Successful Internet Forums For Owners And Users


As a student of human nature, as well as a long-time forum member and owner, I am in a good position to offer some general thoughts (call it a rant if you like!) and guidelines regarding ‘net based forums. I guess I am as qualified as any to comment from the user’s side of the equation. Currently, I read or post to a least a dozen forums per day, some revolving around my line of work and others related to my hobbies and interests: fitness, health, bodybuilding, longevity, weight loss, audio-video, military, law enforcement, firearms—to name a few.

I can also comment from the owner’s side, as my two forums—Fat Loss Revealed and Bodybuilding Revealed—have over 10,000 active members. Not the largest forums on the ‘net for sure, but not small time either.
This article is not about how to market a forum to “drive” traffic or anything like that. Rather, this article is concerned with the culture of a forum, which directly impacts its long-term success. These comments are based on what I have seen and experienced, as both a long time forum user and owner, about the major downfalls and mistakes that ultimately lead to unhappy members.

Forum Culture

Every forum has its own culture. That culture always starts with the owner of the forum. It’s a direct reflection of what the owner does, or does not do, with their forums, such as the moderators (mods) they choose, how much power the mods are given, how much personal control the owner maintains, how active he is, and so on. The forum reflects the personality, values, goals, etc. of its owner. The “buck stops” with the owner of the forums, as he is literally the captain of the ship. As an owner, if you wish to run a successful forum long term, you should be on the look out for the following problems.

The Member Cabal

The member cabal is inevitable on any forum, but it’s not inherently a negative. All it means is that a group of long term “regulars” have formed their own clique. It can be a helpful, productive group that’s supportive of new people coming into the forum, or it can be highly damaging. It’s up to the owner of the forum and the mods to keep an eye out, and keep firm control over the member cabals that form. The type of cabal will be a direct reflection of the forum’s culture, which reflects on, as mentioned above, the owner of that forum.

“Beating up the new kid”

This is a logical transition from the above, because it usually, but not always, involves the member cabal. Many forums have a culture where every new person is “initiated” or generally hassled, simply due to the fact they are new to the forum. I recall one forum I visited regularly, which had a guy with an avatar that said something like “I sh&% on the new guy.” Mods, as representatives of the owner, should not tolerate this behavior, as—if not cut off early—it will only grow.

It’s the perfect way to assure a small group of people run the forum, and if it’s not prevented early on, the owner can literally lose control. New members looking to join won’t when they see the abuse, or else it will turn into one of those forums with a few active members and a bunch of lurkers, as few will actively participate due to the abusive member cabal. On the other hand, a friendly member cabal welcomes and accepts new people, and helps the forum grow.

On my forums, for example, my “regulars” are one and all friendly, helpful, and welcoming people. That’s because I have great mods, and make sure the forums are always going in the direction I feel they should, based on my overall guiding philosophy and principles.

The Moderator Cabal

Similar to the member cabal, but potentially much more damaging to a forum, is the moderator cabal. Again, it’s pretty much inevitable such a cabal will form when you have people working together, even if it’s a virtual work space. And again, there is nothing inherently wrong with it, but the owner of the forum needs to keep a very close eye on the moderators. Pecking orders, cliques, etc. will form, and unless the owner of the forum keeps a tight handle on his forum, it can quickly get out of control. I have seen forums where there was more drama behind the scenes with the mods than could be found on the forum! Like any office space–virtual or otherwise–the culture starts from the top down, so the owner must put time into the back end of the forum, as well as the front.
I know too many forum owners who have let their mod cabal essentially take over their forums, chase off members they don’t like, chase off, or generally harass, other mods they don’t like, and so on. The owner of any forum who takes a “hands off” approach will have a mess on his hands sooner then later. I spend at least a few hours per day on my own forums making sure they’re all running smoothly, supporting members and mods equally, and assuring the ship is heading in the direction it needs to, as reflected in the mission statement of the forums.

To finish my point, and continue with the ship analogy: big ships develop a great deal of momentum, so setting the course early, and making small adjustments, takes less energy and time than attempting to alter course once that ship has gotten it’s full momentum up.

“Mod as God” syndrome

As the member cabal section transitioned perfectly into the “beating up the new kid” section, the mod cabal transitions into this section. The “Mod as God” syndrome is, without a doubt, my personal peeve. It can be all the members of a mod cabal, or an individual, and it’s very destructive to any forum. This syndrome appears to start when a mod decides the section they mod, or the forum itself is their personal fiefdom. These mods often set different standards for themselves than for the members. Like the member cabal, they may insult, belittle, or generally hassle a member they have taken a dislike to, and if that member attempts to defend themselves or respond, the mods will ban them or use other penalties at their discretion.

This double standard is damaging to the morale of any forum and unacceptable behavior by the mod(s) in question. It’s also a very common problem on many forums where a mod has decided he or she has additional rights above that of the members, and their word is law, even if they are often responsible for the problems.

A similar issue is favoritism, where one member can say or “get away with” far more than others. Mods should be objective and fair; once they decide their word is law, they are no longer able to objectively carry out their jobs. Again, this comes about due to the owner of the forum not being the true overall guiding influence on the forum. The only word that is law on a forum is the owner’s—period. However, if the owner is not an active participant, and/or allows mods to abuse members, then sides with the mod (even when it’s obvious that mod is way out of line), he loses authority and credibility with the members.

The forum ultimately suffers. Productive members of the forum will leave, the cabals will stay and grow stronger, and the forum will cease to be relevant within its intended niche.

Now in the spirit of full disclosure, I have been banned from forums. A few times temporarily (though I will generally not return to that forum anyway), and a few times permanently. I’m not proud of that fact, but I am also not the least bit ashamed of it either. Whenever it’s happened, it was for one of the reasons I mentioned above.

Personally, I simply will not tolerate the “mod as God” syndrome as either a member of a forum or as the owner of that forum, and when a mod attacks me—or is clearly being biased or playing favorites—I will let them know it. I will not tolerate it on my own forums, and if I feel a member is right and the mod is wrong, I will side with the member. That has never happened on my forums, however, and that’s because I’ve stepped in long before it ever got to that point. I don’t put my mods in a position where they have to defend themselves, and they know I will deal with it well before that.

The members of my forums know I always take a fair and objective approach to the issue or dispute. It’s part of my mission statement, and is an essential component of a healthy, successful forum.

The Missing Mod Syndrome

There are also forums where you know there are mods somewhere, but you can’t figure where, or even who, they are. They don’t seem to do any actual moderating, don’t keep the forum running smoothly, and may show up to lock a thread after some flame war has been taking place for days or longer. These “hands off” mods and owners tend to end up with a ‘free for all’ type forum. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that if that’s what the owner wants and the members enjoy, and such forums have their own niche, but they are not for me and not what I recommend owners strive for. They are generally a big mess of flame wars, member cabals, and a waste of time for those people who actually want to talk about and read about relevant topics that such a forum pretends to offer.

Conclusion

One or more of the above pitfalls can produce what I call “Toxic Forum Syndrome.” The forum is sick and is in need of fixing. Obviously, prevention is always better than treatment, so it’s best to be proactive and “hands on” as the owner of a forum, rather than reactive. Members of forums will probably recognize the above categories from forums they visit regularly, which should help them decide whether to move on, or attempt to be part of the cure vs. the problem. I identified these problems over many years as a member and user of forums, so when I decided to start my own forums,* I was fully aware and prepared to avoid them. So far so good…

 

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32 Comments
  1. GunNposes 11 years ago

    Thanks for the insights into the participation of all, including owners, moderators and members of forums. I must in my experience as a BBR member, the forums there have proven to be the best blend of advice, support and humor I have seen anywhere.

  2. Author
    Will Brink 11 years ago

    Thanx guns, it’s been my long time personal experience with forums that lead me to make sure they didn’t exist in my own forums.

  3. Marc David 11 years ago

    Will,
    Excellent post. I’ve run a freebie forum for 5 years now and experienced (still am) all of the above. I do think that paid membership sites eliminate a lot of the hassle as most people who would cause a ruckus and be hostile, would never ever pay to join a forum.
    Paid, exclusive content only sites are even better as the quality of the moderators goes way up as they have a stake in the outcome (many at that level are professionals themselves).
    You’ve outlined a toxic forum in precise detail. Great post! Thank you.

  4. Author
    Will Brink 11 years ago

    Tnanx for the comments Marc. No surprise you have experienced all the above! Feel free to use the article and or pass it around. I think many owners and users don’t always know what to look for, and once exposed like that, makes it harder for such problems to develop when one can point right to what they are doing. For sure, paid forums have an additional buffer to some of those issues.

  5. Tom 11 years ago

    Great stuff, Will! Two points.
    1) When reading your piece, I thought of a very well- known nutrition expert who not only encourages all the negatives you mentioned, but also exhibits them all himself! I think that what has resulted is a Forum left with only a handful of posters who often have to feed off each other because of their toxic approach to almost anyone or anything who post. That CAN’T be good for buisness, can it?
    2) You didn’t mention the “troll”; that species of Internet virus whose sole goal in life is to disrupt any and all helpful discussion on other Forums. If others suffer for his or her misdeeds, they are happy; and will often go back to their “home cave” to brag and gloat. Any thoughts on the ever-present “troll”?

  6. Author
    Will Brink 11 years ago

    I can think of a few people who fit what that description. Good for business?! Hell no, but I don’t think they care, or perhaps they care, but their ego and or “issues” seem to trump the need for managing their forums.
    I didn’t bother with trolls as that’s a category everyone knows about! It’s a given on any open non paid forum, and a real drag for members. Also, the troll issue could be an article onto itself as there are so many different kinds! 🙂

  7. Philip (fairlane) 11 years ago

    Will, nice to see someone actually write about these issues. I’ve been to many forums on different topics and have gotten ‘into trouble’ or have been accused of starting trouble, resulting in even an owner at one point stating, “you’re still arguing with one of the mods, why?”. That one was exactly what you said here, the mod had a bad case of Mod as God, and the owner is pretty hands off. In a nutshell, one member made a nasty comment, in general, I responded, (and no, it wasn’t abrasive either, other members agreed with me, but I had their sympathy since that is the way it is here, I was told) and one Mod bashed me and not the initial member. I feel the same way you do about abusive and biased mods as gods, and this was a clear cut case. I ended up telling basically this to the owner in addition to him being the owner, he needed to act like one and get a handle on his mods.
    He offered me a job :). I respectfully declined though.
    Great to see that I’m not alone out there in forumland. 🙂

  8. Tom 11 years ago

    The last poster brought up ANOTHER issue I would Will’s thoughts on.
    Doesn’t the POSTER have a certain responsibilty to know the “aim” or “culture” or goals of a particular site?
    Let’s say its obviously a Supplement Companies site and just about the only post I ever make are bashing those supplements (non-troll like, but armed with the latest and greatest research).
    Or let’s say it’s some support Forum for a particular group, and its a group that I may think are just a bunch of “whiners”.
    Again; doesn’t the POSTER have an obligation to understand the aims and Goals of a site before they go in with guns blasting and the lastest studies and/or opinions?

  9. Author
    Will Brink 11 years ago

    Well as users are generally posters, I feel I covered the essentials, but sure, it’s a given if you go into a forum “guns blasting” as a new member, you will probably get a negative response from the mods and members. That’s not the same as a forum with Toxic Forum Syndrome however. That’s an issue of a new member not doing some searching around and learning prior to posting. Now, I have been guilty of doing that myself, and it’s how the mods or members respond that is telling of it’s culture.

  10. scottia 11 years ago

    I am new to BBR and have joined several forum’s over the years only to be subject to various abuses. I can w/out a doubt say that BBR’s owner, mods & staff have been courteous and extremely helpful.
    I try and thoroughly research and respond to my posts as effective as possible via provided books and materials associated with the forum. I feel that if you respect the forum environment the forum members and staff will respect you.
    I find it a comfortable and great place to visit and seek advice. Top Notch !!

  11. Author
    Will Brink 11 years ago

    Thanx Scottia, glad you can see the differences between forums.

  12. rbtrout 11 years ago

    Amen to this, Will.
    I hit several forums during the week and you can see all these symptoms on many of them. It would be nice if all owners/mods read this article.
    On a site I used to frequent, a massive flaming happened to a guy that posed a real question. The other members attacked this guy hard-core. I left a quite straight-forward post basically telling the other members to shut the heck up. I got an email from a mod saying that I was out of line. I told him that if he had done his job, I would not have had to say what I did. Thus the threat to be banned. I ended up emailing him and 3 other mods about the entire thing and told them that, as mods, they should be all over stopping stuff like this and that I am banning their site. I haven’t been back since.
    It’s really a shame that too many people let the crap go on, it does turn potentially good websites into a joke.

  13. Author
    Will Brink 11 years ago

    rbtrout, sad to say, your experience is the norm, not the exception on most forums. It’s amazing how much a small amount if power can go to a person’s head. Inter forum dynamics and culture, are interesting to watch, and it sounds like you saw the “perfect storm” of every issue in my article take place in one thread! Never pretty…. 🙁

  14. Ty 11 years ago

    Will,
    Found your posts very knowlegable on the excellent SSpear forum, and found my way here. I enjoyed reading this well done outline regarding the “toxic” syndrome…as I just went thru ALL that on a well known LawEnforcement site…where you would think there would be more support for a new guy. I sure like the SSpear forum, though! Much Brotherhood there!
    Keep up the good work Will! I look forward to every post!
    ArizonaGuide.

  15. Author
    Will Brink 11 years ago

    Thanx Ty. I have had that experience at many forums. SS is the best of the bunch in my experience, though I have had a run in or two over there also. Owner (Boon) is a good guy who tries to run a tight ship over there. Hope you signed up to the list. That way, you get alerted every time a new post goes up on the blog.

  16. Arrirmdok 11 years ago

    Hello. It is test.

  17. Insemjemvuntee 11 years ago

    Hi. I regularly be familiar with this forum. This is the head period unqualified to ask a query.
    How numberless in this forum are references progressive behind, knavish users?
    Can I worthiness all the advice that there is?

  18. jalmenciewawn 11 years ago

    I am here at a forum newcomer. Until I read and deal with the forum.
    Let’s learn!

  19. Guepbeise 11 years ago

    Goodday I’m new here
    And it looks like a good forum, so just wanted to say hello! :):):)
    And looking forward to participating.
    Going on vacation for a few days, so i’ll be back

  20. David Barr 11 years ago

    Great article Will!
    I’ve been working on something similar, but yours literally made me lol, as I immediately called to mind specific examples of each type of problem.
    Clearly this was developed from a decade and a half of forum use (abuse? :).
    David

  21. Author
    Will Brink 11 years ago

    Use, abuse, misuse, been there done that! 🙂

  22. MichaellaS 10 years ago

    tks for the effort you put in here I appreciate it!

  23. AndrewMcFaul 10 years ago

    New here. Wanted to say hello.
    Thanks,

  24. Lorencorib 9 years ago

    So….. where is toilet? Hehe))) Joke, relax 😉
    By the way, anybody home?!

    • Author
      willbrink 9 years ago

      Someone is home, and I'm going to delete your above comment if you can't explain how the toilet comment related to the topic of the above blog post. B)

  25. AssangeMig 9 years ago

    Is it possible to contact administration?
    By the way, anybody home?!
    bye bye ;))

  26. accilaAfferie 8 years ago

    Hello, i found this place on google and i like it so far 🙂

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  28. exerriefe 8 years ago

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  30. exerriefe 8 years ago

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  31. Chew Toy 7 years ago

    Bar none I’ve found BBR to be the best, most informative forum community on training/nutrition out there.

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