How to Tame Beastly Online Discussion Forums

By: Steve Outing Discussion forums can be unruly beasts (as I reported in a recent column about the troubles encountered by the Dallas Morning News' Web site on its community discussion forums). If your Web site wants to host them, to some degree you have to accept that there will always be a handful of obnoxious participants who post abusive messages and who think it's fun to cause trouble by stirring up controversy with their postings. This is especially true in broad-topic forums, where there's not a lot of homogeneity of interests or viewpoints among the participants.

But new tools are coming to market that allow you -- and your forum users -- to take greater control over the conversations and keep troublemakers out. They allow media companies to sponsor open public forums, but keep those who would disrupt the forums and post abusive messages at bay.

After writing about the troubles in Dallas, I heard from a San Francisco software developer that's created an interesting online conferencing system that's designed to alleviate the kind of problems that arose in Texas. It's called SmartConf, and is currently being beta tested on the Sexuality Forum by syndicated sex-advice columnist Isadora Alman. Participants can read the online discussion threads on Web pages or have them sent via e-mail.

Registration is a must

The key to maintaining control and a sense of civility on a discussion forum, explains Andrew Sullivan of eLine Productions, developer of SmartConf, is foremost a robust registration system. You can see how SmartConf handles this on the Sexuality Forum site, where anyone is allowed to join in the discussion for free, but must register. The participant is assigned a log-in name or "handle," which is linked to his/her e-mail address.

(The Sexuality Forum initially was a completely open site, with no registration requirements to participate. But, says Sullivan, disaster struck when the Forum became the top result when Yahoo! users entered the search term "anal sex." The site became flooded with hundreds of thousands of people looking for pornographic images, and many of them "crashed the party" and began disrupting what is meant as a serious (not pornographic) textual discussion of sexuality. A tight registration process had to be instituted to save the forum from total destruction.)

With each participant tagged in the forum database, what SmartConf does is allow forum participants to easily control whose postings they are willing to see. It's similar to the "Bozo filter" concept, in use by America Online and others, in which participants can tell the system if they don't want to see postings from a particular obnoxious person. It's simple to do. You just note that person's screen name, click on a "Filters" link that's always on the left side of the screen, and type in the name. It will be in your experience as though that person doesn't exist on the forum.

"You let the user determine what experience of the system they want to have," says Sullivan. What tends to happen, because it's so easy to turn off obnoxious people, is that those who are disruptive in a forum get filtered by more and more forum members. The disruptive individual who likes to get attention by being overly argumentative -- and online discussion forum participants know there's someone (or more) like this in every group -- ends up being censored not by the forum administrator but by the online community itself over time.

Administrators also may want to get in on the act. The software might be configured to alert an administrator to those individuals who are getting filtered out most often. The admin then will want to look at those individuals' forum posts, and possibly disable their posting privileges -- permanently or temporarily -- if the behavior violates the forum's rules.

Of course, kicking a disruptive individual off a forum isn't always effective. Particularly if the forum is for the public, the person just signs up again with a different screen name and/or e-mail address. Sullivan says that the answer is to design your forum with a "reward" for those who engage in appropriate behavior. An example might be to set up a private discussion board that's open only to select people. To get in, a person might have to pay a fee, or they might get in free if they participate in the free public forum for several months without getting "Bozo" filtered by more than five people, as an example.

Bite, not just bark

Sullivan says that such a system of providing incentives not to misbehave puts some "bite" in forum administrators' sanctions for bad behavior. If the forum participant wants to be in the privileged private forum, he has to behave himself. If the administrator bumps a person who wants into the private forum, that person will lose several months' effort to be gained admittance into the exclusive online gathering.

A possible application of this strategy in action for a news organization might be to create a second tier of discussion forums where reporters and editors participate actively. To gain admittance to that vaulted forum, members of the public must meet this type of screening to ensure that they aren't the types to disrupt the exclusive discussion.

Of course, there's also the strategy of asking a subscription fee before letting someone in a forum, which tends to "keep the riff-raff out." Alman's Sexuality Forum actually tried that after the Yahoo! anal sex epsiode; it required a $35 annual fee to participate. That didn't work, and Alman switched to a free-access-with-registration model and she includes in the Sexuality Forum site a Web form that participants can use to pay a voluntary fee to help maintain the Forum.

And don't forget the most important technique for controlling the tenor of an online forum, says Sullivan: the administrator or moderator. On an "unmoderated" forum -- meaning that no one reviews posts before they are published to the forum -- the administrator needs to keep watch over the discussion, keep the conversation on-topic, goad obnoxious people into halting disruptive behavior, and if need be ban an intransigent violator of the forum's rules. "Great moderators can have an incredible influence," says Sullivan. "That can succeed (in controlling bad behavior) to a certain extent."

Sullivan thinks that some of the problems being encountered by those trying to run public discussion forum lies with their inexperience with the online discussion medium. Back before the Web, many BBS operators used rigorous tactics to control discussions on their boards, he points out. That's still needed, along with some new technological tools to keep "bad apples" from poisoning the pie.

Online community is an increasingly visible component of many media sites. While the concept dates back to BBS's and the first days of the Internet, corporate and media sites are just beginning to take online forums seriously and perceive them as an eventual revenue source. The advent of tools like SmartConf and its competitors, including Well Engaged, Web Crossing and others, is the first step toward publishers finding business models that take advantage of online discussion forums.

Contact: Andrew Sullivan,

An alternative URL policy

Following my last column about newspapers that prohibit Web addresses, or URLs, in their print classified ads, new media consultant Mark Potts wrote in with an interesting twist on the URL topic. He points out that NBC television affiliate WRC-TV 4 in Washington, D.C., does not give out URLs on air other than for its own Web site. If on the TV news it is necessary to broadcast a URL to an outside site, viewers are told to surf to the WRC Web site and pick up the URL there. "I think this is gutsy and brilliant -- it just adds traffic and further establishes their site as a Web portal," he says.

Potts -- not quite sure how seriously to take this quirky idea -- says that newspapers might even consider a similar strategy. "Adopt a policy of not running URLs in (print) news stories, and instead directing readers to a repository of them" on the news site. "It's not a bad idea," he suggests, "especially if you believe, like I do, that newspaper sites ought to position themselves as THE entry point for Web users."

Contact: Mark Potts,


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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