Bulletin Boards and Discussion Forums: Then and Now

In History and Emergence of Online Communities (2003), Jenny Preece, Diane Maloney-Krichmar, and Chadia Abras define an online community as “a group of people who interact in a virtual environment.”  In an earlier publication (2000) Preece et al. offer an online community’s key characteristics: they have a purpose, are supported by technology, and are guided by norms and policies.  The authors go on to differentiate communities by whether their participants are co-present in time (asynchronous or synchronous).

In this post, I’d like to explore one type of asynchronous technology: online bulletin boards and their modern-day cousins, discussion forums.  First, some basics: how do they work?  A moderator (community manager) is constantly present, often in the background, to enforce adherence to the board’s or forum’s policies and ensure appropriate etiquette.  While it’s possible to view posts without logging in to a site, registration is required to contribute to a discussion or post a question.  Posts are grouped into threads to organize responses to the original poster’s (or OP’s) question.  Each site typically has a frequently asked questions page outlining its rules of the road.

The Truth Is Out There

My first introduction to online communities was through a friend with whom I watched a television show, The X-Files.  In 1997 the show was in its heyday, and bulletin boards dedicated to the show abounded.  Its underlying mythology stymied new and die-hard fans alike, and “the boards” were the place to dissect (often ad nauseum) the previous week’s episode and speculate on upcoming eps.  I never posted, but voraciously read others’ threads on the plot twists of the week.  (Yes, I was a lurker.)

  • Have a purpose?  These bulletin boards allowed fans of the X-Files (X-Philes) to congregate online to discuss the show.
  • Supported by technology?  Yes: asynchronous bulletin board.
  • Guided by norms and policies?  The X-Files bulletin boards had moderators and site etiquette and also featured inside references to the show, including an extensive set of acronyms.

As the internet evolved, so did forums.  Instead of being standalone destinations rendered in text, they were often embedded into websites dedicated to work and leisure topics.  I tend to refer to forums when I have a specific question which would benefit from collective intelligence.  Just like in the X-Files days, I lurk more than actively participate, but I have used them to post threads about health questions, automobile issues, and technology questions.

Trust (Almost) Everyone

MacOS X Hints ForumFor example, five years ago after I applied an update on my iBook, I experienced a technical problem.  I searched online for assistance but without any luck.  So, I took a breath, posted a thread on the Macworld MacOS X Hints forum, and waited for a reply.  Within 12 hours three different users had posted responses.  (Discussion forums may be categorized as asynchronous, but with users scattered across the globe, oftentimes the OP doesn’t have to wait long for a reply.)

MacOS X Hints Forum

  • Have a purpose?  Have a question?  There’s most likely an online discussion forum dedicated to that topic.
  • Supported by technology?  Yes: asynchronous discussion forum.
  • Guided by norms and policies?  When posting my Mac question, I searched (and re-searched) the discussion forum, not wanting to break a cardinal rule of posting a question that had been previously answered in another thread.  Forum participants were friendly,  informative, and encouraging.

Online bulletin boards and discussion forums are still very much present in internet culture, although their user interfaces have evolved as their supporting websites have done the same.  Although they might not be the sexiest technology, discussion forums still serve a valuable purpose, whether the participant is a consumer or contributor.

What do you think?  Have you ever used an online discussion forum?  If so, when and for what?

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