In a kind of virtual community like the NSW Sea Kayak Club where due to ‘missing’ club premises not all members can come together on a regular basis, an information and communication platform plays an even more important role than for members of a tennis or golf club. While the latter meet every now and then on the tennis court or golf links to exchange information, an email based communication channel called ‘The Chatline’ used to bridge the gap in our club. It provided a means for NSWSKC members to inform others about one-off events, get questions answered, or discuss various topics. However, the email medium showed some weaknesses: more and more members got annoyed by the flood of sometimes unsolicited emails, and the missing possibility to archive old questions and answers resulted in endless reiterations of the same topics over and over again.
In January this year a web-based forum was established overcoming these issues. So far, approx. 100 members have subscribed to the new site, which got dubbed the ‘Chatline’. As it stands at the moment, many paddlers are hesitant to join in, mostly due to reservations about the new, unknown technical medium. But web-based discussion boards are established these days, and hundreds of millions of people worldwide share their thoughts via them. So you might want to read on and get some ideas about what it is all about.
How is the forum set up?
In order to save costs during the evaluation phase and keep the administration burden on your Internet Coordinator as low as possible, the forum is run as a free service by a provider in the US, ProBoards.com. ProBoards.com is currently hosting more than 1.2 million message boards with almost 11 million registered users (and many more non-registered ones). Their business model is based on advertising revenue from each forum site hosted by them. These ads are related to the content of the forum. So in our case, you will find kayaking-related advertisements, usually at the top of a page.
The Chatline is subdivided into several sections (“boards”): There are those dealing with equipment (like ‘Let’s Talk Kayaks’ or ‘Paddling and Camping Gear’), those focussing on “The Human Factor” (for instance ‘Health, Safety, and Fitness’), and others allowing members to inform others about some events (‘Looking for Paddling Partner’ and ‘Trip Reports’ are good examples). The forum is completed by ‘Have Your Say’, where Club members can let the Committee (and others) know where the shoe pinches, and by ‘Great Gear and Bargain Buys’. On this board paddlers let others know about specials, discounts and sales in kayaking and camping gear shops.
These sections, all in all 11 in number, can be found at http://nswskc.proboards36.com. However, non-registered visitors won’t get any further than the index page. Once they attempt to enter any board and read the postings in there, they will be prompted for their username and password. So the first question is…
How do I register?
Simple! Just go to our Club’s web site http://www.nswseakayaker.asn.au/about/chatline.htm and complete the application form. You only have to specify your name, email address, and a username (“alias”) which you want to use to login to the forum. Once this has been done, the Club’s Internet Coordinator will set up your account and inform you on completion. This is usually done within one to three days.
Your first logon
As mentioned above you will get informed when your account has been created. Furthermore, in a separate e-mail, you will be emailed an activation code and your initial password. Why a separate email? Due to security reasons. And why the activation code? It is necessary to validate your email address. Otherwise, somebody else might have registered you under your name. But don’t worry – you will need this code only when logging on for the very first time. Afterwards, username and password will be sufficient.
Entering the cryptical activation code is easy because you can just click a link given in the email and don’t have to manually type the code in the box provided on the forum. Once you have done this you will be registered for posting.
How do I read posts, and what else can I do with them?
Start at the index page http://nswskc.proboards36.com, and then select the board you want to view. Even before following any link you will easily see how many topics are discussed in a particular board, how many posts it contains, and whether there are any that you haven’t yet read (this is indicated by a small folder icon that has a blue dot on it).
Once you have entered a board (by clicking on its name) you will see a list of all the discussion threads on the board. To read a message, you need to click on the subject of the message. The initial question starting the discussion and all replies will then be displayed as a list in chronological order.
And this is where it gets more interesting. In addition to just reading a thread you have many more options: participate in the discussion, i.e. reply to a post; let others know about the topic; or subscribe to it so you get notified whenever there is a new opinion being posted.
To reply to a message, click the “reply” button at the top or bottom of the page that the post is on. This will take you to a form that you can use to reply to that post.
Alternatively, a reply box will appear at the bottom of the list of posts. You can quickly type your reply and submit it from there, but without being able to make use of the many formatting features the first reply option offers (like bold or coloured text, inserting links and much more).
If you would like to email a friend about a discussion that is going on, you can easily do so. Simply click the “send topic to friend” link at the top of the page, enter your friend’s email address, and they will be emailed a link to the page you were reading. But keep in mind that they have to be registered members in order to get access to the site and especially the topic you pointed them to.
Finally, once you have clicked the “bookmark” link in the lower left corner, you will get notified by email whenever there is a new reply to this particular topic. To unsubscribe from this notification service choose “remove bookmark”.
How do I create a topic?
On the page that lists all of the posts on a board, you will see an icon in the top right that says “new thread.” By clicking this icon you can post a new message on the board.
This is done via an easy form. Basically, you only have to specify the subject of your discussion and type in your question in the ‘Message’ field. But of course there is more. Many small buttons right above this field let you format text, insert hyperlinks or pictures and much more.
For instance, clicking the button marked “B” will insert these funny character combination into your message: “[b][/b]”, meaning that everything that you write between the “[b]” and the “[/b]” will be displayed in bold characters. Give it a go and play around a bit. There is a preview option, so nobody will ever know about your first attempts unless you finally post them via the respective bottom.
What other features are there?
There are too many to list them all. But a must-see is your profile section which is accessible by clicking the corresponding link on each page header. It lets you specify a lot of information about who you are, where you live and so on. Of course it’s up to you whether you make this information visible to other members or hide it (but then it doesn’t make much sense to fill out the section, does it?) Be assured, once you release these details they still can only be seen by other registered members. For instance this feature actually provides a nifty way to find some like-minded people in your area.
Very important is the Change Password functionality provided in the profile section as well. It’s highly recommended to alter the initial one sent to you by email ASAP.
Also only one click away is the members section (link next to the button “profile”). Depending on what information other Chatliners released for the community, you will find this here. Furthermore, a small icon let’s you send them a personal message which is only visible to them. Your personal messages are always accessible via the respective link on top of the page next to the Chatline banner. A notification email will be sent to the recipient of a personal message so s/he won’t miss out even if s/he does not come along daily.
More useful tips
- If you are the only person using your computer and tend to forget your Chatline password this might be a nice feature for you: On the Login page http://nswskc.proboards36.com/index.cgi?action=login there is a selection box “Stay logged in for”. Just choose “Forever” and you don’t have to bother about your username or password any more.
- Did you forget your username or password? You can get a new one sent to you via the Retrieve Password page at http://nswskc.proboards36.com/index.cgi?action=forgotpassword. This page is accessible from the Login page.
How do I know if a new post has been made?
You must be a registered user and logged in. On the index page, a folder icon that has a blue dot on it will be displayed if a board has posts you haven’t read on it. On the individual boards, a “NEW” icon will be placed next to threads you have not read yet.
If you only come along occasionally, you don’t have to browse all the boards for new topics. Instead you can find a condensed version on what has happened over the last couple of days behind the link “View the 10 most recent posts of this forum” at the bottom of the index page.
- The help pages which are accessible via the respective link in the header bar of the page are a useful resource in case you have any questions on how to use the forum.
All the information provided in this article might appear overwhelming even though it probably does not represent half of the functionalities available. On the other hand you don’t need any of them. So don’t be put off by the virtually endless list of formatting possibilities and colours, different fonts, moving text and similar baubles in a post.
Don’t feel constrained to copy or even exceed them. Select the features you consider useful for you, register, and join the discussion. You will soon realise that it’s quite fun to muck about, but please keep in mind that it is the content that’s the most important. There are so many members having lots of questions, and so many others with a wealth of experience to share. The Chatline provides the chance to bring them together. So get out there and join this virtual community today.