In my previous article I extolled the virtues of chat (or off-topic) forum categories. Now it's time to talk about some of the pitfalls and problems you can expect. I feel like I should preface this by saying that chat forums are, in my opinion, absolutely worth the hassle. They are a hassle though, there's no denying it.
One of the most common problems with a chat forum is traffic leaching. Users who like the chat environment will try to move all of their conversation there, and your on-topic forums will die on the vine. While it might seem like traffic is traffic, on and off topic traffic are both good in different ways, and it's important to nurture both. A common trick to overcome this is to have the off-topic forum explicitly not cover the topics of other categories. With this approach on a comics forum for instance, the chat tagline might be "This is where you talk about everything that isn't comics". That way the primary purpose of the other forums still remains, and neither will step on the other.
Another big pitfall is simply down to the way you approach the management of the category. Some will see a chat forum as synonymous with an "anything goes" approach. I would heartily recommend against this. I've said it before, but your forum will end up at the level of the worst behaviour that you allow. If you treat your chat forum as a place where people can flame, bully and be awful, it's guaranteed to spill over into your other forums. While chat forums necessarily have a different atmosphere, I would encourage you to treat them as having the same rules aside from "post on topic". I've seen "anything goes" forums before (I even ran one for about three fateful days). They're horrible. You don't want one. The only reward they offer is that they're easy to moderate (because you don't have to). The conversation is bad, the users are bad and the traffic is empty calories.
Another problem that chat forums bring is drama. As people interact and get closer, they find hundreds of new ways to piss each other off. My forum was an indomitable fortress of drama for a long time, and I'd be lying if I said it was 100% cured now. The trick here is to stay on top of things. Any good community manager will tell you that you need to be involved in the community, and it's especially true in an off topic forum. Keeping a running tally of social problems between users is a good idea, and make sure that forumers feel they can come to you with problem before they escalate into feuds. I'm not advocating you nannying your users too much, but be aware that the more actively social nature of a chat forum will require you to act as much as a landlord and barkeep as a community manager. That said, when drama does erupt I am a firm advocate of stepping on it hard. The reason our drama problems stopped at PA is that we stopped tolerating them. Your users need to know that you'll only dole out so much leash.
I've already gone on and on about my appreciation for chat forums, and I hope this talk about the potential problems doesn't dissuade you. I don't want to repeat myself, but the rewards of implementing them genuinely do outweigh the problems. A chat forum is like a husky. It's a great animal, but wilful and prone to digging up the garden. Once you work out how to deal with them though, you won't find a more friendly and loyal companion. That analogy sort of worked, right? Kind of. I think I got away with it. Until next time...
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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.