Online Forums: Are They Right for Town Websites?

Online forums can be a way to facilitate discussion –but they can also be difficult to manage. Is there a better way?
Online forums can be a way to facilitate discussion –but they can also be difficult to manage. Is there a better way?

Discussion boards, message boards, or forums –whatever you call them, they all have the same purpose: to provide a place for members to comment, and discuss various issues, interests, or concerns.

While the purpose of adding a discussion board to a town website is usually done in the interest of transparency –enabling the public to post questions and hold discussions in a public setting, the reality is that having a forum is much more involved than you might think.

A forum may seem like an ideal way to create two-way channels of communication between the municipality and the public, but the reality is far more complicated. Forums require a significant amount of patrolling and monitoring in order to ensure that the conversations stay on-topic, and to make sure that all of the questions and topics are addressed in a timely manner.

It’s true that there are some benefits that come from having a forum on-site. Discussion forums can occasionally draw crowds which can increase the amount of traffic your website sees. They can also help you to build relationships with your visitors, and give you a chance to educate the public on various issues; giving you a platform from which to speak. However, there are also some downsides to having an on-site discussion forum, and in the end, municipalities often decide that they’re just not worth having.

Let’s look at some of the issues that discussion forums can cause, and see some available alternatives.

Downsides of Discussion Forums

  • The Issue of Spam – Spam is another risk with forums. Instead of just having a website that allows for one-way communication from the municipality to the public, a forum allows potentially anybody to post, opening the doors to postings from spam bots, as well as residents.
  • The Need for Constant Monitoring – A discussion board will require constant monitoring and moderation. You would need to appoint someone to monitor it, as well as outline with them what should be allowed and what should be deleted. The moderator would also need to know how to handle questions and problems that could potentially arise.
  • The Need for Policy – Policies would need to be implemented. Who would be able to post in the forum? Could anybody register to become a member, or should it be limited only to current residents? You would also need to outline what topics are allowed on your forum.
  • The Risk of Flame Wars – A flame war occurs when users provoke each other with personal attacks. Whenever there are large groups of people online, someone’s feelings are bound to get hurt –or someone will take a comment personally. When this happens, a flame war can quickly start –and once it does, it can be difficult to extinguish.
  • Potential Liability – Having a discussion forum can also present a liability for the town if their official forum has posts that could be misconstrued or considered to be defamatory in nature. Whether true or not, there could be personal attacks on individuals and other board members and staff that could hurt people’s feelings and cause problems.

Alternative Options

Ok, so we’ve seen how having a forum requires diligent monitoring, and in some cases, could present a liability to the town. But the good news is that if you’re looking for a way to open up communication between the municipality and the public, there are other safer and less time-consuming ways that you can do just that.

  • Social Media – Using a Facebook page can be a great way to open up communication between town –and residents, while reducing the risk of abuse. Since Facebook discussions are connected to person’s profile, people will less likely be abusive than in a forum where they can pick a username and operate anonymously.
  • Question Submission Form – Providing residents with the ability to submit questions through the website allows people to ask their questions and receive answers –while eliminating the risk of public flame wars.
  • Contact Form – Offering a contact form on the website allows questions and comments to be directed to the clerk or other officials and also enables residents to receive answers in a timely fashion.

So there you have it! The reasons for –and against having a public discussion forum. If you have any questions regarding a website or forum for your town –don’t hesitate to contact Town Web Design today.

At Town Web Design, we offer web design for small and medium-sized municipalities. Contact us today to learn more about a website for your town.

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