Now that you’ve got all of your conference messages set up just the way you want them and the conference is beginning to look a bit less forlorn, you’re ready to enter the first topic. Only a host can enter the first topic in a conference. That’s you, right? Well then, it’s almost time to jump in! …almost.

Before you do, you may want to consider one or two small points that can make a difference to you later.

5.1 Topic Order

Once you, or anyone else, enters any topic in any conference, that topic is given a number which never changes. Even hosts, in the magnificence of their hostliness, cannot re-order the topics in their conferences. Topic number 1 will always be topic number 1, and as long as it exists it will appear first to participants who read the conference in the ordinary order. (It needn’t exist forever, by the way. It can be killed just like any other topic when it has outgrown its usefulness. Topic 2 will then take on the role of the first topic in the conference; and so on.)

Many hosts have found that reserving topic 1 for frozen short conference announcements has come in very handy as their conferences began to grow and flourish. “Why would I need yet another space for conference announcements?” you may wonder. “There are already FIVE conference messages I can use — the welcome, the bulletin, the login, the logout and the wlogin — in almost any combination I please for presenting conference announcements.”

True. But as we’ve said, some users choose to streamline their set-ups and skip banners. And consider the advantages of a topic. You can present information of more than a single screenful without taxing users’ patience (much). You can hide the topic (with the “retire” command, to be described shortly) when you don’t want it to be generally available for reading. You can add new announcements, in the form of responses, to older ones and thereby create a collection of essential information and a sense of continuity. Your guests will be able to search for keywords by use of the extract command, which won’t work on banners. You can hide or scribble any previous announcement in the topic you wish. You keep it short and pertinent by freezing it after each new announcement. And you’ll always know that whenever you add a new response to topic one, it will be the first new response people see in the conference. If you don’t have anything to say in such a topic just now, you can always create it with a simple announcement of the birth of the conference, and freeze and retire it right away, then unretire and thaw it later when you need it.

Finally, a topic has a different feel to it than a conference banner. It’s the perfect place to get into just a bit more detail about your initial concept for the conference and the general direction in which you might like it to head. And it’s easier for most users to go back to and find later than a welcome or bulletin banner, if they want a reminder about the rules of the conference.

Those are a lot of good reasons for choosing the option of reserving the first topic (or several retired topics) in your new conference for short announcements and introductions of one kind or another. Still, options are meant to be optional, so if you have your heart set on something a bit more colorful for the first topic, by all means do it.

When you are ready to open the first topic in the conference, you’ll create it by typing start (or e for enter if you prefer to be prompted for the response 0 before entering the topic title) just as you would any other topic. Go to it!

5.2 How Many Topics Should You Start With?

Different people have different answers to this question, and they’re all right. It depends entirely on the nature of the conference. Some successful conferences have opened with just one initial topic awaiting the arrival of the first visitor. Others have opened with a dozen or more brand-spanking-new topics, or with many older topics linked in to make a searchable ‘past’ for a new conference. But those are the extremes. In general, the rule of thumb is to open with just a few non-frozen topics; five, or maybe ten at most; and allow the conference to grow at its own pace.

Just to get you thinking, here is one sample approach to the opening topics for a hypothetical conference about making a living doing metal sculpture, and some tips on how to build it.

A sample set of initial topics:

	1 Metal Sculpture Conference guidelines  (short, frozen)
	2 Conference Business and Feedback
	3 Conference Business continued  (topic retired until needed)  
	4 Step Right up and Introduce Yourself!
	5 More introductions!  (retired until needed) 
	6 Welding, fumes and art safety   (some lively issue of interest to
          folks in the group)
	7 What are you working on now? 

Topic order, and addition of new topics, can help get and keep the conversation going. The retired topics are simply a way to insure that your introduction topic doesn’t later become number 812 as the conference grows. However, as you travel around The WELL you’ll see that many hosts are content to ignore the issue, and people still manage to find the intro topics, often with the help of pointers in the conference banner.

Once you get going, keep an ongoing list of interesting topic ideas. You can do this online, perhaps in a retired topic you and your cohost can post to. (It’s possible for your guests to see it, but few will stumble across it, and perhaps those that do will help you open some topics.

Encourage posters to contribute, praise their good posts! If this is more comfortable in email, by all means use that channel of reinforcement. Some people respond more favorably to private encouragement, others to thanks in the company of the group.

Consider inviting in a few expert guests for short visits. In addition, consider sending invites to people who are not experts in your subject matter per se, but who are adept at online conversation. And let them know why they’ve been invited, so they don’t just politely observe.

Become a regular in at least one other lively conference yourself, and note how people keep those conversations going.

Casually use topic “drift” to inspire new topics. It helps to have a light touch, digression is probably better than silence, after all, but if a topic on metal corrosion in damp climates suddenly shifts to memories of childhood gardens, after a response or two you can start a new topic on childhood gardens, put your own nostalgia there (along with ideas about kids sculpture, in this mythical sample conference here), and possibly quote the posted text from the climate topic. Then try to think of an interesting tidbit or question that’s on topic for corrosion and damp places and post it back to the original topic. But digression is part of making community, and of having conversation rather than “entering data” so go very easy with this approach.

Some additional classic topics have been adapted over and over: If you want a chatty informal feel, a check-in topic is a good idea. It can have a professional theme, such as “How Did Your Sculpting Day Go?”, or a more personal or stylized format. Other good topics that you can use with almost any group are “What are we reading?” where books and magazines are evaluated, “Quotations” where interesting quotes are swapped, “Metal Sculpture in the News” where any current events with special interest for your group can be mentioned. If the news items stimulate a debate, or lengthy discussion, you can move the discussion from ” …in the news” to a topic you create expressly for that issue. “Pointers to interesting topics elsewhere around The WELL” is another topic you can update as you become aware of discussions. Since Engaged handles URL’s so nicely, you can have a topic like “Found on the Web,” where people can collect interesting pointers for one another. You might put adaptations of these topic ideas in your reserve idea list at first, and add them gradually, say once a week or once every other day, depending on the tempo and volume of your conference.

Be sure to encourage your guests to start topics. This helps take the burden off of you, and encourages more fluid discussions. Encouraging email that reminds people of how to do this, by using the “Add Topic” button in Engaged or typing “start” in PicoSpan, can help reinforce this habit.

If a topic doesn’t go well the first time around, retire it, and bring it back later, or kill it and start another topic with a slightly different title and a similar context later, when there’s a different mix of active participants. They may even surprise you and restart a similar topic when you don’t expect it.

Since when you enter a conference for the first time you automatically mark everything as “seen” this is an unusual opportunity to link long topics in without subjecting your readers to the entire contents of those topics as “new” in one session. You may want to use the welcome or login banners to suggest what topics are the best starting point or background, if you want to set some common ground rules. Remember to also include these in your wlogin file.

There are plenty of theories about why which conferences work, how the number of topics with which they opened had what effects on their success, the right way to open a conference, the wrong way, etc. But no one really knows. The best thing to do is to look at some existing conferences for ideas, follow your best instincts and take it from there. Every conference is different.

5.3 The Mysterious Summary File

Every conference has something called “a summary file.” Participants and hosts can’t read the file, nor is it visible anywhere in the conference.The summary file is built by the conference software. Its purpose is to help the system detect new responses more quickly.

Occasionally the summary file may become corrupted. If your conference members or you notice that the conference is acting strangely, or if you see a message similar to this: — “<something-or-other> is <wrong with> the summary file” — the conference’s summary file may be corrupted.

You can usually fix this by removing and rebuilding the file. Go to the OK prompt of the conference and then,

 Type: c sum

(Note: This process used to take two separate commands. Now one command will do the whole job in fewer keystrokes.)

You can run “c sum” any time there’s a problem with the technical functioning of the conference. It’s OK to try it even when you don’t see an error message instructing you to do it.

Depending on the size of your conference, running the “c sum” command can take 30 seconds to several minutes. When the process is complete, you’ll be returned to the OK prompt.

If you can’t get to the OK prompt of the conference you host to run “c sum”, please contact helpdesk or confteam. Explain as best you can what difficulty you encountered and we’ll get the conference working smoothly again for you.

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