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Once in a while, I run across an article that uses the word “forums” or the term “online community” in a weird, misleading way. What disappoints me most is when someone does this when they are claiming to have expertise in this space – they have community in their job title, they are a community platform publishing an ebook or white paper, etc.

A simple illustration of this would be an article that I read where the author listed everything they thought was bad about online forums and said those things were what “forums” were. Everything they thought was good about forums, that was what “online communities” were. For example, they made the statement that online communities are managed and forums are not. Any community management veteran would double take at that sentence and dismiss it as a riddle. Well, that’s not fair. Riddles are usually puzzles with a solution. This was just nonsense.

That said, I want to help those who want to write about forums or online community to use this terminology, know what it means and, as such, use it appropriately.


Forums are a tool or a platform. There is a certain organization and presentation that people associate with forums. You can see it in action through the popular forum software options that exist, such as phpBB, vBulletin, Invision Power Board and others., a community that I run, is another example.

Forums imply a structured community where people post messages or content in a threaded manner. In other words, I create a new post to bring up a movie, people then reply telling me if they saw the movie, if they liked it, etc. I sometimes refer to them as a threaded, text-based discussion community. But, the forum structure is exceedingly flexible and ubiquitous – you see it everywhere.

You see the functionality of forums in various other types of platforms and tools. For example, the backbone of Facebook is status updates and the news feed. Status updates are essentially threads. I post a status update, or a new topic, and then people reply. All of these different platforms and tools learn from one another, while maintaining the subtle differences that make them unique.

The word forums should be used similar to how you speak of other platforms. For instance, here is an example: “There are many platforms on which you can build community, including forums, social networking, blogging, photo sharing, microblogging and more.” Another example: “Our social media program includes Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram and dedicated online forums and communities.”

Online Community

Meanwhile, online community is not so much a platform as it is an idea and a practice. When it comes to the term “online community,” there are two definitions that I adhere to:

  1. A specific, hosted online community where people go to engage with one another around a particular topic, interest or passion. For example, is a community where martial artists go to discuss their passion for the martial arts. It does not have to be a forum or be labeled a forum (plenty of sites with forum-like functionality call themselves other things) to fit this definition. Flickr is a community, Etsy is a community, YouTube is a community, etc.
  2. The group of people who engage around a specific topic, interest or company across the social web. For example, the online community of Coca-Cola drinkers, who talk about and/or follow the brand on forums, Twitter, Facebook and on spaces both controlled by the brand and not controlled by the brand. Another example would be the group of people who follow my work and support me. I consider that to be a community of sorts.

Perhaps an easier way to think of this is to compare it to other practices that rely on tools. A writer writes. Depending on what they write and where they do it, they might say they blog, they write content online, they write books, they write fiction or they are a journalist or a mix of these and others. But, every individual who does any of those things is a writer.

Similarly, an online community is something you have, build, manage, listen to, engage with, etc. You can build community on forums, social networks (Facebook, Google+), blogs, microblogs (Twitter), video sharing services (YouTube), chat rooms and numerous other social platforms. Or a mix of them. But, regardless of where you do it, you are still building community and you can still be catering to an online community.

Simply put, forums are a tool, but one of many, where one can build community. You can say that you use “forums and communities,” but you can never say “forums or communities” because that is not the choice. If you ask someone, “would you like a forum or a community?” that sounds nonsensical, like saying “would you like Minestrone or soup?” If you are eating Minestrone, you are eating soup. If you manage a forum, you are managing a community. Instead, questions like, “would you like a forum or a Facebook page?” and “would you like Minestrone or Chicken Noodle?” make more sense.

It may be said, by some, that you don’t have a community until you have activity or people within it. But, a community can be large (millions) or small (a few people). It’s not really contingent on activity, just some form of commonality.

In the end, understanding what forums are and what online community is will help you to more clearly communicate with your readers and more accurately share your ideas when you are writing about this space.