Most people who start a community have a particular topic in mind. Whether it's devoted to bikes, turtles, magic hats, trains, buckets, ghosts, ninjas, terrapins, hiking, firearms, trucks, BBQ, skeletons or giving tips to pad out your word count in articles; a community needs a starting point. If it doesn't, interested parties won't have a reason to find it, people won't have common ground to begin conversations and it'll be really hard to get things off the ground. You know this already though right? You're smart people with excellent taste in blogs. So I want to talk about the dreaded Off Topic forum.
Why would you want one of these? A place where people aren't talking about cakes, volcanos, tortoises, samurai, fishing or (Editor's note: that's enough) the topic of your board? The first reason is that off-topic forums are frequently some of the most highly trafficed areas of any site. Giving your community a place to chat about whatever they want is a good way of not only boosting your page hits, but the broader range of topics allows your users to connect with each other in hundreds of new ways. At Penny Arcade, we've had numerous forum marriages and hundreds of strong real life friendships form. The place that's most likely to happen? The chat forum. It's hard to build that kind of relationship when you're limited to talking about kettles, or toast, or (Editor's note: you're fired) the limited purview of topics available in a strictly on-topic environment.
It's possible that I'm biased because I got my start moderating the notoriously difficult chat forums at Penny Arcade, but I feel that almost any community can benefit hugely from this kind of environment. Chat forums are the source of the best stories, the best laughs and the best comraderie of any community. At PA, the chat forum has raised thousands of dollars for charity (although so has our monolithic games forum. The comics forums need to step their game up) and is where you'll find our most dedicated fans. When I'm thinking of changing things, or need input on how the boards are going, the chat forum is where I go. It's my home away from home on the internet, and I wish everyone could have a similar place.
Chat forums can be tricky. Managed correctly, they can give your community a great place to let off steam and that atmosphere can feed positively into the rest of the site. Managed incorrectly? Well, they can be a nightmare. I've seen more than one forum suffering from a chat shaped albatross around its neck, leeching the good conversation from the on-topic forums, using up all your mod time and giving back nothing but toxicity in return. The benefits are exceptional, as long as you're able to manage around the potential problems.
That sounds like it needs a whole article to itself though, right? (Editor's note: Part 2 coming soon)
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Guest post by Patrick Groome. Patrick is the Administrator of the Penny Arcade forums. Penny Arcade is one of the most popular and long running gaming webcomics and organizer of the PAX gaming conference.