Will Facebook Kill Forums?

Online group discussions have been around since the early days of the Internet. At first, we had mailing lists and the Usenet newsgroups. When the online services like Compuserve, GEnie, Prodigy and the early America Online offered discussions in the form of forums or discussion boards, it gave many average consumers an easy way to carry on group discussions without needing to know how to access the Internet—they just dialed in to a local access number, typed in an appropriate command, and they were talking within minutes. As the World Wide Web started being utilized by the general public, we had forums appear on the Web also. Online discussions grew and thrived.

Blogging was seen as a threat to forums, especially when public commenting was allowed in response to blog posts, but forums have continued through that. Instant messaging programs and Twitter were also seen as threats, but forums operate under a different structure and weren’t really affected. Numerous others have been seen as nibbling away at the share of discussions taking place in forums, but forums weren’t directly affected by much of it. In other words, there have been threats to forums in the past, and forums did not suffer any noticeable direct hits.

Enter Facebook, or any other “social networking” site. Facebook offers anyone with an Internet connection the chance to reconnect with long-lost friends, schoolmates, co-workers past and present, and family members scattered around the globe. By posting a status, a member can tell others what goes on in their life, and offer any other approved person the ability to leave a comment. Facebook has been valuable in helping a lot of people get in touch with others. It has also provided “pages” that offer members a chance to “like” some specific person or topic, or join the group and participate in discussions. Some even offer their own discussion boards. In all of these instances, there is a form of “group discussion” going on, even if it is just within a series of serial comments.

Will Facebook affect the existing forums on the Internet? In my experience, I highly doubt it. First of all, forums have been around a lot longer, and have long-established communities that members may discuss common interests. Facebook topics are too broad, too general, and most of what you read through your friends’ status updates isn’t exactly something you would follow in any standalone forum. Another point is that the quality of discussions many of us have seen on Facebook does not rival what you would see in any well-run forum. You have a lot of “me, too” posts, or thank-yous, or congratulations, much more than you see them in a typical forum setting. Everyday conversation is a primary topic on Facebook, where it is a minor factor on most topic-specific forums out there.

Next, the membership itself is unique in a forum—you have users united through those common interests they discuss, many of which would either bore the general public, or make them a target for flaming, spamming or other unwanted contact. Most of your Facebook friends don’t know or care what your hobbies or favorite topics are. It is also easy to join Facebook and begin posting, especially once you’ve found your friends. But these friends are not ones who would take the time or have the knowledge to join forums, even if they have similar interests. Forums are an unknown to them, and they would rather not be bothered or would rather avoid something they are unfamiliar with.

Forums also offer much more in the way of security, member management and other features and perks provided through the software. Facebook’s implementation of discussions is rather basic in comparison, not offering any page owner or group leader the tools needed to properly structure a discussion forum, or manage and maintain users and posts. Forum software, even the most basic, offers far more than what Facebook makes available to us.

Finally, a major factor is Facebook itself. A lot of members, even current Facebook members, do not trust what Facebook does with their information, and have too many privacy concerns to turn their trust completely over to Facebook. The same could be said about forums and their underlying software, but Facebook has seen a lot of negative publicity over the past couple of years due to the way they were allowing our personal, private information to be used, and the way they handled it. Whether or not the security is actually there or not, members just feel more secure visiting their favorite forum, and feel more like they are visiting “in the wild” when they log on to their Facebook accounts.

In summary, forums are more focused, more structured and much better managed than any group discussion you’ll find on Facebook. Forums have also weathered many changes in online group discussion venues over the years, and have survived. Facebook may have made a small dent in the “small talk” arena and made it easy to share parts of one’s life with their friends, but forums continue to thrive in spite of it. There has been some consolidation and weeding out of lesser forums on the Internet, but this has made the existing players much stronger.

So, will Facebook kill forums? I feel that Internet forums and Facebook are like the proverbial apples and oranges: each has their fans, and each is different. They will coexist nicely, as they serve different needs and a different membership. And even if Facebook falls out of public favor, forums will still be around, even if in a different form than we recognize them in today. Forums fulfill a different need than Facebook, and will grow and thrive because of it.