The shoutbox, as it relates to the Internet forum, is a feature, usually attached to the front page, which provides a space for a type of interaction similar to an instant messenger program in that there is more of an emphasis on synchronous communication. Also, since the shoutbox, by its very nature, so encourages spontaneous interaction between forum members, it is often viewed, especially by webmasters, with contempt for influencing the creation of messages of exceptionally meager value.
Indeed, the value of a shoutbox has, on numerous occasions, been made into a topic of discussion at webmaster forums. In such discussions, several arguments against the use of shoutboxes have been advanced, but the most substantive and common is, in my estimation, the assertion that the shoutbox siphons or robs member-generated content that would otherwise have been created as topics or posts.
That said, my intention is to show the following:
(1) the assertion that the shoutbox necessarily robs activity is specious at best,
(2) the other criticisms advanced against shoutbox use are merely window dressing, and
(3) there are ways to effectively minimize the perceived disadvantages of the shoutbox.
Countering The Main Argument
The problem with asserting that the shoutbox robs topics and posts is this: it simply assumes, without evidence, that, if the content was never posted in the shoutbox, it would have been posted as a topic, or reply to a topic. The assertion may, at first, seem self-evident: after all, the members visit and submit content, but with a shoutbox present, you may see them submit much of their content there while paying little attention to the topic listing area of the forum. This, in turn, creates the impression, in the observer’s mind, that the shoutbox offsets activity in the topic listing area.
What this ignores is that it is because the shoutbox is a different medium of communication that to compare it to the Internet forum’s topic and reply system is similar to comparing apples and oranges. The shoutbox, as I said, is more like an instant messenger program, which necessarily implies that the standard for starting topics is more relaxed, and so members who participate in it move from one topic to the next more freely and with little effort.
When it comes to participation in the topic listing area of the Internet forum, however, it is no secret that it is the administrator, or other staff members, who submit the majority of the topics, which means that the non-staff members (the overwhelming majority of an Internet forum’s population, hopefully), in comparison, rarely submit topics. Therefore, replies are limited to what topics already exist, which means that the majority of the topics created in the shoutbox are either nonexistent in the topic listing, or are not current.
Of course, it is not always the case that the administrator, or staff members, post the majority of topics, but this is very often the case for smaller Internet forums, especially the stand-alone, non-niche variety. This is important, too, since it is mostly these forums that struggle with activity that will have webmasters who care about activity being robbed from the topic listing area.
Also, since the shoutbox encourages such spontaneous interaction, and, as I said, allows participants to “move from one topic to the next more freely and with little effort”, it is wrong to assume that these topics would have occurred just as likely within the topic listing area, where there are more stringent rules or standards for communication; e.g., off-topic posting is more regulated, even in the off-topic section. Even if you have a “spam” section, moreover, this doesn’t encourage the same spontaneity as the shoutbox allows.
Finally, if a shoutbox really never encourages anything more than valueless interaction, why is it blamed for stopping valuable interaction from taking place in the topic listing area?
Countering Additional Arguments
It has been asserted that, all other considerations notwithstanding, the shoutbox remains redundant, as the Internet forum already provides several ways to communicate. Sure, there is the private messaging system, which is like the topic listing area except more personal. Also, depending on what Internet forum software you use, there is a visitor messaging area within each member’s profile, and that is more like the shoutbox except more private. There are certainly other means, but those two examples should suffice. My concern, in any case, is why a webmaster would cut down on the ways members may communicate. I already explained why I believe the shoutbox is a unique method of communication, so with that in mind, I wish to share the following short essay by Richard Millington, “It’s The Interactions That Matter Most”:
Make sure you’re always spending the overwhelming majority of time working on elements that directly increase the number of interactions in your community.
If you increase the number of interactions (comments, likes, ratings, blog posts, befriending etc..) your online community will be better. If the number of interactions decrease, your community will decline.
Don’t be sidetracked with writing guidelines, resolving petty disputes, writing metric reports. Spend your time on issues that directly affect the number of interactions. Spend your time stimulating discussions, reaching out to members, soliciting volunteers, arranging events, rewarding contributors.
The point is to get members to communicate, whatever the means, as long as it’s on the forum. It helps foster a sense of community, as members are more often communicating with each other and therefore quickly getting comfortable doing so.
Case in point: two members of my forum (“saturnword” and “Dhampir Boy”) “met” after registering years ago, and were most active in the topic listing area. They frequently had one-on-one conversations in the shoutbox, and visitor comments area of their respective profiles, before they recently moved in together in real life.
Although they were using the several methods of communication afforded to them by the Internet forum, furthermore, their activity in the topic listing area only increased. I theorize that this is because the relationship they struck up with each other also helped to foster a sense of affiliation with the forum, thereby increasing their desire to make use of it.
After all, the challenge of every administrator is to make a member more interested in visiting his Internet forum than in watching whatever is airing on the television. What better way to do that than to encourage a sense of camaraderie among the members?
Obtrusiveness, Or “Ugliness”
The shoutbox, as a product, exists as a plural, not a singular. For Internet forums alone, several coders have constructed their own version of the shoutbox, and each construction has its own features, benefits, and disadvantages. That said, many webmasters should have the option to change the height and width of the shoutbox they choose to implement, and may sometimes be able to make other changes based on aesthetic considerations.
Furthermore, these shoutboxes designed specifically for Internet forums do a better job integrating by virtue of having been created with a specific Internet forum’s code and construction in mind. With the many shoutboxes in existence for Internet forums, some expertly crafted and others not so much, the “look” of a shoutbox becomes more a matter of preference than one of any substantive standard like quality of integration.
A shoutbox may also be considered intrusive because it was placed near the top of the forum’s front page, but this is usually the choice of the administrator, who should be able to place it near the bottom where it is may still be noticed, but doesn’t demand attention.
Webmasters: Tips For Shoutbox Implementation
Much of what I wish to say here was alluded to in the previous section, but it may bare repeating. If you want to add a shoutbox to your Internet forum, first of all, try to find one that was made with the software you’re using specifically in mind, as it is more likely to look more “natural” with the styles you’re using.
Additionally, you want to keep the shoutbox from featuring too prominently on your Internet forum’s front page, so be conservative with its height, and make sure to allow members to minimize or close it.
Lastly, I would make the shoutbox viewable only to members, as it should only be of concern to members anyway, and is unlikely to help with guests’ first impressions.
I don’t think the shoutbox is necessarily much of a positive or a negative; rather, it’s but a minor perk. At my forum, which runs on vBulletin, the shoutbox is near the bottom of the front page, just above the “What’s Going On?” box. I couldn’t care less if the box was even lower than that, but its current location is fine. I do not like it near the top because I want the welcome message, sample topics, and forum list to be foremost in catching one’s eye.
By posting new topics with my own substantive input whenever I can, I help maintain the activity of the sections of my forum. Along those lines, the idea is to start (or revive) topics on a regular basis so that there’s at least content for members to look at (and look forward to). If you’re not doing that, perhaps the reason why it feels like the shoutbox is sucking away activity is because there isn’t much activity there in the first place