The answer explains how the best online communities are built.
E-mail is active, forums are passive. I'll be blunt. Why do people use forums? To ask questions and get answers. People go to forums with a problem to solve. People have work to do, most do not have time to read forums and answer question. Those who do are a rare unselfish breed and you need to appreciate those people when they exist because without them all forums would die or become unusable. Left on their own, forums die.
The nature of e-mail is to engage people. It appears on-screen and whether you read a mesage or hit 'D', you are actively engaged. Over time you get to know the people "out there" writing the messages, and a sense of community builds. Did you ever feel a sense of community at DriverGuide.com? No, because you only go there when you need something, and then you only read the few posts that match your search.
Even more important than engaging people is active moderation. Moderators keep content focused. "Go to hell" and "Me too!" messages never make the list. Low noise. Don't waste people's time. Spam wastes your time, but topical posts about a subject of interest will keep your interest. You will keep reading. For years.
When you need help, your message appears in the inbox of many experts. These experts do not need to go to a particular site or log in anywhere to read your message. The message does not just go to those experts who happened to drop into a forum because they had a question of their own or had some time to kill. It goes to all of them. With a well-moderated list, these people do not get spammed, they only get questions and answers, and some answers are so good that the experts learn something too.
Lists can become too noisy by sheer volume. When this happens the list should beget a child-list to handle traffic on a focused subtopic. For example, a Database list will eventually split into child-lists covering specific platforms -- Microsoft SQL Server and Access would generate a lot of traffic on their own. Later, the SQL Server list might beget child-lists for SQL Server Administration and T-SQL Queries. The rule is to keep each list's traffic to a minimum. Focus.
Can unmoderated forums or lists be successful? Yes, but with unmoderated noise you will a) lose as many experts as you retain and b) your user base will be nomadic or seasonal. To me, Usenet is Useless. it's CB Radio with a keyboard. Bored people with free time and a lack of self-control. I can't stand it. Every successful unmoderated forum owes it's success to the 2% of posters who keep a sense of community alive. I am on a fly fishing list with 1200 people, and if it were not for the two dozen people who post regularly, it would be a wasteland. Occasional burnout among the 2% adds some vitality, at the cost of burning those people out.
Can forums or newsgroups be successful, being passive? Only with incentive for experts to keep coming back. Who wants to be an anonymous volunteer call centre operator? Microsoft's ASP.NET Forums are successful because their paid employees answer questions there, and they reward community volunteers with MVP status. The "rare unselfish breed" I wrote of earlier? Microsoft knows how to treat them -- they get free stuff. Other successful sites bestow special status on the best people, arrange discounts, or orchestrate something more personal like a birthday gift or the occasional thank-you card. Appreciation in any form builds loyalty.
On to my own experience. GenericDB is open source freeware, with an option to register. Most people never register and that is fine, the point of doing it was the lesson and not the revenue. Registration actually began to keep my inbox focused and it works. But, it also means GDB cannot depend on revenue (as SoftArtisans or Microsoft can) to ensure the success of a passive or privately-hosted forum.
Instead GenericDB has the best of all worlds. Moderated lists foster an active, moderated discussion involving the best people, and leads to a strong sense of grassroots community support. This is ideal.
This community did not happen by accident, it happened by design. To give credit where it is due, it was Charles Carroll who first combined active moderation with list splitting to achieve focused, useful lists with a strong sense of community. Unfortunately his ASPFriends project self-destructed for other reasons which would make an article all their own.
Charles recognized the best people at ASPFriends and made them "Aces." Aces received discounts on training. Aces received free books to review. And a small group of Aces were invited each year to a Microsoft design preview in Redmond. Pretty cool. During the 2002 Ace Summit, Charles snuck off to speak about community-building to Microsoft managers and employees. I got to watch and how he described the upward arc of ASPFriends is the core of what I've written here.
And among the 40 experts he gathered, I've got to say it was the right 40 people. One became my wife.
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