Thursday, August 26, 2004

Online Discussion Forums: your virtual advisory staff

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Have you discovered the value of Web Discussion Forums?

It's like having a "virtual advisory staff" who answer your questions and give their professional opinion on various subjects.

Choose anything that interests you.

From web development forums to philosophy forums.

From auto repair forums to gardening forums.

Even an entire range of do-it-yourself forums.

I have not thoroughly investigated all of the forums cited here, so I cannot vouch for the value of any in particular. Have fun exploring and come to your own conclusions.

You can go to...

www.alexa.com

...and type in "internet forum [topic/interest/etc.]" in the "search site" text entry box. This will enable you to access details on the most popular forums in any category, and link right to them.

You may learn a lot just seeing what others have asked and the responses they receive. By checking the "threads" (forum topics), you may discover one that already matches a personal concern.

But forum user comments on your own questions are likely to provide the most significant help for your specific problem.

Web Discussion Forums are NOT:

***chat rooms: online locations where anonymous users type comments rapidly in a text entry field. Users thereby enter and participate in a "live," real-time conversation flow, or "chat."

Generally users express "in the moment" feelings and thoughts. Many users just seek conversation due to boredom or the love of conversing and expressing themselves. Much like a telephone conversation in print on the Internet. Often not a question/answer or problem/solution scenario.

(Some forums will include a chat room type area, often called a "coffee shop" or similar leisure term, for those who want a break from debating or investigating heavy topics).

***bulletin boards (BB): online locations where users type in comments, announcements, messages, articles. A "slow chat room." The original precusor of blogs, chat rooms, and internet forums.

The posts usually express their feelings, beliefs, or needs. BB users seek others that support the same agenda. Originally a location where computer users could request and obtain information about software. Not generally a question/answer or problem/solution scenario.

***blog sites: online locations where one person, representing themselves or some organization (like a political party, company, etc.), will post articles that others may read and add a responsive comment.

If my history lesson was correct, blogs began as online locations that merely listed URLs of recommended web sites for various topics or products, like software.

Currently, blogs seem to be used primarily for stating personal views on an issue, then allowing others to agree, disagree, or provide more information via the "post a comment" function.

Many of the pop trend blog sites are simply "blah-blah-blah blogs." They contain boring musings on trivial matters, like how much a person liked a particular movie, or other self-exploratory drivel. Such "personal diary" type web journal blogs are proliferating at a rapid rate.

But some blogs contain intelligent ponderings and revelations from brilliant, innovative thinkers. One of my favorites is a marketing strategy blog: Seth Godin's blog at...

http://sethgodin.typepad.com

Occasionally the comments function will be turned off, due to the article being merely informative and not debatable, or due to the fact that too many users go to the site and the server would not be able to handle the quantity of potential comments.

NOTE: The terms--internet forum, bulletin board, online discussion, message board, message parlor--are often used in place of each other, with no strict differentiation.

Web Discussion Forums ARE:

Web Discussion Forums are typically sponsored by an organization. The forums are provided as a service, so users with similar interests can share insights and problems in an online community.

A good example of this is the ecommerce online forum provided by Internet.com at:

http://forums.smallbusinesscomputing.com

A Web Discussion Forum can be a web site, or dynamic page sections within a web site. In other words, some commercial web sites contain discussion forums, often under the link title "Forum," "Online Forum," or "[Product/Interest] Forum."

Web Discussion Forums generally work like this:

1. Registration. Most forums ask you to sign up if you wish to post comments. Unregistered users typically can read all posts, except those in restricted Members Only forums.

Prior to registration, you'll be directed to read the forum's Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) and agree to it.

In a nut shell, this AUP typically just commits you to abstaining from profanity, hate-speech, trolling, baiting, virus code, slander, flaming, pornographic speech and images, and other online ethics violations. And it enables the Forum sponsors the right to display your comments, but do nothing more with them.

There's more to it, so be sure to read every Acceptable Use Policy in full. Failure to abide by the rules can result in being banned from the site, or even legal repercussions.

To register, you simply provide a username, password, email address, plus optional items like your occupation, location, interests, favorite movies, hobbies, age, gender, etc. to flesh out your individuality). Most of this information, usually excepting your real name and your email address, will appear in your Profile.

2. Features Activated: such as HTML code, smilies/emoticons, Instant Messaging, hide/display your email address or URL of your web site, etc.

3. Signature (OPTIONAL): your professional title, a slogan you like, a favorite quote, URL of your web site or blog site, etc. that appears below every post you create on the forum.

4. Avatar (OPTIONAL): a small picture, photo, or animation that you legally aquired from a Avatar provider, or created yourself with a paint or photo tool. They're usually archived in the "My Pictures" file on your computer. When you Browse this file from the forum registration page, click on the item you want, and it will then be added to every post you create on the forum. It will appear right below your username.

5. Email Notification (OPTIONAL): the forum will send you an email telling you that someone has responded to a post you created, a question or comment you posted. It may contain the comment itself, or a link to the comment.

Once you've successfully registered at a Web Discussion Forum, and have your account all set up, you generally need to activate it by responding to an email the forum will send you.

Sometimes they send you a password of their own devising, rather than asking you to make up one.

After your account is activated, you're ready to exercise all the privileges offered by the forum.

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