One of the not so little “projects” that landed in my lap on 12/10/2009 is TechNet forums. Specifically, all of the forums that are used worldwide by IT Pros. http://social.technet.microsoft.com/Forums/en-us/categories/ is the start of the US English language area. There are many more forums for other locales and languages.
About five minutes after my manager, John Martin, persuaded me to take on the project there was a flash fire. You know the type. The ugly type and this fire was no exception. The spammers had decided to spam the hell out of a bunch of unmoderated forums. They were smart enough to learn that the forum tag cloud was based on user defined categories for the forum posts. As a result, the tag cloud had VIAGRA and many other non IT Pro related tags made clearly visible in large font sizes. Wince. Needless to say, the tag cloud was taken down immediately as the tools team worked on cleansing the undesirable posts from the forum areas.
This incident led to a number of discussions before the Christmas break and after. With that in mind, I would like to solicit feedback on how you would like to see the TechNet Forums handled. In fact, I’d like to know what you think they should be used for and how the direction should be shaped. Before I outline some of the problems, issues and opportunities, let’s review some of the history to see how we got here.
Forums are rooted in the past. Remember CompuServe, AOL and dial-up modem bulletin board systems? Remember the pain of searching for fixes then? It wasn’t particularly fun and large fixes took forever to download.
Usenet news servers weren’t much better but the hierarchy was pretty easy to navigate. Usenet (NNTP) based client software was readily available for all of the operating systems and offline reading of subscribed usenet groups made collaboration easier for the subject matter experts of the world. I still prefer usenet over web based forums.
The web took off in the early 90’s and the web based forum areas were born. Many popular forum applications are available on the grid and nearly anyone could setup a forum area to discuss whatever topic comes to mind. Web forums were really the precursor to the social software revolution we see now. However, lets not discount web based forums. Many innovations have occurred in forums and development still takes place.
For instance, presence became popular in forums. This allowed for real time interaction and integration with other protocols and tools like IRC. Other forum innovations include posting histories for members, badges and honors for contributors, moderation privileges for frequent contributors, voting, and many other features that provide for a great communal experience.
Go where the people are. This is a pretty important law of social computing and it’s one that the spammers live by. If people are there, spammers will find a way to exploit things and ruin it for everyone. It happened on email. It happened in usenet. It’s happening in twitter. Our forums are no exception to this.
How do you stop the spam?
I welcome feedback on this question. There are more questions that come up later but this one invites a little dissection of the problem, and some possible wildly different solutions. Let’s look at the poles.
First, we could create a forum environment that is totally policed by the community. In fact, Microsoft could back away and let it be totally run by the community including answering the questions that are posted. That would be very different than what we have today, but it would be an interesting test.
It can be done. It’s already done all over the internet. In fact, I’d wager the vast majority of conversations, questions and answers about Microsoft products and technologies don’t occur at http://social.technet.microsoft.com/Forums/. Those collaborations occur elsewhere. And when you search using google.com or bing.com, you are discovering the threads and answers from all of those sites.
So back to the community led forum, moderators and owners would have to deal with the problem of spam, terse threads, and other objectionable material. You can certainly use software to spot obvious spammer carpet bombing, but you can’t totally get away from having human oversight. Humans cost money. Lots of money.
This brings us to the opposite end of the spectrum. The forums are totally Microsoft run. All forums have moderators. No posts become visible without being checked by a human. Answers come from paid support professionals, MVPs, SME’s and other passionate contributors. Spam is null and void but this highly regulated environment comes with a high price tag.
As you can see, just by looking at the spam problem we’ve opened the door to a whole array of other interesting issues.
Microsoft Answers, Reporting, Ownership and Funding
Once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s really hard to put the genie back in. For instance, if we shut down forums totally, where would people get authoritative answers? I am not suggesting I plan to make such a drastic change, but think about it. What if I pulled the plug tomorrow?
We wouldn’t have to worry about moderators watching everything that goes on. We could dump reporting. We could use the budget for the staffing of answering the questions for something like improving products.
For instance, we could shift that budget to produce high quality content in the form of webcasts, podcasts, and videos. We could focus on high quality whitepapers and guides. We could focus energy and money into online documentation that is easily searchable.
What would you do? What do the other companies you buy products from do? Have any great examples? Or maybe a more important question should be asked:
Do you use Microsoft TechNet Forums?