Internet users like to feel part of a community of people with similar interests. A successful site should build a community of loyal visitors, a place where they can discuss their favorite subjects, ask questions, and reply to others. Community members return often to talk to other people with whom they've already shared messages, or to find comments and opinions about their interests. This chapter outlines some of the advantages of building such a virtual community, its goals, and the design and implementation of a new module for setting up and managing discussion boards.
User-to-user communication is important in many types of sites. For example, in a content site for pub enthusiasts, visitors to the site may want advice about the best way to brew their own beer, suggestions for good pubs in their area, to share comments on the last event they attended, and so on. Having contact with their peers is important so that they can ask questions and share their own knowledge. E-commerce sites have an added benefit of enabling users to review products online. Two ways to provide user-to-user communication are opinion polls and discussion boards. We've already looked at opinion polls in Chapter 6, and in this chapter we'll look at discussion boards, also known as forums. Visitors can browse the various messages in the forums, post their questions and topics, reply to other people's questions, and share ideas and tips. Forums act as a source of content, and provide an opportunity for users to participate and contribute. One reason why forums are especially attractive from a manager's perspective is because they require very little time and effort from employees because end users provide most of the content. However, a few minutes a day should be spent to ensure that nobody has posted any offensive messages, and that any problems that may be mentioned in a message receive some attention (maybe problems with the site, or questions about products, locations, etc.).
As for our TheBeerHouse site, we will offer discussion boards about brewing beers, pubs, concerts and parties, and more. These will be separate forums, used to group and categorize the threads by topic, so that it's easier for visitors to read what they are interested in. Early web-forum systems often threw up long lists of messages on a single page, which took ages to load. This can be avoided by displaying lists in pages, with each page containing a particular number of messages. The web site already has a way to identify users, and the forums will need to integrate with that membership system. Besides being identified by username in the forum module, users may like something "catchy" in order to be recognized by the community: something such as an avatar image (a small picture that represents the user on their messages) and a signature line. This information will be added to every post, and will help readers quickly identify the post's author. Of course, like any other module you've developed so far, the site's administrators and editors must be able to add, remove, or edit forums, topics, and replies.