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2015-10-07

A Guide to Posting on Internet Forums

Dedicated to my friend Carl, who received abuse for a thread he started on Reddit and didn’t understand why

I guess I should start with my qualifications. I’ve been on a variety of internet forums since I was 12. At first I posted a lot, trying to sound older and more intelligent than I was. It mostly didn’t work (in retrospect kids stand out like a sore thumb) and I eventually stopped posting and exclusively lurked for a period of like five years. So the first word of advice is “lurk more.”

These days I’m posting again, but I still try to keep it to a minimum. Forums are a shared resource, so it’s important not to overuse them. Plus, whenever you post you will probably end up learning a lot (oftentimes not about whatever you were posting), so you should go slowly and reflect on those lessons.

If you just want to write, keep it in a private journal or blog. It will still be a valuable experience, but the advantage is that you can learn in private. Even posting on a public blog is better, because the only people who will see it are the people who want to. Posting on a forum should be treated with respect. It’s like stuffing brightly colored fliers in thousands of people’s mailboxes, with just as much potential for spam.

In other words, Stop. Posting.

Next step is to consider the forum you’re posting on. Most people consider size to be the most important aspect of online communities, but I think the most important attribute is actually age. You’d think a nebulous aggregate like a community wouldn’t have a single relevant age, but usually the core members have a similar degree of experience.

On English language boards, there is a strong tendency to form splinter sites and communities. My understanding is that it’s different in other languages/countries, possibly due to more limited tech literacy and access to technology. At any rate, these splinters are often either places for younger people to establish themselves without pissing off the old guard, or else old-timers trying to escape from the influx of noobs.

If you’re young and inexperienced, look for a new community of young and inexperienced people. It’s much easier to get in on the ground floor, and it’s possible that you’ll even make some life-long friends.

If you’ve been around the block, you can use your reputation to establish yourself quickly, but still be careful about becoming overly familiar. Even the smartest people and best writers can wear out their welcome.

Besides age and size, there are more specific factors that can make sites hard to post on. For example, a site that just made the news will probably be trying to fend off a ton of idiots. A site that prides itself on its elitism will muster an immune response to anything considered beneath it. Forums on popular culture topics should probably be avoided entirely.

Also remember that on public forums, relationships are by default one-way. Just because you always read and enjoy comments from a particular poster, and you happen to know where they live and the name of their dog, doesn’t mean they know who you are or want you as a friend. It sucks but this is the origin of celebrity. If you want them to know who you are, you have to be a celebrity yourself.

When you’re comfortable on a forum and ready to post, you need to know what to post and how to do it.

First, if you just want to ask a simple question, don’t bother. The problem is that asking questions is a total tragedy of the commons. Unless you have an established reputation and the you know people who are willing to help you, personally, out, it just doesn’t work. Even in ostensibly healthy, supportive communities, people will develop form-letter answers to the constant stream of near-duplicate questions (e.g. Ask MetaFilter: “dump the motherfucking asshole.”).

This is the natural equilibrium, because you can imagine how someone who gets one good answer would ask another and another until they eventually just lived out their whole life on autopilot.

There are still some questions worth asking, but that leads into the how of posting.

The most important thing to understand about the mechanics of posting is the difference between the comment and the thread. They may seem similar, but they couldn’t be more different. Basically a new thread is a journal publication, and the comments are the peer review. Threads are usually for new data or ideas (which is why most threads end up centered around news stories), and the comments are for talking about why it doesn’t matter or won’t work.

Aside: if you’re a young kid who doesn’t know much about the world (like I was), you will be much better informed by just reading the comments and ignoring the thread topics and articles (which I did for a long time). 90% of new ideas are wrong, and you probably don’t have the context to start telling which are which. On the other hand, comments mostly reiterate accepted ideas and common knowledge.

So the burden of starting a good thread is extremely high, but what makes a good thread? Well, basically, even if you’re asking a question, you have to teach people something. Like what? I don’t know, that’s the hard part. But you’ll have to be familiar with the site and the other threads being posted to make sure that yours is both interesting and not redundant.

Posting a comment is much easier because you can just flame the OP. Just kidding, don’t do that because perhaps as much as 10% of the threads you post in will be right and go on to some level of success. So be careful what you dismiss, especially if you aren’t familiar with it.

Which leads into the final aspect of what to post. Write what you know. Learn things and study the world, and then when the right thread comes along, drop some of your badly needed wisdom.

Of course, some communities are smaller and more personal. There you can probably get away with just being yourself (up to a point).

Final point: how to argue. That’s a whole article by itself, if not a book. In short, realize that no one actually cares. They’re not getting paid to listen to you, they’re probably just killing time, so even the best argument in the world will probably fall on deaf ears. Relatedly, know when to stop. I try to limit myself to one post with one optional followup to clarify any unintentional misunderstanding. Beyond that, just let it go.

Also, know what the common counterarguments and dismissals are, and carefully word your initial post to avoid leaving yourself open to them. It sucks that you have to do this, but people can’t resist a lazy cookie-cutter response. If you get a lazy dismissal, don’t reply because they don’t care and have already made up their mind, just try to prevent it next time.

When you get low quality responses, it can be tempting to put less and less effort into your posts, but don’t let that happen. Post less frequently or journal/blog for your own amusement instead.

Anonymity is a useful tool but that’s another can of worms.

Now go forth into the world, and happy shitposting!

Keywords: internet forum culture, my childhood