HomePHP Page 8 - Talking The Talk (A phpBB Primer)
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Looking for a full-featured message board to add interactivity to your site, or to communicate with your customers or users? Look no further than phpBB, a robust, open-source PHP implementation that is both easy to use and simple to administer. This introductory tutorial discusses the process of installing, configuring and using phpBB, explaining how to create discussion forums, add users, assign moderators and administrators, and post and search for messages.
The operations listed in the previous pages of this tutorial cover the most common things you would do with phpBB - creating forums, assigning moderators, posting and replying to messages, and searching forum archives. However, phpBB also offers a number of other features, which power users can exploit to customize every single aspect of the application.
* Groups: phpBB allows administrators to organize individual users into named groups, and assign permissions to these groups as a whole, rather than to users individually. This makes it easy to create discrete collections of users, and to assign special permissions and moderator status to them. A single user may thus have numerous different privileges, depending on the groups he or she belongs to.
In the scenario above, for example, as the company expands. it might make sense to create two groups of support personnel, one for UNIX servers and the other for Windows servers, assign these groups moderator status for the appropriate forum categories, and then simply add and delete users from these groups as needed, rather than assign and maintain permissions individually.
* Private forums: phpBB makes it possible to create so-called private forums, access to which is restricted to a select group of users. This capability comes in handy to build gated user communities whose members are known to each other and require a private area to communicate. In the scenario above, for example, the various technical support engineers might have a private forum of their own, in which internal issues or problems might be discussed and tracked; this forum would not be available to the company's customers at large, serving only as a meeting place for staff and thus offering a greater degree of privacy.
* Ranks: phpBB assigns ranks to users based on the number of posts they have placed in the various forums. These ranks can be customized to your special needs, so that more active forum participants are easily identified and given special status. For example, in the scenario above, forum participants who are particularly helpful might be flagged with a special rank so that other, newer users can identify them and approach them for assistance.
* Styles: phpBB comes with a powerful template engine which makes it possible to completely separate the HTML user interface from the business logic. This makes it possible to easily alter the layout of the application, and to change fonts, colours and images for specific branding requirements. The phpBB site contains extensive documentation on how to build these templates, together with numerous samples, and the application itself includes a module to import, export and manage these styles. For the project discussed above, this feature came in handy when it was time to integrate phpBB into the main company Web site - I was able to easily alter the main elements of the phpBB interface and the headers, footers and colours to more closely match the rest of the Web site's user interface.
* Polls: Users have the ability to post polls in a forum; these polls can contain multiple options, and other users can respond to them while participating in the forum. phpBB autmatically tracks poll responses and displays graphical summaries of the responses as they come in.
* Private messages: phpBB comes with a private messaging system that allows board users to quickly and transparently communicate with each other. This messaging system is similar to email, in that messages appear in the recipient's private "inbox" and are not displayed to other forum members. If the board is configured suitable, private messages may also pop up immediately on the recipient's display. This private messaging mechanism provides a fast way for forum users to communicate with each other privately.
* Smileys and BBCode: Smileys are a popular way of expressing emotions, and phpBB comes with an entire gallery of custom-created smileys that can be used in posts. Additionally, phpBB also comes with its own custom formatting language, BBCode, which allows you to mark up your posts with colours, underlines, italics and other effects.
* Word blocks and user bans: phpBB comes with powerful tools to help moderators and administrators cut down on offensive posts. The phpBB administration module comes with the ability to automatically reject posts containing specific words, and users can also be banned (restricted for posting) if the moderators find their posts offensive, annoying or generally off-topic.
* Avatars: phpBB allows users to personalize their profiles with the use of custom "avatars", graphical icons which appear under each user's name in the forums. Users can choose from pre-defined avatars or even create their own; these avatars may be serious, playful, happy or sad, depending on the personality the user wishes to project. On boards with a large number of users, avatars can help distinguish users from each other, and can also substantially add to the personality and spirit of the board.
* Mass email: Forum users are required to provide their email address during the registration process; this creates a rapidly-growing database of contact information that can be used for annoucements or targeted marketing activities. In order to assist in this process, phpBB includes a component to send email to all the users registered in the system, or even to members belonging to a specific group.
As you might imagine, these and many other features have conspired to make phpBB one of the most full-featured Web-based discussion boards available today. It's robust and simple to install - I was able to get it up and running in twenty minutes flat - and its Web-based administration module makes it easy to administer and maintain. It's also free (always a Good Thing, especially for organizations with limited budgets) and it comes with fairly good documentation and help files. If you're looking to add a discussion board to your Web site, you could do a lot worse!