Why Facebook and Social Networking May Make Forums Obsolete

Note I have not in any way said they will kill forums, or make it so no forums will ever exist. Because you see, that’s the biggest fallacy from forum owners online, that a new better technology will just make all forums basically die outright and cease to exist.

That’s the fallacy which is stopping people seeing the dying reality of forums, the assumption that if Facebook/Twitter/whatever was killing forums, all forums would be completely stone dead in the water. This has pretty much never happened to anything in living history as far as social trends and technology go, as human culture and progress isn’t completely a mirror of evolution/natural selection.

Remember, TV may have been more accepted in the mainstream than radio, and more people nowadays drive cars than ride horses, but neither completely killed off the old hobby/subject for the dedicated fans. Many people still listen to radio shows, and many hobbyists still get involved in various horse riding activities. They’re just not things the average Joe is used to every day of the week like their ‘replacements’.

So to wrap up the analogy, Facebook and Twitter won’t cause all forums everywhere to basically drop down dead by any means, and a lot of specialist forums will likely survive, in the same way specialist uses of dead mediums will probably still survive the end of said medium’s popular use. Since most people on admin forums run this kind of forum, they probably won’t notice a whole lot when it comes to site activity dropping drastically, but might well notice less new people being interested in or joining their sites. Of course, general forums on the other hand may as well be a lost cause after these social networking sites took over their main functions, but hey, it’s a overused, saturated topic that was already nigh impossible to do well in before Facebook and co made it big. One that even multi million dollar corporations haven’t really been able to break into in most cases.

Quality Website design vs Popularity

Yes, that old chestnut again. Indeed, the title alone is basically a webmaster cliche, which almost always ends up making the news every time it comes up. You know the old adage, the ‘Google/Plenty of Fish/Craig’s List/Yahoo’ have an awful layout, but that layout is all homely and makes all these new users think of some mom and pop store and cause them to click ads, or to keep visiting because it doesn’t look like a corporate site...

Yeah, that’s an annoying cliche. Correlation doesn’t equal cause you know. These sites did well in spite of their layout (in most cases, Google’s is actually decent), not because of it. But you know, that doesn’t make a successful article, and webmasters LOVE easy solutions to the problem of not enough traffic.

I mean, what sounds nicer to you? That your site’s not doing well because of awful content/not enough content/not enough markting effort, or that it’s because it looks like a big corporation and people don’t find it ‘homely’ enough? One requires work to set right, the other requires no effort whatsoever to fix.

It’s an easy article to write and find examples for, but it’s a hard thing to accept that these sites did well off of merits that didn’t come from looking like a bad Geocities website. It’s a hard thing to accept your problems, and even harder to fix them, and this silly idea/article is a really easy confidence boost to give failing nerds.

Activity vs Intelligence of Posters?

It’s been heard online a fair deal that apparently ‘intelligent’ people often hate largely active forums, and tend to stay away from the most active communities. This is where I explain the whole phenomenon.

As I see it, the tendency is that of a certain pattern. For intelligence and forum activity, the tendency seems to be that on forums, one tends to almost be inverse to the other, replacing ‘intelligence’ with ‘skill’ or ‘quality’ in various cases. Maybe it’s because active sites tend towards getting the worse of Sturgeon’s Law and end up getting all the stuff that would usually never make it off the slush pile at a publisher. Maybe it’s because after a certain point, there tends to be a feeling that any single member doesn’t particular matter as much to the community.

What does this suggest for forum admins? Well basically, pick your path carefully. You can try for a forum with no rules or order that hopefully grows massively in about a few months, at the expense of arguably most decent members, or you can try for a forum with a certain amount of order that promotes interesting content.

And both sides have their risks and benefits. Too much rules and too much order tends to drive away even the most elitist of members, especially when you get to the point of basically moderating every single post. It’s not a linear chart here, at a certain point, quality very much often gets sent too far and removes the whole conveniance of using a forum or social network.

On the other side, remember that free for all situations work best with large sites simply because they can arguably afford a high member turnover. Smaller sites... don’t work so well with this concept.

Why? Two things, for one, large forums in big board status tend to have reached the point that pretty much nothing done wrong could do more than kill them gradually. Digitalpoint for example has gotten to the point where to be fair, the mods could literally vanish off the face of the planet and nobody really notice, and where the amount of new members coming in ultimately drowns out the number leaving. Smaller communities have none of this safety net, they’re not exactly ‘too big to fail’, and a bad decision could hurt them far more. Bit like why, in real world terms, Microsoft or Google messing up a few things is pretty much going to have no real effect whatsoever, and a local store doing the same could drive it out of business.

The other reason, is that the big sites are visible, and the small sites need a hook to really be popular. This is pretty much why a small community imitating a large one tends to fail pretty hard, because people not already on the big site tend to be looking for something missing, and finding the exact same level of content is a rather off putting thing. People who don’t care about content quality tend to not really come across the small communities online, and people who tend to not entirely be at the biggest resource tend to be those who do care about how good the content is and the general level of debate.

Forum Software and Activity

Yes, it makes a difference, and a change in this case tends to be seen as a negative thing at the start. It’s often overlooked, with an attitude that ‘anything can be used to succeed’, but this is entirely incorrect.
For one thing, you’ve got to keep in mind that popular software is probably a lot easier for newbies to get the hang of using than obscure or custom made stuff only seen on a very few sites. Things like vBulletin, Invision, phpBB... they’re commonly enough used that a fair amount of people would figure out how to use them without much in the way of a learning curve. Basically, they’re pretty much the Microsoft Windows equivalent of forum software, and it makes their competitors have to either somewhat mimic the layout or fight an incredibly difficult battle to compete.

Plus, it also allows you to get members from the support communities, which is actually a fair amount of active contributors if your site’s topic is close to that of technology. I mean, come on, I’d be lying if I didn’t think old vBulletin/XenForo/Admin Addict/Admin Extra all had roughly the same people as members, and even more so if I discounted that I’ve got lots of intelligent people join based on my activities of support forums. True, it’s more likely if you’re running a webmaster forum for membership on say, the vB/XenForo support forums to gain you a ton of awesome members, but it’s definitely a fair way of gaining activity that often goes ignored.
Changing your forum software is pretty much a nice way to kill the site dead in most cases. Okay, sometimes it works for a while, but my experience is that every site which changed forum software at least once has never really recovered from it. Especially going from vB to IPB for some reason (see, my own site, arguably Admin Extra...)

Bridging... is a complete joke. Do people use the add ons like blogs and such anyway? Debatable, but connecting the forum to a Wordpress MU installation or an external gallery tends to get the feature even LESS used. Maybe it’s because IPB and vB actually somewhat emphasise the add ons, and various bridges tend to assume the two things are seperate bar user base.

It also reflects on how the old admins seem to assume that a standalone forum without any real social networking features (or in many cases, without any more than vB 2 era features) is still a plausible recipe for success nowadays. News flash... traditional forums are slowly dying, and they need all the help they can get. You’re acting like the hardcore in gaming complaining how the Wii is winning and the 360/PS3 slowly dying as the blue ocean strategy comes true, except in the case of forums, it’s Facebook and co swooping in and taking away your future members. Ah well, it’s a matter of time before the old fogeys give up and go away and the future comes true, when forum developers realise the geek minority shouldn’t be their main audience.

Oh, and things like Vanilla are still impractical if not poisonous to most communities, don’t forget it.

And because I’m bored, the ten ways to quickly kill an active community

1. Shut it down.

Well, duh. Giving up is pretty much the same as failing, regardless.

2. Staff getting bored/burnt out/too old for this.

Tends to happen to kids who start a site young then get into middle age while still running said site. Victims of this are too numerous to list at length, but basically, SMB HQ, The Mushroom Kingdom, Rauru’s Return, Ninty, Zelda 101, etc. Need a way to check this? Ask your staff if they’d stick around with any adsense revenue or staff powers. If about half say no, your forum is probably dying.

3. Money hungry new owners move in and abandon the site.

It’s what happened with Admin Fusion. The new owners didn’t try to promote it or fix the bugs, nor change the things the old members hated. Eventually people left and the site is currently a bunch of ruins in a vaguely message board shape. Remember kids, corporate minded owners love to overestimate how good they are at forum management!

4. Internet Brands buys your forum/site.

What? Look at most sites they own, many of the old communities basically packed and left a few weeks/months in. Or in the case of vBulletin, pretty much the entire old community upped stakes and left to XenForo and Invision Power Board.

Before Internet Brands:

After Internet Brands:


Okay, the screens are from two different games, but I needed a happy looking town and one on fire.

5. You start the forum again on a different host with a new database

Under the same name. Okay, this is an interesting one, because there’s about a fifty fifty chance of such a move either bringing the site back to life or killing it deader than dead. On the one hand, better software, style and features can bring in lots more activity, while on the other, you tend to lose a lot of your old members. Basically, if your sites established, this is probably lethal. If your site’s a bit new, this is probably a big benefit to it.

6. Staff vanish without a trace

Okay, this is an interesting one. Not when they get tired, this is when they just vanish and aren’t seen since. This is almost a free host syndrome, since I’ve seen at least three named examples up and die because of this, where the staff don’t visit, hence the site is now just a ghost town of people desperately shouting for help and getting as much response as they would from a brick wall.
See... Funpic, Sitesled, Awardspace and heck, the Flame Warriors forum. Usually caused by everyone with admin powers not giving a damn.

7. The forum is quickly thrown up based on the author thinking their ‘platform’ will carry it through

A very common mistake online is for big companies (the multi billion dollar multinational corporations in particular) to assume that throwing money at a community and not actually working will get it to success. Okay, I guess you might get some success if you literally paid everyone to join and post, but real world ‘credentials’ and real world money doesn’t equal forum success, and even the best bloggers and video makers have realised this to their peril.

Also see... Google Buzz, any attempts by Wikipedia at a search engine, etc...

It’s also a big mistake to assume you can take your personal success, march straight to an unfamiliar market and dethrone the leaders of it near instantly.

8. Over monetising

It’s possible. It’s not quite common, but there’s only so far you can milk the cash cow before it dies. A good tip is that you’ve reached this when you’ve got pop up, under and other ads, stuff sliding across the screen, flash ads and those silly green links in the text that cause hover effects.

9. Change of forum software

[FONT=&quot]Is not something to be undertaken as lightly, or as easy and simple. Moving host was hard, but moving software tends to throw people right off, and will at least for the first few months cause protest after protest after protest to bring back the old software (and if it doesn’t, that alone should set off warning bells)

Unfortunately, it has happened to nearly every site I've seen which changed from vBulletin to Invision Power Board (or vice versa).

Note: This article is written based on past experience, and if all fails, I can name a site for every 'way to kill a community' on the list.