Practical Criticism III

Yesterday’s back-and-forth focussed on the prospects for paid, printed music writing. I like the magazine format because it gives me something to read on the tube, and because a good editor can make already talented writers even better. Other than that, though, I don’t actually care much whether there’s a good music magazine on the stands. I’m more concerned about whether there are good places online to talk about music, like message boards.

I started a music message board a few years ago and even if I don’t agree with it very much nowadays it’s done quite well for itself. It grew by accident, which is probably the best way, and was never designed or thought-through as such. So it’s interesting (for me!) to ask the question: if I was designing a music MB from scratch, what would I do?

The first thing is to think about the kind of things I don’t want from a board. I don’t want there to be a sense that only certain types of music are up for discussion or to be taken seriously. I don’t want a lot of flamewars and personal attacks: they just leech energy from a community and kill some of the joy of listening. And I don’t want a board to intimidate its potential posters – there should be a sense that if you have something to say about music, you don’t have to pass some secret exam in order to do so.

(Incidentally, I think ILM as it evolved was always good at avoiding at the first of these perils, a bit less good at avoiding the second and pretty bad at dealing with the third, but still better than most online music forums.)

So the priority would be threads which encourage discussion and sharing of ideas, rather than threads which encourage showing off. Easy to say, but how to actually enact that?

In terms of the user interface I still think the ILXOR set-up is the best around, particularly with all the good work Andrew, Alan et al have done recently: clean, simple, flexible, and allowing discussions to lie dormant before springing back to life when new viewpoints show up. As for moderation policy, I don’t think it has anywhere near as much impact on the tone of a message board as people might think. I would support community self-policing (I’m still optimistic enough to think this works) with light moderation and fixed moderator ‘terms’.

Those are minor questions though compared with how to encourage interesting conversation. If I was starting a new board I think I’d try something a little more formal than the free-form thread starting and question-asking you find on most forums. It strikes me that the way to get a range of people involved and is to keep the ‘entry level’ to a discussion low. A thread about Sonic Youth’s entire career requires its contributors to have some detailed knowledge of that career. A thread focussing on a single record – or track – by the band requires only having heard that record, which in a P2P-enabled world isn’t so difficult to do. And of course people who do have the detailed knowledge can use it on such a thread.

The best discussions often start at a specific point and are allowed to wander. So my touch of formalism would be for every thread on a board to have, as its title, a single track by a named artist. The ‘questions’ attached could be as simple as ‘is this good?’, or could focus in on particular techniques or moments in the track, or widen the scope to talk about other tracks or albums or trends or careers – but the thread would always have, as its base, an actual track that (ideally) anyone curious could find and hear.

It seems to me this would strike at two of the ‘don’ts’ I mentioned. It would encourage non-experts to mingle with experts (with the happy side effect that people posting list threads would have to be more creative about introducing them!) and would let people get stuck into discussions quickly. And it would mean that if you wanted to post dismissive threads you’d have to, right from the start, ground your attack in a concrete example.

I am in no hurry to start another message board – one in a lifetime is surely enough – but if a forum like this did exist I think I’d enjoy it a great deal.