Boxing Against A Tidal Wave
You can’t knock out a tidal wave. You might land with a few good jabs, but the tide of water will eventually crush you (and you will look silly).
A common question in our community is can forums survive?
A better question might be should forums survive?
When social media platforms make it easier and more fun to have a discussion, what is the point of forum-based communities? Many forums (and similar types of communities) are up against tidal waves from both sides.
From one side discussions around shared passions which might have taken place in a forum now take place on Facebook (or Reddit or other large platforms). These keep us in-flow with our existing habits. We don’t have to remember to go elsewhere each day. The platforms are often better too.
From the other side, it’s simply easier to Google an answer to a question rather than ask other people. If you need facts, Google is your answer. Worse yet, perhaps, Google is only going to get better.
You could try to build higher walls around your community and make it better, but you’re in the same boat as the independent video store when Blockbuster came to town (and blockbuster when Netflix appeared).
Don’t fight against the tidal wave, figure out how to swim with it. That means two relatively clear options:
1) Move to popular platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit etc..). Many online comment sections have already done this. You can keep most of your members but lose a lot of control (and existing content/advertising revenue).
2) Play to a forum’s strengths. Focus on deeper discussions around answers you can’t find on Google. You will have far fewer people (more lurkers) but far better quality discussions. You get to focus on creating an asset. A lot of customer service channels fall into this bucket.
3) Get exclusive. Focus on an exclusive feeling of being a part of something different and less mainstream. Hide your content from search and tell those who don’t meet your criteria to go to social media to chat. You will have fewer people, but a strong sense of community and a decent level of discussions.
This isn’t a new dilemma. Independent book stores, groceries, record labels, and many, many, more faced this same dilemma. The biggest mistake is to fight against a tidal wave. Make a decisive decision and push it all the way.
Social media platforms are not a great place for discussion or community building. Social media platforms are great for broadcasting a message with a bit of light interaction. “We’ve got this new thing, tag a friend that would like it”, “What do you prefer thing A or thing B”, “Wasn’t the world a better place when you were 12”,etc. etc.
Forums on the other hand tend to be a deeper and broader discussion. My hobby community that I run is about old modified cars. There are also plenty of facebook pages and groups for these things. Often people will share a picture of a car with little to no context, the different behaviours between the different media are stark. On the facebook post you will get some likes, and a bunch of people tagging their mate who may also like it. On the forum you will (usually) get a source for the picture tracked down, more photos of the car and occasionally (if they exist) blogs and videos about it, sometimes the discussion will spin out into other similar cars or technical aspects of the build.
I’ve also found that nearly every facebook group I’ve been a part of from car things to music to my local town’s one is nearly always dominated by one or two voices. Obviously forums have a predominant posting caste, but it is usually more than one or two people even on small forums.
The inconsistency of message also makes facebook terrible for community, if I put something in a group or a page I run there is no guarantee that people will see it. What is worse is that it is also opaque, at least with a forum thread I can usually get a view count and maybe then I can understand if my title is working, or if I put it in the wrong place to engage people.
There is no separation of self on facebook so if I’m a member of a knitting group and a BDSM group my friends and work colleagues can see this. There is a lot to be said for the different people we are being separated.
So what has facebook got that forums haven’t? Ease of use, particularly in the mobile realm. A critical mass, as you point out you are trying to slice out an audience from a pre-existing set of users that are engaged with the platform. Light interactivity, people are often happy to be told what they like it seems, so no further discussion needed.
There is evidence though that the next generation of facebook users is not so engaged with the platform, or even joining it in the first place. Anecdotally my nieces and nephews have accounts but barely use them beyond occasionally resharing something from tumbler or updating their bands page with gigs
It seems youtube has really hit its stride with the next generation and how do one of the premiere production companies choose to make a community? :
Instead of writing all this (on my phone no less) I could have given a flippant single word response. Reddit.
You can dress it up how you want but Reddit is a discussion forum platform. Even worse it is a threaded discussion platform, like actual Usenet! It adds a novel(ish) way to bubble up good content but at its heart it is a discussion forum.
I should stop ranting here, but there is definitely a part 2 floating around in my head now I’ve released the broad strokes. One other thing I would say in defense of forums, you wouldn’t have got this reply on facebook
Ps. This forum/page isn’t super mobile friendly, I ended up writing this reply in a different app and posting it.
That’s an interesting observation. Why do you think it might be the case?
I think the linear timeline style flow makes it harder for others to have a voice. One of the most overlooked values of the forum style setup is the horizontal navigation. It’s much easier to cut across a range of topics and see what’s going on, possibly?
I think the lack of anonymity, you are still your real self, or at least a projected idealisation of self, will cause you to act in a similar way to the way you would ordinarily. The realm of more anonymised digital communication, from BBS’s to Usenet, to Reddit will see people take on a slightly different self, more usually a more vocal self. The authorities in facebook groups seem to be self selecting, and self selecting from the same sort of boreish ‘authorities’ you meet at conventions and meetups. More anonymised communication is a greater leveler (remember, on the internet no one knows you are a dog), which encourages discussion, but can also encourage a more cartoonish expression of self particularly by those that thrive on the attention.
At least that is why I think that might be the case… why do you think it may be the case?
TBH I hadn’t noticed the trend (but that’s because I don’t frequent Facebook groups). I think your explanation sounds reasonable – there is a much higher level of self-awareness on Facebook, and many people have social media personas that don’t accurately reflect their IRL selves.
I oversee the UK branch of a community called Greenwire which is primarily for people wanting to get involved with local Greenpeace groups. Lots of the local groups have Facebook pages or groups, so this issue has come up a lot over years. Here are my killer arguments for using a community platform over Facebook:
With Facebook, we don’t own the data. We can’t offer any security to users, we can’t integrate it with our other systems, and we can’t control what Facebook sees or has access to. Whereas we would never give or sell our users’ data to other companies or organisations.
With Greenwire we can (to a degree) customise the experience for people. We have a home page that we can control, we can create pages and content to help people find information easily, and people can find and contact each other across different groups. If we just used Facebook, we wouldn’t be able to do any of that.
People come to Greenwire specifically to find out more about Greenpeace, about the community and ultimately to join it. In the UK we get 80-100 new people joining Greenwire each week. If we switched to Facebook, I don’t think we’d get that and we’d lose our ability to find and communicate with that warm audience.
Facebook has clever and complicated algorithms which are carefully worked out to ensure that most people on Facebook don’t see most of what you post, unless you pay for it or unless it’s really popular (i.e. lots of likes, shares or comments). (Not the case for FB groups, but most of our local groups have pages instead of groups.)
There’s loads more reasons but those are my top four when trying to convince people to use Greenwire over Facebook.
A little bit of hope
It works pretty well in the UK (although I know some of our offices in other countries are still struggling with this). I’ve found it’s absolutely key to convince the local group coordinators to use Greenwire, as then their group members have to use it as well. And the Facebook page/group is just a bit of added reach.
Hope that’s useful
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