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Making Online Forums Work for Community Networks

Copyright © 1998 by David R. Woolley

This article was written for the inaugural issue of the Association For Community Networking (AFCN) Newsletter.

Online discussion forums have played a key role in community networks ever since the first such networks began to appear in the mid 1980’s. Forums permit direct interaction among community members. They provide a place where local issues can be discussed and information can be shared quickly and easily.

The terms “forum” and “conference” are used to refer to a wide variety of things, ranging from chat rooms to realtime video conferencing. But this article will focus on text-based, asynchronous group discussions. Participants in such conferences can log in at their own convenience and read whatever messages have been posted since their last visit.

For a successful online forum, several elements are essential:

  1. Clear purpose
  2. Experienced hosts
  3. Interested participants
  4. Good software

Clear Purpose

The first step is to think carefully about why you want forums. Who do you expect to participate, and for what purposes? These questions are often glossed over in a community networking plan (“… and of course, we’ll have a forum area…”) but it’s crucial to consider them. Unless your forums fulfill a clearly identifiable purpose, they are likely to languish.

People who simply enjoy online discussion for its own sake already have thousands of Web forums, Usenet newsgroups, and mailing lists to occupy their time. It’s absolutely critical to define a specific purpose that distinguishes your conferences from all the others out there. You are most likely to succeed if your forums address the immediate, real-world needs of your constituency.

Start from a real problem or need, and then think about how (and whether!) an online conference might fill the need.

Experienced Hosts

A forum host, or moderator, is someone who takes primary responsibility for the care and feeding of an online conference. The host sets the tone, establishes ground rules, initiates topics of discussion, encourages participation, and generally tries to ensure that the conference serves the purpose for which it is intended. This role is especially important in the early stages of conference building, as it takes a considerable amount of planning and effort to get a forum off the ground. Once a critical mass of participants has joined, the host can usually relax a bit and let the discussion roll along on its own steam, but it still helps to have someone keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings.

Interested Participants

People need several things in order to participate in online conferences:

  • Equipment (hardware, software, and an Internet connection)
  • Training (computer and Internet skills, plus understanding of online forums)
  • Time
  • Motivation

If any one of these is missing, your conferencing project is likely to fail. Think especially about the last two items on the list. It takes a significant amount of time to participate in an online conference. Is your target audience sufficiently interested in the subject of your conference to get involved? And interest in the subject, by itself, is not enough: your audience must also be convinced that the conference has something concrete to offer them. For most people, participation in public discussions on a community network is an “extra” — you’re competing for their attention against all the other things they want to do with their scarce free time.

Good Software

Before about 1994, most community networks used bulletin board (BBS) software that featured simple menus and plain, scrolling text. These days, the Web has become the platform of choice, and Web-based conferencing software is proliferating rapidly. The Web is a mixed blessing: its graphical, point-and-click interface makes it easier for novices to learn, yet it requires users to have newer, more expensive equipment, and it tends to be slow for dial-up users. But for better or worse, the world is moving to the Web.

Dozens of conferencing software products are available. Detailed recommendations are beyond the scope of this article, but a couple of points are worth noting:

1. Different conferencing products are designed with very different applications in mind. A key distinction is between products aimed at workgroup collaboration (“groupware”) and those designed for free-form conversation. Groupware products tend to be powerful and rich in features, but are not particularly good at supporting public forums. Likewise, conversation-oriented products are not ideal for workgroup applications that involve document sharing, etc.

2. If forums are to be an important part of your service, don’t skimp on the price. Choosing a free or cheap product simply to cut costs might be a false savings. Poorly designed or unreliable conferencing software will drive away your audience, and in any case, the staff or volunteer time needed to install and maintain the software could cost more in the long run than you would pay for good commercial software. On the other hand, spending more money doesn’t guarantee a better outcome. The best approach is to choose a product on the basis of its design and features, then worry about the price. Many software vendors offer reduced prices to nonprofits. Some might even be willing to donate their software if asked.


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