Herding Cats
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 5/7/01

As the football off-season is fully underway, it's time to talk about a topic that is near and dear to many of our hearts: message boards. It's a subject that needs to be revisited every once in a while, because the boards, and the posters who populate them, are an ever-changing thing.

This article is a little long, but the message boards are a complicated topic, and I have a lot to say about them. So please bear with me.

First, a little background information. The first HokieCentral.com message board was created back in early 1997. The site had been in existence for almost a year without a message board, but it was obvious that it was time to create one. HokieCentral was getting a lot of traffic, and more importantly, I was getting a lot of emails from people who wanted to talk Hokie sports.

So the first HC message board (lovingly referred to as the HCMB) was born, and there was much rejoicing. It underwent many format changes, primarily from an open format to a password-protected format. It was interesting to watch the board and its posters grow and develop. When the board first started, people were likely to believe anything that was posted on it, but as time went on, they quickly got very savvy about weeding out false posts and posters. It has been satisfying to watch people grow more sophisticated in their posting and reading habits over the years.

The original board has branched out into a suite of six boards here at TechSideline.com. Most of the additional boards were created because there is an undeniable need for them: a Ticket Exchange board for the buying and selling of tickets; a "Score" board that is used for live game updates (the "Score" board is rarely used, but all it takes is one person doing a basketball game play-by-play on the Football board to drive everyone nuts); and a Recruiting Board that in the month of January outdoes the Football board in traffic. In a few minutes, I'll get to an explanation of the suite of boards at TechSideline.com, and how they are intended to be used.

The message board is a blessing and a curse, but for me, the positives far outweigh the negatives. It is a place for fans to commiserate and "build community," as they say in the business, and it is a place where we can better inform TSL's many visitors of what we're up to, what's important to the site, and how we need their support. The amount of information (right or wrong) that gets exchanged on the board in a given day is staggering.

But the boards have their downsides, too. Constant slamming and criticism of athletic administrators, coaches, and even players builds ill will and enmity among the more thin-skinned of our public figures in the athletic department and the university as a whole. A steady diet of misinformation from poorly-informed sources doesn't help.

TSL's message boards are the primary reason why media credentials have been refused to this web site by the Virginia Tech athletic department (they will tell you differently, but the message boards are the sticking point -- I've heard enough hints to get the clue). This severely compromises our ability to conduct our business properly, because we can't access the coaches, players, and administrators that have the information we need for our articles.

The boards alone are responsible for this web site being perceived as something other than the professionally-presented news outlet and publication that it is. Despite the enormous numbers of columns, news items, and information that we carry here at TechSideline.com, the presence of the message boards often leads athletic administrators, coaches, and members of the traditional media to refer to TechSideline.com as a "chat room," as if that's all it is.

(For the record, TSL doesn't contain a single "chat room" and probably never will. There's a difference between a "message board" and a "chat room," but those who call TSL a "chat room" don't know that, nor are they inclined to ever educate themselves about the differences between chat rooms, message boards, and web sites, so I'm wasting my breath here.)

But the boards are here to stay. They are a vital part of this web site, and they give life to it, making it live and breathe. The presence of the boards puts up some roadblocks as we attempt to run a successful business, but they help us much more than they hurt us, so they are here to stay. The interactivity that they provide is part of what makes the Internet great and sets it apart from other forms of media.

The question then, is not whether or not to have message boards. That is settled. The real question is how to properly manage the message boards. The answer, unfortunately, changes almost daily. But again, that's the nature of the Internet. It's a dynamic medium, so how you deal with it must be dynamic, too.

What follows is an explanation of the boards that TSL offers, how they are to be used, and some steps I'm going to take in the next few months to ensure that as we head into football season, the TSL message boards continue to be an entertaining and informative forum.

The Six Boards

Recently, I renamed the "Community" board "The Lounge" and requested that all non sports-related posts be directed there. At the same time, I renamed the "Main/Football" board to just the "Football" board to reemphasize its mission as a football discussion board. So now TSL has six message boards:

  • Football - for discussing VT football and college football
  • Basketball - for discussing VT basketball and college basketball
  • Recruiting - for discussing VT recruiting (all sports)
  • Ticket Exchange - for buying, selling, and exchanging VT game tickets, parking passes, etc.
  • The Lounge - general discussion on any topic; organizing get-togethers and events
  • The "Score" Board - for updating/tracking games in progress

In addition to each board's primary focus, topics that are still fair game for the Football board and the Basketball board (and The Lounge, for that matter) are:

  • College sports-related topics
  • General Virginia Tech-related topics
  • "Olympic" sports-related topics.

Examples of discussions that I would prefer to see take place in The Lounge and not on any of the other boards are pop culture discussions (TV shows, music) and professional sports discussions.

Some posters who had been engaging in "off-topic" posts on the Main/Football board were not pleased and seemed to regard the creation of The Lounge as a step that diminishes the "folksiness" of the boards. They don't like the attempt to regulate conversations, and they fear that it will diminish everyone's chance to get to know each other better and be friendly.

I find it interesting that many people see the creation of The Lounge as the end of the laid-back, off-topic posts that build friendships and get us through the summer months, when in fact, The Lounge is a forum where we encourage people to do just that -- talk about whatever they want, get to know each other, chat, and have a good time.

The Lounge is not a harbinger of doom for the TSL on-line community. It's merely an attempt to make the boards more efficient for people to use. While many posters have the luxury of "parking" all day on the board and reading everything, most board readers do not have the time. They want to get in, check the board for Hokie sports news, and get out, without having to sift through a bunch of aimless "chatter." As a very busy person myself, I appreciate this viewpoint, so I reassigned the Community Board into the Lounge Board for this purpose.

I think that "off-topic" posts serve a very useful purpose and can be just as informative and entertaining as sports-related posts. They can also take over a message board, overwhelming it with such a plethora of discussions that you seem to lose sight of why the board was created in the first place (I've seen it happen to a lot of my favorite message boards around the Web.)

And let me point out that this change wasn't necessarily precipitated by anything that's going on right now -- this is the football and basketball off-season, and during this time, off-topic posts tend to dominate the board. I'm making the change at this point to get everyone used to it before the football season starts, and the fur starts to fly.

The creation of The Lounge and the renaming of the Main/Football board into just the Football board threw a lot of people for a loop. They suddenly wondered what was and wasn't appropriate on a "Football" board. It's very simple: keep doing what you were doing, just please take the totally non-sports related, non-VT related posts over to The Lounge. It's not a big deal right now, but everyone will appreciate it during football season. Let's test-drive it, and if things work out okay, we'll keep it. If not, we'll figure out something else.

Matters of More Importance

There are other board-related matters that are of more importance to me than the idea of shuffling discussions around on the boards, and I'd like to get to those matters now.

Recently, I've been appalled at the behavior of some of my message board posters towards each other, not so much on the board (that's bad enough), but some email discussions that I've been privy to amongst posters who have taken a dislike to each other.

While some of the developments are alarming (I've actually seen copies of email exchanges where posters essentially invite each other to "take this outside"), there's not much I can do to regulate what people say to each other once they're having a conversation off the board, nor would I want to. As long as you're off the board and out of the public eye, do as you please, it's not my business.

What bugs me more is a handful of posters who have decided they don't like each other, and they express their dislike by instigating each other, following each other around various boards, whether on TSL or elsewhere, and insulting each other without provocation. I don't like it, and 99.97% of the posters who watch these exchanges play themselves out over and over are getting pretty sick of it, too.

All this in the midst of a 22-2 run during the 1999 and 2000 seasons. I wonder what things would be like if the Hokies were 14-10 over that stretch.

The TSL boards are better than most, by far, but there's still too much ugliness on them. The current state of affairs goes back to the 1999 football season, and the incredible explosion of new posters that occurred during that Sugar Bowl season. We did the best we could to manage the crush of new posters and to integrate them into the existing base of posters, but there is only so much you can do to guide thousands of people, all of whom have different agendas, different levels of knowledge, and different levels of enthusiasm. It's like trying to herd cats.

Things calmed down after that football season and seemed to plateau, even during the Vick-hyped 2000 football season. But some behaviors still persist to this day, most notably the bitter personal dislikes that have developed amongst some posters.

Another facet of board life that is bothersome is the hostility shown towards new or infrequent posters who donít have the level of knowledge of hard-core Tech fans or heavy-duty board users. Many people who post only rarely on the boards tell me they avoid them because they're a little intimidated by what they perceive as a group of long-time regulars who jump down the throats of anyone who has a different opinion or who doesn't know their Tech sports fifteen levels deep.

I also get comments from people who are long-time users of the board, not newbies, who tell me that they don't like the attitude that is sometimes shown towards new or infrequent posters. They're disturbed by the behavior of just a few people, and they don't want the world at large to think that a few folks with an edgy attitude represent the opinion of the majority.

I agree on both counts, so in the coming months, as we head into the football season, I'll be patrolling for two types of posts: (1) personal attacks between two posters who don't like each other; and (2) nasty attitudes displayed towards new or infrequent posters who just want to ask a simple question, post a link they think is interesting, or make a comment.

Am I going to delete a post every time I see one of those two things occur? No. Sometimes I will, sometimes I'll just gently remind you to be nice. If you snap at another poster, and your post disappears, don't take it as some sort of statement I'm trying to make about you. Just move on. I'm not trying to regulate the way you think, I'm just trying to keep the boards a pleasant place to be.

Do I expect everyone to be "shiny happy people holding hands"? Of course not. But I do expect you to disagree with other people using facts and reasonable arguments, not by calling each other "idiots," real or implied.

Will I be fair every time in dealing with posts I don't like? Probably not. I donít play favorites among posters, but I will openly admit that if you have a long history of productive, interesting, thoughtful posts, I'll be more inclined to let you get away with something. It's called balance. If, on the other hand, I don't see you post very often, and when you do it's nasty, you're likely to get my attention.

Beyond that, don't forget that I'm human too, with moods that swing from day to day, so I don't always treat things equitably and fairly. A post that might not have bothered me on one given day may make me snap on another. Plus, I'm extremely busy, like you, and I don't see everything, so some things may slip through the cracks.

A General Guideline for Behavior

Whenever I counsel people on how to behave on the message board, I always pull out the old "party at Will's house" analogy.

Picture the message boards as a big gathering at Will's house. You walk in the door, and there's nothing there but Hokie fans. Over in the corner, there's some drunk, obnoxious Miami fan that Will didn't even invite, and he's yelling, "The Hokies are a bunch of chickens! Get a real football schedule! Last year, the Canes played Ö" You don't even hear the rest, because Will has just come over and "invited him to leave."

So you scan the room. There's a bunch of people here you don't know. One of them is someone you've never seen before, and he says, "Who's going to replace Temple in the Big East? I think we ought to add Navy." You think that's the dumbest thing you've ever heard, and you want to go over and say to the person, "What are you, stupid? The Big East doesn't need any more teams, particularly not one as terrible as Navy. Get a clue!" But it's Will's house, not yours, and you know that would upset Will, so you decide not to say anything and look for someone else to talk to.

Hmm, that small group of folks over there are talking about basketball (the Basketball board). You don't have any interest in that, but they sure know what they're talking about. Over there is a bunch of people talking about Survivor (The Lounge board), and another group is wondering what will happen to Napster (The Lounge board). Next to them are a couple of guys, and one of them is selling his Syracuse football game tickets to the other one (the Ticket Exchange board).

There's someone over there that you know and like, and she's talking about the Tech football schedule -- again (the Football board). Sheesh, you don't want to talk about that. Then you hear from somewhere else, "I donít know, I don't think Lee Suggs is going to score that many touchdowns this year. There's no way he can, not with Vick gone and a new offensive line."

Sounds pretty interesting, so you go over and join in the conversation. After a while, Hokie Frank, whom you absolutely cannot stand, butts in and says, "You guys are stupid. Suggs is awesome. You act like the new guys on the OL have never played before. Have you ever seen a Tech football game? Suggs gets 25 TD's this year, easy."

What a jerk. You were having a good conversation until he showed up. Your impulse is to tell him to get lost and stop following you around, but you know that would only make him more obnoxious, so you keep quiet. Next thing you know, Will glides by, pulls Frank aside, and he's not bothering you anymore.

So you hang around for a little while, talking about the OL and Suggs, and then you get a little bored with that and head over to the Survivor discussion, because they've just started talking about who's hotter, Amber or Elisabeth (it's Elisabeth, hands down, and did you know she's engaged to Boston College QB Tim Hasselbeck?). Two of the women are trying to get equal time, saying, "I think Colby's a cutie," and "Too bad Kel got voted off so early. He was good-looking, too."

You can't stay very long, but at least you got to talk about Tech football and Survivor. Not a bad party. As you leave, you notice that a lot of new people have come in, and a lot of other people have left. As usual, the regulars are there, and they'll probably be there all night. Overall, not a bad bunch of people. There's a few of them that you can't stand, but it was easy enough to avoid them. Getting hostile wouldn't serve any purpose, other than not getting invited to Will's next party.

Speaking of Will, he sure does have a lot of parties, you think. He looks tired. He should get some rest. No chance of that, though -- some ignorant UVa fan just walked in, droning on and on about how many years in a row the Cavaliers have won six games, and how Al Groh is going to dominate in-state recruiting. Looks like some VT fans are going to beat him up, and Will's getting ready to step in.

As for you, it's time to get back to work. Your boss is coming by, and he's not supposed to see you here.

Will Stewart is the founder and General Manager of TechSideline.com.  He writes the News and Notes section, game previews, and game reports for TSL, writes and edits for the TSL Extra, and generally runs the place with his prodigious and productive brain.


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