Message Board Culture and Etiquette

(Showfax Bob, please feel free to move this is if you deem it appropriate. I just felt compelled to post this and figured the “Whatever” section might be the least controversial place. If you like it and want to make it a sticky admin post or something, knock yerself out.)

Now, before I launch into some long post about message board culture and etiquette, let me state for the record that I have been a member of many online forums (most of them acting related) for well over a decade and I have also been the admin/moderator of a handful of online forums (most of them acting related).

One of my favorite analogies about the “feel” of a message board comes from something I read a long, long time ago. I’ve seen it adapted and shared at many, many message boards over the years, but first read it back in the ’90s (when I was in grad school for my PhD in Instructional Technology — I am *not* kidding — and studying online communities and their potential as sources of educational exchanges).

“Treat a message board like a cocktail party. If you walk up to a group of people who are already talking, be considerate that you are joining *their* party in progress, and even if the door to the party was wide open, for most first-time visitors, it’s not like the party’s host has invited you and walked you over to a group to introduce you around. You’re coming in on your own and probably want to say a polite hello, introduce yourself, give a little context on why you might feel a certain way about a certain topic, and then jump in and join the debate already in progress.”

I mention this because I notice that those who lurk for a while and then post a, “Hi. I’m posting for the first time, here. I’ve read the posts and I get that you guys have a lot of experience at a bunch of different levels. Here’s my question and here’s what I’ve already experienced — so you can get an idea of my starting point and what research I’ve already attempted,” tend to get a much warmer reception, receive much more assistance from the regulars, and — amazingly — receive much more ON-TARGET advice than “others” (see more about “others” below).

Think about it. If you walked into a room where a group of people were talking — even if the debate was heated and emotional — and immediately started sharing your POV without any context, any means of introduction to the group, and a complete sense of expectation that everyone should respect your POV (as if they fully KNOW your previous experience level and “get” you, going in) with NO questions asked, you’d be considered a loon. Yet that happens on message boards EVERY day.

And the advantage really DOES go to the lurker-turned-poster, because he or she GETS the people who are already active members of the community. Those members, on the other hand, have NO context within which to understand that new poster. It’s like seeing someone famous in public. You feel like you know them because you’ve seen their movies, you’ve read their interviews, you’ve had them into your home via the TV for years. Yet if you were to just start talking to them with no introduction, no background info, no, “Hi. Big fan. Excuse me a moment. Can I ask you a question,” type lead-in — y’know, as if you’re VERY intimately aware of who this person is — that would be odd. But it’s WORSE if you also EXPECT that person to have an intimate awareness of YOU and where YOU come from and how YOU think.

The “others” I mentioned above are those who post for the first time without giving much context for the regulars to go on.

That — in and of itself — is not a BAD thing. It just causes the quality of early replies to be (at best) not terribly helpful.

But when the inevitable smackdown comes from the “new poster,” there is always this indignant attitude of, “Don’t you know who I am?!? Don’t you know how much experience I have? How DARE you assume that just because this is my first post I don’t have dozens of years of experience in the industry and a career you would covet if I actually bothered to post under my real name?”

And that is usually followed by a barrage of, “You guys are a bunch of meanies. You’re a group of elitist snobs who are only out for yourselves. If a new poster comes in here and doesn’t toe the party line, he or she is attacked and forced to storm off in a huff or prove that he or she can stand up to you mean, mean meanies.”

Followed by a prompt exit or (hopefully) an attitude adjustment and a long, productive future on the message board, with a much better understanding of the culture and etiquette — because now he or she is a part of it.

Are we all going to get along?

No.

Even those of us who have been posting on this and other message boards together for YEARS don’t all get along.

That’s not what this post is about.

It’s an attempt to encourage those of you who are posting for the first time (here or anywhere else, really) and who feel attacked or misunderstood or challenged for expressing strong opinions without any sort of context for whether the machismo is merited TO THINK OF THIS LIKE A COCKTAIL PARTY.

Of course, we all want to enjoy our time here. We may want to help others or get help from others. We may want to celebrate one another’s accomplishments and enjoy one another’s stories and encourage one another when we’re on the low side of things.

But there is a bit of culture and etiquette to acknowledge and (hopefully) respect.

Posting without doing a SEARCH of existing posts first is like walking in and screaming, “WHERE IS THE ICE?” when the ice is in the area clearly marked “ice” and there’s a sign on one of the other walls pointing to the ice. You’ve just interrupted a bunch of conversations to ask an easily-answered question (and made yourself look like someone who either can’t read signs or can’t be bothered to do such a thing — neither of which is a good first impression to make).

Posting as if you know everything about any topic without first sharing a bit about you and your credentials is like walking up to a group of people at the party and insisting you know everything about that topic “because I said so,” and you’re too cool or too important to be bothered with providing the backup that would get you INSTANT respect. Now… if you’ve neglected to share your credentials at the beginning of the dialogue, that’s okay! You can include a link to your IMDB page or professional website in your PROFILE or within your posts’ signatures. Consider that the same thing as at least wearing a nametag when you walk into the party so we know who we’re dealing with. Want to check the credentials of those who are already regulars at this party? Check their profile, check their signature block, check previous posts in which they’ve given a great deal of “back story” on who they are and what their cred is.

Lurking is the same as watching the party from just outside. You can see and hear what’s going on, but no one has the advantage of getting to know YOU in the same way. At first, you’ll feel very familiar with the partygoers, because you know their style, you get their sense of humor, you know when someone is crossing a line and when that same someone is just teasing an old friend. Don’t get mad when you’re not given that same sense of “I get you” right away. How could the partygoers “get you” when you’ve been observing them and they’ve had no opportunity to observe you? Your sense of humor, your style, your POV are all brand new to the partygoers until you’ve been around awhile. Help ’em warm up to you by giving a little orientation to YOU before leaping right into the conversations and demanding the same level of respect those who were already conversing have for one another.

Getting a message board smackdown (or even a light reprimand or slap on the wrist) is nothing to make you run away in disgust. Think of it like a host telling you you’ve parked your car in front of a neighbor’s driveway or asking you to use a coaster when you put down your drink. You’ve come into someone else’s party and the host is very graciously providing you with munchies and drinks without asking you to chip in. And if a fellow partygoer is the one to ask you to use a coaster, don’t get all huffy thinking that only the host can tell you you’ve committed a party foul. Just like at any party, having someone who has been there before warn you about parking in a towaway zone or suggesting that you use a coaster before the host freaks out on you is just a, “Hey, you’re new to the party” courtesy. Some are more gruff than others in the way they may speak to you. That’s life at the party and online.

One of my least favorite message board behaviors is something that is a little more difficult to put into the cocktail party analogy. It’s the phenomenon I call “I’m gonna take my toys and go home!” Posters who have contributed to quite a few threads decide at some point that they’re DONE with the message board. They’re leaving the party. But first they’re going to erase all evidence that they were ever there. They delete every post they’ve made. They trash entire discussions by removing all sense of context that existed when any other poster answered them, because now their original questions are gone. Unless the replying posters have QUOTED their original text, this behavior leaves holes in the “history” of the message board and really disrupts some very good discussions. I guess the best way to bring that to a party analogy would be if the party were a gift exchange and each attendee brought three gifts for the big tub of donations that were going over to the children’s hospital later. And before this one poster decides to BOLT on the party, he runs over to the tub and fishes out all of the gifts he brought. Now they are gone. And worse, they were part of a WHOLE that is now somehow lacking. (Basically, it’s like tearing pages out of a book that could inform and educate others for years to come. It’s a dick move, based wholly in ego, and it’s just plain rude.)

Coming in and selling a product or service in your very first post is like showing up uninvited to a party wearing a sandwich board and ringing a bell. You will either be ignored as “that crazy person in the foyer” or asked to leave. If you stay, you will be laughed at by some, ignored by some, and challenged by some. Of course, most shills show up at the doorstep, shout, “Buy my thing,” and then run to the next party down the block, so this isn’t an issue for most. But for those shills who like to check back and see how their post is doing a little later, this part of the etiquette list is for you. Earn the trust of your potential customers before you crash their party and yell at them, then call them idiots or sad, bitter skeptics for not throwing open their wallets for you.

One of the message boards I ran a few years back had three key “fixes” to problems I saw at other message boards. No non-registered user could lurk. So, basically, we had to know you were AT the party for you to have access to its goodies. Also, I disabled the edit/delete feature so that EVERYONE was accountable for what he or she said — no take-backs. No pretending that it never happened (heck, even here, your original post goes out on the RSS feed, so even after editing and/or deleting, the info is still “out there” for those of us who really geek out). And I required all members to sign up using their REAL names. I noticed at other message boards where this sort of thing was a requirement that the posters were far more respectful of one another when their true identity was known. Very little of the seriously childish, obnoxious message board behavior we see from time to time, when the members of the community were clearly identified.

But, hey, I don’t run this message board (and the one I ran with those three “fixes” in place — I don’t run anymore. And that should tell you something). Running a message board is a thankless, time-consuming, babysitting-like job for which there isn’t enough time or energy in this kid to endure. Just like hosting a big party, there’s a lot of prep, there’s a lot of drama among folks who want to get you all up in the business of everyone else who is there, stuff gets broken, and pretty much NO ONE stays to help you clean up when the party is over.

All this to say, please consider this place a fun little cocktail party to which you have open, anonymous access. Observing the general guidelines of its culture and etiquette is of course optional, but it’s good to know what the deal is (I hope). Beyond that, saying thank you to our host Showfax Bob is probably the LEAST we can do.

(Psst — hey, Bob? Thank you.)

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