrade entire areas of the site thanks to the modular structure. So yes, we're committed to improving 2.0, and the coming months will be pretty exciting.
Rakuen: Spring cleaning every now and then doesn't really fit with Yiffstar's almost seven years. Since you're going to be sticking with SoFurry 2.0, is it really helpful leaving up the old UI of SoFurry 1 as an alternative? You say it's temporary but there have already been a number of months with both interfaces and the old UI doesn't support all the features. Shouldn't you know be forcing people to adjust now rather than drawing out any migration issues? And do you know how much of the site traffic goes through each UI?
Toumal: Before the switch-over to SoFurry 2.0 it was 20% on 2.0, 80% on SF 1. Now it's the other way around: 80% of our users use the SF 2.0 site, 20% are sticking to SF 1 - but that percentage is dwindling pretty fast. We get a lot more page hits in general than we did before the switch-over so that is another factor in favor of the new site.
We're letting SF 1 run for a period of time because we want to offer our users more design and color choices before we pull the plug on SF 1 - and right now SF 1 doesn't cause much in terms of data migration issues. Both sites use the same data, there are only few exceptions like the notifications that are separate between SF 1 and SF 2.0. And as for our users, well those who don't want to switch yet will certainly appreciate having more style choices when they have to move over. Indeed my main concern about leaving SF 1 up was performance, but since the heavy lifting is now done by the much faster SF 2.0 site, we can live with SF 1 for a while longer.
Oh and there's another reason why SF 1 is still up: The SoFurry Android App, Live Wallpaper and third party apps like ArtSync! Our API for SF 2.0 is currently being worked on, in fact just today I had a chat about the details of the new API with Rangarig, one of our Android coders. Turning off SF 1.0 now would mean thousands of android phones won't get new PM notifications and fresh furry wallpapers every few hours.
Rakuen: As I mentioned the old UI does not support all the features that are available and there are many of them. There are the standard gallery options and you've also now got a groups system, tag filtering, hierarchical search and, as you've said, even two Android apps. Which of all these features would you say is the best, either your personal favourite or perhaps one you think functions as SoFurry's secret ace?
Toumal: All of the features you mentioned are actually SF 1 features. On SF 2.0 I'd say SoFurry HD is one of my favorite features. Instead of showing huge images with scrollbars or letting the browser crunch them we have this googlemaps-esque viewer where you can smoothly zoom in to fine details, and you can even use the arrow keys to scroll through that artist's gallery without having to leave the page. Morghus really outdid himself there.
But that's what I as a user like a lot. Artists will no doubt appreciate the mass-uploader that makes getting your entire gallery over to SF very easy and straightforward, heck even our normal uploader is a single form with no extra steps needed. Or other things like the ability to not only have folders, but to subscribe to them and get notified of new stuff, which is awesome for comics and novels alike.
SoFurry has a lot of unique features, but I don't think any single feature makes the deal, it's the sum of all things together. And as for secret aces, well they wouldn't be secret then, would they? Suffice to say that we have several new things coming up for both artists and writers that I'm really excited about, and we'll probably post teaser screenshots as early as next month. One other thing I can mention is that there's probably a reason why we offer artists a "printable file" upload...
Rakuen: The mass-uploader works from the artists local files or will that allow them to import galleries if they want to move to SoFurry from Inkbunny or DeviantArt?
This isn't really the place for complaints but one thing that bothered me on the beta has come up in your answer. The SoFurry HD view looks very impressive but there doesn't appear to be any way to save the image from the viewer, requiring a user to leave the HD viewer and download the file. Not only would that allow them to use their own viewer but saving images on SoFurry appears to be unnecessarily complicated when compared to the "right-click," "save image as" behaviour on other sites.
[There was an 18 minute break in the questions as Toumal added the ability to right-click save images while in SoFurry HD mode!]
Toumal: The mass uploader works by uploading a zipfile that contains all your art, and then quickly filling out the remaining information on a single page. We're in talks with Inkbunny about offering users the means to synchronize their galleries in both directions between the two sites, but that's for the future.
Saving full-sized images on SoFurry is actually very easy: You can right click on the preview image and select "save link as", this will work just fine. There's also a Download button that you can right click and save as. Furthermore we will offer the option to always show the fullsize image instead of the preview very soon. But right now there's not just one but two ways to save images.
Oh by the way, I've just added that option. You can now set it the way you like it best. :)
Rakuen: To be more specific about the issue, right-click saving gives you an image with the name, "preview" but no information on the title or artist. [Between conducting and publishing the interview, previews were updated to include artist and title.]
Toumal: Good point - that's true, the preview handler doesn't send title data.
Rakuen: And in HD it gives a number.
Toumal: Alas, there's a download link as I said.
And, if you set the image to be shown in full in your settings, (to be deployed soon) then you can save-as on the image as well. Why would you download a lower-res preview?
Rakuen: Perhaps if the preview is already big enough and to save space. I know about the download link but it seems unnecessarily complicated. This isn't really the time for that sort of discussion though.
SoFurry and SoFurry 2.0 beta have been much more successful than Yiffstar was at drawing new users. That seems to speak well about your decision to re-brand but there are still many furs with negative impressions of the site. Are you working to try and change their opinions or focussing on newer furs? And how do you think you can draw them in when some of the biggest names in the furry fandom are using other sites for their artwork?
Toumal: I agree, Yiffstar was limiting us by the sheer name alone. Now we've grown more in a single year than in the 8 years of Yiffstar. And I guess it's only fair to say that there are many furs with negative impressions about just about any site out there. We're doing our best to learn from the experiences with Yiffstar and SoFurry 1.0, what worked and what didn't. We're already regaining a lot of users who lost interest in the past years, as well as attracting a lot of new talent, as you can see on the frontpage.
We already have lots of well-known artists and writers, names like KyellGold, ReptileCynrik, Tereus, Todex... And hopefully many more will follow and discover SoFurry 2.0 for themselves. But we can only offer a good service, it's up to the artists and writers to decide to trust us and call us their home.
There's a lot of misconceptions out there. Some people think SoFurry is just a story site - and it's true that our writing facilities are designed to make stories more than just little thumbnails that happen to link to a bit of text - but people who believe all furry art can be found on one single site are missing out on a good amount of sofurry-exclusive artwork they won't find anywhere else.
The number of writers and artists who have chosen to make SoFurry their main outlet of creativity has grown considerably in the recent past. I believe as more and more people discover 2.0 and see that it's indeed more than just a fancy new skin, this trend will only accelerate and our growth curve already reflects this. And frankly, if SoFurry doesn't become the number one, you know what? My team and I will still enjoy doing this.
Rakuen: I can't say I've heard of all those people, although Kyell Gold is well known. I take it the others are also on the writing side of things?
Toumal: No they're artists, and pretty damn good ones at that. An example for artists coming back due to SF 2.0 is Stormdragonblue for example.
Of course I'd love to have folks like Zen post on SoFurry as well... time will tell!
I'm proud to see Redrusker using SoFurry as one of his mainstays now instead of just "another site."
Rakuen: I know Stormdragonblue's work. I'm watching him on DA and FA.
Now creating all of this is obviously a lot of hard work and something you haven't done alone. At my last count you had slightly more than 25 staff members working at various tasks. Despite all these people we seldom hear anything about internal disputes and I'm only aware of one example. How have you managed to keep SoFurry running smoothly through all it's various changes?
Toumal: Being able to work with the team we have is probably the most awesome thing about running and developing SoFurry. We have a big spectrum of contributors, people from all over the globe, be that the US, Europe or even New Zealand. And all our current team members respect each other and, while there's often different views about how things could be done best, the trick is to never take things personally, and to be able to listen. Of course things are not always happy-go-lucky, there's the occasional policy change that some are happier about than others. In the end it's important to realize that one can never please everyone, but there's always middle ground to be reached.
There's a great talk on GoogleIO called "How To Protect Your Open Source Project From Poisonous People" by Ben Collins-Sussman and Brian W. Fitzpatrick, which you can easily find on Youtube. That one has also been a big inspiration and help for me personally when faced with tough decisions.
Rakuen: Lastly, are there any comments you would like to add about SoFurry 2.0 that we have not covered?
Toumal: Go give www.SoFurry.com a try if you haven't yet. We're listening to feedback and acting upon it, so let us know if there's something you think we could improve.
Oh and if you attend Eurofurence 2012 then give us a poke there if you like!
Rakuen: Alright then. Thank you for giving me some of your, obviously precious, time and being so understanding with all the delays and problems. I look forward to seeing what SoFurry offers in the future.
Toumal: Thanks for the interview - and I'll look into improving the preview download thingy for you :)