Mac users are described alternately as mindless zealots and as nitpicky whiners, often by the same critics. What these critics fail to recognize is that devotion and criticism are opposite sides of the same coin. When you care about something- really care about it-you want to make it better. And criticism, even if it's a bit shrill at times, is about the only way a user can make a difference.
One thing is for sure: Mac users are never at a loss for ideas on improving the Mac experience.
So when Macworld.com's new online forums opened for business in January, we decided to try something a little risky . . . foolhardy, some would say. Rather than making an educated guess about what our readers wanted from a Macworld article, we decided to make real live readers part of our story-development process. We invited them to tell us what features they wanted us to test and what topics they wanted us to cover. Honestly, I was a little worried that we might be setting ourselves up for a heap of trouble. After all, how could we possibly hope to satisfy thousands of Mac users' seemingly unquenchable thirst for detail?
But, throwing caution and common sense to the wind, we went ahead and did it anyway. To my delight and surprise, the resulting flood of input was astounding.
These new forums weren't our first foray into the community interaction business. Previously, we've used Web BBS, the same software still in use at MacCentral, which lets users attach comments to the bottom of stories. But because story forums aren't connected to one another, have a fairly wooden interface, and are populated by anonymous posters, they didn't offer a strong base for community development. It was a great soapbox for shouting matches, but not for constructive, ongoing conversations.
This first experience with Web-based discussion taught us some valuable lessons, especially that online communities are fragile things-hard to start and just as hard to maintain. You must have the right environment and the right ingredients. You need to build a discussion area that's designed to attract only the kinds of conversation you want to see. In this case, forum does follow function.
We ultimately settled on InfoPop's Ultimate Bulletin Board (UBB) software, which offers a clean, easy-to-use interface and a rich set of features, from emoticons and support for embedded URLs to the ability to forward a forum string to a friend. And most important, UBB can require users to register (with a real e-mail address) before they contribute. By setting up that simple and slight barrier, we were able to create a place where Mac users could interact safely, with a drastically reduced fear of being attacked.
Once this foundation was set, we needed to get people to talk. But how could we break the ice?
It Takes an iVillage
Right around the time this was happening, Apple announced a replacement for the venerable PowerBook G3, the sleek new Titanium PowerBook G4.
Take Macworld 's shiny new forums and combine them with thousands of users practically frothing at the mouth for details on the new PowerBook, and you're one good topic away from an explosion.
Enter Apple. Thanks to tremendous backlogs and a slow start at the factory producing the new models, two weeks after the Titanium PowerBook G4 was announced, there were only five of the portables in California. And Macworld Lab had one of them. Inspired by Brett Larson, a Macworld editor who has been using Mac OS X since September and writing about it in a series of online diaries, I decided to write a series of PowerBook G4 diaries. My first stop: the Portable Macs and Handhelds area of the Macworld.com forums, where I announced that we'd received one of the rare PowerBooks and asked users what they wanted to know.
The resulting flood of input was constructive and helpful. Using the input of forum contributors, combined with my long PowerBook history, I generated a series of articles that were so in-depth and so laden with photographs that one wag at the Web log Plastic.com referred to it as "almost pornographic." When it came time to create the cover story of this very issue, I ended up generating perhaps the most thoroughly researched article I've ever participated in . . . and I've been reviewing PowerBooks since they were first introduced.
Perhaps more impressively, what started as an exchange between me and a handful of PowerBook fans quickly developed into a vast community of users exchanging everything from tips on where to get RAM cheap to discussions of bugs, design flaws, and which bag best accessorizes that shiny new portable. Literally thousands of people joined the Macworld.com forums in the next 30 days, and those diaries are some of the most-read stories we've ever run on the Web.
This is just one example of how the forums have ended up being a remarkable exchange of information. Our Mac 911 columnist, Christopher Breen, leads an extremely active series of troubleshooting areas. And the aforementioned Mr. Larson presides over some feisty debates about Mac OS X.
Needless to say, you can expect us to be doing a lot more of these diaries on Macworld.com. Even more important than finding a compelling new form of Web content-the interactive Lab test-was finding a wonderful new way to engage the Mac community and to help make the stories we create for them more thorough, more complete, and more specific to what they want to know. Before, we'd get a chance to really hear from our readers at Macworld Expo and on a few other occasions throughout the year. Now we can talk to you every day. And that's going to allow us to do our job-providing the Mac community with good information-better than ever before.
ANDREW GORE is Macworld's editor in chief. To comment on this column, go to Macworld.com and type Vision Thing in the Search box. Visit our forums by clicking on the Forums button at the top of any Macworld.com page.