Thursday, February 14, 2013

The How to’s of Permaculture Forums, Lists and Other Online Sites

After a recent negative experience on the web, I was asked by Permaculture Magazine out of the UK if I would write up a guide to Permaculture Forums-how to select forums that will be helpful and won’t land you in nasty message attacks with strangers, or with some very bad advice. No one needs drama and ego when searching for information. As permaculture grows, there will be more and more sites on the web, and not all of them may be trustworthy. 
Homesteaders and permaculture people (be they certified or just experienced) have a wealth of knowledge between them that is priceless, timeless and free. The Ethics of Permaculture encourage us to share our surplus, including knowledge. 
Nearly anyone even in remote areas can connect to the internet and find like-minded individuals, advice and camaraderie. Sometimes the only people who understand our sometimes “less than mainstream” ways are people in other widely dispersed places like ourselves. The internet and it’s forums can be helpful with information, but can also be sanity savers at times!

What does one look for in a good online Permaculture forum? Well, in short, if you don’t have time or are one of those folks that only browses articles:
  • Stick with the sites that have been around the longest.
  • Look for people with the most on the ground (in the dirt) knowledge.
  • “Surfer Beware”: Not everything (and everyone) is/are as they seem. Watch out for Ego trippers and profiteers.
  • Remember the Ethics of Permaculture-this is about SHARING not control.
  • Look for a good Terms of Use policy and remember that everything you post in a public place on the web MAY be difficult to take down or edit and ultimately, legally you may have no rights to it after you post it.

That’s the short of it, but let’s break that down further.

What’s in a Name
Some “big names” are very useful to have on a forum. Older men AND women who have been there done that and know all the ways to clean out a humanure bucket can be very useful to have giving advice in a forum. You have to get to know the site, the administrators and the people who “hang out” in the forums, and who knows something and who’s all hot air. You want to know who’s there, where they’ve taught, maybe how many generations removed from Bill they are, and if they are really DOING permaculture. In this case it’s good to know who you are talking to.
On the other hand with CISPA being passed in the US as I write, you may not, for what ever reason, want your name and all your details on the web. This is a prudent thing! Maybe you don’t want people knocking on your door asking for farm tours or a place to stay, or maybe you don’t want your local government to know your cabin and your humanure are not up to local code...or maybe you don’t want stalkers…Whatever the reason, you may not want to use your real name.
It is useful to pick one moniker and use it across all forums, and all permaculture sites, even email, so that people who see you in one place will know you if they see you in another.
Some forums have very public member lists that are completely searchable via the web (Goggle, etc.) and you may not, for whatever reason, want to be that exposed or searchable in a permaculture site. At least here in America there is some (possibly warranted) paranoia over being seen as a potential threat because you compost your waste or live outside of the mainstream, or whatever the case may be. Be sure that in the forum you join using a handle/moniker/pseudonym of your choice is acceptable.

Take the Time
All the forums are different. One forum says “You're currently viewing our forum as a guest. This means you are limited to certain areas of the board and there are some features you can't use. If you join our community, you'll be able to access member-only sections, and use many member-only features such as customizing your profile, sending personal messages, and voting in polls. Registration is simple, fast, and completely free.” This is a good thing!
If a forum has ALL of their information-every post, every snide comment, every comment where the moderator called someone a psycho SEARCHABLE, this is a bad thing.
If you take the 5 minutes or so that it takes to sign up on a site and set up a profile, you will be rewarded with a better site, better quality people and more good stuff. Take the time to register. Having said that, you may not like what you find once you get in there, so be wary of providing your real information or posting until you have looked around the website a good bit! To repeat, you need to log in, but be cautious until you poke around a bit.

Who’s Behind the Curtain?
If you find one person’s name all over a forum, and they are by far the most prolific poster-that’s a red flag warning. If the website uses the words administrators, moderators, and owners, (all plural) that’s a good sign.
Moderators should be there to moderate-help keep things going smoothly, warn anyone who’s getting really unsavory in any way, and occasionally-very occasionally-kick someone off or delete what they’ve written. 
I think that most forums reserve the right to delete portions of, or all of a post if they find it offensive. Their site, their terms-remember that, but no site should ever add things to a post or change it to change the meaning of what you said. I have heard from someone at (my favorite forum) that they would never add content or change the meaning of a post and that generally they let people have their say except in cases of say, religious intolerance, personal attack or racism.
Anyone primarily promoting the buying of goods on a forum is questionable. Anyone promoting other concepts alongside and equal with permaculture like biodynamics, hugelkultur, or any word they have made up, is not promoting permaculture but their own agenda and piggybacking on the permaculture world. Biodynamics (or any other system for growing food, raising animals, etc) may be a subheading or a sub-forum on a permaculture site-in other words a part of permaculture-but it is NOT permaculture. Sometimes these subjects can differ and conflict drastically, and in my opinion really belong on their own separate forum. I don’t know about everyone else, but if I go looking for information on permaculture, I don’t want to be inundated with lots of other concepts or systems.


If you find yourself on a forum, or any permaculture website, run by one person and it uses the word permaculture, or any derivative there of, ask the owner if they at least have a Permaculture Design Certificate. The rule is if you use that word in business, websites, books, etc.(as opposed to general conversation), especially when your goal is to make income off of that word, you need to have a Permaculture Design Certificate under your belt.
Recently one person that I know of was told to rip out an entire valuable and very old orchard because it wasn’t diverse enough. Since this person relies on this orchard as a thriving family and community business, this was potentially crushing advice, given glibly online by someone who may or may not have had any clue what he was talking about.
Also, make sure that if there is any inkling that the site is being run as a business that your name, contact information, email address, etc., are not being sold, rented or leased to other parties. Yes, it happens all the time.

Hands in the Dirt
Look for a forum filled with and run by people who have actual experience in hands-on permaculture-someone who has or had a farm or other permaculture site. Some folks may be retired, or too sore in the knees to do much anymore but you are looking for real hands-on advice, not someone who has only read books or surfed the net, who lives in an apartment and works in a cubicle, or who is not growing at least a part of their own food.
Another nice thing about large older forums and email lists is that you may be able to find people in your local area or bio-region to chat with. These folks can be invaluable, because say for example, if you live in a tropical climate, all the plant lists in the world from Canada aren’t going to do you much good! 

This is very important!
Look for a page that says what the terms of use are for the forum. They should be a lot longer than just “play nice with others”. You should read it! I know, I know, no one ever reads those things, but, say, in the case of Apple where it is very long and backed by an entire corporation-they don’t want to get sued, and the likelihood of one person’s ego being in the way is not an issue. But when you’re dealing with small forums, which may perhaps be just one guy sitting on his sofa somewhere, you might want to read what they expect of you as a participant. They should have rules. These rules are there for yours as well as others’ protection, and should be spelled out fairly thoroughly, and I highly suggest that if you have a question about something, you email the moderators and ASK.
Also find and read the FAQ or ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ section. You will learn a lot ahead of time and it might come in handy later.
There may also be pages about how to use the forum and deeper detail like display options, and what to do with a troublesome user or offensive post. These are good to read. If they don’t exist-that’s a red-flag warning also.
The answer to ‘what to do with a troublesome user’ is, there should be a “report” button. In a forum-which is an online Community-it should be up to the users to help each other discern what is acceptable behavior and what is not. It should not be up to the whims and busy schedule of one person.

“Google It”
Just because a forum comes up first, second or third on a search does NOT mean anything except perhaps they have PAID to get there. It does not denote quality. Neither does the number of people who have joined the forum. I am not familiar with some of the smaller or newer forums, but that does not mean that there are not great, knowledgeable people on the other side, but you have to find that out for yourself.

There are different kinds of forums on line, some are fancy and easy to use, some are older, not terribly intuitive, or like the Ibiblio email list or Yahoo groups, not a forum at all, but there are still great people and useful information in them. Don’t forget the pages and groups on Facebook. Not all of them may even show up on a search-engine, so it pays to poke around, and ask others what their favorites are.
Don’t be afraid of another country’s forum, you can find good advice and similar climates in many countries. Most people speak at least some English, so language should not be a problem. There may also be (I don’t know) Spanish and other forums out there-I’m betting there are.
Many times on a forum people just want quick free advice. What you’re looking for is a variety of backgrounds, knowledge and bio-regions and countries. People who give and people who ask, but not just the askers. It’s frustrating to find a site where everyone on it is new to permaculture and no one can answer your question.
Most people think about going to a forum to learn, but there’s also the giving back aspect-it’s what permaculture is all about. Sharing. If you know a good bit, don’t be arrogant about it, but also don’t feel shy about answering a question. You can always start your answer with “well in my experience…”

The bottom line is (in my experience) that if someone sees permaculture as a way to get rich, they’re in the wrong business, or they don’t get what permaculture is really about, and they’re going to make all the other permies detest them in the process. If they’re honking their own horn and it’s loud, it says something, and it’s not “Look at me, I’m awesome.”
Along with the ethos of permaculture, the entire body of people and knowledge that makes up permaculture is not about ego, is not about profit, it’s about sharing. It’s the third ethic, and the most important.
Remember, always be polite, give people the benefit of the doubt if they sound harsh, and always search to see if someone has asked your question already, before you ask it for the 400th time.
Ultimately, just like in permaculture, the more knowledge you have, the better. It is very important that if you use the internet you know what you are using. Knowledge is power. Ignorance can get you into trouble!

Lastly, as far as what I read-if I had to choose just two (which can be a LOT of reading) I would go for the two bigger, older forums, Permaculture Research Institute of Australia’s forum at and the Permaculture Mailing list at ibiblio .
That should give you plenty of reading to do!  As you read you will certainly find other websites other forums, and other people with the kind of knowledge you are seeking. Just remember not everyone and everything is what it seems online and you are the only one that can protect yourself from bad advice or scams.

I am a graduate of Earth Activist Training, a PDC course taught by noted author Starhawk, Penny Livingston-Stark and Patricia Allison. Isabel also has experience as a student teacher and PDC Organizer. I previously lived on a raw homestead in rural Georgia (USA) for six years, with my partner and Permaculture geek Alder Burns, creating a homestead and permaculture site from the forest up. We are currently living in California, where I am a semi-retired herb gardener and medicine maker, quilter, knitter and Super Auntie to two adorable twin girls and two active little boys.