A funny thing happened on the way to the forum

More precisely, it was after I got there, but it’s hard to resist a goof on the 1966 play-slash-movie starring Zero Mostel (and Buster Keaton as Erronius, my favorite bogus Latin name).

In this case, “the forum” is a generalization of numerous online special-interest forums I’ve either joined or visited frequently that cater to subjects of interest to me. In the forum universe, topics on the gadget side are well covered—cars, motorcycles, photography, audio, you name it—pretty much the standard suite of guy stuff.

And, it’s mostly guys talking. It may be the nature of the subject matter, but still, it’s hard to believe there aren’t more women interested in this kind of stuff than typical forum participation suggests. On top of a useful and valuable point of view, one desirable result could be increased civility, something all of them could use.

But even with the lopsided gender balance (sidebar—a hilarious survey question a friend once received: “Number of employees broken down by sex”), these forums still can be highly useful for the information, often arcane, locked up in the participants’ heads and obtained by experience. As such, they’re a good first-place-to-go for answers not contained in places like user guides, customer support sites, or Wikipedia.

With the good also comes the not-as-good, usually in the form of uninformed opinion, obtuse generalizations, and pointless rejoinders. Bad spelling and grammar are condiments that often elevate the distaste of such posts. I’ve seen this advice posted more than once: “Don’t feed the forum idiot.”

If you’re familiar with forum culture, then you may have noticed that debates are usually futile because they have no end—the thread lives on forever, and the last word goes to the last person to post it and thus claim—even if it’s misguided—victory in the argument.

You also may have noticed that forum participants tend to stratify into several recurring groups, with variable value to the forum. As a friend who owns a retail store once said, “You know what the problem is with retail? The door’s unlocked.” So it is with forums. In no particular taxonomic order, a typical forum population usually includes but is not limited to:

The Newbie—The lowest form of forum life, the newbie can only survive with thick skin and gritted teeth until a sufficient post count is obtained to elevate status. In the forum world, “post count” is the prime metric of status, with many forums awarding titles like “Senior Member” on its basis. But until some arbitrary number is reached, the newbie survives and thrives in much the same way people do in analog reality—by listening more than talking.

The Expert—This group makes the effort to plow through forum white noise to encounter them worth the effort. They actually know what they are talking about.

The Wronghead—There are people who just fail to grasp the concept. Or, they have a firm grasp of the obvious.This group (along with the group that follows) is a large contributor of annoying and pointless posts.

The Gotcha—To some, conversation and debate are interchangeable terms. To the Gotcha, not even a typo is too insignificant to mention, and discovering a logical flaw is like finding a five-dollar bill on the sidewalk. The Gotcha has an apparent need to prove why that C+ earned in high school debate class was so well deserved.

The Enthusiast—Think of this group as a forum’s glue. Perhaps they’re not all experts, but the sheer, well, enthusiasm of this group makes a forum a pleasant place to be. And, they serve another useful purpose: if you’ve ever wondered if your intense interest in, say, ball-point pens from the 1950s seems a bit dotty, then discovering a group of people just like you is all the positive reinforcement you’ll ever need.

The Modifier—To this irrepressible group, nothing on earth has ever been designed properly. Regardless of the source—and the resources devoted to its development—anything from a popsicle stick to a fusion reactor can be made better by the modifier’s special insight, no matter how mundane or pointless the tweak.

A warning about forums: they can be addictive. Find one you like, about a topic you like, and you may find yourself advancing through the ranks on your way to expert status. Or, you may find yourself lying in bed late at night, laptop on tummy, trading sleep for writing a perspicacious missive that will wow the masses. And, maybe elevate your post count to 1,000…

Leave a Reply