Effective Use of Online Message Boards

by Natalie Cottrill

The Internet offers all of us many new opportunities to share and exchange information. One of the more prominent means of communication on the Internet is through message boards, including bulletin boards and forums. Message boards allow people to communicate freely with one another in a public forum. When many people participate in these boards, the amount of information that can be shared is tremendous. With a few keystrokes and the click of a mouse, message boards broadcast our interests and inquiries to other interested readers around the world 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Message boards are wonderful tools for genealogists who are trying to connect with others who have similar interests.

Before sending out a message that will be read around the world, there are a few important things to understand about how message boards work. Though there are private message boards, most message boards are public. So, when you post a message to the Internet, it's going to be published for anyone and everyone to read. You never know who's going to read your post, or who might quote portions of it to share with other interested parties. So before you push "Submit," you'll want to make sure that the message you post to the Internet only contains information that you are ready to share with everyone. It is also worth mentioning that messages posted to a message board are generally permanent. Though in some instances editing can be done, once you push the "submit" button in a message board, you'll usually not be able to go back and change or edit your message. So, make sure there are no typos in your message, and that it says what you truly want it to say. 

Usual Message Board Guidelines

Web sites usually have rules and regulations about the type, frequency and content of messages that can be posted to their boards. Some message boards are monitored; others are not. You'll usually find message board guidelines outlined in a section entitled "policies," "user agreement," or "terms of use." Make sure you're familiar with these guidelines so you'll quickly fit into the message board community in which you're considering participation.

As a general rule, you'll want to post your message in one or two places where it is the most appropriate so it will receive the best response. Leaving the same message in every available message board can be irritating to people who frequent them (this is called SPAMMING), and who don't appreciate reading the same message over and over again. It is worth mentioning that most people will begin to ignore a message that has been posted rather indiscriminately on several different boards.

It's also important to stick to the topic of the message board. Just as in any real life social gathering, it's rather disconcerting to have someone barge into the middle of a conversation with some statement that has little relevance to the topic at hand.

There are several family history related message boards on the Internet that are frequented by genealogists. The most well circulated boards are those at The boards at GenForum are arranged by surname, region and general topics (like genealogy software).

Following are some things that you can do to ensure that your message board posts receive positive responses.

More is Less

More information lessens confusion. If your message is content rich and detailed, it will lend itself more toward attracting appropriate responses. For instance, if you are planning on writing a message about John Smith who married Mary Jones, you'd better list more about them than just their names in your message! Otherwise, because of the common occurrence of the Smith and Jones surnames, you'll have way too many people responding to your inquiry. So, it's important to include enough information about the people you're seeking so that everyone will know exactly who they are, or at least how to positively identify them. The greater the details you can provide about when and where your subjects lived, the greater your chance of linking up with people seeking the same individuals. Some items that will help others identify common family members include these:

    • Full name, including any middle names or initials
    • Birth, marriage, and death dates
    • Places where the above events occurred
    • Residence and migration
    • Names of their children and/or parents

Example: Henry Tewksbury, Jr. was born 15 Dec 1664 in Newbury, Essex Co., Massachusetts, the son of Henry and Martha (Copp) Tewksbury. Henry, Jr. married Hannah _______ sometime between 1685 and 1693. They had children: Henry, Jonathan, Hannah, Philip, Naomi, Jean, John, Abner and James. I would like to know the maiden name of Henry's wife, Hannah. I haven't been able to find Henry and Hannah's marriage record in Newbury or nearby Amesbury, Massachusetts. I know that Henry was reported as "of Amesbury" in 1723 from a land deed. I also know that some of his children married in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Other than this, I have very little information on the time or place of his death or that of his wife. If anyone can help fill in the blanks, please contact me -

Write it Right

Good grammar, spelling, content, and punctuation are important. Well-written message board postings will invite others to correspond with you. If your message is easily understood and has few typographical errors, then it will be easier for your relatives and others researching the same topic to find and comprehend your message.

Typographical errors might completely misconstrue the message you've written, so make certain to proofread your message before pressing the "Submit" button. For instance, if you were to accidentally type 1989 instead of 1899, the message will read as if it were written about subjects from a completely different century! Misspelling a place name or a person's given name may have similar consequences.

There's one added benefit to correct spelling and punctuation that most genealogists don't immediately consider — good search engine visibility. You'll want the Internet's search engines to display your message when some other genealogist is searching for the same family. Search engines like AltaVista, HotBot, and Family Finder send out little indexing programs called "spiders." These spiders creep along word by word, sentence by sentence, indexing millions of pages of Internet text — including your message board post — day after day. Because they are computer programs, they won't think about or interpret the text that they see. They'll just index message board text — errors and all. So, if you want to connect with others who are researching Mary Jones born 1830, make sure that your message post doesn't accidentally read Mary Joens (typo) born 1830. Punctuation is important, too. A spider will usually read MaryJones,b1830 as one big meaningless word.

You might want to include spelling variations, too, in your message if you know that the name can be spelled a few different ways by different branches of the family: McManis and McManus and Louis and Lewis are two such spelling variations. I'd suggest not using state abbreviations in your messages. Several states are often abbreviated incorrectly. For example: Maine is sometimes abbreviated MA (instead of ME) and Arizona is sometimes abbreviated AR (instead of AZ).

Check your email address for typos, too! You'll want to make sure that anyone can get in touch with you. There are some people who do not like to communicate on public Internet boards. They may, however, contact you via email — if your email address was entered correctly!

Morse Code?

Message boards are often full of shorthand expressions that have been made popular on the Internet. These include emoticons — a set of non-alphabetical keyboard characters that are put together to resemble facial expressions (albeit sideways facial expressions). Here are some common abbreviations for phrases and emoticons that you might find useful to know:




by the way


I'm grinning


in my humble opinion


for your information


for what it's worth


rolling on the floor laughing


way to go

:-) or :)


:-( or :(


;-) or ;)


:-D or :D


Other Tips

Write to others as you would have them write to you. Be understanding and considerate about others' opinions and thoughts. Consider the consequences before publishing information on the Internet that concerns living individuals. They might consider the post an invasion of their privacy.

After posting a message to a board, check it every so often for a reply. Some boards will automatically email you when someone replies, but some do not. In the latter case, you'll need to go back and review the message board manually. To quickly find your message on these boards, you can use the "Edit (find on this page)" function on your browser or any pre-installed search box function that might be available. When someone does respond to your message, if you don't have time to write a detailed response back to them, it would be a considerate gesture to drop them a quick thank-you note via email, until you have a chance to reply in more detail later.

One final thought that we should consider: each time we publish to the Internet, whether it be to mailing lists, web pages, or bulletin boards, we are playing a role in determining the way that the Internet will be used in the future. Issues like security, privacy, consideration, copyright, and, most importantly, freedom of speech need to be considered. Considerate online community involvement and gentle, meaningful interactions are important in helping us preserve and protect our unrestricted usage of the Internet.

About the Author
Natalie Cottrill is a professional genealogist who, for the past 10 years, has concentrated upon researching United States family histories. She specializes in solving problems with difficult pre-1850 U.S. lineages, immigration, 20th century and common surnames. Natalie is an executive officer at ProGenealogists, Inc., a consortium of genealogists based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She belongs to the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) and to Mensa, Intl. You can reach her at or at the ProGenealogists website.

© Copyright 2000 by Natalie Cottrill. All Rights Reserved. Any republication of this article requires the consent of the author.

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