Internet forums ­ an imperfect example of informal learning

Internet Forums are simply online sites where people can have conversations on a variety of topics by posting and responding to messages.  “On-line bulletin board”, “message board” and “bulletin board” are often used interchangeably.  If well moderated, an internet forum can become a place where people from all over the world come together to share knowledge about their discipline or subject of interest – a true “community of practice”.  Friendships, professional connections and reputations are developed as well.  They can exemplify the best of informal learning. However, not all Internet forums are equally successful.  In this paper I will briefly touch upon the history of Internet forums and look into the different varieties that exist today.  I will discuss some of their limitations and focus on one called “D-Word” that I am familiar with and consider a very successful example.

Perhaps we could trace the true origins of “bulletin boards” to graffiti from the antiquities.  Centuries ago, paper was precious.  Newspapers were posted in public spaces so that members of the community could come together to read and discuss them.  Some newspapers inserted blank spaces so that readers could add their own comments for the person they would be passing the newspaper onto.  As paper eventually became more affordable for the masses, “bills” and “broadsides” could be posted where people were likely to see them. Bulletin boards made a central place to post and read information.

In the late ‘70’s and  ‘80’s computers gradually began to enter the home.  The first dial up Bulletin Board system (BBS) was started in 1978 when a Chicago blizzard stranded computer hobbyists Ward Christensen and Randy Suess inside.  People would dial into this and other bulletin boards on 1200 bit modems.  Many were run as a hobby, while others charged a subscription. Some were run by businesses to provide customer support.   Given the limits of the technology, they were basically limited to sharing software and text based information.

BBSs reached their peak usage in 1996, but declined rapidly in popularity with the World Wide Web.  Internet forums today are more robust, offering a place for people with any sort of interest a place to share information, ideas, images, movies etc.  Better search features allow people to take advantage of the wisdom of previous discussions.   People can learn and teach others in these communities at a time that works best for them.  The information they need is available when they can best make use of it. Some are geared towards hobbies, others towards various professional fields such as education and instructional design.   Subject matter ranges from art to zoology, and just about everything in between.

However, some forums fail to gain a critical mass of participants, and others are plagued by strife and discord.  “Trolls” are people who use the cover of anonymity to speak in an ill-mannered way or “flame” others.   Often posts or questions get no response.  The conversation dies and people become disengaged for various reasons.    In addition, informal learning is more difficult to evaluate and quantify.   Therefore it is harder to introduce into certain workplaces that are focused on immediately verifiable results.

One example of a very successful on-line community is called “D-Word”.  It was formed over 10 years ago by a documentary filmmaker named Doug Block, who started with a series of online journal entries “depicting the joy and angst of making and selling his feature documentary, Home Page. It was meant to inform, inspire, humor and depress the hell out of working or aspiring documentary filmmakers, or anyone else interested in the filmmaking process, for that matter.”  It evolved into a community of over 3,000 professional Members and 5000 “enthusiasts” from some 80 countries.    The hosts screen potential members to make sure they have some professional experience.   95% of applicants are accepted.

I am an activate participant in this community.  I have learned many invaluable things and been the beneficiary of incredibly useful advice about all aspects of the production and distribution of documentary films.  I have made friends from all over the world, several of whom I have met when they come to DC.  I have established a reputation of someone with expertise on web design and educational distribution.

An interview I did with Doug Block revealed that as the primary host and creator he sees himself as a “benevolent dictator with no entrepreneurial spirit”.    In the first years he spent about 2 hours a day on it, now it’s down to about one hour a day.  In addition there are 3 other co-hosts who also contribute.  He sees his primary role as keeping folks on topic and making them feel welcome.  In the early years he had to regularly be a more heavy handed “topic cop” to keep people focused on the sticking to the topic.  Now he’s more of a “light overseer”.  The “parking lot” is a special topic expressly designed to allow people to rant and rave.  Even gently suggesting to people that they take something “to the parking lot” often diffuses tensions.   In 10 years only 3 people have been kicked out.   Approximately 150-200 people participate regularly.  Doug thinks you get the most out of it if you check in every day.

Doug Block’s advice to anyone wanting to start an Internet community is: “People think it’s simple to start a virtual community but it’s not.  Be prepared to put in a lot of time and effort.  People don’t want to pay for it.  It will require strong motivated leadership – a benevolent dictator”.

It is my conclusion that in many educational endeavors there are often no shortcuts and technology is just another tool.   It often takes hours of preparation and effort for a teacher or trainer to pull off a good lesson or lecture.  Similarly, it takes dedicated hosts and facilitators willing to donate many hours to make an Internet forum truly flourish.  Improvements in technology will add new features to Internet forums and improve their search features. However, I’m skeptical that the necessary human element can ever be replaced.  Those of us who have volunteered for community groups know that it takes a cadre of dedicated volunteers willing to contribute much time and patience to form community.   The same applies for Internet forums.




¿ Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700-1865 , Richard D. Brown


¿ Doug Block, telephone interview 9/25/2010