I've been obsessing lately about a new concept I noticed a couple weeks ago. I was looking something up online and found this fascinating overview on Wikipedia of the most popular web forum in the world called "2 Channel" or 2ch. It's a Japanese site which, according to this stats page, gets over 2.5 million posts a day. Wow. The most amazing thing about the site - and the thing that separates it in my mind from just about every other forum I've ever seen is that Anonymity isn't just permitted, it's encouraged. More on this in a bit.

Let's take a step back for a second and follow my thought process... I've started to become fascinated with how many web-based forums are out there, how diverse they are and how popular they are in general. Because I'm mostly a mobile geek, the first time I noticed these types of sites was at All About Symbian run by my friends Rafe and Ewan, or at Howard Forums too. This year, as I've started exploring more info about gaming, I've discovered a ton of other forums about that topic as well. All run on commodity Apache and PHP-based bulletin board apps, these sites aren't anything special visually, but yet host thousands of posts a day by all sorts of people, and if my site gets linked to in a popular thread, those sites can easily drive hundreds and hundreds of referrers my way, both instantly and over time as well.

I guess at first, because of the basic nature of the sites and the rise of Blogging as a daily obsession, I completely ignored these types of site. Maybe you have too, and if so, I encourage you to check out, which has a list of the most popular web based message boards out on the web. Sites with hundreds of thousands of users and millions of messages. In fact, if you added up the messages of the top 25 sites, you end up with 1,158,049,410 messages. Again, over a billion messages on just 25 sites alone.

This sort of puts perspective on the whole blogging stuff, hey? Once you start looking for message boards you find them all over - in fact, most blogs today are message boards where one person gets to decide a topic. My site is pretty popular - a nice "B-list" weblog, which gets around 5,000 visitors a day, and roughly double that in page views (not counting RSS traffic). But despite the fact that I post regularly - this will be my 2,607th post - my commentors far out write me, leaving so far 14,251 comments. I remember that I laughed with ironic amusement when Slashdotters would deride Bloggers and blogging, when Slashdot was really a blog, when in actuality, I had it backwards. Blogging today is actually a limited message board - sort of like Slashdot.

This makes sense in a way. Message boards are as old as the Internet itself. For years people used Usenet servers to talk and exchange ideas or dialed into the old-skool BBS software to leave messages for the next person to dial into the server. AOL and other sites picked up the torch later on and implemented tons of channels for normal people to use, and opened up NNTP to them as well (the September That Never Ended). I guess mailing lists and Yahoo! Groups qualify too. The massive popularity I'm seeing of all these web-based message boards out there are obviously just a continuation of this pattern. People love to communicate in groups, it seems.

So once I read about the massive popularity of 2Ch, lightbulbs starting going off in my head. Those numbers are huge! What is the secret?! Why is it so popular? If you read Wikipedia and some other articles about 2channel, you'll get some sort of wacky cultural explanation that the Japanese don't like to separate themselves out from the crowd, etc. Bullshit. I've seen that sort of racist rationality before with Camera phones. "Those Asians love to take pictures, a phone with a camera will never take off in the West..." Yeah, right. I'm sure there are definite cultural differences, I think they're overblown by racial tendencies to try to explain phenomenon. There's a much simpler and more universal explanation: People like being anonymous. It doesn't matter what country you're in.

I see it every day in my blog's comments, actually. And, if you've read my blog at any time in the past, you know I've hated these sorts of anonymous comments with a passion. But there was a reason for this - I equated anonymity with cowardice and had decided to paint all anonymous posters with the same brush. But my opinions are now being refined quite a bit. This is what I'm trying to communicate with this post.

Even though I think blogging is great, there are still many, many people who really don't like the idea of putting themselves out there for all to see and criticize. It definitely takes a certain mentality to want to blog and a decently thick skin to put risk putting your opinions out there with your name on it. (As I recently learned with my Mac Switch Back post). But then, even though only blogging appeals to some, *everyone* has opinions - and all of them are valid, even the ones you dislike for various reasons - and most people do want to express their opinions and others really want to hear reactions and maybe learn in the process. But not everyone wants to be subject to the personal scrutiny that can regularly accompany such an expression.

I think what I'm learning is that most people default to anonymity first, and have to be coaxed into expressing themselves personally afterwards. Yes, there'll always be the people like myself who can't wait to stand up in front of the class and tell everyone what they think, the vast majority would probably rather sit in their seats and let their feelings be known in a less public manner. This makes empirical sense no? We've all seen it. It's human nature.

So in an effort to learn a bit more about 2ch - which I obviously can't read because it's in Japanese - I checked out a clone of the 2ch style of message board called World4Ch to get a better idea of how people interacted with an anonymous board. There's several versions of 4ch because this type of forum gets *so* popular, it can easily drive so much traffic bring down a normal server. There's also a 2ch English Portal to check out exactly the topics that get covered in 2ch as well. You can see there's a lot of fluff topics, but also topics that cover academic topics such as physics and chemistry as well.

This is all fascinating to me. A 2ch-style board works like this: An anonymous person writes a new thread and people respond to it. The more people respond, the more it gets bumped up to the top of the topic list, ordered by the number of responses. To respond without "bumping" the thread up to the top again, you can "sage" your response so that your post doesn't get counted. The most popular boards limit the number of posts in a thread to 1000 to make sure that the thread is revised and fresh. That's mostly it. There are ways of remaining anonymous, but also claiming identity (with a password scheme called tripcodes) and there are image-based boards filled with Anime and Porn called Futabas, but the basic principals still remain.

Once I saw that I started thinking about how to implement this sort of app, and went exploring for any open source implementations to play with and found Shiichan written in PHP. The best thing about it wasn't the code, however, it was that page above which explains the benefits of a 2channel system:

  • Registration keeps out good posters. Imagine someone with an involving job related to your forum comes across it. This person is an expert in her field, and therefore would be a great source of knowledge for your forum; but if a registration, complete with e-mail and password, is necessary before posting, she might just give up on posting and do something more important. People with lives will tend to ignore forums with a registration process.
  • Registration lets in bad posters. On the other hand, people with no lives will thrive on your forum. Children and Internet addicts tend to have free time to go register an account and check their e-mail for the confirmation message. They will generally make your forum a waste of bandwidth.
  • Registration attracts trolls. If someone is interested in destroying a forum, a registration process only adds to the excitement of a challenge. One might argue that a lack of registration will just let "anyone" post, but in reality anyone can post on old-type forum software; registration is merely a useless hassle. Quoting a 4channeler:

    Trolls are not out to protect their own reputation. They seek to destroy other peoples' "reputation" ... Fora with only registered accounts are like a garden full of flowers of vanity a troll would just love to pick.

  • Anonymity counters vanity. On a forum where registration is required, or even where people give themselves names, a clique is developed of the elite users, and posts deal as much with who you are as what you are posting. On an anonymous forum, if you can't tell who posts what, logic will overrule vanity. As Hiroyuki, the administrator of 2ch, writes:

    If there is a user ID attached to a user, a discussion tends to become a criticizing game. On the other hand, under the anonymous system, even though your opinion/information is criticized, you don't know with whom to be upset. Also with a user ID, those who participate in the site for a long time tend to have authority, and it becomes difficult for a user to disagree with them. Under a perfectly anonymous system, you can say, "it's boring," if it is actually boring. All information is treated equally; only an accurate argument will work.

I found this explanation amazing, because it's so true. There have been many times I've been searching for something out on the internet, found a forum with some information but not all, wanted to contribute, but then didn't want to go through a registration process. and didn't bother. Or, I found a bunch of great information, participated in the forum, but could care less who the people who were writing in the forum were as well. They always use pseudonyms anyways, they might as well be anonymous. Also, 99% of the time, people who leave anonymous comments on this blog do so only to be snide, condescending or somehow do something to attack me personally. A blog is the one of the more vain activities you can do, in truth, and anonymity is a tool to attack that vanity, rather than the ideas one expresses instead. It's an age-old tactic, don't attack the idea, but the person instead. Anonymous forums help this considerably.

To me, complete anonymity in a forum is one of those counter-intuitive ideas that don't seem to make sense, but obviously works if implemented correctly. If you think about it, this is just like Wikipedia. They're both similar in that they allow anyone to post what they want on a website, and of course this is going to attract all sorts of abuse like Spam, Trolls, Pornography, and Pedophilia to name a few. So how does Wikipedia thrive in this sort of environment? Well, they have a whole page dedicated to common objections about why Wikipedia won't work. The first part is the best, where it talks about how it handles the trolls and mischief makers. The key is the Recent Changes page, where everyone can watch what's happening on the site, based both on regular and new readers. Basically, community can make anonymity work.

Going forward, I think we can take some Wikipedia lessons and apply to them to forums. I think that 2channel style software is interesting, and it works, but its definitely in need of a Web 2.0-style rev. For one, the topics on the side of the site where you put your threads are static, decided by the site owner only. Well, we've now learned from Flickr and the benefits of letting your users decide on the topics, rather than some arbitrary decision making, thus letting each thread add its own tags, and then bubbling the popular tags to the top will allow a 2channel style board to leap to the future and a board can determine itself what topics it thinks are worth creating threads in.

Additionally, though you can rely on people ignoring trolls, spammers will soon invade the boards looking to post millions of links to increase their page rank in the search engines. What do we do about that? Well, you could mark the whole forum as noindex,nofollow (which wouldn't be that great for ad revenues or discoverability in general) or you can let the forum itself decide what doesn't get indexed. Each post can have a "hide" button. You already see this sort of thing in Craig's List actually. In both their classifieds and forums, you can "flag" a message, and if enough people flag a message, it goes away, with a message back to the original poster. This seems to work as Craig's List is one of the most popular and useful community sites on the web.

Still thinking, I wonder how much arbitrary separation there is between synchronous and asynchronous community communication? In other words, what's the difference between an IRC channel or a chat room, and a message board in terms of content? In forums I see messages that are only one sentence long all the time, and I see long thoughtful messages in IRC as well. Ever see Digg's Ajaxy auto-refreshing "Digg Spy"? It's very cool. The page shows any time people "digg" a URL (i.e. flag it as good). This would be very cool at the front of a message board, no? When I first pointed out 2Channel to Matt his first reaction was "Wow! It's like a massive ShoutBox!" which is completely true! Ever see those shoutboxes that automagically refresh? Wouldn't it be great if it did that, but instead of at some random site, it refreshed with a world-wide conversation about a topic/tag that you chose? ( I also saw some neat similar ideas over on Emily Chang's eHub, definitely check it out).

I say "world-wide" because that's where I see the opportunity for this sort of thing. Though RSS and better Web Searching sort of obviates the need to consolidate message boards into one place, it's also sort of a pain having all sorts of forums spread around in thousands of forums. All of them with all sorts of usability issues and all needing log ins, etc. There might be an opportunity to consolidate many of that those billions of messages into one easy to use, good looking site. Think about it. There's obviously a demand for message boards, and people have shown a surprising flexibility in their willingness to change platforms to get it, no?

There's lots more ideas to consider of course. Thinking, as I always do of mobility, I can imagine easily hooking up SMS to this sort of system and watching 2channel's millions of messages get obliterated over night. If 2ch is so popular with just the folk who own a computer, imagine what would happen if you tapped into the billions of people world wide with a text-messaging capable phone? This sort of system seems custom fit for mobility. Chat plus message boards plus anonymity could be the next killer mobile app. (Anyone want to invest $20 or $30 million I can use to experiment on this? SMSing is expensive... ;-) )

Anyways, that's my new insight. I could be completely wacky, but I think there's an *massive* opportunity there. I'm sharing it because I doubt I'd be able to convince my employer anytime soon to drop the whole Yahoo! ID stuff... ("Yeah, you know all those highly engaged and happy registered users our advertisers love? Forget them.") So I might as well throw it out there and see what people think.


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