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How to Survive an Online Forum

Updated on November 12, 2009

Where Did Online Forums Start?

Back in the day we had BBSs (online bulletin board systems) where we would leave messages to one another. The discussions were on a myriad of topics and everyone was invited to join in.

There was no internet yet, with everyone connecting through modems to numbers they received from their friends, and many stars were born in those days - people who would go on to become the movers and shakers of the online society.

For you see, it is this small cauldron of people that spoke out for forums when the internet came into existence, and it is because of their calling we have them today. Were it not for these brave few, we'd still be arguing and debating via letters through the mail, which takes quite a long time and allows for little fun to be had watching the fury unfold.

What is the Purpose of an Online Forum?

It's to share ideas and values with others that share a similar interest. However, in practice, this isn't always what happens. Having ran many of my own forums, I have seen topics go off kilter and large flame wars (arguments) erupt from nowhere. Inevitably, these wars always evolved around beliefs, as anyone will concede an argument over the best way to feed a hamster, but ask who the better political candidate is and you have a different battle all-together.

Of course, without differences in opinion, forums can't possibly exist. For us to write something and have everyone agree, we turn the forum into an information piece that often fails to tell the whole of a story. 

How Do Forums Succeed?

When the members on a forum are able to discuss a topic and learn something from it, the forum succeeds. This is not to say that success equates to mindless agreement, but rather, that success equates to people in the forum being offered information that will either reinforce their previous opinions or add to them. 

It's all about providing a place to debate a topic and offer meat for consideration ... and that's the goal of every forum. When information is shared, the forum succeeds.

How Do Forums Fail?

When members debate each other, rather than the topic at hand, forums fail. Many of these topics (such as religion and politics) lead to very strong debates. This is to be expected when people are questioning one another's belief systems, but the trick is to keep the debate to the topic at hand.

For example, 'You are an idiot' or 'you are dead wrong' adds no information to the topic at hand; however, if you said 'That's not true because ...' and then cite your facts, you then add strength to your position in the debate.

Why Do We Personalize It So Much?

We all have opinions and want to be heard, but we fail to realize others have the same wish, and their opinions might not mesh with our own. This is to be expected with so many in the same room. 

Personal attacks are a part of every forum, and an unnecessary part I might add, as they do nothing to bolster one's view. If anything, they serve to dilute it by taking away from the discussion at hand. If you want to be heard in a forum, stay on topic and debate the material, not the participants.

Yes, it's uncomfortable to be disagreed with, but with several billion people on the same planet, there will always be those who think differently ... so it's something we must all accept.

How Does One Survive a Forum?

The rules to survival are simple:

  1. debate the topic, not the debaters
  2. never personalize anything said
  3. if the topic gets too hot, bail out
  4. never respond when angry  walk away and think things through
  5. don't repeat your position - add to it or remain silent - as repetition adds nothing to the debate
  6. understand that you could be wrong
  7. be willing to speak up when you were mistaken and admit to it
  8. consider the people in the forum as extended family and show them proper respect
  9. if many people find you difficult to deal with, reexamine your ways
  10. never dramatically threaten to walk out of a forum - just take a few days off to relax
Follow these golden rules and you will find your odds of survival will greatly increase. Remember, forums exist for debate, not the dispersement of facts, so anything you share will be debated over. If that troubles you, then it's best to hold back on that topic and share something else. 
Another thing to remember is that these people in forums are totally avoidable, all by not logging in. As such, control truly does rest in your hands when debates turn to arguments. Be the better person and let the bully have their win ... for in time others will recognize their ways and disperse them from the forums.
As said earlier, forums fail when debate is constantly interrupted, which is why these brutes are sought out and removed from forums.  

My Final Notes

This article wasn't designed to poke at anyone, but rather, to give newer forum members an idea on how forums work and how they can be survived. Remember, debates aren't about winning ... they are about exchanging information and learning something new. As such, arguments work against the very fiber forums were created for.

That's not saying that all should agree with one another and lose their own opinion, but it is saying that it is best to share what you know on the topic at hand and allow the rest of the members to decide for themselves where they stand on the topic. 

To cite a famous argument, there were convinced the Earth was flat and they would not accept any evidence to the contrary. For centuries, we lived on a flat Earth with a sun that rotated around it, as no one was willing to debate the issue ... even with proof at hand. Instead, they drove their feet in the sand and argued that any derived knowledge was contrary to common belief, and therefore, heresy. 

Thankfully, argument finally swung to debate, allowing the round Earth theory to be heard and proven, and this is the power of any forum ... to enlighten those within. Those who jump in to share, closing their minds to the debate, gain nothing from said discussion; whereas, those who share with an open-mind always learn something new and benefit from the experience ... strive to be one of these people.

Remember, every knows something about something, and if you present your information properly you just might be heard. :)

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