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It is good now and then
To put the world together
Into an unbroken piece
And to contemplate it

This form of prayer
Dims the cutting lines
Of past abstraction
Permitting to carve out
New fragments
Of greater utility
And beauty.

Or if you like it better
We reverse the analogy
And recommend the
   periodic destruction
Of our verbal maps
Our outworn habits
Our ingrown attitudes.

Out of this rubble
We may build
A new world
Better suited
To a growing need
And finer discrimination. ~Bradford Shank

Not just any talk
  is conversation;
  not any talk raises
Good conversation
  has an edge:
  it opens your eyes
  to something,
  quickens your ears.
And good conversation
  it keeps on talking
  in your mind
  later in the day;
  the next day,
  you find yourself
  still conversing
  with what was said.
That reverberation
  afterward is
  the very raising
  of consciousness;
  your mind's been moved.
You are at another level
  with your reflections. ~James Hillman

Tips for a Successful Discussion Forum  Discussion Forum
by Diane Villemure, January 2000

Successful online discussion forums can't be manufactured, but one can design the conditions under which they are most likely to emerge and become self-sustaining. In planning a forum, the following questions should be carefully considered:
  1. What is the purpose of the online discussion forum?
  2. How will the forum be established and nurtured?
  3. What resources will be needed to ensure success?
1. What is the purpose of the discussion forum?
Unless the online forum fulfills a specific purpose, it is likely to languish. Purpose not only needs to be very clear, but should be re-visited on a regular basis. Typical purposes include:
  • to consult on specific topics
  • to exchange "best practices"
  • to enlist new and existing partners in cooperative action
  • to enable participants to stay connected and continue to contribute after a face-to-face event
  • to monitor, evaluate and publicize progress
Furthermore, the forum's purpose should also speak to the immediate, real-world needs of the target audience. In the online environment, just like any other social situation, the basic currency is human attention. It takes a significant amount of time to participate in an online discussion. Potential contributors should be clear as to what direct value the forum is likely to provide. The "what's in it for me" analysis is particularly crucial when the intended audience does not consist of independent-minded people at ease with expressing themselves in writing.

2. How will the forum be established and nurtured?
Getting from purpose to establishing and nurturing an online discussion forum to fulfill that purpose requires attention to design, facilitation and cyclic events.

Sense of Place
Thriving online discussion forums have a "sense of place". A well-designed forum orients participants with visual and contextual cues as to what sort of place it is and what expectations are for interaction in that space. This sense of place is often created by replicating "real life" metaphors online (e.g., neighborhood, saloon, salon, coffee shop, inn, pub, learning circle, campfire, village, etc). By capturing a familiar system of roles and rules, the metaphor establishes the "communication model" for the space. Thus, the metaphor not only sets the tone from which flows norms, roles and expectations, but also suggests what kinds of contributions are relevant.

In selecting a metaphor, ask: "What norms, style of communication and behaviors would create the sense of place appropriate to the forum's purpose and the targeted audience?" "What adjective should be associated with the "look & feel" of the space? (e.g., supportive, fun, fast-moving, reflective, cutting-edge, information-intensive, risky, intense, focused, creative, etc)"

The architecture — number and types of separate discussion areas — of the forum can help or hinder the sense of place. The architecture should align with the way the target audience thinks about the subject area. Thus, the forum's message structure could be broken down into functional/industry definition, the various concerns of the target group, the social characteristics of different sub-groups, etc. The environment should also include a "safe place" where newcomers can learn the ropes and ask questions.

Such technical features as online profiles, collaborative calendar, and "cybrary" also contribute to a sense of place when referenced to better relate to others, to better coordinate action, and to better integrate conversations with support or reference material.

The best architecture cannot make a forum. The people in it do. Online facilitators are the primary enablers of any virtual discussion forum. It is their enthusiasm and attention to the participants' challenges in communicating and collaborating in cyberspace, which can make or brake fledgling discussion forums. Facilitation is especially important in the early stages when there is not yet a critical mass of regular participants for the discussion to roll along on its own steam.

Everything facilitators do boils down to one thing: keep the dialogue going. Specifics include:
  • making the value of COMING online very tangible and explicit;
  • being honest about the time involved in contributing to an online discussion and working with potential recruits to schedule time to participate;
  • playing the leadership role implied in the metaphor/communication model (e.g., chairperson, teacher, entertainer, bartender, etc);
  • interacting according to the stated forum guidelines — the few and simple rules based on ordinary human courtesy (e.g., read carefully and post entertainingly, informatively, and economically; acknowledge other people by name; assume good intent; assert trust until convinced otherwise; add knowledge; offer help; be slow to anger; apologize when wrong; politely ask for clarification; exercise patience when your temper flares; value diversity; find the laughter, and share the expense of; etc);
  • modeling behaviors of effective communication and collaboration. Two points worth highlighting:

    • discussion forums favor open-ended comments that invite a response, as opposed to closed and complete pronouncements;
    • by its very nature, online discussion will involve disagreement ... yet setting too high of a standard for "niceness" is likely to kill off a discussion before anything worthwhile gets figured out
  • welcoming and acknowledging participants;
  • helping new participants ramp up to the current state of community by:

    • applying games and try-out zones to learn how to use the technology and to become comfortable in the new environment
    • familiarizing them with the culture of the group
    • pointing them to FAQ's or other resources, etc
  • introducing issues, materials, questions for discussion;
  • asking feedback of participants to improve the site and its management;
  • posting summaries which tells participants where they've been, where they are, and where they might want to go next. Depending on answers to these questions:

    • Who will use the summaries?
    • How will they use the summaries?
    • What is the desired action outcome from summaries?
    • summaries could include:

    • synopsis of the discussion
    • agreements, decisions, action items
    • action plan update
    • key "aha's" or learnings to date
    • list of unresolved questions, issues or action items
    • leading questions for next phase/round of discussions
    • direct hot-links to key postings
  • seeking out and supporting members who take on informal facilitating functions. Possible roles are community advocates who encourage others to participate, influencers who guide the discussion and are knowledgeable, instigators who provoke controversy and raise sticky issues, logistical planners, storytellers, jesters, greeters, librarians, etc. Discussions are more absorbing and successful when members share these responsibilities with the facilitator.
For more guidance and support for online facilitation, check out:
Cyclic Events
The biggest challenge in establishing an online discussion forum is simply getting people to visit regularly. Some strategies to create a loyal following include:
  • Integrating physical events with online discussion forums: Conversations begun during face to face contact (e.g., committee meetings, public participation initiatives, workshops, etc) could continue in dedicated online discussion forums.
  • Seeding discussion forums with a few talkative, diverse people: Front-loading the online forum with five to twenty-five interesting regulars can help a discussion reach critical mass and make it compelling.
  • Monthly email notification: Announcements, summary of discussion topics, etc, appearing in members' inbox remind them to return to the forum.
  • Real-time interactions: Regularly scheduled synchronous activities — including chat sessions focused on questions that matter to the target audience, online whiteboards, and plenary sessions — can generate enthusiasm and stimulate brainstorming of ideas. Posting transcripts in the related discussion forum allows for feedback and discussion to continue at a more leisurely pace. Moderated chats are also a cost-effective venue for guest speakers.
  • Weekly polls: Asking a simple relevant question — linked to an online discussion topic or a physical event — and posting the results can reinforces the sense of shared purpose.
3. What resources will be needed to ensure success?
Studies revealed that successful discussions forums are likely to be supported by:
  • a dedicated facilitator;
  • content-expert or peer moderator for each topic;
  • champion that ensures that participation in the forum and related cyclic events strategies are incorporated in the host organization's operational and promotional activities; and of course...
  • software with features best suited to the forum's purpose and the target audience's needs.
There is no single perfect software solution for all people and all purposes. The following links are a good place to start your research:
  • Comprehensive List of Web-based Conferencing Software
  • Choosing Web Conferencing Software
Although software recommendations are beyond the scope of this article, two features are worth noting: (1) message organization and (2) message storage.

Message Organization
The emerging electronic
  planetary nervous system
  is an expression of nature's
  impulse to ever-greater
  complexity and intelligence.
Through it we may become
  smart enough together
  to respond quickly, wisely,
  and resiliently to the profound
  changes of our time.
But this silicon and fiber-optic
  "body" will not realize it's
  potential without healthy
  organizational and
  community life breathing
  the spirit of interdependence,
  partnership, and collaboration
  throughout it.
~Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz
There are two basic ways to organize messages — threaded and conversational. Conversational (also known as linear) software structures discussions as linear chains of responses. In other words, all responses within a topic are added below that opening message in chronological order and the topic is displayed as a continuous stream of text. Threaded software structures discussions in a "tree" structure where each topic is the starting point for a branching tree of responses. Responses are organized into branches depending on which message within the topic is being responded to.

Your choice of message organization will, of course, be based on your forum's purpose and the style or needs of the target audience. For instance, a large group of specialists collaborating on many complex projects might find branching essential to managing large masses of information. On the other hand, a group that values the process of discussion in itself might prefer a conversational (linear) format for its exchanges.

Generally, use threaded software when you:
  • have a steady stream of newcomers looking for answers to particular questions (e.g., technical support forum);
  • want to foster multiple small conversations rather than one group discussion (e.g., student/teacher interaction);
  • frequently need to easily locate particular pieces of information (e.g., FAQ, Q&A);
and use conversational software when you:
  • have regular participants engaged in deep conversation;
  • want to emphasize group discussion over one-to-one conversation;
  • want to encourage relationship building.
Message Storage
Does the software store the message base as HTML or in a database? Messages stored in a database cannot be indexed by search engines. In other words, the content of the discussion forum is invisible to the general public searching via search engines. Storage of the message base is an important consideration when the content of the discussion forum is the bulk of what you want visitors to find at your website.

For a successful discussion forum, several ingredients are essential:
  • clear purpose;
  • experienced facilitator(s);
  • committed peer moderators;
  • interested participants; and
  • appropriate software.
To reap the benefits of a successful discussion forum, invest in the means, not just the end. Getting a discussion forum off the ground requires significant investments of time, skill and leadership before it becomes a self-sustaining asset.