<latemp_subject "Reflections on Online Communities" />
This essay was written by inspiration from the Joel on Software essay
Building Communities with Software</a>. Comments on
<a href="index-old.html">the original incarnation of it</a> led me to write
this version, which hopefully would be better.
<dd><a href="http://www.shlomifish.org/">Shlomi Fish</a></dd>
<h2 id="text">The Essay Itself</h2>
Joel Spolsky wrote
essay titled “Building Communities with Software”</a> back in March, 2003.
He explained there the motivation behind his web forum and why he believed it
was so good.
It has been over two years since the article was published. Before and since,
I had a lot of experience with various online communities:
<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_forum">web-based forums</a>,
<a href="http://www.irchelp.org/">IRC channels</a> on various networks,
<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instant_messaging">Instant Messaging</a>
<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blog">Weblogs</a> and their comments,
<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki">Wikis</a>, and to some extent
other types of online communities. In here, I will try to
summarise what I consider the essence of what makes each one of them successful
or unsuccessful (or some of both).
While I agree with Spolsky on several points he made, there are some points
I disagree on, or at least believe that people who set-up or design can make a
choice between the two. Both will be acceptable, but they will also influence
the nature and atmosphere of the forum.
<h3 id="growing_a_community">Growing a Community</h3>
;;; E-mailing a person upon a comment.
;;; RSS feeds for the discussions, and for parts of the discussion.
;;; - copy from old.
One of the issues that face any starting forum is how to gather an active
community. Being an editor of <a href="http://dmoz.org/">the Open Directory
Project’s</a> “Linux User Groups” category, I’ve been submitted countless
of “User Groups” that are essentially half-dead PHP-BB or PHP-Nuke/PostNuke
sites, where there’s very little activity.
Often creating a new online community is redundant as there are more
wide-scoped forums available where such discussion is acceptable. Often,
however, the originator of a forum feels he has no choice because the
parent forum owners have declared such discussions as off-topic. Generally,
the best strategy is to allow all the discussions in the previous forum as
well, in order to make the parent forum obsolete.
<h4 id="growing__email">E-mail Policy</h4>
E-mailing a person upon a comment to his post, or to a comment he made,
can actually (despite what Joel says) make your web forum more popular. This
is due to the fact that this motivates him to visit the forum again, respond to
the comment, and also possibly look at neighbouring comments or other
discussions. On the page that the E-mail refers to, one can advertise (in a
non-intrusive way), “hot” discussions, etc.
If no E-mail is sent, the person may forget about it, or despair from checking
his thread for responses time and again.
<h3 id="registration_and_authentication">Registration and Authentication</h3>
;;; * Can work for the web.
;;; - It is probably a good idea not to have it.
;;; * A must for the IRC.
;;; * Cryptologically-secure methods for doing that are probably an overkill
;;; - use plaintext passwords.
<h3 id="dealing_with_spam">Dealing with Spam</h3>
;;; Bayesian spam-filtering.
;;; - Spam filters - mostly have been for E-mail until now, but
;;; some may be adapted or written for spam in the near future.
;;; - a E-mail handshake.
;;; - Captchas. (accessibility problem, and not a full solution)
;;; URL blacklist.
<h3 id="dealing_with_trolling">Dealing with Trolling and Insults</h3>
;;; - Filtering content based on keywords - not a good idea
;;; - “one grown” vs. negro.
;;; - woman’s last name that contained “dick”
;;; #debian on Freenode:
;;; - one person there who constantly flame newbies.
;;; - #debian redirects to #knoppix - even if it’s a debian problem.
<h3 id="dealing_with_low_clue">Dealing with Low-clue Posts or Remarks</h3>
<h3 id="good_snr">Maintaining a good “Signal to Noise Ratio”</h3>
;;; - Off-topic discussions don’t necessarily reduce the SNR.
;;; - Discussions tend to drift off sometimes, and people dislike others
;;; telling them that they should stay on-topic.
;;; - It is however often necessary to do so.
;;; - Discussions about Politics proper tend to make people uncomfortable.
;;; The soc.culture.objectivism - Neo-Tech ban and my post.
;;; - bad example
;;; - by the user
;;; - Slashdot. (for comments)
;;; - Perl Monks. (posts disappearing).
;;; - Kuro5hin.
;;; - by admins.
;;; - Useful for many sites.
;;; - Slashdot: articles hitting the entire blogosphere, but are
;;; absent from it.
Usually an online forum is dedicated to one central topic. This is generally
considered a good thing, because if it hosts discussion of any topic
whatsoever, it will: 1. Lack a certain appeal, and 2. People will eventually
consider it to have a low signal-to-noise ratio.
<h3 id="semantics_of_operations">Semantics of Joining, Posting and Commenting</h3>
;;; * Mailing lists that reject posts to other people.
;;; * Reply-To:
;;; - sometimes good, sometimes bad.
;;; - Point to “Reply-to considered harmful” and
;;; “Reply-to considered harmful considered harmful”.
;;; * Promoting Active Discussions to the top.
;;; - a very bad idea.
;;; * Explain exactly what happens.
;;; - “one grown” vs negro without any feedback on what’s wrong.
;;; - The shortened URL that caused me trouble withou any feedback.
<h3 id="markup">The Markup</h3>
;;; * Support as broad a subset of HTML as possible.
;;; - Convert unacceptable Markup to proper markup.
;;; * Have an option to use HTML or some subset of it.
;;; - Tapuz/etc.
;;; - The Tie-the-Knot Forum with its [...] tags.
;;; Localised Tags - in non-latin alphabet or foreign words.
;;; - what if you can only input Latin?
;;; - Mouse-driven keyboards? Give me a break!
;;; - Problem if a foreigner is trying to take part in a localised
Some forums have no markup except perhaps for URLs being
highlighted. I think that nevertheless, some forums should allow some markup.
In their case, what they should have is plain and simple HTML, without any
of the following idiosyncrasies:
Link the following words to a URL. (at least not without giving any option of
the “<a” tag).
Line breaks (<tt>\n</tt> characters) cause a new line to start at the post.
A very limited HTML syntax. Support as broad as syntax as possible optionally
converting tags to more sane tags, but don’t force the user not to input them.
Weird tags like square brackets instead of angles.
HTML is very easy to learn and one can get the hang of it pretty quickly. Many
times, people post markup from web pages they created with HTML, and they’ll
be annoyed if they can’t post it as is.