Ode to Internet Forums

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Ode to Internet Forums

The Internet Forum, the great old standby to Web 1.0, has become an endangered species. Most boards are stagnant or in decline, if they still exist. Since 2004, things have changed, and the proliferation of Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, along with the ability of developers to test and roll out new apps and services, has created a wide range of ever-changing options for online users. In the end, it's all about how we communicate. Posting to a message board and hoping that someone will come along and make a comment is a thing of the past. The old use of discussion forums has been replaced by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.

Individuals were very prepared to leave internet forums as they turned into empty personality cults and pseudo-religions for creepy losers. Forums were originally populated by people who knew about self-moderation. But there were more failures and shitheads as they gained more numbers. Many message boards form cliques that are suspicious of others outside their clique and often turn on others who do not agree with them. They throw hissy fits if you have an opinion that is different from their own, and many posters are totally unfriendly. Little wonder posters drop off or stay completely away from message boards. Keeping order in this environment requires a great deal of top-down moderation. Site owners don't actually want to pay moderators for this service, so it's a thankless, stressful, time-consuming job that's also unpaid.

Now there are two kinds of people who are going to volunteer for that job ... 1. the person who wants to give back something, and 2. the person who gets off on the power-trip. Site owners don't care which of these guys gets the job, as long as they get free labor. So you've got a two-pronged crapping of the forum. One prong is the increased prevalence of retards, which lowers the standard of discussion, and the other prong is the tyrant moderator, who enforces his own bias and stifles discussion with an iron fist. Intelligent and interesting posters (read content-creators) are driven away from such a setting, leaving only tyrants and idiots behind. After a while, the same old topics just keep cycling through, and eventually everyone just kind of runs out of things to say. As the quality of the content throughout the forum takes a long, painful, nose-dive... Even the retards get bored with the low quality, and they flock to some other medium that hasn't been ruined yet.

A bit of history

Although the people on these boards digressed almost as often as they remained on the subject, the forums ran under quite specific banners: not only video games, books, music and sex, but also Spanish cars, plastic surgery, grieving, paintball and bodybuilding. Only the largest one, like fanfiction.net, sold ads; others ended up passing a PayPal donation hat. The forums were spontaneous rowdy and often inspiring Internet communities. Millions of users quickly became synonymous with the Internet. They were well-populated. Today, the leading general interest forums, such as Off Topic and Something Awful, have more than 100 million posts. They were where people went for social media, social networking, user-generated content, crowd-consciousness, and interactive real-time web experience.

The main problem

Nowadays most active forums are comprised of the same 5-20 trolls, supremacist nobodies and maturing retirees pissing ceaselessly their time on the web. While this is great for them, it does little to benefit the new user. It's poisonous and it's dreadful and I don't ever see them recuperating. Forums began as a way to broadcast (primary) news and updates to get (secondary) comments and questions back, rather like blog comments. Then evolved to user generated content mills for site owners. The main problem, as I see it, is the "almost anyone can join and say almost anything" publishing model used in virtually every forum. Such an open publishing model is to be praised for its democratic inclusiveness, but the end result is almost always a lower signal-to-noise ratio. So much so that when you google anything, forums are the last to show up. Therefore, people no longer stumble across forums.

With social media, the most productive people can build a platform around themselves. Horrendous online papers like Zerohedge or Dailybeast and pornsites are still thriving as internet forums. To revive the forum realm “anyone can post” model should be replaced with might be called the "magazine model", that is, anybody can submit an article, but only some are published. Forum posts should be article quality with paragraphs, pictures/video and conclusion section. However, for this model to work, site owners have to rethink their business models and that is not going to happen. So as the saying goes: Out with the old, in with the new.

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Ultimately, forums are a secondary focus for many companies. They are a means to an end. Think about it. What do the vast majority of companies exist for? Money, plain and simple.

Conclusion

The forums are not over, but they need an overhaul. When you drill down to forums, you're looking at a threaded, text-based conversation. This is the center of it. They can be so much more, of course, and they generally are. But that key idea is very important to the web experience that many of us enjoy. If one looks at the forums in their essence, they are the single best approach to enable many-to-many interpersonal communication on a subject (or subjects) of mutual interest, irrespective of geographical or spatial concerns.

Offerings such as IRC that allow for higher-frequency conversation but at the cost of continuity and taxonomy that becomes crucial if you're trying to play catch-up. IM and SMS allow for greater personalisation, but do not extend to more than two or three members in a group. The multi-threaded forum is quite clever about how quickly it becomes a powerful tool when people are exposed to it. Conversation on Facebook and Twitter lacks persistence, is more Isolated and fragmented, threading is not as strong, can't be scanned, can't be properly categorized / archived.

Social media produces silos with segmented discussions that are not indexable as forums. Reddit is part of the "pseudo-forum" domain. It's almost like a website and maybe it's a good holdout of the forum days. Not quite a forum, but an overstatement of the culture (though mostly vile). In the end, forums are a tool for sharing information.

I like threads and I like organized information. I like the conversation being structured around topics. It's so much easier and faster for me to jump to a specific forum to find specific answers. Forums, though often slower than social media or live interaction, benefit everyone in ways that social media and streaming can't. If one person has a question, it's not almost privately tweeted to a dev or hidden in a Facebook group. If someone wants information, they don't have to look for time stamps for an hour of live streaming. It's indexable, dude.

In comparison, forum groups feel stronger and more intimate than Twitter or Facebook. I can certainly see why people would say that social media is expanding that community to "everybody" and not just the forum-goers, but it's not the same thing.