August 29, 2021

Our Fantasy’s Future

The Aelyria.com website was taken offline a few days ago to undergo urgent and long-delayed repairs, over two years after its ancient forum software was discontinued by the manufacturer and no clear replacement was available. If you’re reading this, it’s because Aelyria - or one of its previous incarnations, Alleria, Juanolia, and the like - holds a special place in your heart. This post summarizes my work on repairing the site and my intentions for the future. I’m going to start with some background, but if you just want the latest, please scroll down to “Current Status.”

What is Aelyria?

Earlier this week, I wrote about the history of our (make-believe) world, a community that has spanned over 30 years and hundreds of thousands of contributors creating artwork, music, and writing stories set in a fictional universe inspired by faerie tales and folklore. I created it in 1989 when, as a nine year old, I wanted to play an extended game of make-believe with people across the world. It has been a labor of love and a passion for myself and the many who joined in creating characters, developing the world, and telling stories set in a dungeons-and-dragons-like, Tolkien-esque, pop-culture-influenced eclectic universe.


What is Play by Post?

In the process, I helped launch the play by post platform. Play by Post is a format of collaborative storytelling using a post-and-response system where people, usually over modified bulletin boards, take turns writing stories, controlling characters, and developing the setting to set forth plot lines and craft (sometimes elaborate) interdependent tales involving the evolving interactions of these characters and the worlds in which they inhabit. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it spawned a movement of thousands of imitator projects on the Internet and bulletin board systems, though with the advent of social media and growing dominance of mobile technology in the late 2000s and early 2010s, became largely a niche experience and declined in popularity.


What happened with Aelyria.com?

In 2001, I re-launched Alleria/Juanolia as “Alleria.com” following a significant server failure that occurred in 2000, and built the site on a PHP front-end and MySQL back-end, using Jelsoft’s vBulletin as the foundational code base and extending it with custom modifications and proprietary add-ons. For its time, it was cutting edge and introduced a lot of social functionality before social networking (let alone “social media”) was ever a thing, from profile pages and wall posts to custom web designs and support for guilds, reputation, and custom markup.  Though the site evolved a number of times, building new front ends or side-loads (like Drupal during Generation 5, or a mobile adaptive go-to-market with Aelyria.com in Generation 6), the site remained largely built upon vBulletin’s forum system.

In 2019 - 18 years after the community was launched onto vBulletin, and 30 years since I founded the storylines and settings - the last version of PHP that supported many of vBulletin’s core add-on features was discontinued, and Jelsoft had long stopped updating the forum software because it had been acquired and most of its developers laid off.  To keep the website nominally functional, many of the add-ons and custom modifications that made it unique in that current iteration had to be disabled; unfortunately, much of the navigation (which was customized for search engine optimization of the late 2000s) and spam controls became inoperable, and so, the website languished. 

Current Status

On August 18, Aelyria.com started generating extensive database errors and began to corrupt index tables on the MySQL database. (One of the shortcomings of the MySQL database backend is that it is resource-intensive and has poor indexing capabilities beyond about 900,000 rows — and we had over 1.9 million posts and 300,000 verified user accounts.)  In order to prevent posts from being corrupted beyond the ability to recover or repair them, even from daily backups, I immediately took the website offline and put it into maintenance mode. This allowed me to start an automated repair and conversion process.

Since then:

  • I spent days optimizing the original database, to repair the corruption.
  • I imported the entire Alleria/Aelyria 2001-2021 database into a new forum platform, primarily so the posts could be read, indexed, and preserved.
  • I began a laborious rewrite and reindexing process, in order to make the site navigable (because old URLs used during vBulletin.com would be completely unusable, and there was no automatic rewrite mod we could use given how the prior SEO modifications were defunct and could not interpret a redirect).
  • I started a conversation with three separate communities of fans and former Aelyria/Alleria/Juanolia users, two of whom had created side-projects or fan sites to continue the stories and recover plot lines and posts.

In the short-term this year, I expect:

  • All posts, replies, and threads will be searchable and viewable.
  • All user accounts, private messages, groups/guilds can be accessed.
  • Some limited export ability functionality will be in early stages for public use.
  • A new “super-community” website will be launched for the successor communities that are using Alleria/Aelyria content to be able to use to access, export, and import more content so that it can be preserved.  And for future communities to do the same.

The Future

Juanolia / Alleria / Aelyria has had at least six major generational iterations, three major spin-offs, and tens of millions of submissions from the writers, artists, and musicians that have contributed to this world since 1989. Unlike many artistic creations, that are solely the responsibility of the creator and whose artistic worth is largely in the eyes of the beholders, Aelyria started belonging to everyone the moment I shared the first posts-and-responses in 1989; it is a creation that is both the production of and possession of all of its creators and the audiences who will consume it, in whatever ways they choose to consume it.

As a shared passion, it is often subject to the waxing and waning of the creativity of its core contributors. People come and go from our world, and though members may move on from their Aelyria chapter in their lives, Aelyria is forever imprinted and its legacy evolves through the timeless preservation of all of its contributions. Even so, it has never been particularly scalable or repeatable and has been largely dependent upon the active involvement of volunteers who keep the game systems, creative world development, and end-user experiences nurtured.  And when crises of technical or artistic accessibility have struck, it has often relied upon the same core contributors (many whom, myself included, wax and wane with their creative commitment to the project) to intervene.

Aelyria deserves better.

Aelyria belongs to everyone who has ever contributed to it, and is the legacy of everyone who has and will ever participate in its community. It cannot, and should not, ever be subject to a single person or group’s artistic and technical monopoly. It deserves to be freely used, remixed, and shared - so long as all who contribute to it make it similarly freely usable, remixable, and shareable. In short, it is time to evolve Aelyria and this 33 year creation so that everyone can own its history, and no one can singularly control it.

I look forward to sharing my vision for how I hope to turn over the reins of Aelyria to future generations, so that every project and iteration, every spin-off and derivative, will be able to ensure that their contributions are part of the evolving canon and lore of our continuing shared universe. For that has long been the distinguishing characteristic of Juanolia / Alleria / Aelyria - not necessarily that the world or universe that we’ve created is somehow compelling in its own right (it isn’t), but that the mixture of eclectic and diverse contributions have resulted in a blend of fantasy, comedy, irreverence, and wit that proves enduring, and fuels the certainty that one’s contributions will survive and thrive.  This is at the heart of its longevity. 

Thank you for being a part of this journey with me, and for continuing to believe in your own creative spark to fuel your quest for eternity.