Forums are odd entities. They tend to bring out territoriality in their members, even though they don't even exist in a physical sense. The idea that you can belong to a forum is really silly when you think about it. A group of people post comments on a web page; everything about it is mutable: for a start, the members may not even be real people at all. Unless you have met them in the flesh how can you know for sure? Sock puppets and fake IDs are more common than you'd expect. And if they are real, what is it that binds you to them other than some half baked opinions?
I've been trolling around the Internet for - well, too long. I've been a member of many writers' forums and I've noticed characteristics they all share, although they invariably claim to be unique and special:
- They all claim to be the best and rubbish the competition.
- They all have cliques even if they strenuously deny it, and they usually do.
- They all have trolls and flamers even if the strenuously deny it, and they usually do.
- They all demand loyalty to the forum and frown on any individualistic behaviour that threatens it, like making negative comments elsewhere online.
- They all have some sort of pecking order despite claiming to be democratic, which they usually do.
Not only do we buy this, we lap it up - we go looking for it. Human beings seem to need the discipline of a set order even if it's only illusory. Perhaps that's the reason we're only too happy to give up our freedom; anything is better than the chaos of reality.
But the worst aspect of forums is the Groupthink, that zombie trance of blind obedience where people act as one monstrous entity. Somehow the monster grows, feeding off mutual flattery, steered by a few dominant personalities until the members find themselves collaborating in behaviour they wouldn't dream of doing in real life. Bullying is the most obvious expression of this, but it can take many forms.
A kind of swaggering one-upmanship can come into play. I've witnessed Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen-style contests on the most bizarre topics, like who was the most abused by a former boss, or who's written the nastiest Amazon review. At some point you hope they will wake up and have a "what was I thinking?" moment, but I wouldn't bet on it, especially if they've taken the precaution of hiding their true identity to give themselves carte blanche in the bitchiness stakes.
I was warned off writers' forums some years ago by a published author who noted that she didn't know any successful writers who bothered with them. And it's true, the people who really could give you useful help and advice don't seem to inhabit these enclaves. These days I do more lurking than posting - some kind of sentimental attachment stops me deleting my accounts altogether, and they are after all a fascinating study in group behaviour and self-delusion. But I no longer believe in the Rules, the grand sounding promotional material, the self-aggrandisement. Writers shouldn't belong anywhere if they truly want to have their own voice.