Some simple forum netiquette: 3 – When and what to post

When you’re new on a forum, either you’re an idiot or you want to be at least a bit careful about not getting up other people’s noses. Here are some clues about how to be accepted rather than despised.

Vanity publishing

If you’re new to the Internet and to forums, you may be quite excited at the heady prospect of everything you write being visible to other people all around the world. You may also be eager to have conversations with all these new-found friends.

That’s great. But try to resist the urge to post on every topic on the forum you’ve joined, just because you can. If you don’t know anything about the subject in hand or the people already having the discussion, you’ll very quickly come to be regarded as a nuisance – and even if you do know something about it, you’ll be seen as a knowall and a busybody. Even worse, if you’ve included a link to your own website in your signature, or – worse still – in the body of your posting, you may well arouse the site admins’ suspicions that they have a potential spammer on their hands.

So play it cool, at least until you’ve been around long enough for people to get to know you.

Corpse Robbers!

Most forum owners expect their members to check the boards before starting a new topic, just in case someone has already raised the subject in a previous topic. That’s as it should be – there’s no point in a proliferation of topics all on the same subject.

However, every so often someone takes it into their head to post a reply to a topic that’s died a natural death and been buried several months if not years before. Sometimes they may be doing it entirely innocently and may not even realise how old the topic is (although that seems unlikely if they’ve found it on Page 7 of the board). More often, they’re doing it for their own personal benefit – at best to boost their ego (“Look at how many topics I’ve answered on this board! What an important member of this community I must be!”), at worst to promote their own website, service or product (especially if they’ve included an advert in their sig).

Occasionally they’ll throw in a snide comment about how little traffic the board seems to be getting. What purpose can that serve, beyond encouraging the forum’s members to move elsewhere – to the poster’s own website, no doubt?

Roger Irrelevant

This is a slightly tricky issue, as it depends to some extent on the character of the forum you’re hanging out on.

Some forums allow their members to be as chatty as they like. Some ask their members to stay “on topic” – in other words, not to stray off the subject under discussion. Some have separate areas for chat and for on-topic postings.

If the forum asks you to stay “on topic”, that means that whatever you post should always be relevant to the subject of the first posting in the thread. That holds true particularly when the person who’s posted has asked for help or advice on a particular issue. And it holds true even if you were the person who originally asked the question!

Remember, other people may well be searching the forum later on for the same information. It’s harder for them to find that information if it’s buried under a mass of irrelevant postings – or if it’s been posted in reply to a completely different question.

To see what this looks like in practice, let’s imagine someone has posted on a forum with the title “What’s the best route from Glasgow to Doncaster?”

These responses would be OK:

  • A direct answer to the question, which could be anything from a simple outline of your suggested route to an in-depth presentation of the ins and outs of various routes – as long as they go from Glasgow to Doncaster.
  • A request for supplementary information which affects the answer. For instance, the original poster may not have said what time of day they intend to travel (or what form of transport they’re using!).
  • An alternative answer to one that’s already been given – again, as long as it goes from Glasgow to Doncaster.
  • A query to an answer that’s already been given – for instance, if the answer recommends a road that’s temporarily closed.
  • A further question that’s genuinely a sub-division of the original one. So, for instance, if there are roadworks along the best route, you could post asking when the roadworks are likely to be completed; or if the route goes through a particular city, you might want to ask when the rush hours are and how heavy the traffic gets.

These responses would NOT be OK:

  • Flippant answers – for instance, “Who’d want to go to Doncaster anyway?”
  • Supplementary questions that are prompted by the original question but for which the answers don’t answer the original question – for instance, “What’s the best route from Glasgow to Chester?” or “What are the pubs like in Doncaster?”
    (New questions should be addressed in a different topic – if the question hasn’t been asked already, then start a new topic.)
  • Personal information that doesn’t actually help answer the question – for instance, reminiscences about breakdowns on the M74.
  • Requests for the original poster to provide supplementary information that doesn’t have any bearing on the answer – for instance, “Are you going to do any shopping while you’re in Doncaster?”

Even though some forums may let you off with a certain amount of chat even in information-oriented discussions, it’s best to err on the side of caution unless you’re absolutely sure of your ground. After all, you’d think it was pretty odd if you were discussing the price of fish with your pals and someone interrupted with a story of how they once caught an old boot in the canal, wouldn’t you?

Remember – keep it relevant, not hatstand.

Can I quote you on that?

Quote sparingly, please: only as much as is needed to help others understand what your reply refers to. It follows from that that you should:

  • Quote only the point or points you’re replying to;
  • Quote a posting in its entirety only if it’s so short that to edit it would destroy the meaning;
  • Quote from the directly preceding posting only if it’s a long one and you want to reply to a specific point or points (in which case, quote only those points).

If the immediately preceding posting is short, it will already be clear what you’re replying to. So quoting the immediately previous posting in its entirety serves no useful purpose and simply means that people reading the topic have to scroll through a lot of repeated material. Don’t do it. Ever.

On the other hand, don’t over-edit a quotation to the point where the original meaning is distorted; leave enough of the original words to keep the meaning clear, in fairness to the person whose words you’re quoting.

Rewriting history

At one time or another we’ve all wished we hadn’t said something.

Of course, once something’s said, it’s impossible to unsay it. On a forum, it’s often different – you can go back and edit your post to remove something that you later realise was stupid or inflammatory or both. Sometimes (though not always) you can even delete your post altogether.

However, if you’re going to do this, please exercise a bit of consideration in how you do it. If you can edit it before anyone responds, that’s fine – with any luck you may have got away with it before anyone noticed.

But if people have already taken issue with your post, simply editing or deleting your post without comment is very bad form. It leaves them looking stupid, which won’t do anything to improve their moods.

Writing [Post edited] is better, but not much, as anyone coming along afterwards will still have no idea what the argument was all about.

It’s far better to give a brief summary of what you’ve removed and why. If you feel it’s appropriate, you could post a suitable expression of regret (or even an apology) after the latest post, but that will depend on the circumstances.

Better still, don’t edit or delete anything at all if it changes the meaning of what you’ve posted. If you regret what you said earlier, or want to correct a misunderstanding, post again and say so. Save edits for typos and spelling or grammar corrections.

Best of all, think more carefully about how others are likely to react to your post before hitting the “Submit” button in the first place.

(Some forum owners bar people from editing or deleting their own posts after a certain length of time has passed, or if the post has been replied to. This is a good thing.)


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