Seven Deadly Forum Sins

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 26 November 2011 |

Actually, they’re not deadly, and they’re not even the worst sins likely to be found on forums and message boards, to be honest. However, there was a lot I didn’t get round to covering in my two previous articles on forum conduct (Ridiculous Forum Comments and How to Use a Forum), so I thought I’d conveniently compile some more examples of the silly, irritating and/or misguided, into another handy blog post. Some of the sins apply to forum members; others apply to the administrations. No poll has been conducted – it’s all personal opinion, and none of the examples refer to the conduct of any specific individual(s).


“There ain’t no free speech on this board!!!”… “FREE SPEECH IS A FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT OF EVERY HUMAN BEING!!! Why am I being CENSORED???!!!!!”… Yes, what better way to begin than with the old chestnut of censorship? Of course, the members who launch into these ‘human rights’ monologues are almost invariably the ones who think that the only valid opinion is their own, and who will happily support the banning of a member they don’t agree with. So their notion of censorship is very one-sided. If part of a single post they made is removed or edited, it’s “censorship”. If their arch enemy is completely banned, it’s “a troll getting what he/she deserves”.

But to dissect the hypocrisy is to miss the point… A forum is a website. It’s not the constitution. It’s run by ordinary people who have views, and find certain comments or stances not only unacceptable, but often contrary to the successful running of the site. If you say something that’s likely to negatively affect the site’s status, or its revenue, then the overwhelming likelihood is that your comment will be removed. Anyone running a venture of any sort will want it managed in accordance with their own preferences. Why would a forum be any different? Trying to portray yourself as a victim of a human rights abuse just because someone won’t let you ruin their website, shows a naïvety which really should be left behind at the age of around nine or ten.


The cliffhanger post is one in which someone indicates they have knowledge of something, but doesn’t reveal what they know. A basic example would be a post saying: “Well, I know why that is”, and nothing else. There’s absolutely no point in making the post other than to create needless spam for those who do know, and annoy those who don’t. If the posting member is prepared to actually provide an explanation when prompted, I suppose it’s arguably tolerable, though still annoying. However, what isn’t tolerable, is the infuriating spectacle of a member who states that he/she knows full details of a matter which is the subject of intense speculation, but “isn’t allowed to reveal them”. People who do that should be banned from the entire web, let alone the forum.


Aaaaagghhhh!! Don’t get me started with this one!!! YOU DO NOT NEED TO SIGN YOUR NAME UNDER FORUM POSTS!!!!!!!!! It comes up on the post automatically – above your avatar! The fact that you’ve entered your password and logged in is infinitely more great an assurance that the post is coming from you, than the fact you’ve typed your name or initials underneath your reply. Anyone on the forum can type your name or initials under a post. It’s not a signature. It’s just typed letters, it doesn’t mean anything, and it serves no purpose. What’s so bafflingly ironic about this phenomenon is that it appears to be most common among people who consider themselves great thinkers. If you sign your name or intials under every forum post, you are not a great thinker. Full flamin’ stop!!!


Why is it that those who appoint themselves as guardians of the English language on forums, are so typically the ones who have absolutely no command of it themselves? I’ve got no problem with people not being able to spell, or punctuate, or ‘correctly’ word their posts in compliance with the standards of the Queen’s head butler. What I have a problem with is someone who’s so intensely focused on criticising the posts of others, that they completely fail to entertain the idea that they might themselves have similar failings. I’d never criticise anyone’s written English on the web. Partly because I know mine isn’t perfect, but more fundamentally because there’s no need for it. If you don’t understand someone, by all means tell them, but if you do understand them, what is castigating them for a split infinitive going to achieve? Other than illustrating what a petty, nitpicking hypocrite you are, that is… 


True, there’s usually some kind of admonishment tucked away in the guidelines, expressing that the forum doesn’t want to see unnecessary posting. But meanwhile, every motivational tool in sight encourages members to make vast quantities of needless, one-sentence or even one-word posts. Reach 100 posts and your little ‘Junior Assistant Poster’ badge turns into a ‘Distinguished Poster’ badge. Even if nothing you’ve ever posted makes a blind bit of sense. Reach 1,000 posts and you get privileges. Make more posts than anyone else in a day and you become the day’s ‘Top Poster’ – even if you’ve done nothing but troll other members. Some forums even profess to award money to people who reach a certain post count.

Motivations such as this are inevitably going to provoke what can only be described as non-commercial spam. Thousands of single-line posts which, roughly translated, say: “I want to be a ‘Distinguished Poster’ so I’m going to write anything that comes into my head in a bid to hit the required post count”. As so many businesses prove with their wayward staff management policies, tell someone not to do something, then motivate them to do it, and you can be damn sure it’ll be the motivation, not the instruction, that wins through.


This is where a member goes round repeating what other members have said. However, he plays it like he’s not repeating, but confirming what the previous poster has written. As if he’s a higher knowledge, and his seal of approval on a previous post somehow validates what was formerly little more than a wild guess. And then along comes another member, who awards himself the right to qualify the previous two posts – by repeating what they’ve said, prefixed with the phrase: “Yes, that’s right”. This is followed by yet another member saying: “Yes, you were correct in saying that the previous posts are correct”, and repeating the same, tired platitude yet again. Whether the original reply actually was correct, of course, is immaterial. What matters is that members can ‘demonstrate their authority’ in a subject they know next to nothing about.

Possibly the most annoying thing of all about hardcore 'yes that's right-ers' is that they wait to see if someone's going to vehemently disagree with the original reply before they 'yes that's right' it - sometimes for a good day or two. It's not as bad as trolling - of course it's not. But it's hard to think of anything more pointless than repetition on a forum - whatever form it takes.


Forum reward systems (which include reputation points, likes, thanks, etc.) are put in place to motivate members to post higher quality content and behave more appropriately. Do they work? No. Why not? Well, the fundamental flaw is that people who post rubbish, don’t realise they’re posting rubbish, and neither do they think their inappropriate behaviour is inappropriate. They think what they’re posting is cool, and that it’s going to make them look clever. And they think that whatever behaviours they exhibit are entirely appropriate for the situations they encounter. Trying to motivate someone to post better when they already think they're brilliant is entirely pointless, and trying to motivate them to post more will just reduce the standard of their input even further.

In the end, those in whose nature it is to contribute, will contribute, and those in whose nature it is to troll, will troll. A system of points or a gratitude tally isn’t gonna change that. What it will do, is encourage blatant schmoozing and manipulative behaviour, which doesn’t help the discussion in any way, and will often hinder it. The false perception these systems can give regarding who contributes the most, may also disillusion those who do contribute a large amount, only to see insignificant contributors manipulating their way to higher status scores. Major contributors have even stopped contributing to specific forums due to the ill-feeling this can cause.

Another problem with these reward systems is that they can control the conversation. If six members have taken a particular stance and received reputation points and ‘likes’ for doing so, the likelihood is that other members will quickly come to associate that stance with earning points and ‘likes’ for themselves. Consequently, people start to say things to get points, rather than to enhance the debate. Forums are already prone to the ‘sheep effect’ – reward systems just exacerbate the problem in my opinion. I don’t see any evidence to suggest that forums without reward points and like/thank buttons are of lower quality than those which have them. In fact, my overwhelming impression is that forums which do have reward points have a lower standard of content, by a wide margin.

So, that concludes another manifestation of my obsession with forums and networking sites. I've now had enough of analysing and writing about sins for this evening. I think it's time I popped onto a forum and commited some...

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