Before I review O’Keefe’s book, however, let me explain what he means by “online forums.” My introduction to online discussion was through the multi-denominational Christian online community, Ecunet. In the late 80s I connected by a very slow modem and dial-up connection to that quickly growing community of Christians who had already organized themselves into hundreds of discussion groups. This was before the advent of the World Wide Web, before sharing pictures and videos and podcasts. It was even before email was widely used. Participating in Ecunet went like this: One dialed in and downloaded all the comments in groups to which one had subscribed. One then disconnected and replied offline to a recent post or started a new thread for discussion. One then reconnected to synch one’s offline contributions to the server’s data. The slow pace of this protocol made for more thoughtful posts than one finds in many internet conversations these days.
Short and casual messages certainly do have their place, as is evidenced by the popularity of Twitter and Facebook. However, for people seeking a deeper and more meaningful conversation, a well managed and moderated forum is likely to be more satisfying. Although telecommunication has beome more techologically glitzy in recent years, there is still a demand for thoughtful composition.
That’s where online forums come in, or as O’Keefe calls them, online communities. He is writing about the offspring of the early bulletin boards, such as Ecunet. There are other forms of online textual conversation, such as UseNet groups, chat rooms, and listservs. How do these differ from forums? Usenet groups are generally not moderated, which can can make for wild and unruly, sometimes even cruel conversation. Chat rooms are for real-time text talk. The logical train of chat room chatter is sometimes hard to follow because of the varying keyboard skills of the participants. Listservs, or email discussion groups, bear most resemblance to forums. They are usually moderated, and the posts can be archived, as in forums. But, an active listserv can clog one’s email inbox, which forums do not do. One has to go to a forums web site to participate in the discussion.
As I see it here are the advantages of forums for online textual conversation:
- Forum administration software is more intricately configurable than other online discussion tools. This gives the managers and moderators of forums the ability to monitor and enforce the guidelines of the discussions.
- Given these more intricate managing tools, forums provide a better means for reaching out to the public and attracting newcomers. Listservs have many of the characteristics of forums, but listservs often consist of people who already know each other. Forums, on the other hand, are designed deliberately to invite strangers into the conversation.
- Because forums grew out of early online bulletin boards which were moderated, forums these days continue to attract users who expect a moderated discussion. Provided the moderators have been well trained, this makes for conversation that stays on topic and remains respectful.
- Forum management software provides an easy means to begin a new topic of discussion when the train of thought in a given conversation seems to demand it. If a listserv discussion reaches this point, a completely new listserv is required, and there is no way to link the posts of the new listserv to the prior one. With a forum, however, the branches in conversation are readily apparent in the interface, and users can explore the history of conversation at any point by clicking on the appropriate branch. Forum management software thus lends itself to a community whose conversations are evolving, allowing the community to delve into new topics while still preserving every word of their prior conversations.
- Forums do not clog your inbox.
O.K. now that you have an idea of what forums are, let me recommend to you Patrick O’Keepe’s book on how to organize and manage them. This book is a must read for anyone who is considering launching an online forums web site. The author covers the following topics:
- Laying the groundwork, by deciding what your forums will cover, whom they will serve, and how they will be financed. (Yes, even with free software, there are still costs to maintaining an online community.)
- Choosing software, registering a domain, acquiring a look to brand your community.
- Developing guidelines for user behavior in your community.
- How to promote your online community so that it grows in membership.
- How to manage your staff (consisting mostly of the moderators of various forum topics).
- Banning misbehaving users and dealing with occasional chaos.
- How to create a good climate for discussion.
- Tips for keeping the discussions interesting. How to make money with your online community.
You will not find in O’Keefe’s book a step-by-step manual for configuring forum software, but you will find cogently expressed advice from a seasoned forums manager about how to weather the storms of managing public discussions. Having read O’Keefe’s book, I have decided to put my toe in the water only, by running some private discussions first, so that I can get used to the software (I intend to use phpBB, a free, open source bulletin board management software.) Then, after I feel comfortable with managing the permissions I’ll be ready to manage public forums. Being able to reach out to strangers appeals to me. That’s a primary benefit of the internet, after all. But, doing so in a way that protects participants in the community from abuse is also of great concern to me. Much of O’Keefe’s book deals with that challenge. I highly recommend it to you.