Beyond chat: Discussion forums

You’ve heard about internet discussion forums – but what are they exactly, and how do they work? Here’s our primer.

What is a discussion forum?
Electronic discussion forums are something like a bulletin board (and indeed, bulletin boards are another name for them). They are generally designed for the purpose of exchanging ideas and offering answers or help on relevant subjects. Individuals post questions or topics relevant to the group, and others respond.  A question and its answers are together known as a “thread.”

How does it work?
Unlike instant messenger or chat programs, forums closely resemble a webpage. Although there are private forums, in most cases you can read discussion forums without signing up and logging in – all you have to do to read a topic is to click on the link and see which messages have been posted.

The difference between a traditional webpage and a discussion forum is that you can then add your own reply or start a new topic. On most websites, you will have to sign up to do so.

Because posts can be read at any time, you do not need to be online at the same time as others w respond to your messages.  You can read and respond whenever you like.

What’s the difference between an email list and a forum?
With an email list you receive individual replies in your email box, and then you are responsible for organizing and storing those messages. 

On a discussion forum, discussions are stored at the website where the forums are located.  Besides saving you storage space in your email programme, online storage also means that even if you weren’t participating at the time that something was posted, you are able to read it.  Many forums also allow you to search the forums for a particular topic such as “new widow” or “cholesterol.”

Signing up
Before you sign up, check the privacy policy for the discussion site you are about to join.  Also make sure that you understand which information will be displayed in your forum profile – some forums display email addresses, for example.  If the forum you are joining displays an email address, consider using one that is not your main address.  And when chosing a nickname or handle, take the time to think through the image your nickname will present – “hotlips81” gives a completely different impression than “knittinggranny.”

What’s the etiquette?
It’s always a good idea to read through several threads in a forum before participating.  Discussion forums, like other group activities, tend to develop their own culture and it may save you some time and energy if you find out that a particular group isn’t what you’re looking for before you sign up and participate for a few days or weeks.

It’s also a good idea to do a search before you post a question to see if it has been asked before. 

Once you post you may want to mention that you are new to the forum. Be as concise as possible in posting your question or topic.  It’s considered polite to return in a day or two and acknowledge replies with a thanks for people’s time in answering.

It’s not all right to copy and paste whole articles from another source onto a discussion forum – this is a violation of copyright, and can also annoy readers if the article is long.

It’s a good idea to be careful about spelling and grammar – you don’t have to be perfect, but it will make your post easier to read and that will encourage people to respond.  Break your post into paragraphs for the same reason.

Remember always that the people at the other end of the forums are real people as well. Refrain from insults and be careful with humour – a joke can often come across the wrong way. 

If you feel raring to go, you can check out the forums right here.