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Managing Online Forums 118

stoolpigeon writes "I vividly remember the first time I was able to dial up a BBS with my Commodore VIC-20. It was Star Trek themed, and I was excited to see that the Sysop was online. We typed a few lines of text back and forth while I hollered to everyone in the house that I was talking to someone through the computer. Things have come a long way since then, and I've put in quite a few hours experiencing one of the more exciting sides of the internet: participating in community. Of course it hasn't all been great. Communities on-line are just like any other, in that there are differences of opinion and issues that arise. Some are handled well, some are not. Social interaction can be very complicated, and learning how to manage a social site can be a process that involves a lot of painful lessons. Fortunately not all of our learning has to come through direct experience. Sometimes we have the opportunity to learn from the experience of others. Patrick O'Keefes book Managing Online Forums is that guide to the budding leader of the web's next great community. Keep reading for the rest of JR's review.
Managing Online Forums
author Patrick O'Keefe
pages 312
publisher AMACOM
rating 9/10
reviewer JR Peck
ISBN 978-0-8144-0197-2
summary Everything you need to know to create and run successful community discussion boards.
Since the reader will be relying on O'Keefes experience and opinions, his personal history in the subject at hand is extremely relevant. He has been involved in web site design since 1998 and managing online communities since 2000. As the founder and owner of the iFroggy Network he has extensive experience in managing site policy, staff and members. O'Keefe is also active in other communities including his role as a moderator for Sitepoint. Patrick has also published articles there on forum management.

The book's byline is that it provides everything that you need to know to run a successful community discussion board. There is a wide range of topics covered though the emphasis is primarily placed on what I would call the soft side of community management. The technical discussion is limited, though it is there. There is no real discussion of how to go about setting up software. There are some suggestions as to choosing a domain name and software. Two options are given for software, vBulletin and phpBB. Each is described in a summary consisting of a few paragraphs of basic information. There is little discussion of installation from a technical standpoint. The most technical information deals with the core issues of security and backing up data. I didn't see this as a real weakness as there is already plenty of documentation on these choices and many more. Adding it all in would have really bulked up the book while distracting from the primary mission which is informing the reader on building successful communities.

While there is not much technical detail, there is discussion of features from a social perspective. O'Keefe doesn't discuss whether or not a feature should be used because performance or storage ramification but rather focuses on the positives or negatives in terms of managing how participants might view or use those options. This is the information that is not already out there in multiple places. O'Keefe is able to discuss from experience how he has seen users react to these features in the past as well as warning of any possible benefits or pitfalls. This is of course his opinion on these matters. This fact about the nature of the book is going to make or break it for the reader.

I envision that someone would come to this book from three possible positions. They may already have a strong opinion of the issues presented and disagree with the author. On the other hand they may agree. The last group would be people who come without strong presuppositions. I think that the first group would not enjoy the book, there is no objective evidence or argument that will bring these people over. This is after all, subjective opinion. The other two groups I think have a lot to gain, the third group most of all. A person who comes to the material with an open mind, looking for options and guidance will I gain a strong preparation for dealing with a number of issues that are almost certain to arise in online groups.

The book begins by quickly reviewing a set of basic questions that should be asked before a site is set up for a new community. They are fundamental but important and I think it is surprising how many endeavors to build communities don't seem to have considered them. The are, "What will your community cover?", "Whom do you want to attract?", "What will the benefits of your community be?", and "How will you support the community financially?". All of these questions, the naming of the community and site, hosting and software are covered up front.

In each of the following major sections, the author's advice is accompanied by example templates and policies. In chapter three, "Developing Guidelines", the community guidelines for KarateForums.com and SitePoint.com are printed. There are excellent documents in the chapter on managing staff that give good examples of staff guidelines that can be used in those communities that grow and the work of management needs to be shared. All of these are built on real policies and guidelines. The staff section also includes a nice decision matrix for various situations that may arise, such as hot linking or cross posting.

The chapter "Banning Users and Dealing with Chaos" is of course full of interesting examples and history. It is also very valuable. The fact is any successful community will need to deal with adverse conditions and this is where inexperience can be the most costly. O'Keefe outlines likely scenarios and how to handle them. He also gives further examples of guidelines that can help the administrator in staying above the fray and maintaining their sanity when things can be very contentious. From the personal anecdotes, O'Keefe has already been through much of the worse that the web has to offer. This chapter and all that it entails is balance by a chapter on creating a good and healthy environment as well as the importance of keeping things interesting.

Two other chapters deal with what I think of as the business side of running forums. There is a chapter on developing traffic. I was glad to see that this included not only what to do but also what not to do. And there are similar warning within methods that can be used in a positive way or a negative way. O'Keefe cautions against activities that may bring what appear to be short term gains but do not really build sustainable community. While physically separate in the book, I found that this section dovetailed with the chapter on generating income. O'Keefe basically runs down all the various methods for making money with a site. Once again he give the pros and cons as well as strong warnings against the things that are going to be counter productive.

There are three appendices. The first is a list of resources, the second is a set of blank templates that match the examples given in the body of the book and the third is a glossary. I think that glossary is an important because I believe that this book would be an excellent guide to anyone who wants to not only form an online community but is new to the whole idea. These folks may be very caught off guard by the things they will probably need to deal with, beyond the technical issues of getting a site up and running. This book would probably be something that anyone out there setting up sites for others could quickly recommend to help the new manager to be be successful once the site is up and live.

I think there is a lot here also for those with some experience on-line if they don't have a lot of experience running a community site or if they are just looking for some new ideas. I've been corresponding with others electronically for quite a while and I still found quite a bit here that was of value. There is also the strength of going in with policies and actions that are built to head off problems rather than respond to them once they have taken place. I would think this gives any new community a much higher chance of growing and thriving. Managing Online Forums is unique in this regard, to my knowledge. Taking on the human side of managing a site rather than just the technical components.

You can purchase Managing Online Forums from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.


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Managing Online Forums

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  • first? (Score:5, Funny)

    by magsol ( 1406749 ) on Monday February 09, 2009 @03:07PM (#26787751) Journal
    I wonder if there's a chapter in it titled "first".
  • Trolling? (Score:1, Troll)

    by Majik Sheff ( 930627 )

    Does he mention anything about trolls? Like First posters?

    • Re:Trolling? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by garcia ( 6573 ) on Monday February 09, 2009 @03:21PM (#26788077)

      I run a website that, among other things, includes local restaurant "reviews". I have found myself constantly combating not your typical troll (I get some of that, but for the most part it's minimal) but astroturfers. Restaurant owners rarely like what I have to say about their restaurant and being that I usually outrank them on Google, they are trying to get people's opinion swayed their way.

      I have to pay close attention to logs including e-mail addresses and IP ranges as well as referrers to piece together their lame attempts. I wonder how many other people out there have a similar problem. Are you noticing an uptick in traffic from mailed URLs with friends, family, and others (sometimes paid via Amazon's Turk) to attempt and negate what is being said on your website/forum?

      • I would think that you would allow the comments if they came from separate people, even if those separate people were friends and family members. At least they are not pretending to be different people; that would be crossing the line.

        I probably think that way because I am not a fan of censorship. You're providing a soapbox and limiting who can use it. Which is your right, it's your soapbox.

        If anything it would promote people to go and try the restaurant and make the decision on if it is good
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by garcia ( 6573 )

          Please don't misunderstand... I ask for the input of the public and I really want to hear it. What I do not want to see are several comments, all from the same IP address, originating from the same Yahoo Mail referrer, using e-mail addresses which bounce, and giving words of praise about how awesome everything was for them.

          If someone is an owner or otherwise affiliated with an establishment, I want to hear them say exactly that. They don't want to say that because they know how it looks to others reading th

          • What I do not want to see are several comments, all from the same IP address, originating from the same Yahoo Mail referrer, using e-mail addresses which bounce, and giving words of praise about how awesome everything was for them.

            I agree with this, backed when I said: "pretending to be different people; that would be crossing the line"

            I was commenting on this portion:

            Are you noticing an uptick in traffic from mailed URLs with friends, family, and others (sometimes paid via Amazon's Turk) to attempt a

          • I'm sure that these dishonest astroturfers could profit from an honestly signed reply, it wouldn't look bad at all. Perhaps a thanks, perhaps a note to their potential customers, even a rebuttal of your critique, whatever they say it's idiotic not to use your venue to get in some sort of direct advertising via a reasonable signed comment instead of backhanded indirect astroturfing. Such is human nature I guess, always looking for the easy way when the obvious but harder way is staring them in the face.

      • Oh yeah, you are definitely not alone. :) This is something that happens in all spaces. For example, I wrote a controversial blog post a while back and I had someone post four times in a row, using a different name each time, agreeing with him or herself. :) Fun! I think that, in this case, it would be good to take action against the obvious ones and leave the rest. I think of it as a problem and I deal with it when it is obvious, but I try not to jump to any conclusions if I can help it. I sympathize with
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by thedonger ( 1317951 )
      Trolls? I have a forum on my climbing gym web site, and thanks to these ardent posters I am well-hung (male enhancement), smell nice (imitation cologne), have awesome kicks (deals on Nike knock-offs), and I am well-traveled (airline tickets). They provide an invaluable service.
    • by fava ( 513118 )

      Unfortunately in any forum/social networking site/online community there will always be people who will try to game the system for their own benefit. That benefit may be financial or it may be social (ie top ranking). The trick is building a system that rewards participation and discourages the gaming. I don't think anyone has managed to get it right yet.

  • It's not rocket science.
    • It is not an easy task ether. I have been running a forum for two or three years (20-30 posts per day), and it has been a lot of work and a lot of problems I wouldn't think of.

      What has finally made me quit was a lack of time and problems with spam ... It was getting worse and worse, they find a way to sneak in and they post those 40 penis enlargement adds in it ...

      • by A. B3ttik ( 1344591 ) on Monday February 09, 2009 @03:28PM (#26788197)
        I frequent a forum that gets around it by forcing posters to post in the "New Members" section. That section sometimes gets some spam, sure, but it's at least kept to one forum.
      • Easily solvable.
        1) If your users hate registering force them to key in the text on a hashed image. Get 40+ hashed images with text and you are good to go. Better if you get a program that will randomly generate them.
        2) If users don't care about registration, then use that and include the hashed image.

        Now you just killed bot-spammers. I had a client with the bot-spam (thousands of messages each day killing the 50-100 posts from her users). She didn't want them to have to register to post so we did the
      • I'm sorry to hear that, messner. This is something that all community admins have to deal with and it is definitely frustrating. If you ever get back into it, I would recommend looking at the resource sites for your chosen software and seeing what they offer as far as a CAPTCHA or bot solution. The truth is that people will keep innovating - on both sides. You have to experiment and adjust. Stinks, but it's a challenge that forum administrators face, for sure.
      • Indeed. I'm running a phpBB3 forum and have noticed a sharp uptick in bot traffic in the last week. Added a couple of hacks to fix it today, and I'm ahead for the time being...

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by webheaded ( 997188 )
        I found a damn easy way to keep bots out. In IPB, you can add a custom field that will ask a question while registering. I've made this question "Are you a bot? Answer 'N'" but what I found on the web is that most bots try to put in something entirely different there (birth date or age or something). I let the line support multiple characters and I have yet to see a single bot since I did this. I HAVE seen bots that registered beforehand get through obviously, but that is quite easily solved. :)

        So sc
      • Usually the SYSOP or Admin asks to be sent an email to verify the user is real and not a bot. Posting privileges are not given until the admin can talk to the user via email.

        Once the user puts a bot on their account or the account gets hacked, you just ban by IP address so it does not happen again.

      • Moderated registration. Spammers do register at my forum but I've never had spam. It's easy to tell who is a bot and who isn't because I've added simple but uncommon questions to the registration process and bots don't know what to do so they type 1 into it. If it happens to be a real people simple enough to just type one into a field then I don't want them posting there anyway.
    • In fact, I am surprised that more books have not been written on this subject. This book is going right on mt reading list.
      • Thanks very much, Presto Vivace. If you do pick it up, please let me know what you think as I'd love to hear your feedback.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by MrEricSir ( 398214 )

      Nope -- it's more difficult.

      Rockets don't have emotions, and they won't get you in trouble by posting child porn to your family-oriented website.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by fm6 ( 162816 )

      If you don't care about the quality of your online discussion, then no, I guess it's not.

    • by dcollins ( 135727 ) on Monday February 09, 2009 @03:50PM (#26788597) Homepage

      One example: We could use a moderation system to clear out unhelpful, anti-intellectual comments.

      I know, hard to believe some people still haven't heard of that, but it's true.

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Yup. There is loads of stuff that you need to know if you run a major forum.

      One important thing is laws regarding it. For what are you responsible? How much of the risks do you negate by removing everything offensive immediately when asked? How much info are you required to give to the authorities about your users and how much you can protect their privacy?

      Then there are conversion related subjects. Earning money with your forums, getting users to stay, ad placement, how to encourage users to donate... Ther

      • Well said, AC. There is a lot that goes into forums, behind the scenes, that most members never know about (which is a good thing, but still, it creates a disconnect of what it actually takes).
    • by b4upoo ( 166390 )

      Sadly the greatest issue is that forums usually represent a commercial interest and that forces a certain biased viewpoint that can effect forum users. I know of no fix for this built in conflict and basic fairness is often flushed right down the tubes.

    • by skeeto ( 1138903 )
      Judging by the fact that nearly everyone does it so poorly, I would say it's pretty tough and warrants a book on the subject.
    • by Dan541 ( 1032000 )

      I have to agree.

      Also people dumb enough to need a book on how to run an online forum probably aren't smart enough to read anyway, making the likelihood of them running a forum even lower.

  • Online forums need to be managed? And is there a chapter in there on trolls?
    • Re:huh? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by JoeMerchant ( 803320 ) on Monday February 09, 2009 @03:56PM (#26788705)
      /. does an admirable job of moderating through technology, and utilizing their huge readership to do moderation. This model breaks down for most people's groups that consist of a dozen regular posters and a hundred or so lurkers - there just aren't enough people who care a little bit wielding a little moderation power to make it work - people who care too much and/or wield too much power over the discussion usually end up spoiling the experience, unless the group is more or less intrinsically well behaved.
      • Re: (Score:1, Flamebait)

        by Dan541 ( 1032000 )

        Slashdot mods are mostly just retards, they don't contribute to discussion if they did they would not have mod points.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by mschuyler ( 197441 )

          How absurd! You don't get mod points UNLESS you contribute.

        • I believe you have to post to get /. mod points, but the whole thing about /. mods is that even if they are retards, there are a lot of them and things that get modded up to a visible level have impressed several retards (um, moderators) without un-impressing a larger number.

          This, combined with the absurd volume of posts on any given article, allows /. to bury most of the chaff (and a good bit of wheat), while presenting at least a few worthwhile comments.

          Back on your average mom and pop blog you'd expect

    • Online forums need to be managed? And is there a chapter in there on trolls?

      Yeah. I heard it was written posthumously by the head of the GNAA...

    • Trolls are definitely addressed! Though, they don't have their own chapter. :)
  • what does CowboyNeal think about the book?
  • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Monday February 09, 2009 @03:19PM (#26788023) Homepage

    That one specific example is worth a hundred vague statements? Remember the standard writing mantra: "Show, don't tell." Show us examples of cases he's dealt with, solutions that worked, solutions that failed, etc.

    • Re: (Score:1, Redundant)

      That one specific example is worth a hundred vague statements? preach it brother
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by MikeURL ( 890801 )
      All one has to do is imagine that they are at a conference with 100 people and no one is the least bit afraid that they will be arrested or beaten. Further they are all wearing masks and they have had a very bad day. This is what it means to manage an online forum.

  • by A. B3ttik ( 1344591 ) on Monday February 09, 2009 @03:20PM (#26788035)
    Hey, who wants to chip in and buy some copies for the slashdot editors?
    • Sure. I volunteer to collect all the money. Just send in your share+S/H+3% to my PayPal account.

    • I'd throw $20 in, except that this is /., so they would probably just read the summary on the flap and then act as if they had read the book.
  • That the modem itself was a cartridge that you plugged into the back at 300baud....

    That it had 4K of RAM and 8k of ROM.

    That the best game for it was UBISOFT's "Spiders of Mars"

    That the 5.25 floppy drive was model # 1701, just because... you know... that was cool.

    That the disk drive was a huge luxury in itself, and most software shipped on cassette tape.

    That the VIC-20 was from the FUTURE, and therefore Commodore's first celebrity spokesperson was Bill Shatner.

    Keep 'em coming....
    • Actuallly 3.5Kram (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      It had 3.5 K ram , you could later get a 9K ram expander , and 16K ram exapnder hten a ctridge that was the 32 K rma expander.

      It had no Floppy drive to start with YOU had a tape cassete drive you coudl winfod forward and back and control that with your data.
      AND in fact if you actually had a vic 20 you would know it had 64K of read only memory ,
      that you could "poke" and "peek" into using commodore basic to get effects like 8 bit graphical sprites and such , and create your own zork like adventure games with

      • Yeah fun times! Actually it was 5k RAM and 20k ROM. Oh that cassette, but it was better than the ZX 80 though! Vic 20 ran a great BASIC with an early version of the sprites that were quite a hit on c-64. My memory of PEEK and POKE was writing 'machine code' to memory because I didn't have an assembler and BASIC was too slow.
        • by Dysan2k ( 126022 )

          Nah.. BASIC was fine...

          10 for $i=0 to 50
          20 read $x
          25 poke 22000+$i,$x
          30 next $i
          40 data 00 04 96 28 ...

          All the assembly you needed via Basic :)

          • Oh yeah, you're right that's pretty much what I did - its starting to come back to me. I used to know all the hex codes for assembly commands, registers, etc. I doubt that much memory is going to come back though...
    • We had a 1540 and 1541 floppy drive. Got about 170K per side. Single sided double density 5.25" floppy disks. Very slow, but you could load a game in 15 to 20 minutes. For the datasette drive you could load a game, eat dinner, and be done and it was still loading. But by the time you used the bathroom and washed the dishes the datasette game was loaded.

  • How about a book specifically for people who post on those same online forums?

  • by mgkimsal2 ( 200677 ) on Monday February 09, 2009 @03:33PM (#26788273) Homepage
    I had the pleasure of interviewing Patrick for his book when it first came out last year. http://www.webdevradio.com/index.php?id=69 [webdevradio.com] I was a bit surprised at how useful the book could be. I ran a forum years ago and had to learn how to deal with a lot of issues (involving unruly users, banning people, finding moderators, etc.) I'd say I had about 60-70% of the knowledge and info contained in Patrick's book, and that was after years of having to deal with forums "back in the day" (1997-2002). It's not a *tech* book - there's not info in here about server admin stuff, or code samples, or anything like that. It's more about the social and behavioral aspects of communities. If you're considering starting a community on your site, you owe it to yourself to read this book. As someone else said, I'm surprised there's not more books on this topic.
    • " As someone else said, I'm surprised there's not more books on this topic."

      There are plenty of books on this 'subject'.

      usually under the subject heading of social psychology...or, seeing the method of online community interactio, perhaps operant conditioning would be more appropriate :D

    • Agreed. As a former SysOp and echo co-moderator, I recognize that managing an online forum isn't a technical process, it's a social process. It's always been a social process. A lot of people seem to think you can create a few policies, put a few technical controls in place and let the crowd moderate itself and that's just going to magically work. Not that I know anyone like that around here...

    • Thanks Michael. I really appreciate that.
  • I must admit I am in the same boat. My first computer was a Commodore 64 with a 1200 baud modem that yes was a cartridge that plugged into the back of the keyboard. I still have mine and it still works. I remember the BBS boards and the rules about posting and the points systems. Those were fun!! Although the parents used to complain about the phone being tied up. We didn't have tone dialing either at that time so pulse dialing was painfully slow!!! Good memories and nice story!!!
  • ... if any sites like gizmodo or engadget (who have had challenges with moderation) will have their editors give it a read, or perhaps comment here on the challenges.
  • if it listed forums of moderators who already follows that advise. So we can cut out time on forums populated by trolls, astroturfers, and fascist admins who only allow their political views to be aired and censor everything else or chase away the users by becoming bullies and trolls to them.

  • by Joe U ( 443617 ) on Monday February 09, 2009 @05:51PM (#26790539) Homepage Journal

    I've run several social sites, here's the only advice you need for moderating:

    1. Use a light touch, gentle moderation works wonders.
    2. Always handle things in private if possible.
    3. Avoid posting as an administrator.
    4. Never, EVER, EVER make it personal.
    5. Use a light touch, gentle moderation works wonders.

    I started in 1985, C-Net 64, I've seen enough users, flamewars, and total meltdowns.

    • I agree, and I'm only building communities since 1996. But, seriously, what do you do when encountering the inevitable "fuck you, I'm coming back with all my friends and destroy your board"? You know, I can't count the forums I've seen beaten to death by flashmobs of /b/tards, to name one example.

      To put it another way, how do you handle massive crowds with too much time on their hands and an axe to grind?

      • by Joe U ( 443617 )

        It depends how much damage they are trying to cause. If it's just a crapflood, slow down sign ups to a crawl, make them jump through hoops, turn it off if needed. You might alienate a few new users, but you'll keep your old ones.

        If they get completely out of hand, you can do several things, they involve lots of work:

        Go after the original user. He's the one responsible, he's the one you stop first.

        Email ISPs, explain that a DoS attack is originating from the user's IP address.
        If the ISP doesn't respond, call

    • by Raenex ( 947668 )

      What do you mean by "3. Avoid posting as an administrator."? There's a lot of ways to interpret this. Are you saying that if you want to post in a non-official capacity, you create an anonymous account where your administrator status is unknown?

      • by Joe U ( 443617 )

        Yeah, pretty much, the admins shouldn't be friends with individual users. The 'admin is my friend' starts flamewars and always attracts people who think that they can get special favors, usually involving trying to get someone else banned.

        Administrator as a role account works best, Administrator/Customer Service vs. Joe the admin.

        Create an alt and that can be your account to be pals with people. If you're not comfortable with this, let people know you work for the site, but everything has to go through cust

  • by stonecypher ( 118140 ) <stonecypher&gmail,com> on Monday February 09, 2009 @07:55PM (#26792089) Homepage Journal

    I had to shut my forums down because the spam problem got so out of control. Funny how far blogs are ahead of forums in keeping control of this stuff.


    First post is an ebay auction? Ban.

    "First" posts? Ban.

    Using "Teh" intentionally? Ban.

    Registering with a nickname composed completely of numbers, letters and no vowels? Application rejected.

    Intelligent conversation? Priceless.
    • It works for Something Awful. Especially since there's a 10 dollar registration fee, so banning actually means something.

      There are still people who've gotten banned tens of times though. That's the kind of silliness you're up against when running a forum.
      • Sounds like a win-win, it can't cost $10 in effort to ban a user, if they continue being %tards they continue supporting the moderators with actual cash.
  • Thankfully not in my experience. Got my first freeze mucking around with free Second Life access last night and watched some punk chick avatar with a spike ball punch my avatar's crotch repeatedly while I researched the problem.

"I prefer the blunted cudgels of the followers of the Serpent God." -- Sean Doran the Younger