Where does the "totally off topic" section come from?
September 10, 2011 5:15 PM   Subscribe

Where did the online message board (like phpbb) convention of having a "totally off topic" section with subforums for stuff "Politics and Current Event" and "Family" come from?

I always thought that it was part of the default template you get when you install phpbb, but that does not seem to be the case. It's a smart idea to have them, obviously, but the total ubiquity seems like there must be some sort of common source? Let's say I wanted to start from a common, time-honored basic template, where would I find one?
posted by lalalana to Technology (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience it springs originally from USENET, where the convention for titling your unrelated post was to preface it with "OT: blah blah blah." Unrelated posts are as inevitable as the rising sun. As is the ire their existence evokes.

As a forum moderator, I can tell you that you will never be rid of that battle. The best you can hope for is a detente where OT posts go in the OT subforum, so that everyone else quits bitching about it.
posted by ErikaB at 5:43 PM on September 10, 2011

I had no idea there was any official precedent for it! I'll be following this thread with interest.

That said, it sort of seems like common sense, no? I created one for the forum I run when it became clear that as people hang out on a forum, they come to know each other and want to discuss with each other random everyday stuff, breaking news, etc. It just seemed like the only way to keep unrelated topics from potentially overwhelming other discussions on the main part of the message board, which is dedicated to a relatively specific subject...
posted by artemisia at 6:12 PM on September 10, 2011

Response by poster: Great responses...
Excited to read more.

When you guys come up with off topic sub-forums, how do you decide what to include?
posted by lalalana at 6:18 PM on September 10, 2011

Remember what the bb in phpbb stands for. USENET was certainly part of the evolution of the message board concept but the answer to your question has to lie somewhere in the domain of the BBS. A historian of BBSs might be able to answer specifically but with the way BBS software was able to organize and display categories and subcategories I feel like that has to contain your answer.
posted by Edogy at 6:44 PM on September 10, 2011

I would also venture to say it started back in the BBS days. I certainly remember seeing such sections.
posted by 2manyusernames at 7:09 PM on September 10, 2011

I'm going to address just this part:

Let's say I wanted to start from a common, time-honored basic template, where would I find one?

If there is one rule of starting up Internet forums, it is this: Create fewer than you think you need. Split those when one topic starts to dominate.

Otherwise you end up with a bunch of forums with hardly any posts in them and a sense that no-one else is there. Given the same amount of traffic, fewer forums = more posts per forum, and more posts per forum gives the impression of (and, maybe, is) a healthier, more active community.

Me, if I were starting a forum site, I would start with one forum, and then only split that up when it gets overwhelming. I mean, you might even find that off-topic posts just don't really happen for the first six months or so, which wouldn't be that surprising because those tend to come when people on the forum start to hang out there for the people rather than for the subject matter.
posted by mendel at 7:37 PM on September 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

The idea of having a specific place for offtopic chatter was definitely common on BBSs (as Edogy and 2manyusernames say). IRC networks also often have some channels dedicated to being offtopic. I don't think the custom really existed on USENET— sure, there were conventions for tagging offtopic threads, and *.misc groups, and various totally freeform social groups in alt. or talk., but those aren't quite the same thing. When USENET was healthy it was comprehensive enough that any open discussion would be on-topic somewhere; and a closed group discussion is more sensibly conducted by email.
posted by hattifattener at 12:21 AM on September 11, 2011

I would suggest that the "off-topic" and "politics" sub-forums come from a need for the mods and admins to keep conversations on-topic. An off-topic thread...or a thread that veers off-topic...can overwhelm a forum, so it makes for good housekeeping to segregate certain topics away from the main focus of the forum. This has been especially true post-Bush and post 9/11.

For instance, I'm a mod for a Mac owners' forum, and we have a separate politics sub-forum, because we realized that allowing heated political arguments to explode willy-nilly throughout the forums has a negative effect on the overall tenor and focus of the forums. It's worked-out great. The members keep their debates in the Politics subforum and understand there are penalties for bringing the bile out into the general forums.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:12 AM on September 11, 2011

This seems like an evergreen thing that arises naturally out of discussions, and not something that it would make sense to track the history of, at least not on a chart you'd draw arrows implying X begat Y. If it were forgotten today, it would be reinvented tomorrow.

Most phpbbs are set up with a single pretty narrow interest, sometimes very specific subcategories of sports or music or whatever. Let's say it's mufflers. So you have a site full of people who love to talk about mufflers, who can talk mufflers with each other for hours. This is what they love, talking mufflers. This is what the board is for, this is the special thing that needs protecting. Mufflertalk.com must not fail.

But people who love mufflers come from all walks of life. Anyone who loves mufflers is welcome on mufflertalk. Now you've got a community of people who sort of like one another and like talking to each other who are almost guaranteed to have widely divergent views about things that don't concern mufflers. So MufflerMan1963 wants to tell his fellow community members about why Obama is the Antichrist. And some of them may want to say otherwise. They will want to talk about these things MORE with each other because they already share that uniting shallow interest. They love MufflerMan1963 when he talks about mufflers. He's not some crazy stranger.

So these people have a strong interest in talking to one another but they have a strong interest in preserving the ability to share their love of muffler-talkin'.

You can have a policy of We Don't Talk About Those Things Here, but this goes against the feelings of community and family. And you will often have people sniping, coming up to the edge of discussable behavior to make their point then retreating back with the other side unable to answer, or trying to sneak in a counter-punch before the hammer falls. If your site is small or well-behaved this might not happen so often and be acceptable. But on many sites it will not be enough and the policy will not work.

The next solution that will occur to anyone is to shunt the toxic stuff to another part of the discussion area. Still within the community, nominally, but not inside the feasting hall. And that's where off-topic subfora come from.

Anyway, If you are starting a new board, just start with a single off-topic forum at most. Don't worry about getting all policies right from the beginning. Or rather, commit to the only known working policy which is to stay involved and respond to the needs of the forum as it grows, preserve the thing that makes it work in the first place. And hire jessamyn.
posted by cold dead hans at 10:08 AM on September 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

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