They go by names like “iwire,” “electure,” and “paulUK” and hail from such geographically diverse locations as Norwood, Mass., Anaheim, Calif., and Norfolk, England. They swap stories about unreasonable customers, lament on how difficult it can be to work in the electrical trade, and ask each other for advice. You could almost classify them as members of a club — albeit a rather large club — devoted to all things electrical. There's no secret handshake to learn, no password to gain admittance, but they can almost always recognize a fellow member when they encounter one, which is impressive when you consider that very few of them have ever met in person.

The members of and frequent visitors to the Electrical Contractor Network (ECN), one of a handful of online gathering places designed for and by electrical workers, make up what sociologists have named “virtual communities” (VCs). The definition changes slightly depending on whom you talk to, but most classify VCs as social groups built upon a Web-based form of communication through which people come together to discuss a specific topic. ECN, a four-year-old Web site that actually began as a resource for homeowners, has morphed into an online forum of sorts that allows electrical contractors, inspectors, and engineers to ask and answer questions and discuss just about anything via a message board. And even in an age of more instant communication gratification like e-mail, instant messaging, and chat rooms, this comparatively low-tech form of online interaction has become the latest way in which members of the trade are sharing information and bonding with one another.

Logging on. In one form or another, VCs have been around almost as long as the Internet itself. They began with e-mail discussion lists, in which e-mails and their responses would be distributed to everyone who signed up for the list. It was better than nothing, but the concept ultimately led to information overload; subscribers could receive as many as 40 or 50 e-mails per day, most of which they wouldn't even read. If people were expected to do anything more than quickly scan and then delete them, the messages and responses would have to reside in a fixed location so users could pick and choose which ones to read at their convenience. Enter the message board. (“Message Boards for Dummies” below).

The functionality of message boards has evolved over the years, but the concept has remained the same. Once visitors have submitted the necessary personal information — oftentimes little more than their name and e-mail address — agreed to abide by the board's rules and policies, and chosen a screen name, they're free to post comments, questions, links to other helpful sites, and even applicable pictures, to which their fellow members can respond or comment. Some posts will receive one or two responses, while others elicit so many comments and follow-up questions that they grow into virtual conversations that can last for weeks.

Unlike conversations in chat rooms or through instant messaging, the comments and resultant “discussions” on message boards are archived, meaning that someone can visit the site at any time to experience them. Users can log on as little as once a week or as often as several times a day and most likely catch up with the latest topics of conversation. And it's this flexibility that makes message boards so attractive to so many people. Dr. Mary Chayko, assistant professor of sociology at the College of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, N.J., and author of Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age, says it comes down to convenience. “Even in the middle of the night, you can log on and at least check some posts that you haven't seen since earlier that day,” she says. “That really fits into the schedule of busy modern people.”

What makes a message board successful, though, is a focused topic that can bring together people who have common interests like, for instance, electrical work. Where it goes from there, though, is up to the users. “Just as would happen with face-to-face interaction, it's often a single reason or commonality that brings people together,” Chayko says. “Then they'll branch off from there and get to know each other more.”

Wide area networking. Sometime in the middle of the Internet's evolution is when Bill Addiss began building ECN. A product of the dot-com era, the site is one of few from the late '90s to survive and prosper. The fact that the Long Island, N.Y., resident now constitutes one-quarter of ECN's staff — his more IT-minded brother Dan handles the technical side of the site — is indicative of a career that began amidst a large corporate downsizing.

Addiss started working in the maintenance department of a large Northeastern manufacturer in the late '70s and began taking night classes in electrical maintenance at a local trade school. Shortly after he earned his license, though, the company initiated a massive restructuring and began laying off a large percentage of his co-workers. Figuring that he could make more money working for himself, he took a voluntary layoff and started his own small electrical contracting business, focusing on residential and light commercial work. And then after 20 years of making house calls and crawling through attics, he decided to try out an idea for a Web site that he'd been kicking around for a couple years.

ECN began as a virtual public service announcement that stressed to homeowners the importance of hiring a licensed electrician to do any electrical work around the home, an issue Addiss is still very concerned about to this day. To that end, it provided a database of certified electricians, searchable by region. It wasn't long before electricians themselves started frequenting the site, and Addiss responded to their needs by providing a supplier database and classified ads. But something was still missing.

Aside from one close friend and sometimes the local inspector, Addiss never had anyone in the trade whom he could talk to about work or go to for advice, a situation he thinks many in the business have also faced. “Generally speaking, I think a lot of the guys in the trade within a certain area don't really talk to each other much,” he says. “But I found that people still seemed to want and need advice on things. So that's how the message board came about.”

Flash animation and high-tech design have become the norm on the Web, but you won't find any bells or whistles on the ECN site. The sparse and — by modern standards — no-frills design is representative of the site's goals and atmosphere: the exchange of electrical knowledge in a relaxed, friendly environment that could almost be described as a cyberspace version of a diner or coffeehouse. In keeping with that image, ECN is rather small as far as message boards are concerned. As noted by Big-Boards.com, a site that tracks message board traffic, the largest sites have logged more than 70 million individual posts. By comparison, ECN has logged about 67,000. To be fair, those larger boards are devoted to topics like the Star Wars movies and video games that appeal to a much larger — and younger — audience. However, the site racked up nearly 370,000 visitor sessions in February, which is a decent number by anyone's standards. But being the biggest was never one of Addiss' goals. “Basically, I'm just out there to provide the service to the people in the industry who want to use it,” he says.

Information on demand. Topics discussed on the ECN message board range from passing the journeyman's exam to finding the best work truck, with special sections for the NEC, work safety, and electrical theory, among others. But regardless of the information you're looking for, chances are somebody there has the answer and is willing to offer it.

Bob Badger is a daily visitor to ECN and will even go so far as to say that he spends too much time there. While his family is watching sitcoms at night, the project supervisor for Norwood, Mass.-based Consolidated Electrical Services will keep one eye on the TV and the other on the computer. “I should probably be getting other more productive things done, but I find it interesting,” he says.

These days he spends most of his time there answering questions, but a year-and-a-half ago when he started visiting the site, he went there to ask them. “It's just been a great resource,” he says. “I've had access to some pretty high-tech people — those who design the computer rooms for the telecom industry — and they've always been quite willing to help. You can get some pretty straightforward information that you'd normally have to pay for.”

Of course, that's not to say he doesn't have to sift through that information from time to time to separate the good from the bad. It's virtually impossible to check the credentials of someone you meet online, so you can never know for sure if they know what they're talking about. “It's a terrible thing to say, but on the Internet you never know who's on the other end,” Badger says.

The potential for deliberate deception is always there, Chayko cautions, but it's less of an issue on message boards that focus on a topic as specific as electrical work. “If the context seems fairly benign, there's not as much chance for deception,” she says. “In this case, there's not a real upside to trying to pass yourself off as someone who works in the electrical industry.”

Lying about credentials is one thing, but unintentionally giving incorrect information is another. A well-meaning electrician could lead an overly trusting fellow member down the wrong path simply by offering a wrong answer. Badger is wary of that possibility, so he rarely accepts any information he gets from members he doesn't know and trust without getting a second opinion. “If I'm just seeing someone post for the first time, I'm going to be watching their responses closely to see what they're saying and checking it out for myself,” he says. “You have to cross-reference those posts with some sort of written material. I wouldn't start changing the way I do my job based on the response of one unknown person.”

Because there's no way to know who's going to post what and when, incorrect information — and other kinds of objectionable posts — will make it onto the board from time to time. The responsibility of making sure they don't last long falls to the site's administrator and the various people who've been chosen to moderate each section. Administrators and moderators are responsible for reading each post and deleting them altogether if necessary, a job that Addiss takes very seriously, especially when it comes to one topic in particular.

The very nature of a message board, with its forum for asking questions and getting quick answers, lends itself well to the do-it-yourself industry. And although several message boards exist specifically for tending to the needs of the DIY crowd, it would be difficult to misinterpret ECN's policy regarding the topic. The rules anyone who joins the site must agree to are quite clear on the subject:

“Please understand that this discussion forum is mainly meant for the benefit of those in the electrical trade and other related persons. Although related discussion by others may be welcomed, questions of a how-to nature by untrained people (or DIYers) are not within the scope of this forum and may be removed at our discretion.”

Addiss bristles at even the mention of the subject (“It's kind of insulting to myself as an electrician who had to go through studying and taking exams to perform electrical work,” he says.), but personal feelings aside, he's most concerned by the effect that a proliferation of DIY questions could have on the board and its members. “I think it would take something away from the site,” he says. “We get inspectors and instructors who have been in the field for years and who want to talk about some serious issues. They're not going to hang around if every other question is ‘Should the outlet go up or down?’”

That said, Addiss doesn't have a problem with every type of question from non-electricians. In fact, he thinks the site can provide a valuable service to homeowners and renters who have legitimate concerns about electrical safety. “We have people who will come in and post something like, ‘I'm a renter in this building. I see this thing hanging out of the wall. I'm worried about my kids. Should they be near it?’” he says. “I like seeing questions like that.”

And in keeping with his goal of providing the site's visitors with access to the information they want when they need it, Addiss recently broadened the board's scope a little wider. After recognizing that many electrical contractors were unaware of their responsibility to follow general building codes in addition to the NEC, he decided to add a forum dedicated to addressing that topic. “Questions come up all the time like, ‘Where do I put smoke detectors? Where do I find that in the NEC?’” he says. “These are things that are in the building code but aren't in the NEC that electricians do have to follow.”

Ryan Jackson, a general building inspector near Salt Lake City, came across the site a year-and-a-half ago while looking for some information on the NEC and found himself coming back on a daily basis to learn more. Six months later Addiss opened the general building code forum and asked him to moderate it. Although his main responsibility is to answer questions and provide information on the other codes, he finds himself seeking out information, too. “A lot of code violations are handled differently throughout the country, and I've found it interesting to see how different states handle them,” Jackson says. “I know how the inspectors in my office are handling them because I work with them all day. But what I don't know is how other inspection agencies — some that may be more or less qualified than us — are handling them.”

No niche is too small. The Internet is a big place, so it should come as no surprise that more than one message board exists specifically for electrical workers. However, whereas ECN covers a wide range of topics, most of the others cater to a specific segment of the electrical industry (“Boards to Suit Every Electrical Taste” below). Regular EC&M contributors Mike Holt and Joe Tedesco both host discussion forums with an emphasis on Code issues. And two newcomers hope to successfully tackle topics not addressed on any existing board.

It wasn't until he started searching the Internet for information on computer programming that Scott Vickrey realized how difficult it was to find answers to his electrical questions online. The owner of Vickrey Instrument and Electric in Fort Stockton, Texas, began dabbling in programming as a hobby six years ago and soon found that there wasn't much on the subject he couldn't find if he looked hard enough. He found most of it on computer-themed message boards. “I discovered that you could find anything you want to know [about computers] — and I mean specific information — just by searching on Google,” he says. “But there's nothing like that for the electrical community.”

He began hosting his first message board in summer 2003, but it failed to take off, for the most part, he says, because he didn't promote it. He learned from his mistakes, and now his new board, the Electrical Knowledge Repository, which just went online in mid-February, has met with a much better response. He's steering it away from general discussions about electrical work and would like to see it eventually become a sort of living textbook to which electricians can refer when they need answers to specific technical questions. Convenience is the motivating factor. “Some people aren't going to want to buy a whole book on electrical work,” he says. “They want the answer to their question, not every question down the line.”

While Vickrey plans to build his message board upon technical information, Patrick Kennedy hopes to use his to address more business-related topics. The first thing the 20-year veteran of electrical work does when he visits a new city is look in the yellow pages under “Electrical Contractors — Service,” and in most cases he's disappointed with what he finds. After building Mr. Sparky Electric, his $6 million-a-year contracting business in Atlanta, upon residential service work, he's surprised by the lack of contractors who provide it. So in mid-March, he launched a new board to help educate contractors across the country on beefing up the service side of their businesses and answer their questions along the way. “Most electricians know their business from a technical standpoint,” he says. “But what I think most people are challenged by is the business side of the business.”

Topics on Kennedy's board range from pricing to marketing and advertising, the foundation for a profitable business and subjects that most businessmen would be loathe to discuss with their competitors. If you've worked for years to establish a system that works, why tell someone else how you did it and save them the trouble?

Because, Kennedy says, it helps the industry as a whole. In fact, he thinks electrical contractors could learn a few things from, of all people, plumbers. For several years now, he's met on a regular basis with a group of Atlanta-based plumbing owners to discuss what makes their businesses work. “It amazes me that even though they're competitors, they'll still sit down and help each other out,” he says. “They're not going to give everything away, of course, but they're not afraid to talk to each other, either. And because of that, they've all become better.”

Even though he may not be able to get a group of electrical contractors to sit down in a room and do the same thing, he's optimistic that he can make it work in the online setting. “I'm trying to get electricians to realize that it's OK to talk to your competitor,” he says. “You may have been struggling with a problem for a while now, but there's a guy out in California right now who's already figured out how to fix it. And maybe now he'll be willing to show you how.”

Friends without faces. When Addiss added the message board to ECN, he did it with the same goal Vickrey and Kennedy had when they started theirs: to provide electricians with an outlet to discuss the trade so they could do their jobs better and be more successful. What he couldn't have predicted, though, was how many friendships he'd make and help create along the way.

Computers and the Internet have been criticized for reducing the amount of time people spend interacting on a face-to-face basis, and many consider the medium to be cold and impersonal. But you wouldn't guess that by reading most of the posts on ECN. A large number of regulars like Bob Badger and Scott Wilson, an electrician from Anaheim, Calif., have bonded through their daily banter on the board and will call one another friends even though they've never met in person. “I've got more friends in the trade than ever before,” Wilson says. “We can fight each other tooth and nail on some things, but at the end of the day, we're still friends.”

Some of those friendships even extend beyond U.S. borders. Paul Coxwell is one of the more familiar “faces” on ECN despite the fact that he lives on the other side of the Atlantic. The Norfolk, England, resident became interested in American electrical systems after working briefly in Nebraska during the early '90s, so when he discovered ECN two years ago, he didn't wait long to become a member and join in the discussions. As the first international member, he admits he was regarded as a bit of a novelty at first and spent most of his time fielding questions about the English way of wiring, but since then he has just become one of the guys. “It's kind of weird because you sort of feel like you know what these people are thinking even though you've never met,” he says. “I've found that I'll see a post and think, ‘So-and-so is going to agree with this.’”

Because of the anonymity inherent to Internet interaction, it can be common for posters to call one another names, use abusive language, and disrespect each other because they feel safe in knowing they'll never meet in person. This “flaming” is prohibited on ECN and the other electrical message boards, but it's a rule that rarely has to be enforced. “Even if you make a mistake and say the wrong thing, you don't get 200 posters coming back saying, ‘No, you idiot, you got this wrong,’” Coxwell says. “It's more like, ‘Hey I think you goofed here.’ In some forums, you make one little typo and you get 50 irate posts calling you every name you can imagine.”

But not only are the members of ECN not rude to each other, they actually tend to take care of one another. When Mike Trump, a lineman and ECN's most frequent poster who happens to live in Ashburton, South Island, New Zealand — yes, that New Zealand — had a heart attack last September, his fiancé logged on under his screen name to tell the members of the forum what had happened, and she was subsequently bombarded with prayers and wishes for Trump's speedy recovery. He was released from the hospital the next day, but the crush of responses made him realize how many friends he had there. “To read all the posts that were made after my fiancé told everyone what happened — it was leveling, to say the least,” he writes via e-mail. “Bill and all the guys at ECN really care about each other, and it keeps me coming back.”

Back in New York, Addiss is brainstorming other ways to make the site more helpful to its members. At Trump's request, he recently opened a chat room on the site so visitors could interact with each other in real-time. Response to the scheduled Friday night chat sessions has been good so far, with many of the conversations lasting until 2 a.m. That success could lead to other interactive instructional functions, but that will ultimately depend on whether the members call for it. “Basically, I'm just out there to provide the service for whatever they want to use if for,” Addiss says.

There's little doubt they're using it, and he doesn't need to look any further than two of his most frequent posters to verify that fact. Ryan Jackson recently accepted his first teaching job, leading a class on none other than the NEC, while Bob Badger is thinking of broadening his horizons and becoming an NEC instructor as well. And they both credit Addiss and ECN. When told about these developments, he offers a characteristically humble response, but you can tell he's proud: “That just shows me we're getting somewhere.”



Sidebar: Boards to Suit Every Electrical Taste

One of the Internet's greatest strengths is its ability to help people who share similar interests to come together and discuss their experiences despite being separated by several time zones. Message boards are one of the easiest ways for these people to find one another, and no niche is too specific, even within the electrical industry.

  • The Electrical Contractor Network — www.electrical-contractor.net No electrical topic is off-limits here, making ECN the go-to site for electricians, inspectors, and engineers alike.

  • Mike Holt's Code Forum — www.mikeholt.com/cgi-bin/codeforumultimatebb.cgi The name of the board says it all. Be sure to have your Code book handy.

  • Joe Tedesco's Code and Electrical Inspection Information — www.joetedesco.com/nec The Code violation king answers questions, provides a forum to discuss electrical safety, and presents a variety of his scariest violation photos.

  • The Electrical Knowledge Repository — www.electricalknowledge.com Making electrical information available to all who want it is Scott Vickrey's goal. This living text book will answer questions and index the answers for easy Web searches.

  • The Sparky Board — www.electricianboard.com/forum Patrick Kennedy is a 20-year veteran of the electrical construction industry, and now he wants to help other contractors build their businesses. Come willing to share.



Sidebar: Message Boards for Dummies

Your first visit to a message board can be almost as intimidating as the first day at a new school: You feel like everyone is looking at you, and you're afraid to do or say the wrong thing. Regular visitors to ECN are always helpful to “newbies,” but it can't hurt to know some of the lingo before you get there. The more you can do to keep your posts from screaming “I'm new!” the better.

  • User name — This is your online identity (1). Some people choose their real names, and others use more creative handles to identify themselves. Either way, this is how your fellow board members will know you from now on.

  • Post — All messages entered on the board are called posts (2). It helps to use a descriptive subject line (3) that sums up the post and grabs the attention of other members.

  • Thread — If other members are interested in your post and want to comment, they can submit replies that will be added on at the bottom. These virtual “conversations” are called threads.

  • Smilies — One of the most difficult parts of carrying on a virtual conversation is conveying emotion. It can be difficult to express the tone of a post with words alone, so these faces (4) are available to do the emoting for you.

  • Locked topic — It rarely happens on sites for electricians, but the occasional off-topic, objectionable, or inflammatory post pops up. Administrators will typically lock these posts, restricting anyone else from posting replies.

  • FAQ — You may think you've got a great question to ask, but there's a good chance someone else already thought of it. Before posting something, check the “frequently asked questions” section to see if the answer you need is already out there.



Illustration by Clint Metcalf