Exploring Elfwood With Thomas Abrahamsson & Eliza Leahy
On May 1, 1996, Elfwood was opened by Thomas Abrahamsson. Orginally, the "Lothlorien" project only focused on high fantasy art done by amateurs, featuring the art of only three artists (Thomas being one of them). Gradually expanding to include more artists, in August of 1997 the Extranet was opened; before this point, all new art was emailed to Thomas who put it up by hand. But now, users could at last manage their own accounts. And that's when things took off.
On October 26, 1998, the ten-thousandth picture was added to the Elfwood site, and shortly thereafter the overwhelming popularity of the site led to its being closed down to new users for the first (but not last) time. By February of 1999, Elfwood's Science Fiction and Fantasy art gallery, Lothlorien, had reached the 1000 user point, making Elfwood one of the world's largest online galleries. Alas, along with increased popularity came an increase in the number of troublemakers. To bring order back to the Elfwood chaos of rule breakers and other naughty actions, the Elfwood Review Board (ERB) was founded in April of 2000. They would be responsible for maintaining and, when necessary, enforcing the Elfwood rules.
On June 26, 2001, problems reached a head when an annoyed user posted death threats on an Elfwood board. It was that incident which spawned this article. The site was temporarily shut down, and re-opened in July of the same year. Since then, Elfwood has made significant strides in developing its administration and moderation system, instituting a ticket system and moderator concept in the winter of 2002 which has been in place ever since.
Recent technical issues which resulted in Elfwood being offline have been confused with Gamegrene's earlier Elfwood article. So in an effort to clear up the confusion, we decided to go right to the source, to chat about the past, present and future of Elfwood with Eliza Leahy, Elfwood Administrator and Thomas Abrahamsson, Elfwood's Founder.
Gamegrene: Gamegrene, of course, featured a story about Elfwood and alleged "death threats" back in July of 2001. This has all been confused with recent down time and outages, which were apparently related to technical issues and physical access problems. There's been a whole lot of back and forth on this issue, so here's a chance to set the record straight about exactly what did happen. Now and then.
Eliza: Elfwood used to have a message board on site. Some people decided it would be a good place to put up rather horrifying hate messages, specifically aimed against Thomas and the ERB (Ed. Elfwood Review Board). The violence of these threats was rather startling, considering that Elfwood is a free and fairly easy going site. The decision to close the site was not an easy one, but it was never meant to be permanent. It was basically a "time out". While Elfwood was down the message board was removed. The lesson being taught was "if people can't play nice they might find that they don't have anywhere to play!"
Thomas: The messages and threats were aimed at my helpers at Elfwood, in particular the ERB crew. Shutting the site down wasn't an empty threat either. I was fully prepared to discontinue the project for the time being. In general, Elfwood being offline is normally due to hardware failures. Using cheap PC hardware has its drawbacks when it comes to reliability. In addition to that, Elfwood is run as a hobby project which means that it does not have 24/7 monitoring and maintenance.
Eliza: The recent problems with Elfwood are several - no one gets paid to do things, therefore things are done when spare time is available. (The server) is on the university grounds in Sweden, so when the uni is locked we can't physically get to the machine. It's not down that often, but does seem to have a tendency to go down or develop when Thomas is away on holidays! We have just bought a new system for it, and it will be changed over soon (with Elftown getting the old one). Hopefully that will help.
GG: What sort of hardware and software do you use to keep Elfwood up and running? Has the technology been able to keep up with the rate of growth?
Thomas: Elfwood internals wasn't really optimized and designed to carry as many users and members as we currently have, but thanks to faster hardware we have been able to keep it up. We run everything on Linux based PC's, using the Mandrake distribution. The main server is a dual AMD Athlon MP2800 with 2 gigabytes of memory and a handful of hard disk drives. Elftown runs on a smaller PC with just 1.5 gigabyte of RAM and the search engine on another PIII-1000mhz PC. Thanks to everyone who is donating to Elfwood, we have been able to upgrade our PC hardware whenever needed. The technology keeps up about at the same pace as Elfwood expands (which is fortunate).
GG: How big of a community is Elfwood now? As in, users, visitors, etc.
Eliza: Elfwood has over 20,000 members. We have over 100 people apply to join Elfwood every day! There are over 380000 items on Elfwood - that's Fantasy and Science Fiction pictures, and stories in the same genres. Every day we receive over 8,000,000 hits from about 60000 unique visitors if you count on IP numbers. We also put up an average of 352 items (pictures and stories) a day, 30 new tours and answer 33 emails a day.
Thomas: 50% of our users are from the US, 13% from Canada and 8% from Scandinavia. Only 0.1% of our visitors are from Africa, and 0.8% are from Asia.
GG: Is there any competition?
Eliza: Competition? No. But there are lots of other Galleries that Elfwood considers "friends". We keep in contact with their staff, many of whom are members of Elfwood. We have many members in common. We certainly don't mind members belonging to more then one online gallery! Many of the others will take work that would be against our rules, and we provide space for artists whose work might not fit another site.
GG: There's increasing concern about piracy, copyright issues, etc. on the Internet as time goes on. How does being located in Sweden affect issues with regard to US copyright law?
Eliza: The copyright on everything on Elfwood belongs to the artist or writer. This is clearly stated below every item. Theft is a problem all over the net. We don't allow copies, but of course our moderators don't know every picture ever drawn! If someone sees and recognizes a copy on Elfwood we appreciate if they let the ERB know about it, and tell them where it is copied from. People found copying risk having their galleries removed. This really doesn't matter where Elfwood is located - this is the Internet remember? For instance, I'm writing this from Australia. It's humourous though, we get people who tell us that our not allowing profanity on the site interferes with their right of "free speech" which is granted to them by the Constitution. As if there is only one :)
Thomas: International copyright laws apply. If anything would ever need to go to court for some reason, it would be Swedish laws that apply, since the site is maintained and also physically placed in Sweden.
GG: On the Internet, the theme seems to be "evolve or die". What is Elfwood doing for the future to remain viable and popular as the Internet continues to grow?
Eliza: Elfwood is always evolving. It was just over a year ago that we added moderation to the site. Before then people could upload what they wanted - and they did, even if it had nothing to do with Fantasy or Science Fiction. It was up to the ERB to find and remove it. With over 500 galleries at that time (10 members to a gallery, up to 50 pictures to a member!) that was a lot for the ERB to go through! Now we have a "staff" of around 100 moderators who check every picture before it is put up. All the staff are volunteers, and Elfwood would not be able to function without their help. Other features are added, such as "moderators choice." These pictures are displayed at the top of our front page, with a link to the picture in the gallery. The moderators pick these pictures as they go. They aren't always technically the "best" picture. Sometimes the humour in the picture will tickle a moderator's fancy, or maybe it is the pathos that pulls at the heart strings. Just recently Thomas has added this feature to the Library, so that now writers also get a chance at having moderators pick.
Everyone is welcome at Elfwood, members and visitors. If you haven't visited us, please do! http://elfwood.lysator.liu.se/elfwood.html. If you have any questions you would like to ask, please feel free to use our contact form at http://elfwood.lysator.liu.se/contact/contact.html. Elfwood also has a mailing list (Woodchat), an IRC channel (#lothlorien on irc.esper.net), an ezine (Woodworks, http://www.woodworksezine.com/) and a community network (Elftown, http://elftown.lysator.liu.se/).