Disfunctional Forum Culture

Forums are one of the most valuable sources of information and knowledge on the internet. They are the embodiment of the internet philosophy where everyone freely shares their knowledge for the benefit of all. But Forums are broken, and here’s how to fix them.

A poisonous culture has developed on the internet that has at least two (there are probably many more) symptoms. One is the concept of “old threads,” which is self-explanatory. The other, I call “search, noob!!!!” with all it’s uncapped over exclamation-pointedness. And also self-explanatory.

Old Threads

One of the greatest things about the internet is that it allows large groups of people to time-shift their interactions (arguments). But so much on the internet seems to ignore that aspect and demands everyone participate at roughly the same time or not at all. This attitude is manifest when you add to a thread that nobody has touched for a long time. It makes no difference how valuable the new contribution is. someone will inevitably point out how stupid they think you are for not seeing the date of the last post and “resurrecting” a dead thread.

The Fix: Focus on Usefulness, Not Age

So much useless crap gets spewed all over forum threads with nary a shaming or scolding. Forum-goers should focus their ire on trolls, sidetracks, hijackings, disrespect, fighting, and every other thing that detracts from the forums providing clear, concise, useful information. There’s nothing about being old, that necessarily makes a thread obsolete.

search noob!!!

I’m sure you’ve experienced it. You search for the answer to some specific problem and find 4 links that seem to address exactly what you need. One by one, you click on them only to find the response to every single one is something like “ugh, we talked about this last month! SEARCH!!” This is often followed by some demeaning link to instructions on how to use Google. So you dutifully sign up for yet another forum membership just so you can use the full search capabilities. Hours later, you find something that comes pretty close to what you were looking for buried deep in a thread that was hijacked from something unrelated.

This is where you figure you can make a positive difference, so you go to one of the threads that asks the right question, and post an update linking to the answer. Of course, this useful post is buried at the end of a bunch of scolding for not using search, and followed by chastisement for resurrecting an old thread.

The Fix: Post a Link & A New Kind of Forum

The simplest solution is to just post a link to the answer when someone posts a problem that’s already been solved. Someone who recognizes that the question has already been answered is in a much better position to find it than the OP who likely doesn’t even know what he’s talking about.  As long as you link to the answer, you can chastise all you want for not searching. People should be searching, after all. Eventually there will be so many threads pointing to the correct answer, forumers will no longer have their lives ruined by someone asking a question that’s already been answered. Redundancy is not a curse, it’s an opportunity to make the internet better.

This, of course, isn’t enough. So there should be a new forum style for answering questions. I’d put a wikibox right below the original post. People with real answers, or even the OP can post, or refine the solution right there at the beginning. This is much more useful than linking to the best solution buried 2 pages deep. Some people do this already by editing their original post as new information is presented. But the current standard forum style doesn’t naturally lend itself to collaborative information sharing. At least not in a way that makes it easy to find that information once it’s been shared.

One big advantage of a wikibox is that it could be linked with a larger FAQ wiki. Any time someone asks a question that’s already been asked, all anyone has to do is tie the wikibox to the content already posted on the FAQ wiki. Eventually, the result is that any time anyone googles something close to the right words for the question they have, they’re bound to stumble unto one of many threads that embedded with the answer they seek.

Let’s make the internet better.


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