Beard Board: An online community that has really grown on me

Jamie Bartlett has discovered that rarest of things – a website where men can open up and be nice to each other

A few weeks ago, a friend and fellow beard owner sent me a link to Beard Board. He’d been visiting the site while growing his facial hair, and started spending hours on there. You should take a look, he said. There are lots of mean-spirited places online, and I sometimes feel like I spend most of my life on them. It can be easy to forget that the internet can be a friendly, happy place. None more so, I soon found, than Beard Board.

For the uninitiated, it is a forum where people gather to discuss their beards. During the past few years, 30,000 users have posted almost a million times on the site. It being generally known that every conceivable habit and niche interest attracts a motivated online community, I suppose this is hardly surprising.

Beard Board is about much more than just styling. The highlight is undoubtedly what’s known as the beard ‘journey’. Here’s a typical example. A couple of years back, one young man in his early 20s, who I’ll call Jim, posted a photo of the thin, patchy fluff sprouting on his chin and cheeks. He asked for advice, and wondered if he had what it takes. He got encouragement and tips from wise old heads. ‘Just keep at it’ replied one bearded Zeus, ‘and look for support here when you’re mistrusting. Beard on!’ ‘Stay focused, and remain patient’ added a ZZ-Topper. One month on and another photo. Jim was getting somewhere. Further advice came in, relating to beard oils and micro-trimming techniques. More encouragement followed. Six months down the line, our once wispy newcomer had grown into his role. He was thinking of going ‘wild’. The old timers who had been following the young buck’s efforts stepped in with some advanced advice: ‘You’ve had a great journey so far and have really great coverage everywhere… Mentally, you have let the beard become a part of who you are and that is called beard acceptance.’

Two years on, and Jim is moving toward his mid-20s with a stunner of a beard – a real facebush. He’s migrated up into the ‘established beard’ forum, and is newly possessed with a sense of responsibility, especially to the young-uns coming after him. ‘I will try to pass on the knowledge I have gained over the couple of years I’ve had some facial hair,’ posts Jim, ‘and give back.’

Growing a beard is not merely about growing hair on your face, you see. It’s a test of patience and endurance. You cannot rush it. Il faut cultiver notre jardin, wrote Voltaire many years ago. In a difficult and confusing world, you can find meaning and virtue by focusing on your own little corner of the world. And growing a beard is basically like growing a garden on your face. You have to accept that some people will get full coverage faster than you, some will have a better neckline, others will have stronger connectors and thicker cheek density. But you learn to accept that, and value what you have.

Anyone who’s taken the decision to let it grow understands that at some point in the journey there will be a reckoning with family, friends or HR departments. This, too, is a vital part of growing a beard. You learn, say BB people, what others really think of you. You’ll find out who supports you and who doesn’t. ‘Never lie down and take it’, advises one experienced forum member to those worried about this. ‘Never over explain or downplay why you’re growing. Stand up for yourself.’

I often find conversation with other men is cluttered with non-chat about sport or work. Sarcasm fills in the gaps, and nothing serious or kind is ever discussed. BB however seems like a safe place for men to actually be genuinely nice to other men, and open up about all sorts of subjects they probably rarely talk about. A beard is our thing, and that seems to make it a convenient bridge into something deeper. Men on BB regularly discuss what they’re worried about, how they’re getting older, their relationships, or how to be a man today. BB encourages you to see your beard growth as some – admittedly tiny – journey of masculinity that doesn’t require faking anger at football matches or downing pints. For all the trolls and Nazis and smug SJWs online, this is the internet at its best. A place where we can shake off our real world restrictions and experiment a little with a version of ourselves in a way that’s sometimes hard offline.

I’m still not entirely sure why this place has sprouted such a friendly community, while other forums and websites are troll dens. Some of it is down to the simple fact that everyone in BB feels they’re part of the same noble struggle against the non-beard fascists out there. But as we grapple with how to make the internet a nicer place to be – a task that’s vexing some of our finest minds – it offers some hope. Decent, welcoming cultures can be created online, and once established they have a tendency to maintain themselves – because people like Jim feel its incumbent on them to keep up the positivity.

BB keeps it clean with a battery of closely monitored rules. The forum is carefully structured to encourage constructive discussion. You’ll get an admin warning if you tell someone their crap beard is crap. (Tip: you should say instead, ‘why don’t you try for a goatee?’) Any bullying, abuse, racism, discussion of hair ‘below the waist’ and you’re kicked off. There are even rules about using good grammar (‘Rule 14: Please post using proper spelling and grammar that is readable and understandable to the best of your ability’).

On the introduction thread every user is supposed to read on joining, Dano, one of the admins and beard titan, offers advice for newcomers. ‘There is nothing inherently wrong with a guy wanting to get some feedback on his beard with the simple intent to make himself look better. Just own it… so you wanted advice on your beard. Be proud of your beard and the fact that you were willing to seek help’. As they would say on BB: beard on, Dano, beard on.

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