Internet Forums

By: John C. Banks

Web forums have become a popular and important tool for many website designers. Forums are evolved from bulletin board systems (BBS) which were an early form of computer communication. Another important predecessor was usenet or computer newsgroups which still exist today.

The concept is fairly simple - users read and post questions or comments. Other users can respond and the process can continue over time. Web forums differ from chat rooms in having the advantage of longevity. While chat rooms offer spontaneous discussion, forum users can login at any convenient time, read and respond. Discussions can go on over long periods of time and involve many participants.

Forums can have a single venue or be divided into multitudes of subjects. In turn each subject will be populated with posts on many topics. Some discussions may flourish and die within hours while others can go on for months or years.

The multi-subject style, often referred to as a "community" is very popular. Another popular variant is the web log or "blog", where a commentator publishes periodical article and users visit and comment.

Forums come in a variety of packages. Some forums are open source packages which are free to download and have a variety of customizable features and add-ons. Website owners using a cpanel type web host may find ready to use open source forums as an option in Fantastico, a software installation tool that many hosts provide. Others are commercial packages that are paid for by the time period or thru a long term agreement. In some cases forums are custom coded by a programmer.

The advantage of having a forum as part of an overall website is obviously to provide users with information and a reason to return. It is the feeling of membership and a potential for new information that makes forums so attractive to audiences. This pays off for the web administrator as the overall site stands to flourish in terms of traffic brought in via the forum side of the site.

Site owners have a variety of ways to benefit from forum traffic. First and foremost they have an opportunity to showcase their products or services. Other advantages include possible subscription income, the ability to sell advertising and the use of the resource to influence the audience. Many site owners will use some combination of those options to accumulate profit from several small sources.

The audience is attracted for a number of reasons. Many forum readers are repeat visitors, looking for news or self training. Others visit for the conversation and company. Some members will join for business reasons such as promoting a product or service.

A member usually has a profile which may contain information such as username, image, email address, website URL, contact information, hobbies, and more.

Each forum will have a set of guidelines which can vary widely. The forum software often allows for several options of user privileges. Some sites allow only posts from members while others allow guests to post. Users may also be restricted in posting commercial links either in posts or signatures.

Forums can cover a wide array of issues. Many are technical in nature. Some forums deal with segments such as regional interests or hobbies. Other sites will have a community with a wide span of unrelated forum topics. There are even forum forums where forum owners can discuss the intricacies of forum development and maintenance.

Forums are not without disadvantages. They can be costly and time consuming to maintain. By nature, most forums and forum variants tend to be prone to security problems. A loss of data or other compromise can translate to a perception of a poorly crafted site. Another risk for forums comes from the possibility of unfavorable publicity for the site as a result of discussions gone bad. Perhaps the most frustrating are the constant bombardments of spam to many forums.

Typically these issues are addressed by having one or more administrators and a group of moderators. A moderator is usually a volunteer reader with an interest in the subject who acts as a watchdog for the good of the forum. Administrators have extensive controls on the site, and moderators have some level of control, usually with the ability to edit or delete offensive posts.

Website owners considering a forum, blog or other communication tool must decide what the needs are, then consider all the options. Budgets of time and money are all factors that will influence the choices.

Computers and The Internet
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