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Slashdot's Rob Malda on Building a Better Online Forum

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What can news sites do to breathe life into languishing discussion boards? Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda -- creator of the wildly successful discussion site Slashdot -- offers some words of wisdom to editors looking to improve online discussion groups. 

Reporters are always curious why Slashdot discussions seem to take on a life of their own. Within hours of posting, hundreds or even thousands of comments appear on the site ... but larger sites remain relatively devoid of discussion. Tumbleweeds float through their discussion boards. Here is some quick advice for people trying to get some action in their public forums.

Keep Visitors Coming Back: After content, you need to convince readers to come back frequently to your site. After all, if they are visiting once a week, they aren't likely to participate in any discussion whatsoever. There are obvious things you can do to get readers to come back. Most important is to post new content frequently enough that every couple of hours, the reader thinks to return to your site. You could also try a variety of notification schemes to let people know when your content has updated. E-mail and RSS are both good choices here.

"Remember that passion is what fuels posting."

Most importantly, when a user visits your site, your site design should make it easy for them to see what is new. 2003 Web sites are so bloated with one-liner teaser headlines, flashing banner ads and graphics that it is a relatively complex task to see what is simply new on the page every couple of hours. Cut down the bloat. Keep it simple. If you update often enough, and it is always clear what is new, users will come.

Narrow Subject Matter Breeds Fans: The more focused the content, the more likely that people will post. If your site is general purpose news, people will be unlikely to participate. But if your site is extremely focused on a specific subject matter, you will slowly cultivate knowledgeable experts that have strong passion about each subject. Remember that passion is what fuels posting. It might take a while to build an audience with serious opinions on your subject matter, but it'll be worth it.

Participation Encourages Participation: People love to participate, but there is a chicken/egg situation you need to solve in order to make this work. How do you get intelligent people to participate in a discussion where there is none? Slashdot was fortunate -- there wasn't much competition in 1997 so it didn't take long to grow. But put simply, participants attract participation. This means you may need to start posting in your own discussion boards: People love interacting with the content creators. Have your writers participate in the discussions attached to the stories they write. Answer their questions, or post follow-up information. Your content should leave people with questions needing answering, or issues to discuss. It only takes a few people to get a good conversation started. As your audience grows, they won't be able to resist chiming in with their two bits.

Notification Is Key: The problem with a Web discussion is that even when someone finally does post, they surf away and forget about you. It's your job to make sure that the discussion doesn't die. This means that you should make it possible for users to receive e-mail notification when someone replies to their comment. If there are quality replies, the thread will continue, just as long as everyone is aware that the discussion is still going! If someone is passionate enough in your subject matter to start talking, there is a very good chance that they will be happy to continue the public dialogue as long as they are aware that it is happening!

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Rob Malda: "The more focused the content, the more likely that people will post." 

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