The shoutbox

The shoutbox was probably the most important aspect of 1Radio - a place where presenters and listeners could gather. It's what made 1Radio such an active and vibrant community.

I’m not even sure where the term shoutbox came from. Most people refer to these as chat rooms. I wanted a dfifferent name. Somewhere everyone congregated, communicating with the presenter, throwing out music requests or simply wanting a name check on the air.

Shout also seemed a more apt term, getting your message heard above the din of other presenters and listeners. I assumed people would not linger too long but just come and go, simply popping in to request a song, see who else was online, looking for any new names and then disappearing again. I had no idea it would become a place where folk would want to hang out for hours on end, so long as there was an endless stream of other people, shows, music and chat to keep them engaged.

It was a quirk that the 1Radio shoutbox worked from top to bottom and is something that took a bit of time to get used to. The reason was that I couldn’t figure out how to display text from the bottom of the page, going up without losing the most recent line of text when the conversation exceeded the window size. It’s no longer such a tricky proposition with HTML5 and CSS techniques. But in 2008, it seemed a slightly more complex problem (to me at least) than I wanted to spend time on. So the simple solution was to display say twenty lines of conversation, starting from the top of the window. If anything fell off the bottom of the screen, then so be it. You’re just too late.

I’d never programmed such a thing as a shoutbox before and was unaware of what it required. At the time, there were no off-the-peg solutions that could be adopted. At least, there were none that provided the particular functionality I wanted.

At first, the shoutbox traffic was fairly slow. As it picked up and increased in popularity, it became more of a drain on the server. I introduced all sorts of techniques from caching to delayed updates to help improve the performance, particularly when it got really busy.

For example, if people are simply watching the shoutbox and not contributing, it updates at a slower rate and there are fewer refreshes. The chat is also cached to reduce the number of database calls. The screen is not rebuilt from scratch each time, only new items added.

If someone is quite active, they are shown their own comments before they appear to others and subsequent comments are delayed slightly. This means they are less aware of lag and delay with their own comments. It also has the effect of slowing people down. They don’t post so frequently and so the server isn’t swamped. 

There were only a few occasions when the shoutbox really did struggle to keep up. These were when we had special guests (notably on Ceejay’s or Will’s shows) or other special events, like the 1Radio Awards, when absolutely everyone from the station showed up to listen and chat.

For a while, we had a DJ from Malta who attracted a large crowd of Maltese listeners. The shoutbox conversation was entirely in their own language and the crowd didn’t really embrace the community spirit of 1Radio and discouraged outsiders. I politely asked the presenter to adopt English, which was after all, the official language of the site. After a few weeks with no change in the language spoken, I redirected the shoutbox traffic for this one presenter to a third party website site. This was partly to take the burden off the 1Radio server but mostly to send the message that if they didn’t want to be part of our community, then they could gather elsewhere during this show. This continued for a couple more months but eventually the presenter, show and audience faded away. It was probably a bit shortsighted of me to deter the Maltese participants. But I was new to community building and wanted to enforce English.

Welcome to 1Radio Emp1Re!

The shoutbox was the most appealing aspect of 1Radio and for a long time was quite unique. No other radio station had anything like it. It was a great toolkit for the presenter to chat with listeners and provide interactivity such as song requests, polls, quizzes, webcam and those legendary icons.


Posted by Tim on Sun 12 Dec at 09:49

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