Is The Forum Dying?

Bob Leggitt | Thursday, 5 January 2012 |

Are you a member of a forum or message board? Have you noticed it getting quieter? Have you noticed the administration getting evermore desperate to attract interest? If so, you’re not alone. Through the course of 2011 I noticed a steady decline in activity across several of the forums I’ve used as an actively posting member. Interestingly, whilst I’m still a member of these forums, I myself have become part of the decline in activity – I'm not currently posting on any of them. None of the forums have done anything to upset me, incidentally. It’s just that the most interesting members have gradually stopped posting and moved on, and there really isn’t anything of any substance to talk about anymore. In addition to that, I now intensively create content for my blogs, and so have little time to think about other online activities.

SO WHY ARE THE FORUMS GETTING QUIETER?

Perhaps the greatest flaw with the typical forum system at present is that it doesn’t offer much of a deal for the person who can potentially drive it: namely, the content provider. It’s true of course that everyone who posts on a forum provides content, but by ‘content provider’, I don’t really mean the person who logs in every so often and says: “How do I do this?… Where do I get that?”, or the person who endlessly embeds videos he/she’s found on YouTube, or the person who spends his/her time in the chat section saying his/her boss is an idiot. I mean the highly knowledgeable contributor who can provide good, original content and discussion which will stimulate and maintain widespread public interest. If you take this person out of the equation, everything you’re left with can be found elsewhere, and there’s then no reason why a visitor should frequent that particular forum. But the problem is, this person is already disappearing from the equation. The providers of unique and meaningful content are the most valuable members of forums, but increasingly, they’re finding their own needs better served elsewhere.

To look at the reasons behind this, we first need to recognise the traditional drawbacks with forums, which have always been a problem for important contributors who care about what they post. Here are just some of the issues that conscientious, knowledgeable content providers have traditionally had with forums…

1. Posts are hard or impossible to edit or update in anything but the immediate future.

2. Important or insightful posts get buried among mountains of pointless rubbish and can end up so difficult to find that there’s little point in them being there.

3. The forum is moderated - sometimes with a commercial bias, meaning that the contributor is unlikely to have full licence to post everything he/she wants.

4. Forums don’t usually offer members any potential for financial reward – not openly, anyway.

So forums have never been a perfect place for someone with something of serious value to offer the online world. But what’s recently changed, to entice more of them away? Well, much as I’ve had negative stuff to say about Twitter on this site (all of which I stand by), I think its potential for replacing fourms is now starting to be recognised. At face value, Twitter looks far too limited to compete with a regular forum, and in its infancy I think that’s how it was widely seen. But in more recent times, forum members have started to realise what business-focused individuals have known for ages: Twitter is not an island. It connects to anything and everything, and it integrates in a much less restrictive fashion than a regular forum. There are no conflicts of interest (one of the biggest frustrations for regular forum members) and there’s no pressure to stay on topic, because Twitter has no inherent topic.

For the latter reason, forum members have been realising that Twitter doesn’t potentially replace just one forum. It potentially replaces all the forums they happen to be members of. They can talk to one person about cars, and another person about astrology, all from the same, single account. And that’s much more reflective of life than a regular forum. When you go out to a social event, there’s no one saying: “You can’t talk about this subject… You can’t talk about that subject.” Or saying: “If you want to talk about this, you can, but you have to say it over there in that corner.” Offline, people just don’t communicate in the kind of strictly categorised manner which regular forums demand. Accordingly, Twitter has a more natural ambience, and in my opinion it’s now a very serious threat to any regular forum that doesn’t start to change its approach. 

Couple Twitter with a hosted blogging platform such as Blogger, WordPress or Tumblr, and you have a powerful and wide-reaching combination. A blog of course also affords its poster(s) the valuable feature of proper statistical analysis. The blogger can normally see at a glance what type of post attracts the most interest. But on a forum, the amount of genuine interest is normally impossible for posters to gauge. For one, everyone's posts are lumped together in the same thread, and only the thread gets a visit count - so no individual poster will really know which posts are pulling in the visits and which ones no one cares about. Systems such as 'liking' and 'thanking' can appear to show which forum posts are the most popular, but since I've been blogging, I've lost all faith in those systems.

My stats for another blog show that the posts most 'liked' by other bloggers often perform poorly in terms of wider public interest. At the same time, other bloggers have tended not to 'like' my most 'viral' posts - the ones which have obviously caught on with the wider public. Why's that? Well, 'liking' or 'thanking' posts is often just a bid for reciprocation. 'Liking' 500 posts on a forum (or a series of blogs) is a bit like 'following' 500 unknown people on Twitter. You may not actually give a stuff about what they've got to say. You just know a high proportion of them will at least consider following you back. 'Following' an unknown on Twitter is not the same as going onto Google and searching for something you really want to read. The dynamics are completely different. So on a forum, you never really know if a 'like' means "I really do think this post is an important contribution", or just "Hi, I'm [insert username], and I'm looking for friends and brownie points." With a blog, you do know, because the stats let you see behind any self-serving sycophancy and into the real world. And the real world, in my experience, thinks differently from a forum community.

Most of the good posters I’ve seen leaving forums have in some way latched onto a blogging platform, and used Twitter as a hub for their continued online presence. I think that's more than a coincidence.

WHAT ACTION CAN FORUMS TAKE TO PREVENT OR STEM A DECLINE? 

It’s difficult to see what forums can do about people increasingly recognising the potential of Twitter. The bigger Twitter gets, the harder I think it’ll become for old-style forums to fight it. Particularly smaller forums, which can’t offer much in the way of a ready made audience for good posters. If the forum’s threads typically get no more than two or three hundred visits each, it’s really not gonna take long for an interesting poster to get greater exposure by integrating Twitter with a blogging facility – with the added benefits of greater freedom and greater control to boot. Even without the aid of Twitter, a brand new blog can fairly straightforwardly get a couple of hundred visits inside a few days. Integrate the power of Twitter into the model, and the prospect of getting 500 or even 1,000 views for a good piece of insight on a forum starts to look decidedly limited. The poster’s work is also pretty much dead and buried after a fortnight if it goes onto a forum, whereas if it goes onto a blog it can be highlighted as and when required, and monetised.

The danger for any forum is that once one or two key members move to a Twitter-centric setup, the heart of the community could follow. It can happen very quickly, and as I’ve noticed over the past twelve months, what remains may not be worth having.

One of the other things I’ve noticed during that period is that the forums which have embraced Twitter and allowed conversations started via a series of tweets to flourish, appear to have fared a lot better than those which have suppressed ‘twimports’. In the end, if the conversation is more interesting on Twitter than on the forum (and in my experience it very often is), then that’s where people will go. Even if you suppress or heavily moderate Twitter references on the public board, the gossip will just go ‘underground’ into the PM system, so it’s pointless forums trying to pretend Twitter doesn’t exist.

At least if members know they can continue their Twitter conversations on the forum, they have a convenient and ready-made extension for when the 140 character limit can no longer cope. I believe that encouraging members to use Twitter as well as the forum can render the forum less spammy too. People waffle away aimlessly with their trite one-liners on Twitter, then return to the forum once the conversation needs a more in-depth level of discussion. That seems to me to make sense for the forum. It might be worth more forums pro-actively encouraging the use of Twitter and striving to integrate closely with it.

What forum administrators should also look at very carefully is the kind of thing that drives both members and visitors onto Twitter. We’ve all seen it. There’s nothing but inane drivel on a message board for two solid weeks, then out of the blue, someone starts a rivetingly controversial thread. And what happens next? Yep – a moderator shuts the thread and deletes it. Going forward, forums must understand that scenarios of that nature will drive people straight onto Twitter. Delete abuse, of course, but if you’re going to delete a thread every time someone raises a question the advertisers might find uncomfortable, you’re taking away the exact content the mass audience wants, and handing it to Twitter on a plate. I think some forums will definitely have to start re-evaluating their taboo topics if they want to remain viable in the longer term. No significant number of people will knowingly tolerate over-sanitised content when they can get the unsanitised version somewhere else.

Some forums also need to amend their 'welcome factor'. Forums which are mostly closed to non-members will probably suffer a very quick death if their core members start to move, for example. The same applies to forums with over-intrusive signing up processes: "What's your address and telephone number?"... "All memberships have to be approved", etc. The era of tolerance towards a "Don't even think of joining this forum if you want to lark about!" attitude is coming to an end now too, I think. Yes, these are features the administrators can review and change, but the time to change them is now - before a concerted slump begins. Once people start to turn their backs it's probably going to be too late.

I don’t really know what the future holds for the old-style forum, but it does now seem there’s a flow of thinking which finds the old, categorised format more restrictive than the handicap of a 140 character limit. Twitter still has a lot of flaws, but two years into the future it may have addressed its worst headaches. That must be a massive fear for conventional forums, because if Twitter irons out its problems, or even a couple of them, the wind of change which is currently taking good posters away from the forums that desperately need them, could well become a hurricane.

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