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Documentation > General Documentation > Webtop > Forums

Forums

posted on 11:44 AM, January 4, 2012

Introduction to Forums

Forums are places where your website visitors can engage in discussions on topics of their choosing.

In the simplest case, you simply create a single discussion forum, and your visitors can go there to post comments on any topic. If your forums draw a lot of traffic, the number of different subject areas that get mixed together can be confusing. In this case, it may help to create multiple forums, each devoted to a particular topic. In this way, visitors have an easier time finding discussions of interest to them. If you create too many topical forums too see at a glance, it may become hard to quickly identify a particular topic of interest. In this case, it may help to add one more level of organization: categories that individual forums can be grouped together in.

Creating a Forum

The easiest way to set up a Forum is to use the Forums plug-in. This is a simplified variant of the E-Zine plug-in, designed especially for forums. (You can also use the E-Zine plug-in, which will give more options and controls than are described below, but it will also include additional options that are not pertinent to Forums.)

Using the Forums plug-in, click Create a new Forum. If you have defined some categories to group your forums, you can select one here. If not, don't worry about it, just select "no category", and press Continue.

Next, enter the title of your forum, and submit. If you are making a simple forum, call it something like "General Discussion Forum", but if you are making multiple topical forums, specify the topic in your title. Once you submit, your forum is ready, and can start accepting posts.

Forum Categories

If you have a large number of forums (10 or more) you may want to break them into groups for easier browsing. First you must add some categories - use the + add category link when creating a new forum.

Enter the category name/title, and click submit. Then go back to create a new forum, and you will find your new category there.

Note: a forum category is considered as a "book" in the lower-level e-Zines subsystem. If you have other books defined, those will also show up as possible categories for your forums. Just ignore any books that do not belong in your forum listings - they will not be shown if there are no forums categorized with them.

By default, categories and forums are sorted alphabetically by their title. To change the sort order of forums, configure the forum and add a "sortkey" to use for alphabatic sorting instead of the title. (You can do the same for categories, but you must use the E-Zines tool to access the categories.)

Posting to the Forum

Enter the forum by clicking on its title in the forum directory. Then click the comment button to add a new post. You will be prompted for the following information:

Field Description 
From  This is your name. Depending on whether you are logged in, and whether the website allows it, you may be able to edit this to change your poster name. 
Subject  This may be set with a default subject, but you can replace it with any subject line.
Comment  This is the body of your post. Enter it in plain text. See auto-formatting below for information on how your post will be formatted for display. 
Attachments  Some forums will allow you to include pictures with captions on your posts. 

Replies

Replying to another post works the same way. The previous post may be quoted for your convenience. Delete the parts of the quoted text that are not relevant to your reply. Use the quote button to (re-)copy the previous post back into your reply.

Auto-formatting

Comments are generally posted in plain text, but they are formatted for presentation in the following ways:
  • The comment text is converted to HTML by adding line breaks whereever you entered a carriage-return.
  • If the forums allow HTML to be entered directly into posts, safe HTML (such as text styles and hyperlinks) will be allowed. Unsafe HTML will be blocked, however. The forums will attempt to fix broken HTML such as unclosed tags.
  • Your emoticons (smileys) will be converted to a graphical form, if emoticons are enabled.
  • URLs will be converted to hyperlinks, if automatic hyperlinking is enabled.
  • Quoted text may be styled differently.
Note that the forums do not require or expect that posters know specialized forum markup syntaxes such as BBcode or markdown. Formatting codes in those formats will not be acknowledged.

Attachments

Forums can be configured to allow attachments on posts. If allowed, users may attach images only to their posts. However, this can create a significant burden on the website in some cases, so it is not allowed by default.

Non-iomage attachments can also be allowed if you add the following configuration setting to your Forum configuration file:

allow_documents = 1

However, this is a dangerous practice because it means anyone can add any kind of file to your website. This brings with it the same problems as e-mail attachments, since some of these files may include viruses and malware. These files can also add up and create a significant storage burden. Non-image attachments are not recommended for most forums.

Indexes

The index is the listing of current discussions under each forum. There are several popular index types for displaying forums:
  • Threaded
    This displays all conversations (threads) in a nested format, so that replies are displayed indented right under their parents. The newest threads are shown on top, with older threads starting farther down the page.

  • Semi-threaded
    This displays all conversations in summary form in a table. Each thread takes one row in this table. The subject of the first post in the thread is shown as the subject of the thread, and a summary of the activity on the thread is also shown. When you click into a particular thread, you can view all the posts in threaded mode, like above.
There are other index types as well, but non-threaded formats are not good for maintaining the structure of the conversation, and are not recommended for forums.

To change the index type, use the configure button under the forum title.

Archiving

The forum automatically expires old articles and threads into your archive area. Readers can click the archive button at the end of the forum to find older articles.

Articles are automatically archived based on the following forum configuration parameters:

Parameter  Default  Description 
Indexlimit  25  If there are more than this number of posts/threads in the forum, the oldest ones will be moved to the archive. 
Indexage  60  Posts or threads that are older than this will be moved to the archive. 
Indexmin  5  The minimum number of posts or threads that will be kept in the main index, regardless of the above settings. 

The first two parameters can be customized for your forum, using the configure button for the forum. The last parameter is a system setting, which can be configured in your forum configuration file by the webmaster.

In addition to automatic archiving, you can explicitly archive posts that you want to expire ahead of time. To do this, use the configure button for the comment, and change the comment status to "archived".

Removing Posts

If you want to remove posts from the forum, you have a few options.
  1. Delete the post - this moves the post and all of its attachments and replies, into the trash.
  2. Disable the post (ie. set its status to "inactive") - do this using the "configure" button under the post. This keeps the post in the system so that you have a record of it, and can reactivate in the future if you want. However, only you can see the article. Disabled articles are shown to you with a lock icon.
  3. Archive the article (ie. set its status to "archived") - do this using the "configure" button under the article. This keeps the article viewable in the system, but will remove it from the forum index. It (along with its replies) can only be seen in the archives.

Notifications

E-mail notifications can be sent out when new posts are made. Notifications must be enabled in the Forum configurations, using the following setting:

notify = 1

This will send a notification to the person whose post was replied to. If it is a top-level post (new thread), the notification will go to the owner (moderator) of the forum.

Notifications will also go to the moderator if pre-moderation is turned on (see below).

Moderation

Moderation is a form of censorship, allowing you to approve or reject comments made in the forums. There are two methods:

Post-moderation means you moderate comments after they are posted. They will appear on your site, but if you don't approve of them, you simply go in and remove them in the same way you would remove a post (see above). Post moderation has a few advantages:
  1. It is very easy because comments are approved by default.
  2. Comments go live quickly, which encourages discussion.
This is the default method of moderating comments.

Pre-moderation means you moderate comments before they are posted for public view. Nobody sees the comments until you have moderated them. Your webmaster must enable moderation on forums (or on certain forums only) using a setting like this in the Forum configuration file:

forum.comment.status = pending

Then each new comment will require your approval before it goes live. You can moderate (approve/deny) comments from your administrator view, or from your email. The advantage here is that inappropriate comments can never sneak onto the live forum without your explicit approval. Denied comments are kept on file, and you can always change your mind and approve them again at a later time.

When viewing your forum in an administrator view, active (apporoved) comments are shown with a green check icon, while pending (unmoderated) comments are shown with a flashing warning icon, and rejected comments are shown with a red stop icon. You will see approve and reject options on any comments that the system thinks you might want to moderate. If you want to re-moderate a comment that does not show these options, go to the configure button, and set the status using the drop-down selector.

You also have the option of setting a forum to be members-only, so that only logged-in users of your website can post to it. This can be done using the comment policy setting when configuring the forum.

Presenting the Forum

Creating the forum and adding some posts to it may not be enough to actually present the forum to the public. This is because your website needs to know where the forum should be placed and how it should be styled.

Publishing the Forum

The forum must be added to a web page for it to be viewable to the readers of your site. Choose the page that will contain the forum directory, or create it, using your preferred CMS tool (eg. "My Website"). Edit the body of this page, and use the Web Application tool in the HTML editor to insert the "Forum" plug-in. It will offer you a choice of forums to insert into the page; select default to insert the main forum index. This page is now the location of your forums on the website. It can be given a title, menu label, and position in your site map that is appropriate.

The forums page should be dynamic or private (members-only), so that it updates automatically.

Design and Layout

Forums are output with lots of HTML code to allow them to be styled in different ways. In the administrator view there is some basic CSS that styles the appearance of the forum to make it readable, but in the webpage that you use to display the forum, you may not have any such CSS. You will want to add the necessary CSS code to your template to make your forums presentable.

There is a Forum.css file that is used in the adminsitrator view, which can be studied for ideas on how to style your forums. There is also some help documentation in the E-Zine plug-in that gives some general descriptions of the CSS structure of E-Zines, including Forums.