The forum strikes back - the future of online communities

So firstly I’m really excited about the new forums. But I thought it might be a bit interesting to talk about forums in general, how they seem to have died off a bit, and how I hope they’re making a comeback.

Most of my experience comes from the gaming side of things. I’ve been involved in running gaming communities since the mid 2000s (reading the BBS memories thread makes me realise just how short a time this is!). Back then if you wanted a community, you’d start a forum. Small communities such as clans or guilds would use phpBB (or Simple Machines Forum if they were a bit hipster). Medium sizes ones like larger fansites or helpsites would go for Invision Power Board. And large ones, like the developer’s official forum, would go for vBulletin.

But over the years forums seem to have fallen out of favour with the rise of social media and modern chat options. The big one is the rise of Reeddit. This has turned into the de facto place to discuss many, if not most games. In the past you’d turn to a traditional fan forum, but these have largely died off. Even developers have started using Reddit as the main channel for communication with their fans.

Meanwhile, smaller communities have moved to Discord (a chat application). This was the case for a clan I ran. We had a large, well structured forum, but people preferred to use the discord server. It’s the same for lots of smaller indie games, most use Discord, very few have a forum.

For a while I was starting to feel like forums had gone the way of the Guestbook. A relic of a past internet age forgotten by changing trends and replaced by new technology. I’ve never been particularly happy with this. There’s the obvious concerns with using a third party service and not owning your own content. But they’ve also never seemed like particularly good replacements. The voting system and lack of categories on Reddit means a lot of good discussion is drowned out and it’s difficult to find specific topics. While Discord is fine it’s for synchronous chat only. If you miss a discussion, it’s gone.

This is why I’ve been pleased to see the success of the Twit forums, they’ve given me confidence that forums still have a place in the modern day. I think a lot of this is down to the excellent Discourse software. Software like phpBB has been stagnant for so long - using it feels a bit like stepping back in time 10 years with the lack of new features. Discourse on the other hand feels great to use and modern (in a good way). It just needs to be a bit easier to install I think to see wider adoption.

Has this been the case with any communities you’ve been apart of? I’ve noticed a lot of tech sites for example now have their communities in Slack. Do you prefer forums, or wish they were taken over by a different mode of communication? What features do you think forum software needs to add to help build a strong community? Any stories from running forum based communities?

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Great thoughtful piece, @ThomasMNS. This is the third forum I’ve started for TWiT. We used PHPbb for a long time, then Vanilla. We even had a short lived Twitter clone using identi.ca. But I agree with you that this is a more modern system. Behind the scenes there are lots of features that promote healthy communities and support moderation. And the response from our community has been very positive, so far.

I plan to stay very active here and we’ll see what happens. Thanks for chiming in!

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Warning, this is a bit rambling… I was just remembering some of the things I’ve encountered over the years and as they pop into my head in random order I tried to organize it a little bit. As I was doing research I came across this Wikipedia entry, but haven’t checked it so as to not pollute my memory https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File_sharing_timeline.

There is an entire history of ways to communicate online. Someone should write a book to be honest. I’ve used many over the years… but I wanted to bring up IRC because you mentioned chat. These days Slack is a layer on top of IRC as far as I understand.

Email started it all, which led to Usenet. The Usenet Oracle use to be a really fun “toy”. It had its very own culture where the Oracle was very sarcastic and mean, but in the funniest ways possible. The way it worked is you would email a question for the Oracle to answer (usually existential type questions, but anything as a fun jumping off point would do) and then your cost for an answer was to assume the identity of the Oracle for a session and answer someone else’s question to the Oracle.

Then IRC happened in the late 80’s, and ICQ and the other IM clients in the 90’s. The Internet was kind of stuck in universities in the beginning, and everyone else was using BBSes outside of that. Dial up Internet started to become a thing in the mid 90’s, and Windows 95 was probably how a lot of people got online. There was winsock in Windows 3.11 (for Workgroups) but Windows 95 really made dial up Internet adoption take off.

In the IRC time frame there was a file sharing protocol called FSP. It was like FTP but over UDP. It was popular with file sharers on campus until the IT people got wind and mostly blocked it. In the 2000’s I remember WASTE and other peer to peer chat and file sharing taking off briefly… but then the whole MP3 revolution started, which in my memory started with Windows 98, and AudioGrabber, but I am sure there were other things around besides what introduced me. Then there was Napster and all those other ones that came after, WinMX being the one I most remember. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_P2P_protocols

Then BitTorrent hit the scene, and is still here with us today in some form or fashion. Let’s not forget Mega and that legal battle that still isn’t settled yet. Then of course there are all the file hosts that cropped up and many of them have died away.

It seems like a trend that things develop and then develop a following, and then age out and die down… and the idea comes around again in some new form while the old one is still out there somewhere plugging on in obscurity. As humans we seem destined to want to connect and to forget our past connections and start something “new” over and over again.

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Thanks PHolder. I used Usenet regularly in the 90’s, but I never heard of The Usenet Oracle. Sounds like it was fun.

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It was a hoot, they digested it, I think you can still read it now… not sure if it will still feel the same three decades later: https://internetoracle.org/ Part of it was to come up with the best question or best answer because there were people selected to choose the best of the best and that was mailed out as digest to subscribers. I had a few of my posts selected in the day and I felt kinda geeky proud. I did spend some time looking one day recently, but I never did find anything I recognized.

Edit (I went back and found a small one (not of mine) to share here):
The Usenet Oracle has pondered your question deeply. Your question was:
> If I passed algebra but failed calculus, what does that say about me?
And in response, thus spake the Oracle:
} You do it discretely but not continuously.

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I think it depends on what you’re trying to promote. For long, important discussions, Discord is awful. You can’t publicly search them. I’ll give you a good example: I’m part of the Home Assistant community (An open source home automation solution) and they do have a Reddit and a Discord. But the community forum is indexed on Google so if I have a problem with something, it’s usually been covered in the forum, that I’ve found through a Google search. It’s been invaluable in setting up, maintaining, and growing my system. Along the way it has also built community. You get to know the people of the forum and interact in different places.

I’m glad Leo decided to use this forum. I’ve always loved the feel of Twit’s chat. As a person with a lot of online identities (transgender, bisexual, anarcho-syndicalist, humanist geek) I’ve never felt unwelcome here at Twit. It’s a place where people of all (or no) faiths or political views come together to talk about (usually focused on our love of) technology.

Will it stay around? Maybe, if it has a purpose that it serves. I hope it does, I’m already glad it’s here. Even if I’m still kind of sore Leo killed off my favourite show, Before You Buy (though I do love it’s little nephew, Hands-On Tech). :sweat_smile: I hope this forum continues to grow and serve the viewers.

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Before You Buy was always intended to be a roll-up of discrete reviews. We decided it made more sense just to do the reviews by themselves. Hence H.o.T. I’ve always felt like TWiT has three categories of shows: News, Reviews, and How-Tos. We never wanted to be without the reviews!

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Sorry if my tongue in cheek ribbing didn’t come across. :slight_smile: I do like Hands on Tech (especially ones with Father Robert), I just wish there were more of them. Long interviews with people like Miriam or other tech gurus about new tech was something I always looked forward to on ByB and it really did impact what phones i purchased.

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I am on a ton of forums. Have been for over 15 years. But, in the past year or two - I have seen all of them start to slow down in participation.

Facebook is really killing a lot of forums - expecially some that have been around for years. The various Groups on Facebook seems to have taken a lot of traffic away from many forums, unfortunately.

I don’t like to participate in many of them under my actual name, though. Plus, I don’t want to be on Facebook that much, personally. I like the interface of the forums, personally.

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I’m quite happy that Twit is doing forums again.

I’ve long been a forum fan in general because I like the more focused themes of discussion. Which is one of the reasons I prefer reddit to things like facebook, twitter, etc. I go to my subreddits for the topics I care about and skip over the icky ones that I’d never touch with a ten foot pole. Not that there isn’t bleedover sometimes but facebook and twitter has that so much more.

I have to admit that I was burned out of forums for a bit because I used to be a senior moderator (coordinating a team of a dozen mods) in a big discussion forum a while back. But now I’m liking the re-birth of forums.

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So… so very much this. I recently was offered ad money to use on FB for a group and seeing other people comment made me realise how walled off Facebook is. How data is manipulatied and pushed for revenue generation. I want to get more and more away from platforms where I’m the product (Facebook, Twitter, Google) and seek more local/hosted solutions. Even with IoT, I’m looking for local control.

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Absolutely! So many people I know read that drivel and consider it gospel. Very frustrating.

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I think this forum has already demonstrated its usefulness during the shutdown for the PG&E outage, which sadly probably won’t be the last. :roll_eyes:

It’s certainly a great way for Leo to provide updates and the community to express support, without any disconnects from people being online at different times. Although I do also appreciate the updates on Twitter, which I mostly treat as a read-only noticeboard for official announcements - I generally don’t follow people.

Facebook I want to keep away from if possible. :unamused:

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So true, for people who don’t know better, or does not have the inclination or the foresight or know where to verify the news and information they read online, will just think everything that has been posted is true.
My mom is one of them. :persevere::scream:

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The thing that separates forums from Twitter/Facebook/Instagram, ect in my eyes, is that a forum allows things to be seprated by topics. The one time I tried Twitter I was so frustrated with all the personal crap people posted and very little of the stuff they talk about in their shows. (not hosts here, but a few other podcasts)

I don’t want to see your lunch photos, vacation trip, party photos. I am not your friend, stop using your public feed as if everyone was hanging out with you. Keep your professional and privet lives separate on-line. You may be a good tech journalist, but I don’t give 2 farts about your weekend plans.

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Well, because of my job, I do not like to post things under my real name. I know many of the probationers I am in charge of over the years always want to know more about me. I do not want that.

My entire Facebook acct is locked down, along with friends and photos, etc.