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.
3. Now enter a name, description and sub-domain name for your site. Enter an admin email and password so you can log in and make global changes or post messages from the administrator. Read through and agree to the terms and conditions and then go on to the next page.
4. You’ll be asked to verify your password. After this, the forum will be created for you. Click on the link that’s sent to your email address, then log in to the forum with the username ‘Admin’ and the password you specified when you signed up to the service. This will show your first discussion topic.
5. To make your board more secure, select Profile and change your username. Next, click the link for Administration Panel at the bottom of the page. This offers two modes: Simple and Advanced. For your first forum, make sure that Simple is selected and click on the Forum button.
6. The first step is to change the names of your listed topics to something more meaningful. Select Category, enter a title and click Save. Then select the forum listed under that and do the same. To add a new category or forum, click the plus button under Action, or the cross if you want to delete one.
>> NEXT PAGE: HOW TO ADD ADVANCED FEATURES TO YOUR FORUM
7. The Administration Panel allows you to make a number of other changes to your forum. Click on the Styles tab and select Management. From here you can change the overall look and feel of your board. Once you’re happy with the look, save the result and it will display on your page.
8. Choosing the Pictures and Colors option enables you to modify every image that appears on the site, from the main logo to the icons found next to posts and private messages. Click on an image you want to change, then select one of the examples at the bottom of the page or upload your own image.
9. Under the General tab you’ll find tools to customise your forum in a number of ways. Use the Configuration button to modify the title language and time zone, set the number of posts to each page or reset various options for users (you can reset the online user records, for example).
10. To send out a newsletter to users who’ve subscribed to your discussion board, go to General, Newsletter. Select a display option (‘text’ or ‘HTML’, a graphically more advanced option based on hypertext markup language) and hit ‘Start writing’. Once you’ve finished, select the recipients, hit Preview and send it out.
11. If you want to include real-time chat, add a chat box. Again, this is accessed under the General tab. From here, activate Chat and select where you’d like it to be displayed (at the top or bottom of the page), then click Validate. This also lists a series of commands: for example, to clear the screen or ban users.
12. Another important aspect of running a discussion board is to administrate users and posts. Click the Users & Groups tab, then select Users. Search for or select a user from the list before making any modifications you feel are necessary, such as banning them or specifying whether they will receive newsletters.
13. As well as changing settings for individual users, you can set up groups of users, such as moderators. Go to Users & Groups, Groups, then select ‘Create new group’. After allocating a name and moderator, you can determine whether it’s closed, open or hidden and set read/write permissions.
14. Most of your administative requirements will be covered by Forumotion’s basic features, but don’t forget the Advanced view. This is accessed from the first page of the admin panel. Here you can add portal and gallery features, a simple game and HTML pages to your forum.