When I'm thinking about a particular virtual world, studying it, playing in it, I find it useful to read both official forums and unofficial fan site forums. It's one source of information about what players are thinking, doing and wanting in a given virtual world, one of the visible tips of the larger below-surface iceberg of the sociality and culture of a given virtual world.
I don't find it that hard to use forums for gathering information, nor does it seem to me to be that difficult to recognize the evidentiary limits of the data available on them.
Why, therefore, is the question of what forums are good for such a perennial issue? Why, in particular, do many developers seem to exhibit varying degrees of hostility to forums as a source of information, and cast them instead as a tool for "community management"?
I'm thinking about this question again because of an outbreak of cross-blog conversation between some of the usual suspects in response to SWG developer Chris Cao's irritated response to the SWG forums.
It's conventional wisdom not just among developers but among savvy gamers to bash most forums as misanthropic noise, or to talk as Cao does about people who "play the boards" rather than "play the game". I'm not saying that's incorrect. It's true: a lot of what is said in a game forum is informationally-poor. A lot of the posters do seem to be the kind of people who have scary obsessions and a total lack of proportionality. A decent number of forum habitues spend more time in the forums than the virtual worlds. A lot of them are creeps, assholes, weirdos. A lot of them are cruel or stupid or unhelpful.
This goes as much for the sycophants who praise the game and the developers as it goes for the critics. In both cases, a lot of what is going on is attention-seeking behavior, and one of the elementary mistakes that some developers make (SWG has a long history of this) is praising and rewarding the sycophants. But that falls under the heading of community relations. Or, in the way I tend to see it, under the heading of sovereignty and political power. The sovereign who surrounds himself with fawning yes-men tends to end up going out naked in public to the jeers of the crowd.
Let's talk instead about how you use signal-rich but informationally-poor environments to your advantage. I'm a historian by training, and I think this is one of the basic methodological arts of history. We're data miners who know how to rapidly assess the probable worth of an archive, how to rapidly work through huge bodies of documentation to find what we need, how to read through, in and around sprawling mounds of information.
Reading a given forum for an half-hour or hour every day when I'm focusing on or thinking about a given virtual world, I feel pretty confident about my ability to find nformation that is useful to me and ought to be useful to a live management team. I'll add one qualifier: I'm much better at understanding and sifting through a forum if I'm actively playing in that virtual world. Let me give some examples of the kinds of posts that I think are useful and relatively easy to identify rapidly.
1. Posts that describe major schisms or fractions among the players invested in a virtual world, and the specific issues that are defining or shaping those schisms at the moment. This takes a while to become clear, and actual play helps to spell it out some. But you almost don't need to really read the messages in detail after a while: you can track the back-and-forth motion of these debates just from headers and volume of posting activity. So, for example, looking today at the World of Warcraft General forum, I can see that the long-running divide between casual and raiding players is focusing somewhat around planned changes to PvP. Looking at the SWG forums today, I can see that planned changes to crafting are an important focal issue.
This is information. It doesn't help the live management team decide which faction is correct in its claims. You can't really tell from forums just how many players are speaking for any given faction, and most forum posts aren't going to be articulate enough to actually persuade a developer to think one way or the other. You can't even be sure just how intensely a given faction feels about a specific issue. But it helps to understand where the points of tension are, and why they figure as they do in these kinds of conflicts.
2. Post that give specific and useful information about exploits, bugs, technical problems, major flaws in the game design or structure of play. I have no idea why live management teams from time to time protest that exploits, bugs and technical issues are best uncovered by other means, save the concern that by posting an exploit, a player encourages its use. No, scratch that: I have a cynical thought about why a lot of developers and community managers take this position. It's because they think these discussions create bad publicity, and because in many cases players are identifying technical issues that the live management team knows about and has no intention of trying to fix. The alternative is worse: that whatever the other information sources about technical issues might be, they're even more informationally impoverished than the forums are. In its early history, SWG's forums contained detailed, informationally-rich information about technical and design problems that developers either ignored or actively claimed did not exist. When live management teams then protest that they can't learn anything useful from their own forums, in this context at least that leaves only two alternatives: that they don't want to be confronted with knowledge about technical issues in a public space (and don't want players to share knowledge between themselves in a public space) or that they're totally clueless. Either way, bad for Zathras.
3. Idiosyncratic posts that are informationally and analytically rich. When I'm scanning a very dense, highly populated index of sources, posts, or information of any kind, I have some heuristics that help me decide where to invest labor in reading or retrieving a given listing. Some of those are personal and non-transferrable, a result of experience or specialized knowledge. But a lot of them are built from basic skills that I think most people can learn. Titles tell you a lot: you watch for unusual phrasing, imaginative use of words, and yes, evidence of literacy. D00dspeak IS a warning signal: it says, don't bother if what you're looking for is a usefully distinctive response to the state of a virtual world, unless for some reason you have a particular interest in d00dish constituencies. Look for posts that are talking about issues that an aficionado of the game recognizes as important, but that don't seem to just repeat common sentiments. The number of responses to a post might be a key: distinctive posts, if they aren't lost in the noise of ordinary posting, often tend to generate a lot of replies. The reputation capital of a given poster is important. Any regular reader of a forum learns to pay attention to certain names and to seek out what they have to say.
In particular, what a developer should be watching for here is the equivalent of Martin Luther's complaints stuck on the door of a church: a manifesto which may galvanize or persuade players to action, which may mobilize players or transform the way they see the virtual world. It's not just that the developer-as-sovereign should be concerned about the political impact of such posts, but also that they may contain valuable insights about what the game needs which the developers themselves cannot arrive at independently.
This last point informs a lot of my private suspicion about why developers often like to rubbish their own forums as sources of information, or see them as a backwater tool for "managing" (e.g., in many cases, placating or misdirecting) their community.
Why do sovereigns in the real world sometimes misread or misunderstand the political communities around them, or rely preferentially on tainted or flattering sources of information? Because, in many cases, they cannot afford to come to know that which they do not want to know. If the developer-sovereign doesn't want to decide how to "fork" the changing state of their virtual world in terms of the antagonisms between factions of players, or if different factions within the development team are themselves competing to influence the world's design in one direction or the other, it may seem best to close one's ears and hum real loud when confronted with knowledge about these debates. If the developer-sovereign has no intention to devote the necessary resources to fix a long-standing technical issue, or cannot find a way to fix a path-dependent design flaw, then it may be best to plead ignorance--which requires claiming that one does not read or cannot usefully engage information found in a public forum. If a powerful manager within a live team has an idee fixe about how a virtual world has to be, and tyrannizes his colleagues on that issue, it may be best for him to pretend that he's never seen any dissenting views from players on the forums.
If a development team clouds the processes by which it considers and dispenses with problems, it can also avoid making concretized promises for which the players will (often unfairly) hold them accountable. Political sovereigns in the real world also mystify the processes through which their specific interventions into the world take shape. That is not just the pragmatics of power: it is also an expectation that we have of authority, and that authority has about itself, that decisions which are utterly transparent, robbed of their mystery, are somehow made threadbare, shabby in their naked instrumentality.
So I don't want to give the wrong impression. This is not a plea for live management teams to subordinate themselves to the democratic will of their customers, to simplistically "listen better", to do community management more adroitly, or even to fully demystify the processes by which they come to decisions. More modestly, I'd only suggest two things. First is to stop rubbishing forums as a source of useful information. If developers really mean that they can't get any information from their forums, then I think they're pretty lousy at gathering information. If they don't really mean it, if this is just a cover for other, deeper issues, then I'd just as soon stop hearing the same old song. Second is that maybe, just maybe, there is a middle ground between the occasional desperate eruptions of information from behind the development veil and complete transparent disclosure of every tiny detail of the development process. That there is a way to communicate through and from forums that goes beyond "management" as a way of soothing customers and into something the relation between the rulers and the ruled. I am not adroitly "managed" if my political rulers tell me that mass media, the public sphere, citizen forums, blogs, and the like are just a load of goddamn noise, or too difficult to parse or listen to, or that there are citizens who "live society" and then there are those annoying bastards who keep insisting on "discussing how to live in society". And yes, yes indeed, there is a bad signal-to-noise ratio in American public culture, particularly in online spaces, but that is not an all-purpose excuse for ignoring what gets said, or listening only to the people who echo that which the ruler already thinks he knows. That doesn't serve citizens well; it does not serve authorities well. It is in no one's best interests. The same goes for virtual worlds. If those who manage them don't know how to listen to their forums, they ought to learn. If they don't want to listen to their forums, however unrepresentative or fractional participation in them might be, they're asking for all kinds of trouble. Demonstrably in the still-young history of virtual worlds, some of them have gotten exactly the kind of trouble they were asking for.