My experience on the message boards

Internet forums have been something I have tended to avoid in life. I had little exposure to them until about year ago, when I was made an administrator for one at work. The forum was established for about 160 customers who were beta testing our newest software product. Of those, about 10 or so were very active in posting things to the forum. We had about a dozen employees who were able to watch and help with responding to the forums, and of those, I was the one primarily who wrote anything back to them. To make my experience even tougher, I had the unpleasant task of trying to write back good PR answers when there really weren’t any good answers to give to the questions that were being asked. I was doing a lot of responding to mostly incomplete information posts with, “can you provide more defined steps to duplicate the issue” or when they didn’t reply, “I’ve assigned a tech to call your office to try to duplicate the issue and determine more specific steps” or “thanks for the report, I’ve sent that up to development to review” – the experience didn’t leave a great taste in my mouth for using forums. I found them confusing to navigate and keep on top of

About the same time, being new to forums, I explored a few at to see how they worked. I was disappointed in reading the content, as it would seem that a good topic might be started, then the chain of replies would be weak or juvenile, and I would quickly loose interest in reading them. So I basically avoided doing much of anything with forums.

Then I noticed that InsideOut A Cappella started up a forum. Being a fan of theirs, I went and looked, and found a “suggestion box” area where a topic had been started suggesting that they do a Disney theme album. It was enough to intrigue me, so I signed up to be a member of this very small forum, primarily to reply to this post. (by the way, I am in favor of the idea!)

I then thought, I’m a member now, and I have some good ideas, so I threw a few new topics out there. I hoped that there would come some good, thoughtful discussion, and people would have some good ways to improve upon my ideas. I suppose I hoped that the quality would be better because the forum was small. In the past few weeks, I have found that it pretty much is what I have experienced elsewhere – the topic starts strong, but then the replies become weak and direction less.

But there was another lesson I learned using that forum. I began a “conversation” with another member about chewing gum stuck to the bottom of the tables (see “weak and direction less” above), and realized that I had been sucked in to the same mentality I had hoped to avoid. It is apparently not meaningless or pointless when I am involved in the conversation!

I also learned that I can’t make assumptions as I “talk” to people on the web. I assumed and put a picture in my mind of the person I was talking about chewing gum with. Then I clicked and looked at the profile, where I found it was a 14 year old girl from GA (assuming that is her true information). It wasn’t the picture I had drew in my mind, and jarred me a bit, realizing that I’m a 30 year old male talking innocently with a 14 year old girl about chewing gum. Now I started to get nervous. I was starting to see and experience the “unreal” nature of the beast. I suspect those “other” people I read about who get online and make “friends” and find “companionship” with pixels and smiley-faces are experiencing. They carry it too far, go off the deep end, and really mess up their lives making very dumb choices. I hadn’t done anything like that – but I had gotten sucked into the mentality, just a little bit, and could possibly have let myself get carried away, had it been another forum, with topics more serious.

The final thing I’ll mention learning from my forum experience is considering how much to share about myself. I wanted to tell a story about the first time I heard the group. That story involved the location, people’s names, etc – things that could help identify me. How much to share? At what point would it not be safe or prudent to tell the story properly, and reveal to much about me personally to whomever is reading. I feel fortunate that I have a good conscience, and this was not a major issue – it was a simple story about the first time hearing the music group sing, for crying out lout – but again, had it been another board, and another subject, might I have been “sucked in” with the same kind of mentality, assuming that I am completely among “friends” and sharing more than I should?

It could have been easy to upload a photo of myself, but would that be safe? And what about the time it was taking away from reality, that I could be sharing with my wife and family to type up replies?

Anyway, this is just a little of my experience using the forums. I have magnified my very small and innocent experience to mine some valuable lessons from them. And the Internet is not all bad; just be careful out there on the Internet. It’s not always what it appears. Oh, it’s not all bad. Just don’t believe everything you read on the Internet, and be careful what you say about yourself – you don’t know who is reading.

* 16 November 2007 Update: This particular post has had a very interesting side effect. It was generating all sorts of spam “comments.” There must be some word, or combination of words, here that are attracting the attention of the spam-bots. I’ve become tired of deleting these posts, so I’ve disabled comments on this post. *