At the sound of the tone, leave a brief message…discussion forums still rule for collaboration!

tivoboardIf the web-displayed email list is the oldest form of Web2.0 technology, the message board is probably the second-most venerable form of the read-write web.

For many web denizens, the message board is their first experience with publishing their words in a world-readable place. And though some would like to think this technology too “last century” to be of interest in a world with blogs, wikis, instant messaging, text messaging, and twitter-like micro-messaging, message boards continue to be in wide use, notably in customer-support “communities” for high-tech goods like those at Tivo. A board is literally comprised of message “planks,” each with subject line crying out for the attention which will solve a vital problem: “Tivo Crisis: HELP!” is a typical example.  In time, a Tivo employee assigned to answer customer questions, or possibly, a Tivo enthusiast who has encountered this problem previously will see the message, and either ask some additional questions or offer a suggestion, thus ending the transaction and quite possibly the customer’s relationship with the board and the people on it.

Message boards offer a range of affordances which tunes them well for this sort of application. Reputation management is a popular one, making it possible for somebody new to see immediately how others judge the value of a stranger’s contributions.

There is a difference, though, between leaving a message, in the hopes someone, anyone, will answer, and having a discussion with a group of colleagues who share one’s interest in exploring an idea or in moving a project forward.

It is for this latter purpose that discussion forums like Web Crossing, Caucus, and the discussion engine in our own eCampus are optimized.  Teams of people working together over time to create action plans, documents, or  new initiatives have different needs from those who are seeking answers to technical questions. They need to be able to attach a range of different resources, and to be able to search through those resources. They need to compare notes, and bounce ideas off one another. They need to track off-line communications – agendas and minutes from face to face meetings, links to resources elsewhere, recordings of key events. They need to track conversations they are not necessarily contributing to.  Discussion forums provide these affordances, and more.

It’s common practice in this era of social software to tack a message board onto an app and pronounce it a social networking or collaborative platform. But if your idea of collaboration requires providing web workspace where people known to one another can think together and riff off each other’s ideas, you need software which does more than take messages.  You need a full-featured discussion forum.