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Forums, Wikis, and Blogs
Last updated Oct 17, 2003.
By Meryl Evans
It's rare that users stand by and "watch the show" on a Web site. They can get in on the action with wiki, weblog (blog), and forum tools. Regularly adding new content is never a bad thing and helps optimize the Web site's search engine results. Communities provide a wealth of information on many topics and involving readers helps companies build relationships with clients and prospects.
Open Source Collaboration
Setting up a community also enhances online collaboration. Open source projects often use wikis and forums to discuss requirements, needs, wants, bugs, and other things. SourceForge.net (sf.net), a massive open source software development Web site, has over 100,000 projects in the works and over one million registered users. This model leads to fast creation of solutions in an open and collaborative environment.
Hunt for a project on sf.net by entering a keyword in the search box. Every project has a place on the site that contains a summary, forums, link to its home page (most projects have their own Web site outside of sf.net), bug database, support requests, patches, feature requests, mailing list, documentation, news, and files for downloading.
WebCalendar (http://sourceforge.net/projects/webcalendar/), an sf.net project, has its own home page (http://www.k5n.us/webcalendar.php) where most of the action occurs. The forums are accessible from both sites where users and developers discuss bugs, feature requests, and general problems.
NucleusCMS, a lightweight open source content management system (CMS)/blogging tool, uses a wiki and a forum for community interaction. The wiki houses a living document for the CMS where contributors add documentation on how to use the software, plug-ins, skins, and templates. In the support forums, users share problems, discoveries, tips, tricks, and bugs while developers discuss new features, plug-ins, and current development efforts.
Internet forums—also known as bulletin boards, discussion boards, discussion groups, forums, and message boards—offer a place online where users can discuss topics without everyone having to be on at the same time. Most forums require registration, but some let users post anonymously without registering. To use a forum, all a user needs is a Web browser and maybe a sign-on ID and password.
Forums have a diversity of features, like email notification, that you can use to be notified when someone replies to a discussion that interests you. Users can't edit or delete other users' messages, but some forums employ moderators who can. Anyone can start a new discussion in a forum and add comments to continue the discussion.
Forums cover anything from hobbies to businesses. Absolute Write's Water Cooler is a forum for writers who share experiences, freelance openings, stories for feedback, writing genres, and more. As colleges and universities conduct classes online, they use forums so professors and students can interact and discuss course-related materials and projects. Teams get their own forums that only assigned team members can access.
Some Web hosts provide forum software as part of their services. Mine does. To use phpBB, an open source bulletin board package (forums are also known as bulletin boards), I open my Web site's control panel and click on the phpBB icon to run the set up. Figure 1 shows the phpBB set up page.
Wikipedia itself is a giant wiki. It wouldn't be as large or successful without its 13,000+ contributors working on over 1,800,000 articles. In wikis, users can edit the works of others. Anyone can create a new article in Wikipedia and anyone else with more information on the subject can add onto the original article and make changes as necessary.
While it sounds like wikis could get messy with anyone having the ability to edit anything, it doesn't happen as much as you might think. Figure 2 shows I can edit a page in Wikipedia. The site addresses this issue in the help section and calls it "edit-warring." Wikis can be protected with a password, which is another way to prevent wiki vandalism or going "off topic." I work on several teams and projects in which we use a wiki to manage our information, to-do list, agreed upon items, rules, and anything else that serves our purpose.
Wiki pages connect to each other through hyperlinks, which are created with markup similar to how links appear on a Web page. Wikis don't use <a> to create links; creating a link in a wiki depends on the software's syntax. A link could be a simple [This is a link] (brackets around the item to be linked), *This is a link,* or some other syntax. Meatball and TikiWiki are leading efforts to standardize wiki markup as it's difficult to switch between wikis and learn the new syntax. Users might be a part of more than one group using different wikis.
Wiki farms provide hosting for wikis on one or more servers. Also, like forums, wiki software can be open source or fee-based. Wikipedia has a comparison chart of wiki software.
Weblogs, commonly referred to as blogs, can be online articles, essays, entries, diaries, or journals. A typical blog contains entries listed in reverse chronological order. Blogs differ from forums in that only the person who has access to the blog can start a discussion and many blogs now have a team of bloggers who can also start conversations.
When a blogger posts an entry, users can read and comment on it, if the commenting feature is available. Most blogging applications come with comments, but the blogger might choose to monitor them, not use them, or leave the blog open for anyone to comment. Bloggers can delete comments—especially when they're offensive—as well as comment spam, comments from spammers who post repeated comments with links to sites to increase their search engine results.
Blogging applications can be weblog software, publishing platforms, and even content management systems. I use a CMS, for example, to manage the contents of several non-profit Web sites.
A typical blog contains permalinks, which are the permanent links for entries. The link to my blog is http://www.meryl.net/blog/, but if I want to point to a specific entry, then I share the permalink, which for one post is <http://www.meryl.net/blog/archives/003773.php>. Not every blog uses the word "permalink." Mine uses "Note It," but others may have the permalink in the blog's title, date posted, or in an icon in the entry.
Many bloggers include a blogroll in their blogs, which is a list of other blogs they recommend or read. Entries also have a trackback feature. If you post an entry that someone else finds interesting, that person posts an entry and links to yours instead of commenting from within the blog. Think of trackback as connecting a person's comment from his own blog to your entry. Comments, blogrolls, and trackback build community that can be within the blog or blogosphere (blog collective).
When you go to a blog, have you noticed the orange button with XML or RSS on it? Or maybe it says, "Add RSS Feed" or "Syndicate this blog." Click on any of these and you see gobbledygook like the one in Figure 4.
Rather than coming to the Web site and reading the blog, some people read the blog through a news reader, feed reader, or aggregator application. Such applications can be downloaded and used on your computer, as with FeedDemon, or they might be Web-based, as with Bloglines. News readers make it possible to read all of your favorite blogs or online content from one place, the application.
Forums, wikis, and blogs have many features, which can make choosing which ones to use to build your online community difficult. Organizations that provide forum, blog, and wiki software often list the features on their Web sites. You can check them out to help figure out what you need. The resources at the end of this section also provide links to where you can get more information.
InformIT Articles and Sample Chapters
Explains the differences between a forum and a blog and lists the features of each.
Covers the different types of blogging solutions and blog features.
The site has a large chart comparing blog software and blogging applications.
You can try open source CMS and blog applications here without installing anything.
An open source bulletin board (forum) application.
This resource has a guide that thoroughly covers forum and message board software including commercial software, freeware, product reviews, and articles.