Clark University Letter
Creative Commons License photo credit: Svadilfari

Regardless of the software that you use to run your community, it is likely that one of the features that it offers is private messaging. This enables community members to exchange messages privately, between themselves, without posting them in your public areas.

This feature can be used in a bad way and should probably be disabled on some communities. But, even if they are disabled for members in general, it is usually a great idea to keep them enabled for staff communications, especially for private conversations between staff and members.

When you contact a member about a site related matter or a guideline violation, you want to make sure three things happen: the message is received, the message is opened and that it is opened by the account holder. When it comes to ticking these three boxes, private messaging easily beats email.

Received and Opened

When you send an email, you know you sent it. But, the fact that you sent it doesn’t mean it was actually received. It could have bounced, been lost in a sea of messages or been filtered as spam. That means that the member never sees it and doesn’t know what you said or why their post was removed. Even if the email message is received and actually hits their inbox, you don’t know that they opened it. You could require a read receipt, but those have numerous issues, are often ignored and simply dismissed (I almost always click no, even if I’ve read the message).

However, your private messaging function doesn’t really have these issues. When a message is sent, it is stored in the database and immediately appears in the member’s private message inbox with a visible notice displayed for them on your site, informing the member that they have a new message to read. There are no spam filters, there is no possibility of it bouncing or being lost. Unless your server suddenly goes down, but you’d realize that.

If the private message feature on your software is any good, you should be able to see if a message is opened. For example, phpBB 2, released way back in 2001, has this feature. It isn’t a new thing. When you send a private message in phpBB 2, it appears in your Outbox. Once it is opened by the member you sent it to, it moves to your Sentbox. You know they opened it and you have confirmation of them doing so.

This is important because people sometimes lie and make excuses. Even when someone received your email, they might act like they didn’t. How do you know? You don’t. You have to take their word for it. This eliminates that situation because you know they received and opened the message and that is all that you can really do. If they chose to ignore it or dismiss it, that isn’t your fault.

Because you have these facts, you can document them in any member documentation relating to guideline violations or inappropriate behavior. This creates better, more helpful documentation.

Reaching the Account Holder

When someone contacts me via email and asks for something on their account to be changed, I first check to see if the email address they are contacting me from matches the email address listed on the account. Then, I also ask them to respond to a message from me, sent to that address, confirming that it is really them. Sometimes, the email address doesn’t match the one listed on the account.

In those cases, I don’t know that it is them. Thankfully, my communities have private messaging. I simply send them a private message on the site, directly to their account, confirming the change. I send them an email saying that I have done so and then I wait for the private message reply. This way, I am confirming that the person who can access the account is the one requesting the change. If they can’t access the account, then I’m not going to make the change.

Does this help prevent requests from people who are not the account holder? Yes, absolutely. Of course, accounts can be hacked. Not just accounts on your site, but email accounts. However, that’s a separate issue. The best you can do is to ensure you are interacting with the person who has access to the account or the confirmed email address they provided you.

For these reasons and others, private messaging via my communities is a great tool to have in my arsenal. It helps make my job easier and more efficient and helps me help members of my community when they need some help.