P365x52-281: Westfield Mall
Creative Commons License photo credit: kurafire

With forums especially, you have a crowd who has a distaste for what they feel are low quality forum posts. I don’t want to use the term “low quality” for the posts I am about to describe because they aren’t low quality. Instead, I’ll call them “medium quality.”

You have on-topic posts, off-topic posts, detailed posts and short posts. Where a given contribution intersects with these categorizations will often determine how people judge the quality of it. But, even if a post is considered “low quality” by those who manage forums or by community professionals, that doesn’t mean that members of the community do not receive value from it.

Generally speaking, a healthy online community will have a constant mix of all types of posts: long, short, off-topic and on-topic. Let’s sort these into four main categories, in order of perceived value, from highest to lowest, with examples from a martial arts community I manage.

On-Topic, High Quality

This is a topic that relates directly to the community’s subject matter and is meant to generate a discussion or encourage others to provide insightful answers and/or their perspective. As an example, see How should a kata be performed?

In this thread, you have a discussion that fits in with our core subject matter – martial arts – and encourages a relevant discussion. Members weigh in, provide their insight based on their experience and agree (or disagree) with each other. It’s a good, serious discussion.

Please note that I am not equating length with quality in this case.  For example, early in the thread, Harkon72 (Gareth, a member of my staff) posts this: “Kata is like a piece of music, everyone plays it differently. We all recognize the tune, but the way you interpret it is up to you; that is what makes it an Art.” It’s not a long post, but it is both on-topic and high quality because it is relevant to the community and to the thread.

This type of thread is considered to be of the most value for our community because we are a martial arts forum. Even if we had the best off-topic discussion in the world, if we don’t have great on-topic discussion, then we don’t attract the right audience and people go elsewhere. In order to re-enforce the fact that we are, first and foremost, a community for martial artists, we must host meaningful martial arts discussions.

Off-Topic, High Quality

That said, off-topic discussions are also very important because people want to get to know one another. It gives people an opportunity to bond and to discuss other topics with people they have something in common with and already like.

Football season is here!!! is an example of such a thread. It has been active 7 years and it always re-ignites when the new NFL (National Football League) season begins. Everyone on the thread is interacting with one another and we’re having detailed discussions about a shared passion, outside of the martial arts.

On-Topic, Medium Quality

A general indicator of a medium quality thread is one where people constantly make a lot of generally short posts that are independent of one another, that don’t really represent active interaction or conversation.

I hesitantly provide The Martial Artists’ Training Log as an example here. The reason it makes sense is because it is sort of a martial arts game thread (more on that in a moment). But on the other hand, I am hesitant because many members love it. I recently completed interviews with 26 of our most active members for our 500,000 posts celebration and multiple members referenced the thread. Some feel that it helps keep them accountable to stay in shape, others enjoy checking out the routines.

From the outside it may look like people boosting their post count, but from the inside, many members get real value and enjoyment out of this thread.

Perhaps a better example of this would be the what is your belt? thread. While on-topic and inevitable, it’s the martial arts equivalent of What’s your favorite color? in your general chat forum.

Off-Topic, Medium Quality

Game threads are a perfect example of this. A game thread is where some sort of game takes place on a thread, usually in the way of a stream of short posts. See A is for… (Movie Title Game). I suspect there are many people who don’t like these types of threads and see them as a cheap way to boost post count (you can always disable post count in a dedicated game threads forum, though that probably isn’t necessary).

But many others participate in them and enjoy them. And as long as they are focused and there is some thought involved in them, I tend to think that they represent a net positive for the community, giving people yet another outlet to express themselves and engage, even if it is considered to be lower quality by some.

Side Note: Actual Low Quality

Once again, I don’t really consider the posts described above to be low quality, which is why I am calling them medium quality. What is truly low quality to me is the human spammers who try to post something just vague enough that it seems to fit in a thread. Many times they fail and it makes no sense. We do what we can to remove those types of posts and to block those people. I usually refer to it as making a post that “doesn’t fit within the context of the thread it was posted on.”

Another example of true low quality is when you have someone who goes around bumping up inactive threads just to say “yep.” That is low quality. The posts I describe above are not.

Conversation is Varied

All of these types of posts contribute value to your community and the easiest way to think about it is just to think about conversation itself. What conversations do you have with people? One moment, I am having a detailed discussion about managing forums with a college professor. The next, I’m talking with my brother about how our Miami Dolphins are struggling. Some answers I provide are long, some are a simple “yes.” But it is all conversation and it all adds value to my life.

Your community is just a more focused, structured extension of the conversations that we have every day.