How to Use a Forum / Message Board

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 1 May 2011 |

I thought tonight that I’d have a break from the silly stuff and try writing something vaguely serious for once. It’ll still be moderately irreverent here and there, but may at least be of some use to someone who doesn’t use forums / message boards and feels like giving it a try. The following is based on my own experience of using forums of different types and sizes – a twelve-point plan addressing the whole process of How To Use A Forum / Message Board...

1. Do you actually need to join at all? If you’re only joining to make one request for information, you’re almost certainly better off not bothering. If the info’s already on the web, it’s searchable (try Google’s Advanced Search), and if it isn’t already on the web, the chances of someone on a single forum knowing the answer are remote. Many people who only join a forum to ask one question end up being interrogated for so much needless background information (“Why d’you want to do that?”, etc) that ten minutes ferreting through Google is a breeze in comparison.

If you want to contribute and discuss, your best option will probably be to join, but watch the forum for a while first, to ensure the environment is relatively affable and balanced. Avoid forums where a significant number of members look to have been banned. The odd one or two bans is normal, but around 10% or more of real, posting members banned isn’t, and could indicate a problem – perhaps an oppressive culture or an incompetent/corrupt administration. It’s also a good idea to avoid joining forums where the discussion is overwhelmingly one-sided and no one ever seems to disagree. People will always disagree, so if you don’t see expressions of disagreement, they're being removed. In other words, you won’t be free to post anything which isn’t expressly approved of by the forum team. You want to have your say – not be a mouthpiece for someone else... But if everything looks okay and you want to get involved, move onto step two…

2. Register. Start as you mean to go on, by giving a cryptic email address and providing as little personal detail as you can possibly get away with. Give a false date of birth if a DOB is required, and obviously a false name, if the forum is daft enough to ask who you really are. Some forums use an activation process, and will not permit you to post until they’ve auto-emailed you on the address you’ve given, and you’ve clicked their activation link. Others don’t bother with activation (in some cases even when their blurb says they do). Try to ensure your email address doesn’t reference your real name (you might like to set up an email account specifically for registrations, using a browser-accessed service such as Hotmail or Gmail). This might sound paranoid, but most forums are not run by vetted professionals with high-level data protection training – they’re run by people about whom you know virtually nothing, and who could quite possibly have criminal records.

Finally, read the official T&Cs and take them seriously. You can, however, probably ignore the massive string of admonishments presented to you as essential newbie reading. This will be distinct from the official T&Cs in that it's written as a post on the actual forum and pitched at you immediately after you've registered rather than before. It's usually nothing more than an appointed authoritarian shouting: “I’M IN CHARGE!!!”, telling you how immensely grateful you should be for the privilege of being allowed to give the site your content, for free, and imploring you not to do a near-endless list of things which have only ever happened once in the history of the Internet. Just use your common sense, behave as you would when talking to people face-to-face, and you should be fine.

3. Go straight to your User CP (Control Panel). Lock out all private messages (PMs), make your email non-solicitable, and make sure no one on the forum, including the moderators and administrators, has any means whatsoever of contacting you – other than posting replies on the public board. I see the PM function as being like your front door. People don’t come knocking because they want to do you a favour. They come because they want something from you. If you allow people you don’t know to message you in private, your inbox is likely to be little short of one long begging letter, punctuated with off-the-record, fatherly/motherly disciplinary advice from the moderator(s) or administrator(s), and possibly the odd drunken threat (not typically from the aforementioned, but you never know). If you really want to enable private messaging (and in truth most people seem to think it's a good idea), you may find you're happy enough you did so. But if turns out to be an utter, relentless stream of pestering and annoyance, don't say I didn't warn you...

Read the options in the User CP carefully and make sure everything’s set for optimum privacy. If the forum is busy and you leave your settings subscribed to threads, for example, you could be bombarded with emails. That might be what you want, but if your incoming email already looks like a dog's breakfast, and you're going to be visiting the forum anyway, blocking any excess messages makes a lot of sense. I know of no forums which will send out unpreventable spam, but most are opt-out for email contact rather than opt-in. Five or ten minutes checking and amending the User CP settings, and you’re sorted for good. Now it’s time to get posting…

4. Say it once, if at all. Typically, the overwhelming majority of forum members don’t post at all. A high proportion of those who do will probably be very, very stupid indeed. Those with the most sense will have given themselves a brief insight into the forum, and then either stopped bothering to post, or never started in the first place. This will predominantly leave the ones who never understand anything, and the ones who simply enjoy the process of illustrating precisely how stupid other members are. In this environment, your words of wisdom will frequently be a virtually pointless addition to the conversation. Those who don’t understand anything won’t be able to understand you, and the remainder of the actively-posting members are only there to tell the stupid ones how stupid they are, so they’ll just ignore you.

It may well feel like no one's listening, but resist the temptation to keep saying the same thing over and over again. However many times you say it, a blanket of ignorance is a blanket of ignorance. Your wisdom is no more likely to sink in on the tenth repetition than it is on the first. Remember also that all forum posts are dated, so if you said something first, and someone else claims they did, you can easily and instantly scotch their claim with a link to your original post. Once you've said it, you've said it. You don't need to say it again.

Of vital importance, in connection with not saying anything at all, is that you consider the permanence of forum posts. On many forums, once you've posted something, you won't be able to remove it. It's not like Twitter where you can wake up the next day, think: "OMG! what on earth was I saying in that drunken stupor last night?"... And then pop onto the site and delete it all. On a forum there's likely to be an edit function, but that's not always the case, and even when it is you'll normally only have a very limited time to make amendments to a post.

The best policy is to think very, very carefully about the implications of what you're saying. Will it upset people? Are you sure you've got your facts right? How will it appear if you've made an elaborate (but completely wrong) prediction and someone reads it in six months' time? You can of course apply to the forum management to have your post edited or removed, but they may well refuse, and based on most forums' T&Cs, will be within their rights to do so. And even if you do manage to get your own post deleted, you'll have no such success with other members' posts made in response to it. Any replies will probably reference/quote your original remark, so regardless of the removal of your own post, your comment will still essentially remain encapsulated within someone else's. It's also important to remember that closing your forum account will not delete your posts.

5. Don’t argue with the forum admin/moderation team. Unless you’re paying them (or generating money for them in some specific and noticeable way), you can not win an argument against the forum's administration. Even if they’re completely wrong, corrupt, socially inept or permanently pissed, they still have the power to edit/delete anything you say, and to ban you. Most likely, the forum’s raison d’etre is to net the administrator(s) some ad revenue. Your right to what you see as free speech probably doesn’t figure very heavily in that. If you don’t agree with the way the forum management operates, stop posting and find another forum. If you don’t agree with the way any forum managements operate, maybe it’s you, not them.

6. Recognise that no one gives a stuff. You may in time come to believe that what you’re posting actually matters to other members of the forum, and that it will make some kind of difference to them if, for example, you trot off on holiday. Sadly, that’s not the case. Your opinionated blabber is something other members of the forum tolerate – not enjoy. They only pretend they like you so you’ll give them brownie points and make them look like there’s actually some purpose to their life. So don’t waste your energy explaining that you’re not gonna be around for the next month. Trust me – no one will notice, let alone care. Equally, if you’ve been off the forum for a significant amount of time and then decide to go back on, do not under any circumstances post an “I’m back!” message, with an explanation as to where you been. No one’s bothered where you’ve been, or that you’re back, or even that you’re still alive.

7. Don’t waste your time trying to instruct anyone on how to do anything. If you spend half an hour writing a definitive reply addressing some newbie’s predicament, that newbie will most likely return to the thread a few days later and post the immortal: “Anyone got any better ideas?”, before logging out, never to resurface. Or, if by some miracle your efforts do actually instill in someone a vague sense of gratitude, they'll post the simple abbreviation "ty" or "thx", because it's obviously far too much trouble for them to type the words "thank" and "you" in full.

8. Stick to one account. Much as you might think you’re a master of disguise, able to operate as ten different characters without anyone spotting what you’re up to, your own self-interests will always out you before long. The sheer number of times you agree with yourself (especially when you’re the only one who does) will arouse suspicion, and then other members will start to inspect your quirks, grammar, spelling etc. On forums with scoring systems such as +1s and likes/thanks, the temptation for multiple account holders to reward themselves or avenge others in duplicate/triplicate can also be too great. If you’re going to abuse the system with multiple accounts, someone will eventually cotton on, and when they do you're finished. If you’re not going to abuse the system, it’s much easier just to have one account and know who/where you are.

From the other side of the issue, be aware that multiple account usage (sock-puppetry, as it's known) is rife on forums. If you feel like you're being ganged up on for holding a perfectly reasonable view, remember that the entire chorus of dissent could be coming from just one person, with, say, eight accounts. Know also, that those running forums are not immune from holding multiple accounts themselves.

9. Don’t troll. Trolling is the act of deliberately picking fault with the contributions of other members, with the express intention of annoying and provoking them. Sometimes, trolling can be specifically targeted towards getting a particular forum member banned. I suggest people avoid doing it not through any sort of high moral stance on my part – I simply think it reveals a mental void in the troll and looks exceptionally childish. If tagging round after people and trying to annoy them is the best you have to offer the world wide web, then surely, you have to question where your life’s at. The thing about trolling is that anyone can do it - even a ten-year-old. There’s no skill or intelligence involved in replying to someone else’s contribution and saying it’s crap. Trolls don’t say why something is crap, and they usually avoid debate entirely. They’re only there to make the criticism, and almost invariably they struggle to muster more than a single sentence in so doing. In some quarters you may be told that trolling is cool or funny. If you’re a child, then that may be true. If you’re an adult, it’s merely a way of confirming you’ve got nothing else to offer to the world, and you’re intensely jealous of anyone who has.

10. Use the forum as a forum. A forum is generally accepted as a place for discussion, venting views, and presenting or responding to information or content, publicly, and in an interactive fashion. It can be considered to have some social networking elements, but these are there to support the main features of the forum. Those who register with a forum purely to service their social networking needs can end up sorely disappointed. The two main reasons for this are that: a) most other members are not there to form 'relationships', and b) those who are will very frequently have highly suspicious motives. They may be serial sympathy-players, or perhaps extreme attention-seekers who, for example, could be men posing as attractive women in a predominantly male environment. People such as this normally number exceptionally few in a forum's overall membership (though some forums prove more enticing to them than others), and if you use the forum expressly 'as a forum' you may not even notice them. However, if you set out to use a forum purely as a social device, you'll be a sitting target for this type of character.

11. If you get banned, take the hint. True, it’s not that difficult to surmount a typical forum’s verification process and re-register after a ban. But going back to an environment where they clearly don’t like you is never going to be a particularly gratifying experience. A ban doesn’t necessarily mean you were wrong, but it does mean you weren’t suited to that particular forum, so cut your losses, and move on. Ideally of course, stop posting before you do get banned. Most forums have warning systems. If you find yourself a step away from a ban, leave things there. Life’s too short to spend with people you don’t get on with.

12. If you’re going, just go!… The number of people who think that to leave a forum they need to publicise the fact by way of a histrionic one-thousand-word post, in its own thread, and then contact the administration to have their account closed, is staggering. Most of these magnificent ‘flounce’ departures are of course orchestrated to gain attention, but even that’s a fallacy. Anyone on the forum who genuinely gives a toss about you will notice you’ve gone without you trumpeting the fact from the rafters, and the vast majority who couldn’t give two stuffs will have forgotten you within half an hour of reading your miserable dissertation – which is less time than it would take to write. So don’t write it.

Always leave your account open. That way, if anyone takes it upon themselves to reminisce about what a prick you were, you’ve always got the means to respond. In fact some might suggest that closing down a forum account is an invitation for anyone who didn’t like you to take unlimited, free potshots at your reputation. If you want to leave a forum, just do nothing. What could be easier, and more dignified, than that?

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