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Online Forum Membership – Is It For You?

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by  Heather Pears

Are you lonely because you don’t know anyone else who collects pet rocks? You don’t need to be alone; chances are there is an internet forum for people who love to talk about pet rocks.

That might seem a silly example but on the internet there is a forum, or discussion board, for almost any topic you can think of. People like to talk about things and share ideas and an internet forum is one of the places that allows you to do that.

Naturally there are the sceptics who claim that friendships made online aren’t “real”. Not too long ago I wrote an article called “The Email Craze”. In that article I outlined some of the drawbacks to an email relationship and they apply to forum friendships as well. There is no face-to-face interaction so cues from body language, facial expression and tone of voice are missing. That means that there is more chance of misunderstanding what the other person is saying. And sometimes you run into people who don’t tell the truth about themselves. That kind of thing can happen when you are meeting someone new in person, too. There is also a lot of media attention about how internet use is becoming an addiction and that it is replacing the traditional, in-person relationship.

Those negatives do need to be considered when pursuing any kind of online relationship but there are some positive things about being part of a forum. You don’t need to have an unusual hobby to want to find people with similar interests; you can be part of a community, a “family”. That feeling of belonging is an attractive one. Another benefit of any forum is the access to a diverse range of opinions and ideas. People aspire to bigger and better things when they have the opportunity to share ideas, online or in person.

There is no doubt that “in-person” relationships are fulfilling and necessary to human beings but there can be many reasons why those connections fail to be made. I’m reminded of my early years as a teacher. I was teaching in a remote, small rural community. I was lonely, there was no one who shared my interests and I often craved conversation about things that mattered to me. That is when I really got to know the internet. I didn’t become a recluse, I made friends in my new home, but those dark, cold nights in January went by a lot faster when I could chat with my online pals.

There are also a lot of shy people out there who are more comfortable with an online format than face-to-face conversation. A forum is a good place to practice conversation skills. Some studies have even speculated that there may be some benefit to people with Asbergers syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders. People with these disorders are overwhelmed by conversations but the slow pace and impersonal nature of forums might make them a useful therapy tool.

Forums are really useful for language learners as well. You can find a forum to help polish your skills and you can even use them to work on more specialized language. Perhaps you’re an engineer who speaks Arabic and you have moved to an English speaking country. An engineers’ forum could help you learn the language of your profession. There are English language forums devoted to word games, current events, sports, etc. Talking about something you really like is a great way to improve your language skills.

Human beings connect with others on many levels; we instinctively need the contact of other human beings. It’s crucial to our sense of self. But anyone who has been entranced by a good book can attest to the power of words. A forum discussion can be compared to a book in some ways. I say that the best approach is to find a healthy balance between your online life and your “real” life; enjoy what each has to offer.