Forums come in an amazing variety of styles, from light hearted general chat about trivial, everyday matters to serious, heated, and in some cases personally offensive discussions about race, politics, religion, and similar thorny subjects. The serious discussion forums can be very interesting, instructive and entertaining if the 'combatants' know what they are talking about, and respect the other person's right to a fair hearing for their point of view. Most forum members know this is how things should be done, and it's possible to learn a great deal from these discussions, even if you're just lurking (reading posts but not posting), and I sometimes do that myself, although I usually can't resist chipping in with my 'tuppence worth' at some point.
If you decide to join a serious discussion forum, you will almost certainly need to develop a thick skin, because the discussions can get quite rough at times, even on those where moderators act to keep things running in a civilised way. Some forums run on an 'anything goes' basis, and they can be very tough, with foul language and personal abuse being allowed with little or no control from forum staff, and if you are easily offended by sexual, racial and similar language and subject matter then you probably should avoid that type of forum. The same might apply on forums where the owner has a particular axe to grind on a specific subject, and doesn't allow any disagreement on that one point. That can stifle discussion, and was the main reason I left the UFO forum I was once heavily involved with. Unfortunately, those fixed viewpoints are not always immediately apparent when you join a forum.
Some forums allow non members to see some or all of their content without registering first, and that should allow you to get an idea of the type of forum it is. On other forums you will need to register first, but of course if you don't like what you see you can delete your account, or just stop visiting that forum. Being a member doesn't mean you have to visit if you don't want to, although all forums like to see their members visiting and posting regularly, because that's how forums work, and if members don't post, the forum stagnates and dies.
There are thousands of forums dedicated to specific subjects, for example Computer and Role Play Gaming, Creative Writing, Photography, Astronomy, Model Cars, Railways, and Aircraft, UFO and Supernatural Phenomena, the works of JRR Tolkien and other authors, and a whole host of other subjects. The list is endless, and more new forums spring up every day. A Google search for advice or information regarding a car or computer problem, for example, will often produce links to forums specialising in that area, and the information is usually very helpful. I just Googled 'forum birdsong' as a totally random test, and there were five different forums on the first page of results, so finding a forum shouldn't be a problem, whatever subject you're interested in.
Most of the average, middle of the road forums have a number of threads common to all of them, such as variations on 'Post what the weather is where you live' and 'What is the last thing you ate'. 'What music are you listening to' is another popular one. These threads are not particularly serious, and appear to be totally unimportant and trivial, but actually threads like that can be very important on a forum, although many administrators don't realise it. The fact is, they allow an easy way for new members, perhaps on their first ever visit to a forum, to post a comment with no great amount of thinking needed. It eases them into the forum in a way that won't involve them in any controversy, and lets them make their first post and gain a bit of confidence.
Usually, unless the forum is one of the more serious ones, a new member's first few posts seem to attract a lot of 'Likes' and encouraging, positive replies, which boosts confidence and makes the new member feel welcome. Most forums also have some form of 'Welcome New Members' or 'Introduce Yourself' thread where, unsurprisingly, established members welcome the newcomers, and new members can introduce themselves to everyone else. These threads are invariably friendly and popular, so new members should head there soon after their membership is approved, but not until after they have read the Forum Rules or Guidelines, which almost every forum has.
If you are considering joining a forum for the first time, I have to warn you that it can be a very addictive pastime, and I find I waste much more time than I should, because I currently visit at least seven forums each day. One of those is a forum that falls into the 'anything goes, serious discussion' group, and it's very interesting to read the arguments on there, but I suspect it could be rather daunting for an inexperienced forum visitor. That's not to say it's a bad forum, because it isn't. We are all different, and some people enjoy the 'edgy' atmosphere. I used to, but I now tend to prefer a less confrontational type of forum.
For a gentle introduction to forums, try visiting Gibby's Place, where you will be guaranteed a friendly welcome, but you will need to create a username and password for yourself and register before you can see what's on the forum, and it could can take up to a few hours for your membership to be approved. Once there, you will find that many members advertise their own forums, usually by a link in their signature, which is the section at the bottom of each post. If you visit any of the forums linked to in that way, you will find that you recognise many of the members there, because everyone tends to visit everyone else's forum. It's a kind of unwritten rule that if someone visits and posts on your forum, you should return the courtesy and visit and post on theirs from time to time. Everybody gains by it, and it keeps all the forums active. You might imagine that with every forum having pretty much the same members, they would all be the same, but nothing could be further from the truth. Every administrator has his or her own ideas about what a forum should be, so it's very rare to find two forums with the same 'feel'.
Inevitably, from time to time you will find the same person posting the same thing on several forums, and you may have already replied to it, but you soon get used to that, and it's quite easy to either ignore the posts, or just be nice and reply anyway, with a slightly different message from what you posted the first time. If you don't want to reply again, but it's something you agree with, just click the 'Like' button, if there is one. Everyone appreciates their comments getting Likes, and it costs you nothing, but helps to maintain a happy, friendly atmosphere on the forum. Not all forums have the Like buttons, because some admins choose not to use them, and there are perfectly valid reasons for that, but most forums do use them. Don't go mad and click 'Like' on every single post, but if you agree with, or are amused or interested by, what has been said then go ahead and Like it. There are no hard and fast rules about it.
So go ahead and see if you enjoy visiting forums and posting your opinions. Feel your way in, ideally with a few non controversial posts, until you see what is and is not acceptable on that particular forum, and you will soon feel at home. Don't use bad language, even if it's an 'anything goes' forum, because it achieves nothing, and just makes you look immature, and even though people tolerate it, very few actually like it. Basically, don't say anything to, or about someone, that you would not like being said to, or about you.
Incidentally, if you click the link below to post a comment on this article, you will be entering a small miniforum, set up initially purely as a Comments page, but a small group of people now visit here fairly regularly. You are very welcome to join us.
(Revised and updated 2015-08-20)