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Superstar John Bizley

Q&A

John is a passionate photographer who conceived of his Ning community, 1940s Social Network, as a place to share the photos he takes at wartime reenactments. Photographing these events sparked a love of the 1940s in him and so he continued to develop the site as a place for re-enactors and enthusiasts to get together to discuss everything from vintage fashion to the art of re-enactment. Since the release of Ning 3.0, John has been working his tail off to demonstrate that CSS is not voodoo to be feared. He has encouraged many an NC to get her hands dirty and get involved with coding using creativity, determination, tools like Firebug, and his own tips here on Creators. We love how John thinks outside of the box and leverages the new functionality in Ning 3.0 like multiple feature instances to create a Classifieds section and adapting the blog feature to set up an Advertisers List Page, for example, and that he unselfishly shares his mods on a continual basis. Way to be, John!

How did you get started with Ning?

My journey Ning with came about purely from a question being asked by some participants at a 1940s event. As a keen photographer, I went to a local 1940s event to get some inspiration for a vintage-themed shoot and what better way than to go somewhere that had people dressed in authentic clothes from the 40s. I was walking around taking images when I was asked where they could view them? At that time I did not have a public website for viewing my images and so when returning home I thought about creating a website for the images. Many of the re-enactors at these events do not like to carry modern equipment and so are more than happy to have their photographs taken and look forward to seeing how they look in their attire. This got me thinking about maybe I could create a website where they could view my images and also a place where others could show theirs and also a place for them to keep in contact as many re-enactors travel to events all over the country, much like Facebook but just for the 1940s era. Wasn’t sure how to go about this and so took a trip to PC World to see if there was some software out there that did this and came across a box called SocialGo. It was a social network in a box and thought this might be the ticket. As always though I left it where it was and went home to re-search the company on line, it looked good and thought I would give the free trial ago, everything looked ok and simple enough but I thought there must be other company’s out there that did this, so more re-search and I came across Ning and so set up a free trial account. Now I had two but it was time to decide which to go for. Both on screen Ning stood out far superior and so my Journey began into the world of Ning ….

Did you join and participate on Creators right away, or did you warm up to this community a little later?

I didn’t join Creators right away as I was first getting to grips with how to create my community with Ning, but then joined the Creators forum for help and inspiration. I posted a few questions and was quite taken back at how helpful and friendly everyone was and so over time started to spend more time on Creators. As time went on and I had got used to how everything worked but still never participated as much as some folks, this was down to lack of time more than anything with the normal daily routine of life and trying to build my community all while sorted through my photos etc. Now though I spend a lot of time on Creators as my community is running along nicely and so I do not need to spend as much time there and now 3.0 is out it is re-vamping my original site into the new 3.0. This has inspired me to learn a lot more about coding and is something I really didn’t do on my 2.0 site bar a few helpful bits of code that NCs had shared on Creators, and so I bought some books and read them over a weekend to learn how to do css and JavaScript which has helped me develop my 3.0 and also helped me understand what some of the NCs were sharing on Creators. This encouraged me to share my code which I had learnt, although I didn’t think it was quite as advanced as some but thought I would share and try to give something back to others who had helped me in the past. To my surprise my code was taken well and now I try to share as much as I can as my knowledge increases.

Could you tell us a bit about the 1940s Social Network such as when it was founded, what inspired you to create a community dedicated to the 1940s, how you attract new members, and how you see the community evolving?

The 1940s Social Network was started in summer 2011, its initial concept came about by me after questions being asked of where people could see the photographs I was taking at events. As a lover of photography I visited events to capture period photographs for inspiration for a project I was working on but things took a slight change of direction as I enjoyed the events so much I wanted to go to more and so the 1940s bug took hold. When asked about how to see the photos I could have just made a website for people to go to to view them but the thought came that maybe a whole site devoted to the 1940s where everyone could come together and share their photos, ideas and meet up would be a much better idea. And so the 1940s Social Network was born as we see it today. The challenge was how to get people to find out about the site and come and join. At first this seemed quite daunting as of course I thought as many of us do that why would they join my site instead of just using Facebook? At first I made some little business cards up just with the networks name and website information so at least I had something to give out when asked about the photos. Then at the next event I took a lot of cards and just handed them out to everyone I possibly could, asked the people at the entrance to the events if I could leave some cards at the pay point and also went to all the stalls selling items if I could leave cards there also. After the first event I was excited to get home and see if anyone came to join up and to my surprise there where quite a few. This was great news and so I made up some better leaflet hand-outs, A5 size, which I would now give out. These could have much more information on and I have included below an example of one of the design I gave out.

I would print about 500 to a 1000 of these depending on the size of the event I was going to and spend a lot of time juggling taking photos while giving out the leaflets but most of all giving out a leaflet and then talking to the people so they got a much better idea about the site and so they got comfortable knowing it was not a promotion to sell them something. The first year was the most crucial to promote the network and a lot of traveling to make sure the name got about. I even have t-shirts made with my network name on the front chest plate and also in big letters on the back. To help further I also created a downloadable pdf sheet of cards for other members to print out so they too can hand some cards out if they wish to. This sheet had a smaller black and white version of the above card and would print out 2 across and 6 down.

The most important part of promoting the site was to actually talk to members either online or potential new members at events so they knew that this website is a friendly and safe place to join. There is nothing better than word of mouth recommendations to help grow your members and do not ignore them on your website and if they have any issues to re-solve them quickly. My members now spread the word about the site and some have even made up their own leaflets and cards (after sending me an example for approval first) I had one lady in the States going on a vintage cruise and left some on tables all over the ship! My members love the website because there are many other types of wartime forums that get very political and my site is non- political and freedom of speech is encouraged, the funny thing is because of this there is never any bad items published and the site is very friendly indeed.

So far I have around 1100 active members and most of them closed their accounts on Facebook and now just use my site as their social network, some are more active than others but overall we have a good influx of content shared. We have even had members arranging to meet up at events as a group and have also had our first of two members getting together and getting married this year which fab.  Our members stretch worldwide and now in about 20+ different countries.

You’re always so helpful on Creators. Who helps you on your site? Do you have admins, or do you tackle it all yourself?

If you are talking about who helps me on my site from Creators then I would say just about everyone who participates there as everyone shares some great ideas, code and thoughts. If it’s regarding who helps me on my site other than Creators, then it is all done by me as I do not have any admins. I like to keep total control of who is approved and content published while also doing all the design work. I just find it easier that way and less time consuming than most would think.

Who have been some of the most helpful NCs to you?

This is a very difficult one to pin point as everyone on Creators helps each other out so much but to name some I would say, All Ning Staff, Kos, Diane {writer chick}, Soaring Eagle, Bernard Lama, Riccardo Rossini, Jen, Sweet Potato, J Farrow and many many more. There are so many to mention who help out and this list could go on for some time. I would like to say that if it was not for the un-selfish help and support that everyone on Creators gives then I do not think my network would be as successful as what it is today. This is something very unique to Ning and over the troubled times it has what kept me going forward, especially with the transition to 3.0 which all said and done once fully completed will be an awesome product.

What would you like to learn if you had more time?

I think more jQuery and JavaScript and how to access the data on Ning to extract and place content where I would like it. I love learning new code and computer languages, I used to write and design databases but the code for that is slightly different although some of it is transferrable while also making it easier to understand some of the code used in css, JavaScript and jQuery.

The other thing I would most like to learn is an actual language i.e. Spanish. I love the way it sounds and to be able to talk to others in their native language would be great. Unfortunately we in the UK are a little lazy when it comes to foreign languages as we rely on others speaking English to much so to be able to learn this would be great.

What are some of your favourite things to do outside of cultivating a community?

My favourite thing is my photography and everything about it from visiting galleries to viewing others photography on websites and DVD. I have been making images now for 20 years and believe it or not still have no website of my own but am trying to get round to putting my images online very soon. I have taken many thousands of images and so deciding which ones get put online is tough as each one has a great memory and story to tell. I do enjoy portraits and fine art mostly especially the timeless black and white images.

What could Ning build to make your life easier?

Hmm this is an interesting question but for now I will like to mention something that has been on Creators for some time and that is photos and sliders. As you are building 3.0 the most issues that we are coming across is the way photos are handled. Because you have used the background-size: contain command and set the ratio to 4:3 photos are getting resized to fill the area or downsized which is causing resolution issues. If you have a photo which is say 300px it gets blown up to fill the photo viewing area and looks awful. I think if you could build in a better viewer many members will love you for it. I will take Facebook as an example, if you have a gallery of images, and they are laid out very much the same as we have, click on an image and it comes up in a nice window dependent on the size of the image and you can then click though each image. Click outside the box or the x and it goes away. At this time we have a viewer that has to reload a page each time to view an image in a pre-set sized box that does not resize to the photo and each time you move to a different image it reloads the page again and you have to scroll down to see the image in the centre of the screen. This I think needs a big overhaul.

The second  would be a drag and drop slider option and added to the add content options. You could then select images from your site to be added to the slider and then place the slider wherever you want it. At the moment you have to go outside of Ning to get this function and then add it in but without a way to show images from your Ning into it.

I have picked on these two items as without a good way to view images which a lot of sites depend on, could mean the difference of attracting new members or not or even new NCs. It may seem that just because I am a keen photographer that I am biased towards this but really I am not. You see even my 1940s site is all about re-enactors and events but even my members enjoy browsing the photos and also use them to show how items should like. I have over 7000 images on my site and looking around others NC's sites I am seeing the same sort of thing so I do think this would be an issue to resolve.

What’s the most rewarding thing about running a Ning community?

I think the most rewarding thing about running my community is that it has brought people together in a way they didn’t think possible. I have members who at one point did not want to go to events because either from shyness or worried about going to events alone as they were single, but since joining they have overcome this and now travel to events knowing that someone from the network will be there. They have either pre-arranged to meet via the chat or just know that many from the network are going due to responses on the site or events section. We have even got a couple who met on the network and now getting married later this year. This for me is what it’s all about at the end of the day, getting people together to have fun in this life and make the most of the time we have here.