A quick visit to the forum where Open Office users congregate should help you grasp the strengths of a forum. You don't need to log in or register or anything to explore the forum. When you get there, you will see many lines with text similar to typical email subject lines. At the time I was writing this, the following threads had recent new material, and were therefor at the top of the list....
The list of thread subjects is an overview of the current conversations in the forum. If you click on any of these lines, rather like when you click on an email message's line in your email client, you will be taken to the correspondence about the subject.
Many people seem to forget that most forums have a search feature. What you went to the forum to learn about may have been discussed previously, so do a search before starting a new thread.
It has to be admitted that there's usually a lot of chaff diluting the wheat. One sometimes useful guide to the worth of a thread's content is the number of posts in the thread, usually listed in the table listing thread topics.
Some forums are entirely private- you have to log in even to read other people's posts. Many are open to the public for reading, while requiring interested parties to create an account if they wish to make posts. If you start your own forum (How to... in a moment), it is best if you impose the latter requirement. Forums are sometimes abused by anti-social low-lifes. It must also be said that if you want to see some bizarre and sad "discussions" then you have only to look in weird forums.
My experience in forums is considerable, although you may have trouble finding me in "forum-land". It isn't wise to have any unnecessary links between the online "you" and the real-world you. However, I've done little with creating my own forums.... The things I'm interested in are already well served by existing forums, and with forums you need a good populations of readers and contributors. Every new forum on a given topic dilutes the effectiveness of existing forums. However, if you and four cousins are planning a family reunion, a private forum may be just the thing. it doesn't have to "live" for long.
That being said, you may have a good reason to start a new forum. Both Google and Yahoo offer free forum hosting to anyone wanting to create one. I've used one with no regrets, and both come from such reputable sources, that I would be interested to hear from anyone who feels that a different source of forum hosting is superior.
Some "readers" of some forums prefer to have new posts sent to them as ordinary email... it saves them going to the forum to see what's new, but can lead to a lot of email messages. (Both the Google and Yahoo services allow this, which I will indicate for any following points with a simple "G&Y")
The Yahoo service allows groups to have a shared calendar, databases, and polls. (If Google doesn't allow these, too, I'll be surprised, and imagine they'll soon be implemented.)
You can use HTML within most forums. Sometimes you do it by hand, sometimes the posting window has a user-friendly wisiwig editor. Be careful what you wish for! Allowing HTML into posts gives the Bad People a way to inject bad things into poorly protected computers. Some moderators choose to make their forums "text only" for this reason.
What the pages of your group look like should be an important consideration. Check out a number of forums created under any service you are considering, and see what options the moderator has for establishing an overall style. Check out how heavily you are "charged" for any "free" service... the charge will come in the form of ads placed on "your" group's pages.
You can post files (G&Y), links and photos to many forums, if you need to. (Yahoo allows these features at the moderator's discretion. I presume Google does too.)
While the page you are reading is aimed at people considering setting up a forum, you might want to know about a service Yahoo offers forum users: The "My Groups" feature. It allows users of multiple Yahoo forums to create a single entry point to all of the Yahoo groups they are interested in. (Again, I imagine it is also possible with Google.)
So.... I hope I've alerted you to some of the features you should look for? One person's deal breaker will be irrelevant to someone else's needs. Google, Yahoo, other? Other things being equal, I would go with Google, simply because of the "itch" Microsoft seems to have to take over Yahoo.
Here are two more links for you related to forums. They are "deep", so if they stop working, I'm sure you can get to comparable pages from the main pages listed above.
In a nice example of recursion, both Yahoo and Google have forums about running their forums!
It is often possible to have an email saying "Thread you were following has been extended" sent to you. This saves you the nuisance of repeatedly visiting the forum.
And one final point... many services offer ways for viewers to add comments to what is displayed by the service, e.g. Flickr displays photos, and the opportunity for users to comment on the photos is almost the territory of a forum. (Flickr also has, separately, full blown forums built into it, where users discuss photographic issues.) (Wikipedia, the premier Wiki, also has forums within it.) Consider the heart of what you are trying to do, and your audience. A forum may be the answer... or a different service may be. Use the tool that really meets your need, not just the tool you think of first.
Go use some forums! When you have some experience as a user, maybe will know a topic for which you should start a forum.
Or you can return to the main page about ways to publish on the web without using raw HTML and managing a site yourself.
This page was about alternatives to full blown, self managed publishing of pages on the web. You can visit my page about how to work with and publish HTML if none of the above seemed to meet your needs.
Good luck! Enjoy!
If you found this useful, please visit my shareware "store" Sheepdog Software's Freeware & Shareware... and maybe even tell others of it?
Looking for email, domain registration, or web site hosting? If you visit 1&1's site from here, it helps me. They host my website, and I wouldn't put this link up for them if I wasn't happy with their service. They offer things for the beginner and the corporate IT manager.
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