February 25, 2010

Forum Building

From time to time, as we all do, I get into a new subject or hobby. So into it, infact, that I want to get involved; especially when it’s a community run offering or a relatively unknown hobby. ‘Involvement’ for me means more than just playing the game, running the software or optimising the rules - it means sharing what I know with others and spreading the word impartially. If it’s a good product, I like to vote with my mouth as well as my money, and often the fastest way of getting this kind of involvement is getting into the community and steeping myself in the product.

What do I mean by community?

3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually prec. by the): the business community; the community of scholars.

For me, it’s the drawing together of individuals who share a common interest. Like the real world, online communities need resources - tools and spaces and places to interact. In the online space, communication methods are more important than ever. These resources are monetarily much cheaper online than their real-life counterparts: buildings, computers, tennis courts …

What these resources aren’t cheap on, is energy. You need an immense amount of energy to start off a community - energy to build the tools; energy to shape the space; energy to elicit the communications. More on energy later.

Now, I’m no Jono Bacon, but I have been working with online communities for in excess of a decade, and there are a few things that I’ve learned over that time which put me ahead of the curve of your average forum-peruser. Unfortunately, this makes it very hard for me to actually get involved in communities, because I’m used to a certain amount of respect for this knowledge, aside from any domain-specific knowledge I have.

When moving into different sub-communities within the same domain - such as moving guild in an MMO - you can fall back on your domain knowledge to get you through, but breaking into a new community, as a total unknown, is hard. Reputation is everything, and it’s sudden loss (when moving or joining a new community) is enough to make anyone scream in frustration. More so when your reasonable questions go unanswered, or (my personal pet peeve) you find yourself being patronised.

Forum Shmorum

I got started with Linux many years ago, and spent a long while utilising the resources provided by LinuxQuestions. One day I offered up a resource of my own, and started answering some questions. Fast-forward to today and I have some respect from that community. Am I a big player there? Not by a long shot, but equally, I have a reasonable post count and a tendancy to answer the more exotic types of question that aren’t the usual “How to make the scroll wheel work in X” affairs.

It took 2 years of reading that forum and probably a further 3 years of contributing before I was ever quoted (a reasonable indicator that you’re an authority on a topic), and I’m not your average poster.

Most recently, I’ve been playing a collectable board game, and I’m interested enough to want to get involved. The official forum is a bit of a nightmare to navigate, so a bright spark spawned off a community forum & wiki to act as a fansite and secondary resource. It got a lot of use, but the admin disappeared and the site got hacked. Poof, no more community.

Fast-forward a week and someone else steps up, asking for help and suggestions. I fish out the pieces that I had pulled before the site went down, upload them to pesartain.com, and direct the organisers to Google’s cache as a way to pull out the old material. And then everything goes quiet …

The Rules

At this point in the story I want to head off on a bit of a tangent. There are a few key rules that apply to any forum, regardless of the domain:

1. When you ask for help, take the time to respond to those answering the call.

For any given domain, an energetic newbie is worth 10 times as much as any lazy veteran when it comes to community building - and you need all the energy you can get in the early days of the site. Take the time to weed out those with staying power and those who are just caught up in the moment. It’s especially worth evaluating helpers’ domain knowledges, so you can start to assign the right jobs to the right people - no sense giving a graphic designers’ task to a rules lawyer.

2. Start small, but with the possibility of growing.

Before the forum is even given a name, it’s imperative that the starting point (category layout, permissions, etc) is at least considered. Hew some rough chunks out of the forum-rock that will act as big catch-all areas (like Forum Information, Programming Questions, Game Rules, etc), and add some broad stroke rules and directions on what each area is supposed to contain in appropriately placed (and easy to see) sticky posts. The precise titles of the starting areas will depend on your domain, and you’ll invariably get a ton of questions that needed a starting area of it’s own that you didn’t foresee. Don’t panic, adding areas early on based on real feedback is perfectly acceptable.

3 categories with 30 posts looks like a busy and inviting, compared to 30 categories with 1 post each. Until you have those hundred thousand, don’t pretend your community is bigger than it is. You can always grow things later.

3. Learn your forum software.

Learn when to use sticky posts and when to spawn off new forums and sub-forums. A deeply nested forum structure might satisfy your inner megalomaniac, but doesn’t help the newbies - either to the hobby or the forum. It also pays to understand the usergroup mechanisms, and double check what is visible to whom (including when someone is logged out). Perhaps define some tags in place of using different forums - like [Question] or [Rules] as part of the title instead of segregating them. You’ll also need to know who has what permissions and how they work if you intend to share responsibility for maintenance and administration. The next people to step over the threshold of your shiny new forum should be your Lieutenants and other trusted “beta-testers”.

4. Provide trusted people with mod/admin status – but make sure they understand the vision.

Being a one-man-band is great for your ego, because you get to be the big hero and provider. You get the recognition and a lot of “Thank you”s. What it’s not great for is your health - you’ll stress over each and every decision and when there’s contention as you grow the forum (or even just make changes to the layout), you’ll lose sleep. Well, I do anyway. Which is why it’s good to share the responsibility with others to make sure things are ticking over steadily. Until it’s a massive community, all you need are some broad strokes to cover the general gist of what you want the mods to handle. Provide the mods a private area to discuss potentially sensitive topics that might need attention (you’ve ended up with a religious zealot in a computing forum, for example) - this can also be used to share your ideas and feelings going forward with the community and most importantly, it’s a place to share your vision with those you trust, and make sure everyone is ready for when you open the doors and advertise the link.

There are many ways to set up a forum, but relying on the “community” to do it for you, is a recipe for a disaster. “Build it and they will come,” is true for forums, but the corollary is “see it is empty and leave.”

My preferred method is to put in the energy (time, effort) myself by adding some starting content, direction in the shape of readme/sticky posts, and descriptive forum titles. Regardless of whether you do this alone or with help, you need to get the basics down before opening the doors, and revealing the grand plan to the great unwashed masses.

6. Have a vision.

If you don’t know why you’re doing this, what service it provides, then don’t bother. You need to know what you want to achieve, and having a cohesive vision that you can share with others - eventually everyone - goes a long way toward knowing what risks to take and when to hold back on changes for changes’ sake. In the case of fansites you are almost certainly in competition with other fansites and possibly even the official site, so you need to provide some added value over and above the other sites. Equally, is it worth starting something new when it could be better to help another community?

The best litmus test for this is to imagine the forum with no one on it. What would you do with it? Do you have enough ideas and enough drive to populate it with useful content? If the answer is no, then you may have ideas that are bigger than your energy reserves - so scale it back until you think you can make it work, or get enough help to make it work, but whatever the decision: you can always grow it later.

Qwuiet, We’re Hunting Wabbits

So I’d offered my services, and got nothing in return. No appreciation, no acknowledgement. I post a few pieces on the newly ressurrected forum and keep my fingers crossed that the clean layout will remain, as it’s a good indicator at least some of the rules above are being followed.

Unfortunately it doesn’t, and the new forum is a lot of deeply nested empty space between the 6 posts that are up.

A few days later I do get acknowledgement, and although I might not agree with the way the new administrator is going about this rebuild, I do know that I will be contributing to this community again. Despite the potential laundry list of changes I would make, I believe in the reason the forum was created and the service that (I think) it’s trying to provide, and probably most importantly: I don’t have the energy to do it myself, or another community to choose instead.

So finally, if you’re thinking of starting a forum: make sure you have the energy to carry through; and if you’re thinking of joining a forum: don’t be afraid to vote with your feet (or cursor) if you find your entry to one community hard work. It’s worth scouting around to find the right place to focus your efforts on building and maintaining a reputation.

Because on the interwebs, no-one can hear you scream.

Creative Commons License rational human by Pieter Sartain is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.