Reflections on Online Communities


This essay was written by inspiration from the Joel on Software essay Building Communities with Software. Comments on the original incarnation of it led me to write this version, which hopefully would be better.


Written By:
Shlomi Fish
Last Modified:

The Essay Itself

Joel Spolsky wrote an essay titled “Building Communities with Software” back in March, 2003. He explained there the motivation behind his web forum and why he believed it was so good.

It has been over two years since the article was published. Before and since, I had a lot of experience with various online communities: web-based forums, IRC channels on various networks, electronic mailing lists, Instant Messaging chats, Weblogs and their comments, Wikis, and to some extent other types of online communities. In here, I will try to summarise what I consider the essence of what makes each one of them successful or unsuccessful (or some of both).

While I agree with Spolsky on several points he made, there are some points I disagree on, or at least believe that people who set-up or design can make a choice between the two. Both will be acceptable, but they will also influence the nature and atmosphere of the forum.

Growing a Community

One of the issues that face any starting forum is how to gather an active community. Being an editor of the Open Directory Project’s “Linux User Groups” category, I’ve been submitted countless of “User Groups” that are essentially half-dead PHP-BB or PHP-Nuke/PostNuke sites, where there’s very little activity.

Often creating a new online community is redundant as there are more wide-scoped forums available where such discussion is acceptable. Often, however, the originator of a forum feels he has no choice because the parent forum owners have declared such discussions as off-topic. Generally, the best strategy is to allow all the discussions in the previous forum as well, in order to make the parent forum obsolete.

E-mail Policy

E-mailing a person upon a comment to his post, or to a comment he made, can actually (despite what Joel says) make your web forum more popular. This is due to the fact that this motivates him to visit the forum again, respond to the comment, and also possibly look at neighbouring comments or other discussions. On the page that the E-mail refers to, one can advertise (in a non-intrusive way), “hot” discussions, etc.

If no E-mail is sent, the person may forget about it, or despair from checking his thread for responses time and again.

Registration and Authentication

Dealing with Spam

Dealing with Trolling and Insults

Dealing with Low-clue Posts or Remarks

Maintaining a good “Signal to Noise Ratio”

Usually an online forum is dedicated to one central topic. This is generally considered a good thing, because if it hosts discussion of any topic whatsoever, it will: 1. Lack a certain appeal, and 2. People will eventually consider it to have a low signal-to-noise ratio.

Semantics of Joining, Posting and Commenting

The Markup

Some forums have no markup except perhaps for URLs being highlighted. I think that nevertheless, some forums should allow some markup. In their case, what they should have is plain and simple HTML, without any of the following idiosyncrasies:

  • Link the following words to a URL. (at least not without giving any option of the “<a” tag).
  • Line breaks (\n characters) cause a new line to start at the post. (very annoying!)
  • A very limited HTML syntax. Support as broad as syntax as possible optionally converting tags to more sane tags, but don’t force the user not to input them.
  • Weird tags like square brackets instead of angles.

HTML is very easy to learn and one can get the hang of it pretty quickly. Many times, people post markup from web pages they created with HTML, and they’ll be annoyed if they can’t post it as is.