What makes a successful investment bulletin board?

Originally written for Chapter 3 of the book (but removed in editing)

Properties of successful bulletin boards

Operating his own bulletin board, Nigel has thought about the conceptual ingredients of successful online discussion communities.  Most popular boards have most of the following properties.

Pseudonymity: Many people do not want their postings, particularly on a sensitive topic such as personal investments, to be searchable by employers or casual acquaintances, or even family members. 

Persistent identity: Although pseudonymity is desirable for privacy reasons, any meaningful discussion amongst users requires some form of persistent identity, that is, a stable one-to-one mapping of aliases to users.

Reputation systems: Most communities have features facilitating the association of reputations with users, for example

  • displaying a user’s cumulative count of posts;
  • searching all of a user’s past posts;
  • showing users’ votes (up or down) for particular posts or users.

‘Threading’ of discussions: Posts on a particular topic need to be displayed in a single chronological ‘thread’, with posts on other topics filtered out. Various forms of threading exist, including ‘semi-threading’ and ‘full-threading’. 

Search function: An ability to search for posts by criteria such as user name or stock ticker code or date of post or any keyword.

Moderation: Any community needs moderators or ‘super-users’ who police other users, applying a scale of sanctions (eg warning, temporary ban, permanent ban) to those who are judged to be disruptive. 

Private messaging: This allows any user to enter into two-way ‘off-board’ communication with another user, without compromising the anonymity of the users’ real-world identities.

Most of these requirements can be met by free software.  Siites running on proprietary software don't significantly improve the user experience, which has not changed much in the past ten years. Improving the user interface of bulletin boards is hard design problem. 

Moderation is the trickiest of these requirements. Disruptive users generally use a site exactly as intended from a technical perspective, so moderation is difficult to automate: substantial human judgment is unavoidable, but also contentious, because one person’s robust discussion is another person’s disruptive behaviour. 

Free to users. Successful boards are either completely free sites run as non-commercial ventures by enthusiasts such as Nigel, or else ‘freemium’ models: a free basic service, with income generated from advertising and user charges for optional services such as Level 2 prices. This is counter-intuitive to many users, but operators who have tried charging - for example ADVFN in its early years - have found that the fraction of users willing to pay even a small charge to use a BB is extremely small.  For an online community, the only sustainable price is free.

Guy Thomas Monday 14 February 2011 at 4:09 pm | | Default
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