I’m surprised that this topic has not created more discussion. Perhaps most of us are taking over an existing forum rather than building one from scratch?
In any case, I’m wondering if we could put together something like a generic forum structure that could be adopted as a template for different communities and, - important! - which is easily expandable as the community grows?
To be clear, what I have in mind is a set of generic categories (the term used on discourse forums like this one). Apart from categories, forum software usually gives you a second structuring tool: tags (or keywords). As I see it, the big challenge is to identify which dimensions to tackle with tags and which to put into categories.
So, for example, if your forum is about parenting, chances are that members will discuss books about parenting. Do you want a book category or a book tag (that will work across categories)? In this example most will probably opt for the books tag because chances are that books come up across different categories and so the tag provides a way of finding all topics about books across categories.
But if your community is for students of nursing, a book books category (or maybe literature more broadly) might make sense because books obviously play an important role for students. These are maybe not the best examples, but I hope you get the idea.
So, to start with, what can we come up with a rule of thumb for categories vs tags?
My first shot at this would be something like: categories are for different activities or purposes that people would pursue in these categories (classic example: the marketplace or classified category) and tags are more about the content of that activity.
The advantage of activity based categories would be that they could function as inspiration for new or potential members regarding what kind of things they can do on this forum. And once a category grows a lot, it should be easy to identify different types of topics going on in that category and create sub-categories for these (e.g. the marketplace could be subdivided according to geographic location or type of product, depending on what makes more sense based on what’s been going on in the past).
So then, how about some generic categories that we often see on forum? Do they work or do CMs just keep reproducing them because they seem to make sense? Examples might be:
- General discussion
- Meta/site feedback/forum support/help
- Introduce yourself
- News and Updates / Announcements
- Instrumental discussions: A category where members can achieve a specific goal such as give/receive advice and mutual support
- Non-instrumental discussions: A category for story telling/ sharing of experiences/ links to stuff on the web “just for fun”
That’s already six categories! And note how only the last two are specific to your community. What do you think? Does that make sense in your community?
In mine, I also have a “Research” category, dedicated to academic discussions (whereas the community as a whole includes both academics and practitioners) as well as a “Tools & Methods” category, which is somewhat on between the instrumental (called How-to on my forum) and non-instrumental (called Stories & Pics) because it invites the sharing of tools and methods regardless of a specific use case.