Bulletin boards are the heart of the Arsdigita Community System. Any
community revolves around its central meeting ground where people can
discuss and share ideas. In the Arsdigita Community System, this
meeting ground is principally a the bulletin board forum.
The bulletin board module is one of the most complex in the
Community System, because the bulletin boards themselves are versatile
and configurable. Each bulletin board can be configured to appear in
one of four different formats: Threaded, Question and Answer,
Editorial or Geospatialized. In addition, there is support to categorize messages and to rate
them according to interest level. The users, too, are given
plenty of options: they can search through all the messages, look for
unanswered questions, look for the questions new since their
last visit, and register to get email alerts on subjects of interest
At the right we see a (slightly fictionalized) picture of the top
page of an active forum in photo.net, a web site that supports a
community of photographers. (This picture has been altered: in reality
a forum as active as this one would have many more new messages and
categories. I edited it for presentation purposes; if you wish you can go
see the real
Here are some comments by the author of this software on the
advantages of having an integrated bulletin board system :
Philip Greenspun's Comments on his Bulletin Board Software
The Internet is not starved for discussion software. The 20-year-old
USENET (Net News) system alone has more than 50,000 active forums.
There are some shallow reasons why you might want to [have] a
database-backed bboard system:
have an optional "mail me when a response is posted" field
let people subscribe to e-mail summaries or instant alerts
provide full text indexing
control access via all the usual HTTP mechanisms
do secure transmission of data to and from the bboard via SSL
use the admin pages to delete stale/ugly/whatever messages
sort older postings by category
The deep reason to run a db-backed bboard system is that the user [information]
in your RDBMS is your lifeblood. Level and nature of activity in
discussion groups are two of the most important things that you can ask
about a Web community member. You want to be able to ask "show me users
who've submitted questions that were deleted by the moderator as
redundant" (so that you can have the server welcome them back with a
page explaining how to search and browse archived threads). You want to
be able to ask "show me users who've submitted answers that were deemed
definitive by the moderators" (so that you can consider promoting them
to co-moderator status). When Reader X is looking at Reader Y's comment
on one of your static pages, he ought to be able to say "Please show me
Reader Y's history as a community member" and see forum contributions.
Philip's Sentiments in Action
Here we can see Philip's vision in the flesh, as it were. If a user
wants to find out about this "Danny Burk" guy, the reader who is so
concerned about insect levels in Wisconsin, he can find this page of
summary of Danny's activity in the community. We can see that he is
recently arrived, and that he has only made one posting. However, he
is probably a genuine photography enthusiast, given his email address
includes "foto." Also, his two posts are his activities in only five
days of being a community member, so he may become quite an active
participant given more time. A similar page for an older member of
the community often shows a diverse range of activities. For instance,
Philip Greenspun's community summary page shows that he has
submitted a large number of forum postings, page comments and related
links. One might suppose he has been active in this community for a
Bulletin Board Administration
Since this system is so configurable, there are a wide variety of
things an administrator can do, and the range of possibilities can seem
confusing. However, it really is simple and clearly laid out.
To make sense of the possible administration tasks, it is useful to
separate the configuration tasks, which are done rarely, from the
maintenance tasks, which are done often. Maintenance of a bulletin board has been made into
a simple and streamlined process. Setting up and
configuring a bulletin board in the first place can be more
complicated, but these tasks are reasonably well explained on the
administration pages themselves. They aren't too hard with a little bit
of understanding of the system. This document
will explain the effects of the various
So, to begin, there are four types of configuration actions that it takes
to set up a new bulletin board:
First, there are some simple things you have to do to get it started. You must:
Choose a name.
Choose a primary administrator.
??Choose a moderation type.??
Second, you have to choose what kind of structure you wish your new
bulletin board to have. You must:
This seems like a large number of tasks!
However, most of them require
making simple choices about how you wish your bboard to work. They are
quick and easy to make if you have an idea of what the choices are and
of what you want. Hopefully this document can solve the first problem
and give you some help with the second.
Most of the work of administering a bulletin board is actually
taken up by maintenance tasks. There are two kinds of maintenance
tasks. First, there are the top-level tasks of activating and
deactivating bulletin boards and managing administrators. These tasks
are called "Hyper-Administration." Second, there is the daily problem
of moderating the community -- finding, classifying, and deleting
postings so you can provide the users with the level of discussion that you
wish them to see. Since these tasks are done often, they been
simplified and streamlined. All the maintenance actions for a question
and answer thread can be accomplished on a single page, and there are
many ways to search through the Q&A forum and to find the thread you
wish to administer.
So the two categories of maintenance tasks can be summarized
For hyper-administration, you can:
Choose which bulletin boards you wish to be publically visible.
For ordinary administration, you can:
Find the Question and Answer Thread you wish to Administer -- you have the option to:
In addition, there is one task that doesn't fit into any of these
categories. The software allows you to find active community members
by allowing you search for all readers who have posted more than a
certain number of times between any two dates you choose.
Navigation in the Bulletin Board Administration Section
Since there are so many different things we can do in the
bulletin board administration section, it can seem a daunting job
to find the page on which we can do a given task. However, with
a little understanding of the organization of the section, finding
the right page can become easy.
We are likely to be wanting to do one of three kinds of things:
adding or configuring a new bulletin board, moderating a discussion,
or performing hyper-administration, i.e managing administrators and
bulletin boards. This section will explain how to find your way
to do each of these categories of tasks.
Over the last couple of pages, we can see examples of each of the
top level pages of the system. At the beginning of the Bulletin Board
Administration page, we can see the Bulletin
Board Hyper-Administration page for photo.net. Each topic links to
a One Bboard page -- for example, above
we see the hyper-administration page for the "Nature Photography" topic.
Each hyper-administration page links to a Regular Administration page. Above we see the top of the regular administration page for
the "photo.net" discussion forum, and to the left we see a (somewhat
altered) view of the whole page. This regular administration page contains
all the options necessary to configure a bulletin board, and the real version
also contains explanations of each of the options. I deleted the explanations
from the image at the left so that the image would be small enough to fit
on a page; the explanations will be reproduced below. Finally, the
"daily tasks" section of the the Regular Administration page links to
the main moderation section which begins with a Administer Forum by question page. This page is shown above as it appears for the
"NE43 Memory Project" forum. Within the main moderation section, most
of the links lead, in various ways, to the main management page for a question. This is where one can actually read and moderate
the questions and answers. The rest of the moderation section is devoted to
providing many different ways to browse through the questions and find this
page for the question you wish to manage.
Here is a short outline of the top-level page flow of this section:
First -- a
bit of advice: the moderation interface for the Question and Answer
forum is so much more developed than that of the threads interface,
that even if you are managing a thread-based forum, it is worthwhile
to use the Q&A interface to moderate it. You can find the moderation
pages as follows: From the top Hyper-Administration page, pick the forum you
wish to administer, and then follow the link on the One Bboard page to the Regular Administration page. Then, under Daily
Tasks, choose to "visit the admistration page" using the Q&A/Editorial
link. This will get you to the Administer Forum
by question page. Navigation from this point on
is discusses in further detail in the Managing A
Bulletin Board section.
In this section and the next few following it I will explain the
various kinds of tasks an administrator in detail. The first and
perhaps most complicated task is to set up a bulletin board.
Above you can see a (very small) image of the page on which you
can set all the configuration options for a bulletin board.
Since Philip has been allowing other web publishers to
publish and administrate bulletin boards on his server for some time,
the configuration page for a bulletin board contains quite a bit of
explanation on the page (which I deleted from the in the image to
make is short enough to fit on the page). I will
go through each of these options now in detail, including Philip's explanation
and some of my own. I have divided the configuration options
into three categories: configuring the structure of the bulletin board,
activating extra features, and controlling the appearance of the pages.
We will go through each of these categories in turn.
[The most important decision to make about a new bulletin board is
what presentation type you wish it to have. Here are Philip's comments
from the page itself about this option:
You have to choose whether or not this is primarily a Q&A
forum, a threads-based discussion group, or an editorial stlye.
The user interfaces interoperate, i.e., a posting made a user in
the Q&A interface will be seen in the threads interface and vice versa.
But my software still needs to know whether this is primarily threads, Q&A
or editorial. For example, if a user signs up for email alerts, this program will send out email
saying "come back to the forum at http://...". The "come back
URL" is different for Q&A and threads.
(note: I personally greatly prefer the Q&A interface; if people liked
threads, they'd have stuck with USENET.)
At the left we can see an example of a standard page from a Question
and Answer Forum, and above we can see the same forum displayed using
a threads interface. Both these examples are from the NE43 Memory Project Forum. You can see from this
examples what Philip means when he says "the user interfaces
interoperate." All the messages in this forum were submitted by users
viewing the forum using the Question and Answer interface, and yet it
can be made to look like a quite normal threads-based discussion. The
postings that were entered using the "Contribute an Answer" button on
the page devoted to the question "The Dover" by Philip Greenspun, are
given thread-title "Response to The Dover" automatically by the
software. Thus they appear as normal-looking threads in a threads
interface. If we were going the other way, a message in a
threads-based forum that illicited a number of reponses would appear
in the Q&A forum as a question with all the responses listed below as
answers (this would flatten any hierarchy that existed in the
The advantage of the
threads interface is that you can look at a summary of all the
postings on one screen, with the downside that you can only look at
one message at a time. By comparison, the advantage of the Q&A format
is that you can look at a whole thread on one screen, with the
downside that you have to click back to another page to get the
summary of the whole forum. Philip greatly prefers the Q&A forum
format, and I am inclined to agree. Since postings are often short,
it is a great advantage to have a whole topic on a single page. This
advantage far outweighs the disadvantage that less summary
information is avaliable on the postings. Usually the list of questions
is informative enough. In fact, it is often more informative,
because thread summaries are often redundant and silly (they can be
taken up by long lists of message titles like "Re:I'm confused" and
other such uninformative matter). People asking a question
usually put some effort into choosing a question title that is at
least a little bit useful to the reader.
There is a slight variation availiable on the Question and Answer
Format: if your "questions" are likely to be long essays for which you
wish to garner reader responses, but you don't want new readers to be
too distracted by old responses, then the Editorial format might be
appropriate. The Editorial format emphasises the "question" and
makes the answers avaliable through a "View Commentary" link.
At the right we see an example from Cognet, a site for a community
of cognitive scientists set up by the MIT press. This editorial
is introduced on the same page as follows:
HotScience, CogNet's monthly interactive editorial.
HotScience promotes critical discussion about issues in the cognitive and brain sciences. Each month, invited contributors share a somewhat controversial take on their current research
Post a response to this months editorial by clicking on the "View Commentary" link.
Thus we see an example of the kind of service for which the
Editorial format is appropriate: the Cognet site wants to show off
reports from prominant researchers; they want to emphasize the
review, while still making the commentary avaliable to readers who care.
There is one more presentation type avaliable for special
applications: the bulletin board can be organized by geographical
region. This makes it possible for bulletin board users to discuss
issues relevant to their local community with other users from the
same area. A prime example of this organization can be seen on the
site www.scorecard.org, a site
built by the Environmental Protection Agency to alert readers to the
effects of pollution in their area and to provide them the means
to organize a community response.
Here is an excerpt from a letter by the director
of the Environmental Defense Fund about the purpose and success of
Dear Scorecard User,
When we first launched
Scorecard in April 1998, we had no way to know whether or not this
would be a popular website. After 24 hours and a million attempted
"hits" we had our answer.
Scorecard's most popular feature is its "type in your zip
code" approach to finding local information about local
environmental conditions and problems. The site's interactive maps,
which let you click down to a local neighborhood in a second or two,
are another popular pathway. Our goal is to make the local
environment as easy to check on as the local weather.
We see above the page in Scorecard which introduces the
community discussion forums. Readers types in their zip
code and gets directed to the discussion forum for their local
community. Thus, if a reader of scorecard becomes outraged
about local pollution conditions, he can use this forum
to contact other people in his local community who are concerned about
the same issues. To the right we can see the results of this
search: some readers from Middlesex county have started a discussion
of the pollution event that inspired the movie A Civil Action.
To sum up, the US Geospatial presentation type is
the option to choose if you want to organize a community
discussion that centers around issues important to
a local geographical area. Perhaps it is the best way
to get virtual communities to organize and galvanize the action of
old-fashioned neighborhood communities.
The next structural issue you have to decide is whether you wish your
bulletin board to be categorized. At the left we see a small forum
that does not have categories. There aren't enough messages for users
to have difficulty finding the one they want. However, the
Nature Photography forum shown at the beginning of this document
is much larger; if we attempted to list all the messages on the
front page in this way, it would be impossibly long
and no one could find anything. To deal with forums like these,
the administrator is
given the option to add categories. For instance
the Nature Photography forum has set up categories like
"Equipment" and "Ethics." Thus, if in a few days the user is
looking for the posting about blackflies in Wisconsin, he
probably only has to search through all the postings in the "Locations"
section and can ignore all the posts from, say, "Ethics". Philip
Greenspun believes strongly that providing categories
is one of the best ways to make information easily locatable; much better
than relying on search capabilities. Therefore he has made
a categorization system central to the design of his bulletin
Philip's comments from the bulletin board configuration page
about the various choices an administrator has when deciding
whether to set up categories:
After a Q&A forum has collected a few thousand messages, it becomes
tough for users to find archived threads, even when the software is
running on a server with a full-text search engine. Categorization
lets you support browsing as well as searching. As the administrator,
you are always able to recategorize messages and define new
categories. If you want less work and don't mind a little chaos, then
you can allow users to categorize their own questions (they get a
select menu when they post a new question).
If you don't mind a lot
of chaos, you can allow users to define new categories.
If you allow users to enter categories, they will be given a
menu of categories when they post a new message. Here is the menu
shown to users posting in the Nature Photography Forum shown at right:
The software also needs to know how old a message has to be before
it is no longer considered "New", and how to format the presentation of
these messages. Here are the directions for these options:
Note: all the categorization stuff is ignored in the threads (frames)
Another structural feature you can add to your Bulletin Board
is an Interest Level System. The comments Philip includes
on the configuration page describe this option fairly completely:
enabled my interest level system. As the administrator, you can rate
things on a scale from 0 to 10. Anything 3 or below is deemed
"uninteresting" and separated from the other threads in a category.
In the long run, I'll probably add an option for users to see the
threads that the administrator has specifically marked interesting (8
or higher?). Remember that you don't have to mark each thread.
Threads without a number are still considered "interesting".
Use Interest Level System?
Above you can see a page in a bulletin board with an interest level
system activated. A few threads have been marked uninteresting and are
displayedd in a separate section (note: this page has been edited to
make it short enough to display. A real forum with enough threads that
the administrator has bothered to add an interest level system
is almost always much longer than this.)
This feature is very simple: you can ask the system to send you email
whenever a user posts in your forum. Alternately, if your forum is
active, you will probably be overwhelmed with email and wish to turn off
the alerts. Here is the directions Philip gives for this option:
If your forum is inactive, you'll probably want this system to send
you email every time someone adds a posting of any kind (new top-level
question or reply). If you're getting 50 new postings/day then you'll
probably want to disable this feature
If you choose to enable image or file loading, the user will be presented
with a box like the one shown at left when he or she is making a posting.
(Note: this box does not show up on the original page which contains
forms for entering a a new post, but instead is displayed on the page
which asks the user to preview and confirm his posting. I do not know
why it is set up this way; users may ask where the image loading
options are, since they don't see them on the first posting page.)
You can instruct this system to automatically reject postings that
match certain patterns. For example, at photo.net we want to refuse
postings that contain the string "aperature". Invariably, people
who can't spell "aperture" turn out to be idiots.
Another strange feature bulletin board administrators have been
known to ask for is a bulletin board in which users cannot initiate
new threads. Thus this is a configuration option for the bulletin board.
Here are the instructions given for this feature:
This is a section of parameters for people who are using my software
in unintended ways (i.e., not really as a forum at all). For example,
someone wanted to put up a service with a fixed set of threads, e.g.,
one for each U.S. state. Users would be free to add any message they
wanted underneath any of the threads set up by the administrator (oh
yes, this works by removing the
Ask a Question
link from the top level page).
I have never actually seen a bulletin board in
use that was configured this way, but I made a new bulletin
board to see the effects of this option. At left you can see
the top of the front page of this fake forum. If you compare
this with the top of the Nature Photography forum shown earlier,
you can see that the Ask a Question link is indeed missing, as Philip
said. Also, the "About" link is also missing; we will discuss this
link in the next section, for it is part of the configurable appearance
of a bulletin board forum.
Finally we come to the last set of options: the options that control
the appearance of a bulletin board. There are a number of titles and
messages that appear in a bulletin board that an administrator might
wish to configure. First, the bar right under the main title
any page often has a "backlink" to the home page of the system. Second, the
message line summaries for postings can optionally have appended at
the end the name or email of the user making the posting or the date
of the posting. Third, the bar shown above in my Fixed Thread Forum (or
any forum) can have an About link that links to a policy statement
for that bulletin board. Finally, one can write a message
to warn users away from making stupid or superfluitous postings.
Historically, every page in Philip's web sites has had a
backlink that points a user to
the front page of the module of which the page is a part.
A system for consistent backlinks are very important on the web, because
users can easily dumped onto some page deep into the system by a search engine.
If they cannot find a way to get up to the top level easily and quickly,
they probably will get frustrated and quit the site in disgust. If you look
back at the images of the pages from various forums, you will see
backlinks on every one. For instance, the "Problem With Your Input"
page above has underneath the title the phrase "to
photo.net". This is the kind of backlink Philip is talking about. (However, you may note that there is a different style of backlink
on some of the pages, more like a Yahoo-style navigation bar,
that shows the whole sequence of pages that lead to this page. This
is a new feature on some of Philip's pages and it may eventually make
the old style obselete. ??I do not know what will happen to this option
if the new style is adopted everywhere). Here is the explanation on the
configuration page of this option:
As you can see in the "Nature Photography" forum example given
at the beginning of this document, the one-line summary of messages
can optionally include the name of the user who made the posting
appended afterward in parenthesis. This is how we knew that it
was Danny Burk who was concerned about blackflies in Wisconsin.
The administrator can also choose to have the email address,
or date appended after the posting. Here is how this option is
presented on the configuration page:
Though configuring a forum is probably the most complicated
task, moderating the forum is the one that takes the most
effort. As a result, the moderation section has been streamlined
for ease of use. All the moderation actions for a thread can be
accomplished on a single page, and there are many path provided
to search through the forum for the thread you want.
If you are trying to moderate a forum, you probably wish to find a
particular thread to manage or perhaps you wish to browse using some
kind of search strategy (looking for new postings? postings on a
particular subject? postings by a particular author? or something
like that). There are a number of different paths through the
moderation subsection that all lead to the Main
Management Page for A Question. Below we see an example of this
page from the photo.net Question and Answer Forum (it has
been split in two pieces so it would fit easily on the page).
Which path you choose depends on
your search strategy -- there are number avaliable.
We can see many of the search links avaliable on the top level page of the moderation section,
the Administer Forum by question page,
shown to the right for the Lab for Computer Science Memory Project forum. As you
can see on that page, there are a number of different links
which offer to display various groupings of questions.
All the standard links that appear on the user level pages for
Searching, Viewing New Answers and Unanswered Questions are present,
as well as
a new set of links under the heading "Other Groups of Questions."
There are also links on the Main
Management Page for A Question that will display useful
groupings of questions -- the name and IP address underneath
a posting link to all the postings by the user of that name
and from that IP address, respectively. So there are quite
a number of different ways to browse or search through the
all the questions in the moderation section. Here I list a
summary outline of this subsection which shows the organization of the
various links that will allow you to search through the all the
questions in the forum:
Follow the Pick A Category link at the bottom of the Administer Forum by question page, and you will be shown a list of categories.
Pick the category you want.
Browse Questions by Author
To do this, I think you need to find one post by that author to
start. Then, on the Main Management Page for the Question
page, the name of the author after each post is a link to all the posts by
that author. I think this is usually used to bulk-delete all the posts
of a particularly annoying author.
Browse Questions by IP address
This option exists to allow one to bulk-delete all posts
from a user who is obnoxious enough to require tracking by IP address rather
than user name. On the Main Management Page for a Question there is a link from the origination IP address of each
posting to a page that lists all postings from that IP address.
Above to the right and below we see the two halves of the
Main Management Page for A Question.
This is a long page which allows the administrator to do all the
possible tweaking he might wish to clean up a thread. The
administrator can edit all the postings and the thread title
as well. He can delete anything, including the entire thread,
and there are handy buttons for quick bulk deletion. The
links below the posts to the name and IP address link to a list of all the postings from that user and that IP
address respectively. Thus, if a posting is particularly
horrifyingly objectionable, the administrator can quickly
check all other postings from the same individual or location,
and perhaps cut out the cancer at its source.
In addition to editing and deleting threads, the administrator can
choose to set the interest level, or the number of days until
expiration of thread. As we saw before, a thread with a interest level
set below "3" will be displayed on the thread summary page sequestered
in a special section called "Uninteresting Threads."
Finally, the administrator can choose to recategorize threads using the
category select box and the Set Category submit button. This select
box from the Nature Photography Forum is reproduced above. Notice that
one of the options in the select box is "Define New Category." Thus if
none of the categories seem appropriate for the post in question,
you can always choose to define a new one.
Complete Page Flow of the Bulletin Board Administration Section
Finally, for completeness, we list here an outline summary of
the page flow of this section. I have split apart the
outline for the main section and for the moderation subsections,
because otherwise it would have gone too many levels deep.
Of course, this outline is slightly fictionalized, because a web
site is more interconnected than any outline can convey. In particular,
the moderation section has many paths that led to the main thread
management page, and I only listed one of them. The short outlines
given above contain links to
images of the page in question, but I left those links out
here because they are slightly distracting.
Top Level: Bulletin Board Administration Home
Lists all Bulletin Board Topics (Active and Inactive). Links to:
Activation Toggle for Topics.
One Bboard -- Manage a single bboard.
Administration Page for Daily Tasks
Look at expired threads (a Q&A only thing)
Community -- View Readers.
Report Page for all Postings by One User
Thread management page.
Delete Marked Messages.
Send Mail To These Readers.
Pick N Readers At Random.
How this BBoard is presented to users
Enter Backlink Title.
Choose threads, Q&A, Editorial, or US Geospatial
How Threads are Presented
Choose Subject Line Suffix
Ask User to Categorize?
Allow User to Add New Categories?
Days Considered New.
Use Interest Level System?
Enter Policy Statement
Discourage Users from Posting
Enter Discouraging Message
Notify me of all new postings?
Allow Users to initiate threads?
Choose the type of file.
View Community History of an Administrator
Remove an Administrator
Choose a Member to Add as an Administrator
Add a New Topic
Choose a Member to Add as an Administrator
This whole section links from the entry II.A.1.b One Bboard:
Regular Administration: Daily Tasks: Q&A/Editorial in the outline above.
Page flow for Administration Q&A Format
Top Level:Administer Forum by question
Return to Admin Home
Standard Links for a Q&A Forum
Post a New Question
For Each Question:
Main Management Page for Each Question
Edit Thread Title
DELETE ENTIRE THREAD
Set Interest Level
Set Number of Days til Expiration
For Each Message:
View all Postings by this Author
View Main Management Page for this Post's Question
Mark Post for Bulk Deletion
View all Postings from this IP address
View Main Management Page for this Post's Question
Email Author of Post
Mark Post for Bulk Deletion
Mark For Bulk Delete
Delete Marked Messages
Email Author of Question
View All the Questions
View Questions by Category
View New Posts Sorted by Time Rather than by Thread
This whole section links from the entry II.A.1.a One Bboard:
Regular Administration: Daily Tasks: Threads in the outline above.
As I mentioned before, the Threads administration interface is
much less developed that the Q&A interface.
Page flow for Administration Threads Format
Top Level:Delete and View Threads for Forum