My fascination with web forums
Think about the last time you were trying to find an answer for something online - where did you eventually find the solution? It may depend on what you were looking for, but for me the answer is invariably contained in a web forum somewhere online. Blogs will many times have information about what I'm looking for, but almost always there's a forum thread or two out there that has as much or more info about whatever it is I'm looking for. Forums are as old as the Internet itself (newsnet, bulletin boards, AOL boards, etc.), and yet they're still fascinating to me.
They're so useful, varied and popular and yet they're also so broken in many ways. I really don't think enough effort has been dedicated to "figuring out" why they work, and what can be done to improve on the standard formula. Forums have a pretty common structure - you have a main page where you see "categories" of things to leave messages about, then within those category pages are "threads" or "discussions" which show the first message in the the thread, and the number of replies to it. Clicking on the thread leads to a list of messages about that subject.
This tried and true model serves some of the biggest websites out there. They're not big as say, Yahoo! or AOL, but they collectively have millions of members who produce millions of posts every day. The amount of knowledge and effort going into those sites is incredible - but they seem almost completely under the radar of entrepreneurs or investors because they are so common.
This is what I've been obsessing about lately. I've actually written about forums before, but I'm looking at them with fresh eyes and noticing how interesting they are, and yet how little they've been modernized. I have the sensation there's a huge opportunity here waiting to be taken advantage of.
If you step up a few levels, it's easy to think of *everything* as a forum of one sort or another, yeah? Social Networking contain forums, profile pages with "wall" posts are like personal forums, Yahoo! and Google groups are forums, blogs with comments are forums, company feedback pages are forums, etc. etc. But I'm thinking of the topic-based, shared-experience forums rather than these smaller discussion pages.
I think that may be what attracts me to forums so much. I always go back to my experience with Facebook most of my interactions using the system are one-on-one. I approve new friends, I get a few messages, I leave and read Wall posts - everything is done in the context of one person talking to another, though in the view of the public. I've gone hunting around for interesting forums or groups in Facebook with real content and there doesn't seem to be much there. It's a person-centric social structure, not an object-centered one like most of the forums. You go to the massive IGN forums to talk about games, GaiaOnline to talk about Anime and you go to DeviantArt to share interesting images. These are things I can understand and relate to - it's the difference between going to a party, and going to a meetup or event. I rarely do either, but I much prefer meetings with a purpose, just like I much prefer forums.
The genres of forums are interesting as well to me. I've been fascinated with Japan's 2ch "image board" forum for years now, and recently explored the English-language equivalent at 4chan.org. Both are anonymous forums (which I initially wrote about years ago), neither requiring users to log in, with most posts being written by "Anonymous". Both are also incredibly influential - 2ch much moreso in Japan, but 4Chan is the source of many of the Internet memes we've seen over the past couple years (Rickrolling, etc.). According to Wikipedia, 4Chan's /b/ "random" topic has wracked up an incredible 70MM posts in its 4 years.
Well, most of that is probably the absolute worst trash you can imagine. Even if you've seen it all, hanging out on 4chan for a bit will scar your retinas and challenge your faith in the good of humankind. That said it's the ultimate expression of free speech, and hey, also pretty amusing at times. :-) Putting aside moral and ethical questions for a moment (the racism, sexism and homophobia on /b/ is pretty disconcerting...) I'm just thinking of the numbers. The volume of posts is such that you don't actually have to ever use the "next page" links, simply refresh the topic pages, and posts will bump up over and over again. There's obviously something about this type of forum which is incredibly compelling.
Well, all forums actually. People post and post and post to them. Think 4Chan's number of posts is huge? According to Big-Boards, GaiaOnline has over 1.3 BILLION posts! They're obviously the exception (and are such a force, they're launching their own MMRPG based on their forums, which is crazy), but IGN has 181MM posts in its site, Nexopia has 160MM.
This is what excites me, because it seems for all their size and popularity, most of the popular boards use off the shelf software to do most of their work. And maybe that's fine since the compelling part of the forums ostensibly aren't the features of the site itself, but the topic it's covering. Companies are already taking advantage of the fact that there's little need to innovate - Ning, for example, is essentially just a forum site. Browsing the most popular or featured "networks", their basic forum component is always the core element - with the other features like extensive profiles and friends being secondary. Lefora is focusing just on the forum itself, not even bothering with the social stuff. This makes sense, since it seems that once you've created a forum around a topic, traffic and posts seem to follow regardless of additional features.
But what's to say that by changing some of what's considered standard in forums, there wouldn't be something that's even more compelling?
A few years ago I was doing some thought experiments around this topic when tagging was all the rage and ended up with what I called a "hyper forum" (I wrote about it here.). The idea was to add tags to each post in a normal forum, so you could then follow posts in various dimensions - by date, by thread and by tags. It didn't work out very well as it was incredibly confusing, but it was an interesting experiment.
Going in the opposite direction of adding to forums, how about simplifying instead. For example, is there really a need for both topics and threads? Is there a better way for non-registered users to discover topics (say by word frequency or page-view popularity)? Is there a better way for users to keep track of posts and replies? Essentially what I'm thinking of is a microblog version of a forum - simplified and streamlined.
One of the things I'm obsessed with is "user friction", which is why I love anonymous forums so much. For example, there's zero friction involved in participating in a 4Chan thread. You don't have to register, and the upload field is part of the main form. You just write what you want, add a file and you've instantly added content to the forum. But the site just looks like hell and takes ages to understand what's going on.
The problem however, with all forums especially ones you can post anonymously to is spam and/or illegal activies and content. Years ago I remember wondering why Yahoo! didn't do more to emphasize their message boards or chat rooms. Those are the ones that used to be part of Yahoo! Messenger or linked at the bottom of news posts. Randy Farmer - who's been doing virtual community stuff longer than I've been using a computer mouse regularly - sat me down and explained how the more anonymous a community is, the more work it takes to maintain and the less value it has to users and ultimately to advertisers. The message boards were filled to the brim with spam and the chat rooms were filled with nothing but crude behavior and high probability of "grooming". Since human moderation was expensive, and ultimately impossible, Yahoo! eventually got rid of that stuff as it was just too taxing and/or dangerous to maintain.
Again, this goes back to why Twitter is so interesting. The whitelist system cleans up so much of that stuff it's incredible (as I wrote about here), thus also making it quite valuable. Sure, you might get requests to be be friends with 100 bots a day, but if you don't add them, you don't see their crap in your messages. The question is, how can you duplicate this inherent value in a forum?
I've got some ideas, which is why I was excited to play with the Laconi.ca codebase a bit a couple days ago at my catchall domain Foozik. The first thing I did was bump up the maximum length of a post to 280 characters, and add in automatic embedding of image and YouTube links. It's not a forum, but it's at least a bit more in line with some of my thoughts for features that I think would be interesting to have. I'll most likely start in on the code again from scratch though, as I want it to be unique, but it's good to test out ideas.
I envision this sort of combination of Tumblr, Twitter and 4Chan in my head - where it's super easy to start posting various content types, and easy to keep track of a thread and replies, but with much less baggage of a traditional forum with their tables and links and weird avatars and sigs cluttering the interface. The questions is how to keep the quality up and spam out, and that I'm not sure about just yet... but I feel like I'm close.
Maybe just a couple more years, and I'll have figured it out. :-)