Creating Online Communities With a New Type of Forum

Social Media Makes the Internet a Two-Way Street Again and Destroys Most Geographical Barriers

By Jim Montague

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I used to say that reporting and writing news in small and medium-sized towns was like getting everyone around a really big dinner table. Metaphorically speaking, my job was to ask, "So what did you do in school today?" or "How was work?" And, just like at home, the best reason for exchanging news large and small is that it binds together all the members of those communities and makes them all more of a family.

Sadly, the ties holding many geographically defined communities together have been cut or severely weakened by everything from TV replacing conversation to younger generations leaving to find work in supposedly more-exciting cities and their suburbs. Unfortunately, manufacturing in general and control and automation in particular have been damaged by the same forces — years of layoffs that eliminated or shrank engineering departments; aging and retiring veterans and apparenty disinterested youngsters with few chances for mentoring; and widely scattered organizations where one hand doesn't even know there is another hand, let alone what it might be doing.

The real problem with TV and just "viewing" is that the information is always in one direction. It's always a one-way street outwards to viewers who never get a chance to respond, and so their mental capacity for interaction atrophies and shuts down. That's why lengthy TV viewing seems to make people grumpy — they never get to talk back. Luckily, though the Internet started out providing even more pitfalls than TV for mind-deadening baloney, it's been evolving lately.

For instance, I learned a few things researching and reporting this issue's "Solving Social Media" cover article, and I hope they'll be helpful. Primarily, social media makes the Internet a two-way street again. This might also be why video games are so popular. You actually get to respond and do something again. Better still, social media's technology destroys most geographical barriers, so users can express themselves and interact with neighbors in the next cubicle, across town or 12 time zones away.

Beyond answering questions and solving immediate problems, this allows widely distributed participants to recapture or at least recreate some of the sense of community that's been lost over the years. It just takes the same time, participation, nurturing and patience that even physical communities and families need to survive and thrive.

"Social media is not the monolith it might seem like at first," says Ken Crater, founder of Control.com, one of the oldest and I think one of the best email-based discussion groups for control and automation topics. It receives 250,000 unique visitors per month, and so far it has 165,000 messages posted. "Each site is perceived to have a specialized purpose. As a result, it's important for newcomers to read a lot before they post, so they can learn the forum's explicit rules, and get a sense of its culture and some unwritten traditions and conventions. For example, like most forums, Control.com doesn't allow name calling and seeks to limit marketing, but it does allow some very heated technical arguments."

For those that want to start new online discussion forums, Crater adds he's glad to see any new groups, but he cautions it can be very difficult for them to gain momentum. "It's a very chicken-and-egg question," he explains. "If you start a group and it's empty, then no one bothers to post, and so it's likely to stay empty. Control.com benefits because we started long ago when there was nothing else like it out there. It's much harder to get a forum started today because there's so much noise in the market. However, social media forums are a lot like muscles—they get stronger with use. So the social aspect should not be ignored because, if users do find its questions and answers useful, then they come back and post their own experiences and opinions. And, if you can get enough regular contributors, they'll really get to know each other, and they'll be willing to do favors as friends and draft responses that go above and beyond the call."

So, visit Control.com, LinkedIn and Facebook groups, user-driven and supplier-hosted forums, or any of the million or so other online gathering spots. Oh, and give yourself a chance to really get involved. Personally, in the end, I don't care what form that old dinner table takes as long as it's there to enable useful, enlightening and encouraging connections between people. That's all that matters to me.

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