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by Lloyd A. de Vries

Vol. 43 - Discussing Philately On The Internet

The Internet is littered with dead message boards.

Go to Yahoo! Groups (groups.yahoo.com), DelphiForums (www.delphiforums.com), the Usenet newsgroups or any other gathering of discussion groups and search for groups with the keyword "stamps." Some of the results will be concerned with rubber stamps, but a large percentage of the philatelic-related groups will be dormant. That's true for nearly all subject areas, not just stamps.

It's easy to start a message board or discussion group. It's much tougher to keep it going and make it successful.

I've started and managed stamp collecting discussion boards on GEnie, America Online, the Microsoft Network, Dueling Modems private newsgroups, and Delphi. The latter evolved into The Virtual Stamp Club, which I still operate. GEnie, which had been part of General Electric's Information Service, no longer exists. My AOL forum was in a small business forum. AOL wasn't interested in a moderated stamp collecting forum; soon, it wasn't interested in paying a moderator for a small business forum, either, and that entire group disappeared. DM never really took off, once it required payment. The MSN forum was part of Collectors Network; when that company lost its MSN contract, I inquired about a stand-alone stamp collecting board. A MSN manager I had known on GEnie declared "there's no interest in stamp collecting on the Internet." I wonder where she's working now.

At any rate, I hope that establishes my credentials on this subject. I've been creating and operating stamp collecting boards for 15 years, dating back to 1993. ("Yes, sonny, I remember those coal-fired modems.")

Back when I started, you had to apply to the system's administrators to create or take over a message board. If you passed muster, you were given a written contract, paid (usually based upon the traffic in your forum) and subjected to review. At GEnie, we even had annual conferences for us moderators!

Today, to create a message board, you click on the "create a board/forum/group" button and that's it. There's no contract, no reviews or training ... and no pay.

It's also fairly easy and inexpensive to obtain and install a message board on your own personal Web site.

But will anyone come to it? Will anyone participate?

And once people do participate, what do you do about problem posters?

To get people to come, you have to give them something they can't get elsewhere, or don't know they can get elsewhere, or can't get as easily elsewhere. In my case, with a background in journalism, it was news. If you're a specialist in an area of philately, that might be your raison d'etre: Discussions of exhibiting Illustrated Mail, of what stamps might be included in a crime-on-stamps collection, about the tax problems facing philatelic organizations, and so on.

Will people participate? Post too much and too often, and your message board may look more like a blog than a discussion area. Post too little, too infrequently, and your board may appear abandoned.

I solved that problem back in 1993 by recruiting an assistant, Ed Ozmun. He said he didn't know that much about stamps, and I said all he had to know was how to post "Attaboys."

"What's an 'Attaboy?'" he asked. A response to my postings, such as, "That's interesting" or "Thanks for posting that" or "What do you mean?" Something to turn a monologue into a dialogue. It lets readers know that they, too, can post something.

Ed, by the way, is now an emeritus staffer of The Virtual Stamp Club.

However, in addition to having a focus, the group or board moderator must also "seed" it: Put interesting material in it that not only brings people in, but makes them want to respond. "I think O.J. Simpson should be on a U.S. stamp, despite his legal problems" might provoke some discussion, and so would "How many war criminals are there on stamps worldwide?"

I knew my message boards were successful when I could go offline for a day or more — never mind the withdrawal symptoms! — and messages were still being posted. (The converse also told me which ones weren't working.)

As for "problem posters," this depends, of course, on how you and the forum host (if not your own Web site) define a "problem." Most of the commercial discussion areas prohibit obscenity, for example, but you might wish to allow it on your private Web site message board. You may even wish to say "anything goes," which sort of solves the problem about what to do about problems, since, by definition, you won't have any.

But assuming you have rules about what's right and what's wrong, what do you do with the latter? Most board systems have a mechanism that allows the moderators to delete messages; some also allow moderators to edit them.

Many boards and groups also give owners the option of reviewing messages before they're distributed to the members. (DelphiForums also has a middle option, where some members' messages are posted immediately while others' messages are held for review.)

However, delete or edit too many messages, be too restrictive, or too slow to clear messages, and your group will die.

Let too many infractions go, and your group may die from other members' disgust and anger.

And reading and reviewing all those messages, before or after they've appeared? Even if you no longer work for a living, you have to sleep some time! You'll need a team or a lot of l'aissez faire.

It may be easier to just camp out in an existing discussion group than to start your own.

I not-so-modestly suggest taking a look at The Virtual Stamp Club's message board, which dates back to December 1996. We have a staff of about a dozen people, thousands of members, and tens of thousands of back messages.

Virtual Stamp Club Home Page