Bruce Stephenson (@FamilyPhoto on Twitter) asked: “[What is the] best way to start to participate when new to a forum?”

Thank you for the question, Mr. Stephenson.

I am going to tackle this from the perspective of an individual wanting to participate in a forum for personal reasons, such as a passion for a specific topic. If you are looking to do this for commercial reasons, check out my guide to brand engagement on forums and communities that you don’t own.

Every forum is like it’s own country. It has it’s own laws, culture and social norms. No community is for everyone. Even a community that says they are, isn’t, because not everyone wants a community that is for everyone. It is important that you find a community that you can feel comfortable participating in, a community that has guidelines and social norms that you can fit in with and enjoy.

Find the Right Community

To put it simply, the community won’t change for you. You need to fit within it or you need to find another community. For example, if you like to use colorful language and want to do so online, find a community that allows it. Don’t expect every community to do so. The same is true for the opposite. If you want a work friendly community, seek one out. Don’t expect every community to be like that, just because you need it yourself. In both cases, it is entitlement, which is ugly.

When you are new, one of the best things that you can do is have a look around. Most communities are free to view, so the only cost is your time. Read some threads, see what people are talking about and how they talk about it. Are these the same types of conversations that you enjoy? If so, you may be in the right place.

Next, check for the guidelines of the community. Some may call them rules. Most communities worth participating in have guidelines of some kind. Read through them. Guidelines serve as a vision statement for the community. They tell you what to expect and what types of behavior are encouraged and discouraged. They are not to be tested. Are you comfortable with them and confident that you can participate within them? If so, this might be the community for you.


Once you’ve decided that this is a community that you want to participate in, you can create your account. Fill in as many profile fields as you are comfortable with. Leave any personal, offline contact details (your home address and telephone number, for example) off of your profile, unless there is a particular reason for including them. The vast majority of forums do not require them.

Filling in as many fields that you are comfortable with, and uploading an avatar, makes your profile unique to you and helps people to identify with you and see you as a unique contributor within the community.

Picking Up the Lingo

Before you jump in and post, it can be helpful to spend some time as a lurker, or as someone who just views and doesn’t post. This isn’t required, but it can expose you to the social norms of the community, which you will pick up over time.

Pay attention to how veteran contributors interact. You shouldn’t think that just because they do something, that it’s OK, but you can get a general sense of how the community interacts by watching. You don’t have to wait forever to post, though. You’ll learn more about the community as you go.

Making the First Post

Many communities give you an easy way to make the first post: the introductions forum.

These forums practically invite first posts. They want them. So, if you feel comfortable, post an introduction and include some details about yourself and your interests. This can be detailed if you want, but doesn’t have to be. Many people just offer a quick hello and something that pertains to the community. For example, on a martial arts forum, they might just include the art they study and their rank in it.

It’s an ice breaker. People will then reply and welcome you, most likely, and that will help you to meet people within the community and feel more comfortable.

If there is no introductions forum and you don’t know where to start, an easy thing to do is to find some posts that you felt were very well written and that you appreciated. You can reply to them and say so, commending the author and also adding some of your experience. It’s important to add some of your experience, related to the topic, because spammers are, unfortunately, using simple thank you posts as a means of spreading their links. For this reason, a lot of communities have come to look down on simple “thank you” posts made by a new member who they do not yet know.

Learning to Search

If you have a specific need or question, such as in the case of a support forum, it is generally appreciated if you search first, by using the search feature built in to the forums. Try to search for terms related to your issue. Specific error messages, for example. If you come up empty, it might be a good idea to start a new thread.

Some communities treat this more harshly than others. If you post a new thread on certain forums, they’ll chastise you for not searching and direct you to do so. That was one of the motivators behind the launch of the Support Forums. Other available support options, at the time, featured people who would rudely tell you to search, make fun of you and treat you in a condescending manner. At, we don’t allow that sort of treatment. In fact, my staff on the forums has never been allowed to tell anyone to search. Instead, they link them to the material that helps them.

The point is, different communities handle repetitive threads in different ways. On mine, it’s not a big deal. On others, it might be. In your post, you can always put something like, “I searched for a similar thread, but couldn’t find a solution. If I missed it, I apologize and would greatly appreciate a link to it.” This puts anyone responding on the defensive and helps to defuse any issue.

The Next Steps

As you spend more time on the forums, you’ll likely grow more comfortable in sharing of yourself. You’ll find opportunities to disagree with people and to start new threads. Whatever you do, just make sure that you are following the guidelines of the community.

If you are ever have any doubt as to whether or not something you are about to post is inappropriate, ask a member of staff or the administrator. It is always better to ask first rather than to have a post removed. In most cases, the staff will appreciate that you asked and think more highly of you.

If you ever do violate the guidelines and you receive a notice about it, read it carefully and resist the temptation to feel offended. Instead, learn from the situation as best as you can and try not to repeat that activity. If appropriate, apologize to the staff or person who contacted you for any misconduct. For most communities, a violation once in a while isn’t a huge deal. What will often lead to bigger issues is if you repeat the same type of violation over and over or act in a disrespectful manner toward staff when they remove a post that you made.

Continue the Cycle

Now that you are a more experienced member of the community, you can help the members who were once new like you were. Keep an eye out for new people, and on the introductions forum if there is one, and welcome them to the community and help them to feel like they belong.