At a glance

Policy stage: 
Level of involvement: 
Length of process: 
Number of participants: 
1 - 500+
Participant selection: 
Self selected participants attending as individuals (open access process)
Online / Offline: 

Online discussion groups are situated on websites, and support users to enter into conversation with one or more people by typing in messages.


Online discussion groups can take place either via a bulletin board/forum system, or a live chat system. The main difference between the two is that the former is not dependent on all contributors taking part at the same time whilst the latter requires participants to be present at the same time as messages are relayed instantaneously as they are typed and entered, usually powered by Java.

  • Can be used to consult with the public on proposed service or policy changes such as the government’s eConsultations
  • Live chats can take place either as one off special events where particular experts or groups can arrange to meet and chat online at a particular time, or as constantly available chat spaces
  • Links exchange offers an online forum regarding patient and public involvement 
  • Forums or bulletin boards such as this mental health example can provide support and advice from peers or experts.

Used for

Online discussion groups can be used to discuss issues, or as a support base for those that want to ask others for advice.


Anyone with access to the internet can contribute to online discussion groups, however, some can be reserved just for members of websites or groups.



Forums and bulletin boards are free to create. However, a small cost may be incurred in moderating their content.

Approximate time expense


Time expenditure would depend on how closely discussion groups are moderated.

When to use

Groups should be used as:

  • support networks
  • sources of advice
  • forums for discussion

When not to use

The main perils of online discussion groups are as follows:

  • They can often involve the perpetuation of uninformed, prejudiced viewpoints, which means that discussions, if left unmoderated, can occassion descend into arguments and abuse. Therefore, they should not be used if left unmoderated.
  • They should not be used as a principal source of advice for issues such as medical ones, where it is paramount that correct, scientific information is given to users. It should be made clear to users that the advice of contributers is not necessarily correct. The only way in which medical advice should be disseminated through forums are through tightly controlled ones where questions are fed in and then answered by medical professionals in a systematic way.
  • They should not be used to discuss the most complex issues, which would benefit from guidance from experts, who can be there to combat uninformed opinion spreading.


  • Support from those with experience
  • Ability to get a response from somebody- feeling listened to
  • Can include expert advice as well as experiential advice
  • Can provide comfort and community to isolated or housebound people as well as practical information and support
  • Not necessarily time-dependent, forums can be posted to at any hour
  • Enables people separated by distance to communicate with one another


  • Information on boards or typed in chat rooms is not always monitored by experts- some information may be misleading or even harmful
  • There is a need to rely on the individual to make the distinction between good and bad advice for themselves
  • Forums discussing particular issues may need to be moderated carefully to discourage too many off topic conversations. A space for off topic should be provided in forums and chat rooms.


Online discussion groups originally took place on bulletin boards; formed of members of electronic mailing lists, where members could post messages to one another.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels CC0