I’m notoriously cautious about adding new features to my forum. As awesome as shiny new buttons are, and as exciting as added functionality may seem, new features present one of the strongest change factors for any community. The biggest change that my community ever went through was moving to Vanilla from our old, broken software platform. It was held together with twigs and twine. Our server was operated with a hand crank. If you kicked it, animal noises came out. I was still cautious.
When you activate a feature, you’re changing the way that your members interact with each other. That’s a powerful thing. I can look at the list of features that a forum uses and have a fair idea of what that community is like. If I can get a look at the Community Manager’s feature wishlist, I can also tell you what the problems in that community are. If they’re asking for draconian automated moderation features and restrictions on new members, I know that they’re looking for software solutions to management problems. If they’re desperate for new gamification options, they’re likely having trouble keeping members engaged. If (like me) they grumpily insist that they don’t want new features, they’re probably letting their ego blind them to the problems in their forum culture.
Marshall McLuhan wrote a book called The Medium Is The Message. I haven’t read it, obviously, but I took a long look at the cover and I think I get the gist. Your forum, and the features you have enabled, are the medium and your members will use it to decide what the message is. (Editor's note: the phrase "the medium is the message" was actually elaborated upon in McLuhan's book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.)
It’s tough to find a balance though. I’m far too reticent to try new features, but I can’t deny that features like Reactions and Warnings completely changed my forum culture for the better. One of the most enjoyable events in my community is always when we add a new, bizarre reaction and our members scramble to figure out what posts they want to award it to. I’ve seen many communities go the other way though, where every available feature is turned on and members are left looking at a bloated mess.
Here’s a good mental checklist to complete before enabling a new feature in your forum:
- What do I want this feature to achieve?
- What’s the best case scenario for how my members interact with it?
- What’s the worst case scenario? (This is what they will actually do)
- If I need to turn it off, how am I going to deal with the inevitable outrage?
That last one is important. I once accidentally turned a feature on for forty minutes. Upon disabling it, I was met with angry protests from members who insisted that the forum was unusable without it. When I switch the reactions on the board every few months, I can look forward to someone complaining that the new reaction is terrible and it should be changed back immediately. On my old, self-hosted software, this made new features into a nightmare, since every new feature was activated blind, with no real way of telling what they did or how the users would react. One of the benefits of using cloud-based software is that when I’m curious about how a new feature will operate, I can talk directly to Vanilla about how it works, what the intent of it is and what their usage cases actually look like.
It’s not my intention to put anyone off trying new things. Despite my own pathology, I actually recommend regularly trying new features, new management approaches and new ways of preparing salmon. My recommendation isn’t that you stop trying new things, it’s that you go into them with your eyes open, with a purpose and with an exit strategy.
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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.