Does community exist in the NTEN-Discuss forum? Part 1

Each NTEN forum has a map of where members are based.

Each NTEN forum has a map of where members are based.

I was heading to the library self issue machine with a couple of items under my arm – one book on parenting, the other a computer magazine – when I stumbled on “Managing Online Forums” by Patrick O’Keefe.

There’s a whole wad of advice in the tome. O’Keefe promises to “show site owners and administrators how to create a safe and entertaining community that users will return to again and again”. It’s based on O’Keefe’s practical experience moderating forums and running something called the iFroggy Network, plus other forums he owns.

The book is listed as an extra resource for the current blogging assignment in the #FO09 course I’ve joined in. We’re looking for online community in discussion forums. Does it exist?

If my practices are anything to go by, I really do wonder. I tend to randomly visit forums and mostly only when I need something, rather than visiting on a regular basis. Although many forums require me to join, it’s such a low threshold to overcome: giving away my email address and agreeing to terms and conditions isn’t onerous. I don’t really feel bound to the forum ‘community’ just by signing up. Without a prod or peer pressure, it’s easy to slip in but not necessarily join geared up to participate.

I notice there are very active discussion forums around. Just take a look at on TradeMe and ones run newspapers like “Your Views” the NZ Herald or “Comment is free” at the Guardian: they’re incredibly vibrant. Some niche forums also thrive, such as the Black Dog Message board – set up “for people living with depression and other mental illnesses”.

Of all the forums I dip into I’ll talk a little bit about the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) member only “NTEN-Discuss” affinity groups. It’s one of the most regularly used of the 120 affinity groups set up by members. When I wrote 1,325 people were signed up, out of a total of a 5,996 NTEN members. Each affinity group has a blog, news feed, wiki and library, as well as a discussion forum. You can read posts online or contribute via email.

The beauty of the system NTEN use – for the technically minded it’s a social media enterprise platform offered by GoLightly – is the amount of choice I’ve got as a member: I reveal my address or not, let people see my profile and even add my location to a map. The setting for the group are very easy to see, and you can contact the moderators from any page.

There’s a fair amount of activity in the forum. Nearly 4000 posts in the archive, since the new and improved NTEN-Discuss forum was launched in September 2006.

The things I notice about the forum include:

  • Friendly conversational language, but it’s by no means bland as people forcefully express their views at times
  • Members have a visible presence, mainly through their avatars with anyone new to the group highlighted on the main page
  • Any conflict (if there is any) seems to be handled by members themselves, with very little visible intervention by moderators
  • A simple count of the number of posts made by each member gives some idea of peoples online reputations
  • The terms of use are easy to find, though there are not groundrules for this particular forum
  • A clear, though very general common purpose for the group is adhered to by members.

This list includes most of the things I’d expect in an online community: common interests or aims, rules and guidelines of some sort, adjudication if people misbehave and a means to have a social presence, and most importantly active participation. It’s a very comfortable place to be, with all the characteristics of an online community I’d suggest.

Looking at “Managing online forums” to see if any light is shone onto the presence of community I don’t find a lot of help. O’Keefe does not seem too interested in helping readers identify whether community exists in their particular forum. Instead he’s offering a step-by-step guide to ‘managing’ community. Facilitation doesn’t seem to come into, merely enforcement of rules.

My next step is to talk to a member of the forum about their opinions whether the forum might benefit from more active facilitation of some sort. I’m also interested to see what they say about whether there is a pulse, a lifeblood. I’ll report back soon.