About forums and comments

Earlier this week, my former employer, IDG, shut down its commenting system and asked readers of such publications as Macworld, PCWorld, and Computerworld to instead engage with the publications via social networking. As the person largely responsible for moderating Macworld’s forums—and, later, comments—for many years, I have views about forums and comments I’d like to share.

It all started…

Because I predate the worldwide web, my first exposure to online communities was CompuServe’s MacUser forum. Here, those people interested in learning more about their Apple products could gather and trade information and opinions. In those days, just being online was something mostly left to the technologically savvy, so there was a great deal more signal than noise. Generally, you had to earn others’ respect through your knowlege and behavior. The kind of trolling you see today was virtually unknown—and swiftly dealt with when it very occasionally emerged.

This and other similar communities were invaluable because, outside of user groups, books, and manuals, there were no immediate sources for the kind of information people needed to whip their technology into shape.

The norms come calling

With an easing of the technological barriers to getting on the Internet, the advent of for-the-rest-of-us services such as AOL, and the birth of the worldwide web, greater numbers of people began communicating online. Virtual communities expanded from those attractive to geeks to any sort of interest you might imagine—the glorious and the not-so.

That first CompuServe exposure fostered my sense of how powerful and helpful online communities could be. And that sense remained even as the noise increased in the form of trolling, spam, and obtrusive commercialization. Yes, it meant that those hosting these communities must redouble their efforts to deal with the things that threatened the community’s viability, but if that effort was deemed a priority and could be mustered (and paid for), it was worth it.

About reality

“And paid for” is key, however. If you’ve traipsed through spam- and hate-filled comment threads, you understand how challenging it can be to moderate these things. I, along with Lisa Schmeiser, had the regrettable task of moderating Macworld’s forums the evening of 9/11. I’m still scarred by the experience. And don’t get me started on the complex filters I created to bar work-at-home and media-converter spam from our comments.

Unless you commit both time and resources to a safe and clean space, your community quickly degenerates into a toxic stew of hate, spam, and phishing. Yet in a time when ad-funded online enterprises are struggling to survive, establishing a relationship with your customers via a well maintained online community becomes a luxury many simply can’t afford. In such cases, it’s often best to shut them down entirely rather than leaving the scraps for the trolls.

Having done that, you might believe that social networks can serve as a reasonable substitute. I’m not convinced. Shifting to Facebook and Twitter may look good in a press release (and, by gum, it's free!), but it’s not real engagement. And in a time when we increasingly talk at each other rather than with each other, it’s a shame to see forums for intelligent and respectful discourse disappear.