Forums: when to have one?

I’m currently on the steering group to review and redevelop the website for my children’s school.  One of the issues raised has been whether we want to have a parents’ forum on the site.  This led me thinking to the kinds of situations in which forums are useful, and when they serve no purpose  or are even harmful.

I’m not a great one for online forums, but I do contribute from time to time to one.  It’s a community of people who have a common interest, for some a professional one.  We have between us a spectrum of strongly held views on certain topics, which sometimes get argued over on the site, though many contributions are not contentious in any way.

It’s ‘reactively moderated’, in other words posts go online at once, but a post which breaks guidelines will be withdrawn or edited by a moderator of the list. (When I joined, my first few posts were viewed by a moderator before being published, before I was deemed to be trustworthy. In those days the forum was on a different platform though.)  Editing by a moderator doesn’t actually happen very often; the usual reason is that something unacceptable has been said about a particular person (their precise date of birth, or the reason why they didn’t get a certain job, for example).

Perhaps it’s that this particular topic attracts reasonable, restrained people, but arguments rarely get beyond polite and reasoned disagreement and the system has worked well to date.

But a forum for the school would be different.  We see one another regularly face to face and any unpleasantness which broke out (e.g. because of an allegation of bullying, suspicion someone was having an affair or a complaint about a particular teacher) could be seen by many before a moderator had a chance to remove it, which could be very damaging.  So reactive moderation wouldn’t be enough; each post would have be be seen by an editor and approved, which would slow discussion down, especially if the editors didn’t log on very often (which parents at the school tend not to).

In general, forums don’t take off when the members meet frequently in person or have other means of discussing matters of interest such as a shared email list.  We tried one at work, and it never took off for this reason.  They work best when there is a scattered group of people with a shared but unusual interest.

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