I wasn't sure about the ground rules so John Brumbaugh, who founded Illiniboard.com in 2000, explained how the game is played. I must admit it is difficult for a sportswriter with 50 years of experience in print journalism to fully understand what the Internet is all about.
"It isn't the job of a fan site to be anything but a fan of the team," Brumbaugh said. "It isn't the fan site's job to be objective. I never claimed my site was objective. We all have biases. I run Illiniboard, not Purdue or Indiana or Iowa. I expect my posters to be cheerleaders, not anything else. There is no in-between when it comes to arguing on the Internet. You are either black or white, never gray. What is the fun of arguing on the Internet if you can't say someone is right or wrong?
Brumbaugh defines a fan web site--his or any other fan-oriented web site--as a sports bar, a place for fans to congregate and talk about their favorite teams, the good, bad and ugly of their favorite teams.
"Honestly, I find it all amusing," he said. "It is fun to see people's opinions change like the weather. A lot of people want to see Illinois do better and just get frustrated. Fans get too high on highs and too low on lows. When they get upset, they want people fired."
Brumbaugh grew up in Hoffman Estates and graduated from the University of Illinois in 2001. He majored in computer engineering. Today, he lives on Chicago's North Side, works as a web develop consultant and still monitors Illiniboard.com's message board even after partnering with the Champaign News-Gazette in 2008.
A self-described compulsive sports fan who prefers basketball and the Cubs but detests recruiting, he launched Illiniboard.com at the start of his senior year. He was trying to learn about developing web sites. He saw other schools that had fan sites such as Duke, Indiana, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Kansas, Ohio State, Michigan and Missouri. So why not Illinois?
"I didn't want to create a web site that I didn't have a passion for," Brumbaugh said. "It is a web site where people can go and talk and have fun. They have good ideas and bad ideas. I didn't come in with an idea of what it would be or what it would become. It was just a hobby but it has become bigger than I ever thought it would be."
The profile of an average person who views and contributes to Illiniboard.com is 18 to 40 years old, mostly male, a college graduate who keeps coming back like an alum to homecoming. Obviously, they like to talk about and argue about sports. The web site hit its peak in 2005, when the Illini basketball team went to the Final Four, when it attracted 80,000 people a day.
Brumbaugh agrees that most contributors to his web site and other fan-oriented web sites don't understand the difference between newspapers and the Internet. They think sportswriters should write what they say on the Internet, which is irresponsible, often inaccurate and sometimes libelous. They couldn't submit the same material they often write on the Internet to a newspaper to be published, especially when they don't attach their real names to it.
"Message board posters aren't journalists; they are fans. They write opinion pieces, not facts," Brumbaugh said. "Journalists research their topic and do reporting. Message board posters don't do reporting. They think they can coach better than Ron Zook or Bruce Weber, which is the way fans are.
"When it comes to journalists who write opinion pieces, their goal is to get people to think and get them to disagree. The easiest way to confront a writer is to call him an idiot. Posters don't rebut them. I think they realize they aren't journalists but they think they can do journalism better than journalists."
So how does Brumbaugh keep his game going and retain his sanity?
"Some post for 10 years and know what they know. Some sign up for that day and it's (bleep)," he concluded. "I try to be sure that conversation on one topic doesn't get derailed by another topic. It happens all the time. That's the way people think. They go off in different directions. Sociologists and psychiatrists could read message boards and come up with a great study on human behavior."