The other day, disaster struck on my forum for people with depression. The accounts of all active members, including myself, were deleted. Completely wiped out, along with private messages (internal email). I knew something was wrong when I tried to log in and got an error message. When I looked at the front page of the forum and saw it announcing that we had 109 members instead of the 1,600 or so that I knew we had, I realized that something very bad had happened.
On any other online forum, something like this would be an inconvenience, maybe a serious inconvenience, but an inconvenience nonetheless. Not on this forum. It was more than that.
Here’s the thing. Contrary to what some people think, depression is not just feeling down. Depression also brings with it a stripping away of your emotional defenses. You can be extremely sensitive to things that normally wouldn’t bother you, and you can be much less flexible and adaptable.
People with depression desperately need somewhere to go where they can feel safe and secure, a touchstone to help keep them sane. My mission statement, if you will, for my forum has always been to provide this safe place. There are fairly strict guidelines in place designed to help insulate fragile psyches.
And for many people it’s also a second home. Not only are they able to post messages on the board and chat in the chat room, but they are also able to maintain blogs that are hosted on the forum on which to pour out their thoughts. There are many ways for members to customize the forum space and their profiles, all for the purpose of making them feel comfortable. I know that I have succeeded to a great extent, partly because of the success of the forum and also the sense of ownership that many members seem to have.
Depressed people have a tendency to resist change, which makes sense if you apply it to the need to feel secure. In seven years of running the forum I’ve changed venues or changed the software that runs the forum a few times. I always weighed the benefits of the change against the possibly negative impact it would have on the members. Since I’m a computer geek it’s always exciting for me to use new software, but I always made sure that the benefits of a new software were worth the change for the members as well as for me. There were always grumbles from some part of the membership, and occasionally people even left the forum when there was a change, but for the most part people rolled up their sleeves and learned how to use the new software.
So when I decided to switch to a new message board software recently, I went about it slowly. I installed the software and had members try it out and give me feedback. Since the feedback was all positive, I was getting ready to go ahead with the switch. I was preparing to backup all of the member information, posts and blogs from the old forum and bring it into the new software.
One of the things that made me decide to switch to the new software was two instances of hacking on the forum. Some guy with too much time on his hands hacked into my account and created havoc. I decided it was time for more secure forum software. Unfortunately, I took too long to move us over to the new software.
So, back to the moment I discovered the big erase. I sat at my desk, frozen, for a few minutes. I had no idea what to do, because you see, I had not done a backup in over a month. I could restore that backup, but it would wipe out everything that had happened in the meantime. That would obliterate about 13,000 posts, about 40 new members and a fair number of blog entries. One woman was using her blog to store the vows for her wedding, which was coming up shortly. How could I erase all that? Unfortunately there is no way to combine the backup with the current board.
The posts and blogs were still there, but under the name of each member was “Unregistered.” Of course, I could have them re-register on the forum, but the posts and blog entries, if they had a blog hosted on the forum, would not be connected to the new registration. I could go through the database each time someone registered and change their new member ID to the old one, but I couldn’t imagine I’d have the time to do that for a few hundred people.
So I decided to bite the bullet and open the new bulletin board. I asked everyone to register there, and made the old board an archive, where people could read old messages but not post.
I was prepared to deal with people being upset. I couldn’t blame them. But I was pleasantly surprised. There were no complaints. In fact, people were incredibly supportive of me and insisted that I not wear myself out setting up the new board. Several members went out of their way to help others learn the new board. One member went through recent browser caches to find member’s avatars and old member IDs, which helped me link members to their blogs on the old board, so they could keep writing in them. Another member gave me links to programs that automatically back up your database, since I told them that I was determined to make regular backups – if I could just remember to do so.
In spite of how self-absorbed depression can make us, every time I look on the forum I see an example of someone reaching out to someone else. This is only the most recent way I’ve seen this happening. It’s been present every day since I first set up a forum. People are able to push past their own pain to help someone else. It’s a beautiful thing.