Time was when getting yourself heard involved standing on a soapbox at Speakers' Corner or firing off a page or two of opinion to the letters editor at The Times.
Being able to voice an opinion and discuss issues with others is one of the most liberating and popular aspects of the web, as the success of PC Advisor’s forums – 285,000 users and counting – proves.
A forum is one of the simplest ways to make your website interactive. Bulletin board systems (BBSes) were one of the earliest methods of web communication; the first public BBS appeared in 1978.
Modern-day discussion boards allow users to post text messages and upload images and videos to a central server. Users can customise their profiles with photos and avatars, and contributors don’t need a specific browser or a Windows-based PC to join in.
The standardisation of scripts on server hosts supporting PHP and MySQL (the most common language and database used to drive forums) means installation requires little more than running an .exe file and setting up a username and password.
Even if you don’t have access to a dynamic server but want a quick-and-easy forum for friends and colleagues to discuss various topics, there are plenty of sites that offer such a service.
Many are supported by advertising, but an increasing number host online boards on a non-commercial basis. Some are surprisingly sophisticated. Forumotion.com employs the popular phpBB application and allows you to modify just about every feature – and all for free.
But setting up a discussion board is only the first step in creating a successful and interactive site. For users to visit on a regular basis, there should be a clearly defined topic of discussion.
The question of moderation is a tricky one, too. Go easy on them and it could all descend into a series of ‘flame’ wars, in which bickering users post gratuitous personal attacks. But a heavy-handed, censorious approach could make visitors feel self-conscious and stifled.
As you’ll discover over the following steps, creating a slick-looking forum is pretty straightforward. Monitoring and reining in your enthusiastic contributors is the hard bit.
1. If you want to build a discussion board with the minimum of fuss, there are several third-party sites – such as QuickTopic and Aceboard – on which you can create a forum within minutes. Here, we’ll use the service at Forumotion.com. Click ‘Create a free forum’ to get started.
2. Next, choose a style for your discussion board. There are two main styles on offer: phpbb 3 and 2 (the numbers refer to the engine that drives the forums on the site). Select the tab for either of these for various colour options. Alternatively, click Hitskin to search for other skins for your board. Click Continue.