Can forum communities survive?

(Lee Lee) #1

Hi All,

I notice that discussions that would normally take place in a traditional forum community such as vBulletin or similar platform are now taking place in Facebook groups or other social media networks instead.

I can’t help but wonder if traditional forum communities can survive long term.

What are some of the things that a forum can do to distinguish itself from social medial platforms such as Facebook groups?

Obviously, there is no straight answer for this, but I would appreciate hearing people’s thoughts on the subject.


Best Practices for Communities of Practice
(Sarah Hawk) #2

I wrote an article on this a couple of years back. It’s mostly still relevant.
Can forum communities compete with Facebook?

I believe the answer is yes, but you need to be smart about the way you use your technology. Will vB survive? I doubt it. Will forums on more modern platforms survive? I think so.

Let’s ask @Suzi_Nelson for her thoughts – I know she feels hamstrung by Facebook and would love to get off it. @Mjbill on the other hand, went the other way and migrated back to Facebook.

If an organisation wants to leverage the potential value of content (and traffic) then Facebook can’t compete.

(Mark Baldwin) #3

It’s all about what’s right for your community and where your members feel comfortable expressing themselves.

I’ve found that in the games industry, communities seem to behave better and are easier to manage on social media platforms and our community has thrived because of what Facebook/Twitter etc can bring. We rely a lot on positive word of mouth to increase the number of people who play our games, so it works really well for us. Plus, around important events like the launch of a new game, we can utilise the tools that Facebook gives us. We also integrate sharing of information from the games to social media, so it’s a perfect platform for us.

(Darren McKay) #4

I’ve recently joined a community that calls a Facebook Group home and it’s quite a frustrating experience. Threaded conversations are not handled very well and often require numerous clicks to ‘view more’ and it can be difficult to figure out what you may have already seen and what you haven’t.

Beyond that, users are at the mercy of the FB algorithm in terms of what they see, when and in what order. Again - it doesn’t help foster the community as it feels like a barrier to discussion, not an enabler.

The community in question polled members to see if they wanted things to stay as they are or to move to a more traditional forum platform. The forum won by a significant margin and plans are now being made to migrate.

Member Spotlight: Suzi Barnes talks Facebook Based Communities
(Jake McKee) #5

IMHO, it’s all about the appropriate location for your users, tech needs, and privacy needs.

We talk a lot about FB, in particular, replacing forums. But FB has one glaring problem that they will likely never fix and the need will almost certainly never go away: trust in what gets seen.

Ever liked something on FB that you didn’t necessarily want your grandmother to see, and then she popped up saying “Hey, I saw that thing in your feed! Very interesting!”…? I’m not doing anything inappropriate on Facebook, but it’s still weird to have business contacts, previous co-workers, high school friends, and disconnected family know certain things about my activities on FB. If I like a politician’s page, for instance, I am broadcasting a potentially incorrect message of support to my entire network… at least as far as I know. I just don’t know how FB is broadcasting my actions, and I don’t know if they’ll change that broadcast rules tomorrow or next week. I just don’t know, so it’s hard to feel confident.

Now, consider this reality when you start thinking about more intimate (cancer survival, domestic abuse, relationship help, etc.) issues… do you trust FB more than a purpose built environment? Even in a business context … do you want to chat about business sensitive or secret topics on the FB environment? Doubtful.

Now all that said, I think we’re due for a really, really big change in how traditional forum software is designed. We’re largely working off a model created 30+ years ago. I don’t think that survives much longer as-is. Or at least I hope not!

(Sarah Hawk) #6

I’m interested in this comment. Do you feel that it applies to DIscourse and Node? I feel like they might actually be the change that you refer to (especially given the flexible nature of open source).

(Jake McKee) #7

I think we’re getting there with those two. I’d like to see us continue to push forward even more.

(David Murphy) #8

It is interesting as I think the growth of facebook has shown the need for forums more than it has distracted from them. Facebook is built for transient content, things that will float around your newsfeed for a few days and then disappear into history. Bite sized, low drag content that you can skim over, absorb and then move on. Discussion is by design not deep, you can’t easily quote or reference previous posts for example.

The worst thing that forum software has done in recent years is to try and ape the functionality of social networks, or jump on the new ‘next big thing’ (I’m assuming someone somewhere has written a piece about ‘bots’ being the new big thing for forums in the last year or so). There is a bunch of stuff that forum software could do better, but the major one for me being to have less noise and allow discussion to be engaging.

That being said it depends on what your “community” is. For forums to work I think they really need to be built around a subject rather than a brand, having the Coke forum rather than managing the Coke community through other media (social or otherwise) makes little sense, but having a Soft Drinks Enthusiasts community as a forum makes more sense.

The Forum I run has a Facebook page and a Facebook Group, they are generally used to share interesting threads from the forum to an audience that are maybe more lightly engaged.

(Sarah Hawk) #9

Yeah, I think I agree with you (unless it’s a support community). They don’t need the traffic, so there doesn’t seem to be an upside. In fact, I wonder where the value of a Coke community lies – they don’t really need brand advocacy or exposure.

Do you ever see cross over? i.e. does that content sometimes draw people to the forum?

(Nice to hear from you BTW @HoTWire)

(Jessie Schutz) #10

I’ve been trying to figure out how I can drive traffic to our support community and surface content, and this is something I had never considered before. I’m filing this away to noodle on.

(Richard Millington) #11

I think the more interesting question is ‘Should’ forums survive?

Do they deserve to exist in the current climate? What do forums do better than any other platform (and do people value that difference?)

My take is that forums probably need to embrace that a lot of the discussions which might previously have taken place are now going to take place in easier mediums. These are mediums that require less clicks, less reading of the material, and are more in our habit cycle (Facebook/Twitter being the biggest).

Private, exclusive, discussions will probably keep moving to private groups on WhatsApp and other group messaging tools.

Where does that leave forums? My guess is either a) nowhere or b) for deeper level discussions. If you focus your forums on frivolous discussions with little long-term value, you’re probably in danger of being gazumped by Facebook. If you focus the forum in the areas that Facebook doesn’t want to go, that’s probably a win.

The problem is this probably means fewer active discussions from fewer active members but a potentially higher long-term readership. If your community is reliant upon advertising, that could be a problem.

(Jay Pfaffman) #12

As @Darren_McKay points out Facebook is horrible for discussion and you can’t even be sure that you’ll see anything. Similarly, twitter is great if you don’t have any thoughts that require more than 140 characters and you don’t care who sees what you say. Twitter too shows you only what it wants, so you can’t know that you’ll actually be participating in a community.

(Richard Millington) #13

Both of these points may be true. The problem is 1.5bn people seem perfectly fine with that. My take is both platforms are perfect for certain takes of behavior (and types of discussions). Our challenge is to figure out exactly what types of discussions should not be taking place on Facebook/Twitter and embracing that.

(Erlend Sogge Heggen) #14

That’s interesting, since it’s contrary to our data at Discourse. Game communities are one of our strongest market segments. I guess it comes down to this:

Please correct me if I’m mistaken, but my detective skills lead me to believe you’re in the Free To Play industry, i.e. “casual games”. I think there’s a strong correlation between how casual an audience is and how much use they’ll have for a forum. Many casual games are excellent, but they tend to not be very deep, which means there isn’t really a whole lot of balance/lore/mechanics/etc. to discuss at length. Take a game like Minecraft on the other hand, and you’ll have multiple forums working 24/7 basically trying to catalogue the entire game.

(David Murphy) #15

Yes we do. It is about finding people’s different level of engagement and then utilising that to drive them to the most suitable channel for communication. My forum is about car stuff (modified old cars to be precise) it is a combination of picture sharing, progress on builds, deep technical discussion, parts and car sales, events and meetup organising as well as a few other bits, forums as a structure make complete sense for this kind of discussion and content sharing. However there is an audience for it that won’t visit a forum every day, or even once a week, so I looked for different ways to reach them as their expertise could be important or their view point interesting. The facebook page and group offer the chance to connect with them (chance being the operative term with the vagueness of the facebook newsfeed algorithm), so I’ll highlight interesting threads occasionally or if we are organising events as links to the forum within the page and group. The group has its own thing going on with a few people consistently posting to it, mainly ebay adverts, which I can then (if they are interesting) post into the forum, so there is kind of a two way communication there.

Here is the thing, online communication hasn’t really changed fundamentally since the days of BBS systems, I should know I have the £400 phone bills to prove it :slight_smile: . We’ve added layers of technology but it is still comment, reply, reply reply. Some of the most popular online communities in the world work off what people would consider antiquated technology, gaiaonline, 4chan, mumsnet. Even if you look at Discourse the latest and greatest forum discussion tool is not a paradigm shift in communication, it is the same basic structure as old BBS discussion groups. The reason is this, at the heart of discussion forums is the need to communicate in a full, rounded way and form community. Facebook doesn’t offer this. Facebook is a subject centered community, that subject is you, outside of you facebook as medium for community building breaks down, the ‘best’ groups and pages are either on message broadcast media “here look at this” style, or reflections of existing social groups. Twitter isn’t community forming, Instagram is slightly more successful but lacks the tools for doing more than that, WhatsApp is great for private pre-existing social groups. Forums still off the best community homes.

Just because 1.5Bn people are using facebook doesn’t really mean anything. If your discussion is so light that it can be replaced with the vapid tools that facebook give you then your community was never going to live for long.Anecdotally I’ve found the next generation are less enamored with facebook.

The problem forums have is that more recently they have tried to ape social networks, which they are not. It is why the newer generation of forum software is more a forum and less social media light. Ultimately the main thing of value is the content, if you have good compelling content then people will come, you can’t just magic that up though. The best of breed of forums gets out of the way and lets the content shine, then encourages people to interact with it.

[31 October] What are you working on this week?
(Richard Millington) #16

I think part of the challenge is it explains what should be happening
rather than what is happening.

And what is happening is forums are getting gobbled up by social media. I
believe there is a place for forums but they will have far fewer members
and deeper discussions. I also believe there will be far fewer of them.

(David Murphy) #17

What do you think social media is providing that is causing them to replace forums?

(Mark Baldwin) #18

This is very true, for the last few years I’ve worked in the free to play sector, but even free to play games have forums. See clash of clans and candy crush to name 2. I’ve been in the games industry for nearly 20 years and I managed forums on traditional games and found them to be horrible places and a breeding ground for the nasty side of gaming. My opinion is that it takes a team of people to effectively manage a gaming forum for not great returns, I personally think that smaller games companies should not bother with a forum and have someone who deals with support queries on email and an effective way of engaging with players on social media.

Minecraft is a totally different beast and definitely needs forums, but I wonder how many people are currently working on managing those forums?

(David Murphy) #19

How many users are these forums usually seeing on a daily basis? We manage the 10k+ a day people that visit our forum via a combination of culture, easy reporting tools and an occasional (as in when we remember to look at admin tools) staff of three people. The most important thing though is culture to make forums easy to manage, having been gaming online for the last 20 years I can imagine that could be super hard to get right :slight_smile:

(Rob Nicholson) #20

Hmm, not sure that’s 100% accurate. I created a highly successful community group for Bollington which has the community coming together in a very positive way most of the time (yes we’ve had the negative as well). It’s gone from nothing to 2,500 members in about 1.5 years.

The nearby town of Poynton had a community group many years before but based upon phpBB. I would never have considered creating a Bollington forum on Discourse. It would have not been a success. There is too much traction behind Facebook in this area.

In fact, I would say a Facebook group is way more community focussed than a forum could ever be.

PS. Of course, I’ve just demonstrated the strength of a forum. I’ve joined, read and digested a thread from a few weeks ago. That would never work on Facebook.