I vividly remember the first time I was able to dial up a bbs with my Commodore Vic-20. It was Star Trek themed and I was excited to see that the Sysop was online. We typed a few lines of text back and forth while I hollered to everyone in the house that I was talking to someone through the computer. Things have come a long way since then and I’ve put in quite a few hours experiencing one of the more exciting sides of the internet, participating in community. Of course it hasn’t all been great. Communities on-line are just like any other in that there are differences of opinion and issues that arise. Some are handled well, some are not. Social interaction can be very complicated and learning how to manage a social site can be a process that involves a lot of painful lessons. Fortunately not all of our learning has to come through direct experience. Sometimes we have the opportunity to learn from the experience of others. Patrick O’Keefes book Managing Online Forums is that guide to the budding leader of the webs next great community.
Since the reader will be relying on O’Keefes experience and opinions, his personal history in the subject at hand is extremely relevant. He has been involved in web site design since 1998 and managing online communities since 2000. As the founder and owner of the iFroggy Network he has extensive experience in managing site policy, staff and members. O’Keefe is also active in other communities including his role as a moderator for Sitepoint. Patrick has also published articles there on forum management.
The book’s byline is that it provides everything that you need to know to run a successful community discussion board. There is a wide range of topics covered though the emphasis is primarily placed on what I would call the soft side of community management. The technical discussion is limited, though it is there. There is no real discussion of how to go about setting up software. There are some suggestions as to choosing a domain name and software. Two options are given for software, vBulletin and phpBB. Each is described in a summary consisting of a few paragraphs of basic information. There is little discussion of installation from a technical standpoint. The most technical information deals with the core issues of security and backing up data. I didn’t see this as a real weakness as there is already plenty of documentation on these choices and many more. Adding it all in would have really bulked up the book while distracting from the primary mission which is informing the reader on building successful communities.
While there is not much technical detail, there is discussion of features from a social perspective. O’Keefe doesn’t discuss whether or not a feature should be used because performance or storage ramification but rather focuses on the positives or negatives in terms of managing how participants might view or use those options. This is the information that is not already out there in multiple places. O’Keefe is able to discuss from experience how he has seen users react to these features in the past as well as warning of any possible benefits or pitfalls. This is of course his opinion on these matters. This fact about the nature of the book is going to make or break it for the reader.
I envision that someone would come to this book from three possible positions. They may already have a strong opinion of the issues presented and disagree with the author. On the other hand they may agree. The last group would be people who come without strong presuppositions. I think that the first group would not enjoy the book, there is no objective evidence or argument that will bring these people over. This is after all, subjective opinion. The other two groups I think have a lot to gain, the third group most of all. A person who comes to the material with an open mind, looking for options and guidance will I gain a strong preparation for dealing with a number of issues that are almost certain to arise in online groups.
The book begins by quickly reviewing a set of basic questions that should be asked before a site is set up for a new community. They are fundamental but important and I think it is surprising how many endeavors to build communities don’t seem to have considered them. The are, “What will your community cover?”, “Whom do you want to attract?”, “What will the benefits of your community be?”, and “How will you support the community financially?”. All of these questions, the naming of the community and site, hosting and software are covered up front.
In each of the following major sections, the author’s advice is accompanied by example templates and policies. In chapter three, “Developing Guidelines”, the community guidelines for KarateForums.com and SitePoint.com are printed. There are excellent documents in the chapter on managing staff that give good examples of staff guidelines that can be used in those communities that grow and the work of management needs to be shared. All of these are built on real policies and guidelines. The staff section also includes a nice decision matrix for various situations that may arise, such as hot linking or cross posting.
The chapter “Banning Users and Dealing with Chaos” is of course full of interesting examples and history. It is also very valuable. The fact is any successful community will need to deal with adverse conditions and this is where inexperience can be the most costly. O’Keefe outlines likely scenarios and how to handle them. He also gives further examples of guidelines that can help the administrator in staying above the fray and maintaining their sanity when things can be very contentious. From the personal anecdotes, O’Keefe has already been through much of the worse that the web has to offer. This chapter and all that it entails is balance by a chapter on creating a good and healthy environment as well as the importance of keeping things interesting.
Two other chapters deal with what I think of as the business side of running forums. There is a chapter on developing traffic. I was glad to see that this included not only what to do but also what not to do. And there are similar warning within methods that can be used in a positive way or a negative way. O’Keefe cautions against activities that may bring what appear to be short term gains but do not really build sustainable community. While physically separate in the book, I found that this section dovetailed with the chapter on generating income. O’Keefe basically runs down all the various methods for making money with a site. Once again he give the pros and cons as well as strong warnings against the things that are going to be counter productive.
There are three appendices. The first is a list of resources, the second is a set of blank templates that match the examples given in the body of the book and the third is a glossary. I think that glossary is an important because I believe that this book would be an excellent guide to anyone who wants to not only form an online community but is new to the whole idea. These folks may be very caught off guard by the things they will probably need to deal with, beyond the technical issues of getting a site up and running. This book would probably be something that anyone out there setting up sites for others could quickly recommend to help the new manager to be be successful once the site is up and live.
I think there is a lot here also for those with some experience on-line if they don’t have a lot of experience running a community site or if they are just looking for some new ideas. I’ve been corresponding with others electronically for quite a while and I still found quite a bit here that was of value. There is also the strength of going in with policies and actions that are built to head off problems rather than respond to them once they have taken place. I would think this gives any new community a much higher chance of growing and thriving. Managing Online Forums is unique in this regard, to my knowledge. Taking on the human side of managing a site rather than just the technical components.
Title: Managing Online Forums
Author: Patrick O’Keefe
Tagline: Everything you need to know to create and run successful community discussion boards.