I’ve been doing some on-and-off research into the nature of the gaming community, pulling my thoughts on various issues together, occasionally posting some of the results on this blog. I had a discussion last year with The Geek Anthropologist about some formal ethnography of gamer webspace, and drafted a research note on the behaviours evidenced in a particular online forum. The folks at TGA have been busy lately, having had a conference on all matters geek, so I thought I’d post my thoughts here. Please let me know if this is something you’d be interested in hearing more about in future – it takes a fair bit of time, but can be quite rewarding.
So, without further ado: the post!
Online forums have been a huge part of the tools available to the geek community for a while now, and are a place where many go to express their opinions and discuss topics on all things geek. So what precisely happens on them?
I’ve spent the last few months looking reasonably intently at the posting habits of a particular computer game forum* and have correlated this with my experiences of several others, dealing with both online and offline topics that could be labeled “geeky”. And the traits seem remarkably similar, only really changing over time rather than in relation to each other, or even the precise subject matter of the forums.
The first thing to note is that these forums are mainly not, despite the topic post-and-reply set-up of these forums, places to discuss these topics. Rather, they are used by the forum community as places to volunteer their opinions. This is the explicit intent behind some of these threads (polling threads being the most obvious example of this), but to me at least the spirit of “turn up and volunteer your opinion on topic X” is often present even where the polls are not. There is rarely the back-and-forth discussion present in formal or informal debate; those replying to threads merely state their opinions on the topic with little regard for the initial post. The opinions of the rest of the posters do not appear to matter overmuch to those replying (unless they are controversial), more that their own opinion on the matter is expressed. These kinds of posts are also quite sporadic; apart from a core of posters, quite often someone will have only one post in any given thread, and then leave.
One place where this is less the case is the more technically-minded forums, where people go to ask questions on how a particular mod works, or how to solve a particular hardware or software-related issue. Threads in these kind of forums are reasonably to the point and direct in a question-and-answer format, where the content and specifics of the posts matter in order to get the problem solved. There is also a difference in the composition of the posters, too. The opinion-volunteering mass drops away, leaving only a few (quite often only one per thread) of the core of posters answering the question at hand.
There is a middle-ground between these two extremes present, and that appears to consistently be the areas of the games where knowledge of the setting of the game is discussed. In these areas, threads are often started by someone other than the core posters, who then drop out of the discussion altogether, leaving the core posters to discuss the issue of the post. This does take the form of discussion, replying directly to previous points made by other posters, although rarely the original poster, who merely provides the discussion topic. The discussion happens between a relatively tight-knit group of regulars alone, and attempts to join in are frequently either ignored or dismissed within a post or two.
The attitude of these posters to the original point of the thread varies from dismissive (if they consider the answer obvious or the question repetitive) to informative. Both types of attitude often include links being posted to external sources to provide the actual answer, interlaced with commentary based on the answerer’s opinion. Quite often the links are not taken up by the thread starters, who frequently continue to ask questions until they are answered within the forum itself. Out of necessity, the posting of links to external sources only appears to happen in forums where substantial information about the game is found online (such as reproduction of in-game text or comments by the game developers). Where this information is not online, other sources (such as print media) get referenced and occasionally quoted directly for answers, and the referral process is absent.
When posting in this kind of environment, the attitude of the original posters also shifts; instead of complaining about an issue or asking opinions, they are often phrased as clarifications (“why is X the case?” rather than “what do you think about X?”) and the posters are more deferential in attitude, aware that their own opinions may be wrong and apparently welcome to having them changed. In the wider forum, there is rarely this kind of opinion-change apparent, presumably because of a perceived parity in knowledge-levels between posters, where this is not the case between the “visitor” original poster and the regular respondents.
Within all these types of forums (the opinions, the technical questions and the setting questions) there are various pinned threads at the head of each forum, which contain subforum rules and common questions and answers. These are not frequently referred to by members; where rules are in breach, a moderator will comment directly, and often the information contained within them will be paraphrased by the more regular members (no referral process) unless their contents have an obvious bearing on the question of the original poster. Outside of the context of the original question, they are rarely if ever referred to at all.
From this point of view, it seems clear that while online forums ostensibly facilitate wider communication, they do not in practice help. To the infrequent users, they merely offer a platform for questions to be asked and answered. The degree to which questions and opinions are discussed is dependent not on the amount of people present, but on the makeup of those people, with an observable “regular” vs “visitor” difference present, with in-group and out-group behaviours. The in-group will make jokes with each other but not the out-group of less regular posters (although occasionally this may be at their expense), and any communication beyond expression of opinions is dependent on being part of the in-group. What makes up membership of this group is unclear at present, but it goes beyond mere post count or time on the forums (as I observe with my own experience; despite being a member since 2007 and posting relatively frequently, I am still treated as a visitor in most areas).
This dichotomy may explain certain behaviours observed within the wider geek community; the tendency to hold up certain opinions as sacred, as they are not regularly challenged but merely voiced, and holding up knowledge in certain areas as an indicator of status. These are defining characteristics of behaviour in online forums that appear to be replicated offline frequently. Online forums appear less communities and more soapboxes with knowledgeable enclaves where newcomers may enter but only have limited participation. The gates into online communities are quite narrow, it seems.