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The good and the bad of online discussion forums

What is the value of online discussion forums? This expert sees the good and the bad in online forums.

The strength -- and weakness -- of online discussion forums is that anyone can post anything, no matter how accurate, insightful or reasonable it may be. Moreover, simply posting a comment imbues it with a form of credibility, but also evanescence, with even the most cogent comment fading into obscurity as additional comments accrue on the topic.  

But when used properly, forums help to build individuals' professional reputations, share ideas and get advice. LinkedIn is perhaps the biggest host of such forums, supporting far more posts on far more subjects than one can count. I follow and participate in several forums for a variety of reasons. Forum posts help keep me current on interests and issues in my several fields. Sometimes they inform me about topics with which I'm unfamiliar, and they offer added perspective to subjects I am familiar with. Posts also provide opportunities to get known and to "get to know" other thought leaders, and I can give back to the community by sharing information and ideas based on my expertise.

On the other hand, forums have several downsides. Reading and commenting on forums takes time, and I sometimes wonder how far-more-frequent-than-I posters have time left to earn a living. Also, many posts are not worth reading. For instance, some online discussion forums are overrun by job notices in disregard of the forum's separate section reserved for posting jobs. Still other posts merely introduce a participant who is not only new to the forum but also to the field. And many "newbies" ask questions that are way beyond the forum's role; essentially, "Tell me everything I need to know about …"

You will also find that some questions are asked over and over -- perhaps only a month or two apart -- each time, no doubt, by someone new to the forum. Annoyed readers scold that you should review prior topics before adding your own post. I wouldn't think to do so and I don't fault others for failing to search history. People want an answer to their own question rather than someone else's.     

You have the option to filter topics to decide whether or not to read a post; but arguably the biggest forum shortcoming involves the questionable accuracy of what is posted on a given topic. Usually, posts from those with expertise are reasoned and reasonable, although even experts don't always agree with each other. Many posts reflect only how things are done at someone's job or what they learned in school. A handful of individuals seem to have something to say about practically every topic, often somewhat religiously touting particular methodologies or ideas from their chosen guru; typically talking only with each other and steering discussions off-topic. Posts frequently reveal to an informed observer how little many of the posters know or understand about their field; but I fear many readers lack perspective to recognize bunk. Otherwise they wouldn't "like" so many nonsensical comments.

You can challenge others' comments in online discussion forums, but I've long since found that to be a rabbit hole. Oh, and others no doubt feel the same way, though surely unreasonably, about my comments.

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