Managing Online Discussions

Big companies like Microsoft and Netscape don’t have to try very hard to reap the rewards of maintaining online discussions. Their developer populations are large; critical mass is virtually ensured. What if you want the same dynamic to work for your smaller company? It’s often not enough just to create a newsgroup (or a web-based bulletin board), throw open the doors, and wait for a vibrant community to form. In this game, critical mass is, well, critical. Experienced discussion operators know that for everyone who posts, there may be a hundred or more who lurk.

This doesn’t mean your site can’t attract a community of users interested in your company’s products or services. It just means you have to work the process a little differently. One of the best strategies is to use web pages as portals into your discussions. You want to do more than just keep a record of those discussions; you want to enhance them. The key point is that every online discussion, whether NNTP- or web-based, generates a raw document database, or docbase, to which you can (and should) add value.

What’s a docbase? Mail folders, newsgroups, and web archives are all examples of docbases. That is, they’re collections of files, stored in directories, containing text that’s structured according to some rules. For mail and news messages, the rules are preordained and specify a set of colon-delimited headers (e.g., Subject: Tuesday meeting) followed by a message body that’s just more ...

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