I've spent the last couple of weeks recovering from a tonsillectomy. Having your tonsils taken out when you're pushing 40 sounds (and is) insane. Surprisingly, though, there are a fair number of people who do it. When I stumbled across a forum of people my age undergoing the same surgery at the same time, I was happily surprised.
The official documentation that my hospital and doctor provided was helpful. It told me what kind of surgery I'd be having done, the expected prognosis and recovery time, and detailed the medications I could take. However, as with any documentation, it was missing a lot. What the official docs were missing, the forum provided. Forums are the perfect complement to documentation.
2 things that forums are great at
In general, forums are great for two things. First, they're a good medium for people in similar situations to share practical advice with one another. I'm thankful to the person who discovered that chewing Dentyne Ice gum helps with ear pain after surgery, and am very glad that person thought to share his discovery. That kind of information would never have been included in my doctor's documentation, but it's nonetheless very helpful.
Forums also provide emotional support. Just knowing that someone else is grappling with the same thing; whether that be going through a medical procedure, or trying to write code against the same libraries, is heartening. Your peers for whatever's at hand are uniquely able to appreciate your triumphs and empathize with the problems you're facing.
2 things that would make forums even better
Forums would be even better if the information that goes into them were easier to get out. They work well for people who are facing the same problem at the same time and can have a real-time conversation about it. But once that conversation is archived, it's harder for Joe Schmoe to come along a few weeks later and get all the learnings that the first people figured out together. The same learning process is often just repeated over and over with new people. Search should be improved for forums so that people can learn from past conversations, as well as current conversations. Even better would be the addition of artificial intelligence to forums, so that forum conversation about documented topics could automatically be added to the relevant documentation. That would bring the best worlds of documentation and forums together; a perfect marriage.
The second thing that would make forums better would be a way for participants to create a reputation based on their contributions, at their discretion. This reputation should be persistent across forums of similar nature; for example, a developer's Java reputation and her Android reputation should combine to show her skills as an Android app developer. Stack Overflow has a good algorithm for reputations; it would be great if we could extend that to other sites.
How do you use forums? What works about them, and how could they be better?