Travel Forums can be great places. You need a tip on where to go in a particular country, where to stay, or just want general information they are the place to go for the most up-to-date information. My favorite is Lonely Planet's Thorntree forum; it gets the most traffic and you can be assured of an answer to even the weirdest or most specific question within a short period of time.
As a blogger, besides being a treasure trove of information, forums are a great place to bring traffic to your site. Posting on forums - where you answer a question and include a link to your site - is the easiest way to actively bring "real" people to your site ("real" people meaning those outside the blogging community). You want real people; they take their time on your site and give you the best feedback. Nothing is more rewarding to a blogger.
On the flip side, forums bring out all the uglies that permeate much of news and social media these days; the ones who want to spout hatred, create conflict, or just have it in mind that they want to ruin everything for everyone else. Others are just know-it-alls, people who use news/social media as their pulpit and who shoot down anyone they don't agree with.
This post is meant primarily for people who enter travel forums, some for the first time, in the hopes of getting or sharing information in a positive way. It is also for other bloggers who want to use forums to boost their traffic. I'll highlight some of the uglies that they'll encounter and how I personally deal with it. This post is also directed at the uglies. If you read this you may come to the realization that you fit in one of the categories listed below. If so maybe the following will open your eyes to how you may be perceived and you may want to re-think how you interact with others. My point in all this is that there is no reason why travel forums can't be a positive experience for everyone. OK, maybe that's being overly optimistic.
I'll start off by saying that about 80% of interaction on travel forums is positive. There are a lot of helpful people out there who have good intentions and generously take the time to dispense great travel information. The remaining 20% of interaction is either negative or unhelpful, ranging from snarky comments to misleading information to outright abuse. It might be the minority, but it is the people behind these interactions that give forums (and not just travel forums) a bad name.
Below are the typical "Uglies" that I've encountered on travel forums. Note that uglies are not black and white and that their lines blur and intersect. But, generally speaking, they fall into these 6 categories.
1) Trolls. The troll just looks for trouble, they can't say anything good about anything/anyone, will point out anything you have to say as "stupid" and make comments designed to get under your skin. The origin of "troll" dates back to 1610 from the Norse word meaning giant or demon and evokes the trolls of Scandinavian folklore where they are characterized as beings bent on mischief and wickedness. Today's internet trolls however are quite simple minded, easy to spot, and are even more easily remedied (more on that later). Sometimes though they morph into other categories and are not so identifiable.
An example of a Troll was a guy who pointed out to me that I had misspelled Granada a few times in one of my posts. I had spelled it as Grenada. "Grenada is an island in the Caribbean that the US bombed in the 80′s" he was nice enough to tell me. He then continued on about other "inaccuracies" on my blog and lambasted me for my "self-aggrandizing" blog.
2) The Village Idiot. A different kind of Troll, they'll post questions such as "What should I see in Canada?" or "Where is the cheapest place to pick up prostitutes in Thailand?". These posts end up soliciting a lot of angry or stupid responses; people telling him to buy a guide, do research, or generally go to hell. The Village Idiot has succeeded, he's gotten under everyone's skin and has brought everyone down to his level.
3) Haters. They hate other travelers, the principle reason being that you are ruining it for them. Some may be backpackers, others might be expats, but what they have in common is a belief that you're spending too much money and/or ruining the people or places by just being there (ignoring that they themselves are not natives). They also think that you don't know a country unless you're not living at subsistence level "like the locals". I recently had one tell me that I was a "luxury traveler" (yes, my $50 hotel room) and therefore it was "silly" to make social commentary on the country in which he had retired. I replied, asking him if I was supposed to spend my vacation in a mud hut and if doing so would better qualify me to make social commentary? I think it was the same guy who wrote that I had no interest in culture, I just wanted to take my "pretty pictures" and go home.
4) The Expat Expert. These expats know it all and have an opinion on everything and will rip the casual commenter apart with their detailed stories of everyday life in their little slice of heaven/hell. They can't see the forest for the trees and will have a story to offset any opinion to the contrary. They often have too much time on their hands and grow, morphing into the next category.
5) The Travel Forum Guardian. They're the Expats (or locals) with thousands upon thousands of comments on forums. They treat forums as their personal Facebook page to chat and compare notes with other expats. They like trying to impose rules on others and work in packs, backing each other against anyone who they consider "doesn't know as much as they do". You can often see them answering every single thread on a country, smugly dispensing their opinions and advice. They are in my opinion the worst of the uglies because of their determination and time in monopolizing all discussion. They ruin it for everyone else who can't get a word in edgewise. In many ways these Expats remind me of the first days of high school where you walk in and feel like a stranger amongst the cool kids. And then at a certain point you just realize that they're all actually just a bunch of insecure losers.
An example of Travel Forum Guardians: The TripAdvisor forum for Montreal is dominated by 3 "Forum Guardians" who fight or override everyone who comments on the forum. I recommended a B&B to a poster who was looking for a place to stay. Within minutes a Guardian commented that the person should not stay in the part of town that I had recommended. I posted some restaurant recommendations, my blog link on the bottom of the post, only to have another Guardian reply that he was "fed up with people advertising their blogs". I noticed that this old nanny has 4,000+comments on the forum (his friend has 12,000+) and that he fights with or argues over everyone else's contributions.
Expats can - and sometimes do -provide the best information to travelers looking for information on forums. And any expat I've ever met is nice and generous in person. But there's a minority of them who ruin forums for everyone else. Go to any forum and you'll find grouchy expats who monopolize conversation, pick fights, or impose self-made rules. For some reason, I've noticed that the Central American threads on Lonely Planet have the most crotchety, miserable bunch of these. It's too bad, with an attitude adjustment these people would be appreciated for their wealth of information.
6) The Blogger-Haters. The people who hate bloggers and who want them off the forum. A few people recently commented on my posts in Lonely Planet's Thorntree forum, telling me that bloggers are "self promoting", "self-serving blog floggers" (that one got a chuckle out of me. Anyone using the word "flogger" must have a PhD in masturbation). I've been accused, indignantly, of "hyping" my blog. One of them, sounding incredulous, told me that most of the links on my blog link to my own posts! Oh my!
The Blogger-Haters no doubt think that it is us bloggers that give forums a bad name. More on that later as well.
Forum rules as it applies to Bloggers
You'll notice there's quite a backlash against Bloggers amongst the various categories of uglies listed above. So what's the specific policy in forums towards Bloggers?
We don't mind if you include links to your travel blogs or websites in your messages, provided it's relevant and contextual information, but commercial solicitation, straight up advertising, or contributions designed to promote traffic to another site aren't acceptable. We do not permit business accounts on lonelyplanet.com or any sort of advertising in profiles, avatars and signatures, as community areas are preserved for individual travelers. Adding value to conversations is the best way to build an audience for your expertise.
Link to your travel-related personal website/blog in your signature, providing that the link occurs in a substantive, helpful post, and the topic was not started to promote your site. For instance, following the content of your post, this is okay:
In other words, you can link your blog to a forum post (despite what anyone will tell you) providing that your post is relevant, helpful, and gives value to the conversation. I usually try to give essential information within the forum post and will only include the links if I think the poster might want additional information or if photos (of which I take a lot) are helpful. I suggest never writing a forum post that can't stand alone, in other words one where the poster can only click on the link to get the information he/she in looking for. To stay on the safe side, I suggest that links only be supplemental to the information in the post.
For the people who hate/don't trust bloggers
I frequented forums long before I became a blogger and I find the negative attitude on forums towards bloggers confounding. Who do you trust more, a blogger who stands by his blog and his reputation - or an anonymous poster? The anonymous poster could be the owner of a hotel overseas just trying to steer business his way, a guy looking to befriend you and scam you, or a guy who might just be a bullsh*t artist giving you wrong information because he either doesn't like you or doesn't want you coming to "his" country and ruining his experience. The anonymous poster might be a great guy, on the other hand he might be an asshole or a scammer. You'll never know. A blogger on the other hand doesn't hide behind a pseudonym and will only ruin his/her reputation if he/she starts giving people completely erroneous information.
The blogger wants to bring traffic to his site in the hopes of increasing his fan base. Some may have ads on their site or may have something to sell. But the main goal is always to bring traffic to his/her site and to get people to click on that subscribe button by providing interesting, entertaining and informative material (for free). There's nothing insidious about that. So I find it funny when I hear people on forums complaining about bloggers trying to sell stuff. To those I say look around your forum page; how many American Express ads do you see? How many ads telling you to visit New Zealand? How many Lonely Planet guides for sale on your right hand side?
The positives of Bloggers is that most of us have done a lot of travelling and have a wider scope than most other contributors. Bloggers blog because they love to travel. If you're a poster asking all about La Fortuna (Costa Rica) an Expat will tell you where you should stay, eat, and see. They're great at giving you every detail you ever need. A Blogger will have his own recommendations, but he might also tell you that La Fortuna is commercialized beyond believe and that crossing the border into Nicaragua might make for a more interesting, adventurous, and affordable holiday. That's what a blogger can offer.
My Travel Forums Tips
How you deal with the uglies listed previously depends on your testicular fortitude for confrontation. My general rule though (and I've learned this from experience) is that it is not worth getting into exchanges on a forum. It's a waste of time and energy and in the end it doesn't help you at all, in fact it just makes you look bad.
Some pretty simple rules:
- Ignore. People often say that you shouldn't feed the Trolls but that goes for all the uglies on the list above. They look to provoke and the best thing is to give them nothing.
- As a poster: do basic research before asking a question, leave opinion or commentary out of the question, keep your question short and precise. These kind of questions solicit the best answers.
- As a blogger; don't go back to previously submitted posts. Stick to the task, which is answering people's questions in a friendly and professional manner and including your link, then get out. Let people come to your site if they want more. You have nothing to gain by going back and risk only getting yourself upset by replies that the uglies have left behind.
It would be great if everyone could get along and that there was a level of respect and decorum that could be maintained between people. In theory, everyone can contribute and bring different viewpoints to a conversation. In practice that doesn't happen.
Always appreciate any feedback!