The standard Internet forum is based on ideals, attitudes, opinions, or hobbies that are shared by members of a group, just as in the real world. As such, Internet forums are little societies that operate within the greater society of a social networking site. In some cases, personal and lasting friendships as well as group consensus, camaraderie, and cohesiveness develop over time. There is not as much opportunity in the real world to join as many special interest “clubs” as there are on line.
But most forums operate under the general rules, guidelines and restrictions that are outlined in the hosting site’s terms of understandings or agreements that are agreed to when the individual registers at the site.
The standard Internet forum is constructed to allow members to introduce a topic and to invite comments from other members. Interested members can respond by posting responses that might allow text only, or which allow “rich” content, such as formatted text, videos and photos.
Forums are either moderated or not moderated. Google forums are notoriously not moderated, and often require the use of a “newsreader” software to block the unwanted inputs of those who place spam, post offensive and off topic content, or who generally make trouble. Moderated forums are established when sites that offer tools for the moderating individuals or team to manage and maintain order in the little on line society within a society.
In “marketing” or “recruiting” for the group, the moderator let’s people know that the group is there by notifying friends and in groups that are set up at sites for announcing that a new group has been established. The moderator may send personal greetings to each new member or announce new members in a special post to the forum.
In developing group values, norms, consensus, and ideals, the forum moderator may formally or informally survey the members in order to determine their preferences for group management and policy, thereby leading the group in a consensus format. In the informal method, private messages or posts that complain about problems may be used over time to develop policies and procedures that work for the majority of the group.
Other groups may be so large and specifically formatted that group consensus is not possible or desired. “Help” groups, which have fixed formats that link the newcomer or the interested student to established tutorials or fact sheets, may also allow specific questions and discussions, but will frown on general, rambling conversations. Other “help” groups may allow questions and complaints to come as they may, but will discourage general conversation, self promotion, or off topic content.
The moderator can establish and exert authority by setting the restrictions to membership. Groups can be made private and by invitation only, where membership is subject to case by case approval, and where forum content cannot be viewed by the general public. This allows the same exercise of various levels of privacy and exclusivity that go on in the real world where some clubs are open to all, and others require some form of approval or group consensus before a new member may join. But such rules are generally done by consensus, as the moderator may end up losing membership until the group is no longer large enough to function.
The first enforcement responsibility of the moderator is to establish and develop clear rules and guidelines for the group, and to remind the group of their existing site agreements. Rules and guidelines generally develop over time as the group members make their inputs and as specific events occur and are resolved.
The moderator can throw people out of the forum and block them from getting back in. As a result, the same ostracism or expulsion from clubs that can go on in the real world occurs in Internet forums. In some cases, a shared group ideal or majority consensus is to allow anyone to join and to express themselves without any intervention or censorship. In those cases, the forum moderator can weigh the activities of the individual against the best interests and consensus of the group and it’s members. It does no good to allow behavior that disrupts the group or forces members to leave. The forum manager must develop strategies, especially in political or controversial groups, that counter the organized, disruptive groups and individuals who travel on line to disrupt and control conversation and interaction.
The moderator can control the content of the forum by deleting entire offensive or problematic posts or individual replies and comments to a post. This is most commonly done when the content violates site agreements and the group’s terms of understanding and rules.
Whether an individual is treated in a threatening or unacceptable manner; a fight between individuals or sub groups breaks out, the content is off topic for the group or for a post; or whether an individual is simply no longer subjectively welcome in the group, the forum moderators have the authority to sanction improper or undesired behavior in a variety of ways.