What is an Online Discussion Forum?

The predecessors to online forums were the internet newsgroups and dial-up bulletin board systems, which were accessed by dialing a specific number. Online forums have a unique sense of community that is very different from that of a blog or website, and have regular devoted members. Today’s online discussion groups are focused on a variety of areas from politics and technology to dog training. Many established online forums are actually a group of smaller forums that are grouped around a central theme. For example, a dog training forum could have smaller forums covering large dogs, small dogs, Labrador retrievers, German shepherds etc.

Online Forum Software features

A discussion that is held in a forum is called a thread. Some online forum threads can be a one or two comments long to multiple pages of comments and replies going back several months or even years. The threads will remain on a forum indefinitely or until a moderator removes them. Many of the more popular threads become what is known as a “sticky” or a permanent forum entry. Sticky’s are usually the result of a large number of forum members asking the same question over time. By posting a sticky, this eliminates the need for the same question being asked repeatedly. One of the most common stickys’ found are usually the forums posting rules.

Today’s forum software will allow more than one forum to be created which act as a discussion room focused on a specific area of a larger topic. These individual rooms contain the threads started by the various group members. You can compare the structure of a forum to a school. Each room covers a different topic, i.e. math, English etc. and the school structure holds each of these classes in one building. Online discussion forums are structured in much the same way.

Forum software can be grouped into two general categories. The type that allows visitors to make anonymous posts and the type that requires visitors to be registered in order to view or make a comment to a forum thread.

The type that requires a visitor to register usually only requires a valid email address in order to join the online discussions going on within the forum. Some additional features of this type of forum software may allow for personalization of the forum skin, signatures and/or the users’ avatar or image associated with their username. The forum software that allows anonymous posts usually does not allow any type of customization to the user interface.

Forum software applications are available in a wide range of programming languages like PHP, JAVA and Perl. There are different features available and depend on the type of programming language used and whether the posts are stored as text files or database entries. The features available range from the basic text-only to the use of things such as emoticons, which are little smiley face type, images that can be inserted to a post.

Some online forum software packages allow administrator to setup filters and automated scripts that will remove any undesirable words such as cursing, or strip any hyperlinks placed within a forum thread. This helps to prevent abuse of the discussion group.

Discussion Group Administrators and Moderators

The administrator of an online forum has privileges that no other member should have. Some of those privileges allow administrators to edit, delete, move or modify any thread on the forum. Forum administrators also have the ability to close the board, make major changes to the forum such as changing the forum theme, add or delete discussion groups or sub forums within the main forum as well as remove, add to or ban members from the forum.

Moderators are usually given privileges by the administrators and are usually delegated the responsibility to oversee or “moderate” specific forum areas or topics. The moderators of a discussion group help the forum administrator by editing, deleting, and moving threads as needed. They also act as hall monitors warning members for any offenses to the forum posting guidelines. The presence of responsible moderators can enhance the quality of an online forum.

Online Forum Users

The members of any online discussion group usually have the same basic abilities. They can make comments or posts into existing discussion threads, start new threads, and assign an image or avatar to be posted with their name. Depending upon the forum software, users may also be able to send and receive emails or personal/instant messages from other forum members. Members can also create their individual forum signature where they can add a link back to their personal website if they wish. This practice also leads to abuse by members making multiple posts just to increase the number of links to their website.

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