Friday, 16 October 2009

A Warning About Forums

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A SharePoint team site provides you a discussion list.  Discussion lists are standard web information tools.  People can post in a discussion.  Members can write comments.  While blogs post the newest on top, a discussion places the newest at the bottom of the group.  As you discuss a subject you work downward.  New topic are stacked on the top, like dishes on a stack.

Its a simple structure to organize discussions.  You see whats latest on top and you can drill down.

Technically speaking a blog with comments turned on is essentially a forum.  I once created a blogging toll in PHP by simply changing the logic of a discussion group.

So this seems like an easy tool.  You might think about using it to promote communication, to capture discussions. 

But I ask you to stop and think: what have you seen in discussion on the internet?  Two words come up again and again: "flame war"

The issue with discussion groups is that essentially they are archaic. Think of the recent town hall meetings in the United States.  No matter how many rational people you have behaving themselves, you only need 1 or 2 "trolls" to ruin any forum on any subject.  You might think that in a work place this won't happen, but stop and think about the reality of work.  Bullying and clique formation is a key problem in any company, and a chat forum could easily digress in to a bully session.  I have seen it happen several times.  And people become obsessed and waste masses of time.

Forums just do this.  It seems almost to be a physical law of chat groups. Think about other tools to promote communication and team building.  SharePoint is not everything.  VoIP allows you to get groups talking to each other.  Talking provides the social cues that prevent flame wars.  People feel the presence of other people and regulate themselves. 

Groups need to think carefully about how they are going to create themselves as a group. 

How they are going to establish members.  Ideally they will spend time together, but in the modern world you need to relay on computer messages.  DON'T think you need to do everything in SharePoint.  Other tools are better at keeping in touch with each other.  Groups can IM, VoiP, Email and just call each other. 

Team making at the start of a project is essential.  Once you feel confident you have a team with enough shared respect and ideas you might want to give them chat groups.

Don't open up company wide chat groups open to everyone.  Don't have forums where management participates with staff.  A forum should be ONLY a tool for existing groups that have enough respect they will not flame each other.  Otherwise you are taking a risk.
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