Before forums came along, if you were crazy about gundogs and you lived in Surrey, the chances were you had never spoken to a group of people that kept working gundogs in the Scottish Highlands.
Forums changed all that.
I have been noticing an increasing number of posts on various forums along the lines of “are forums dying” and “is everybody moving to facebook”
I find this an interesting subject as I have run a couple of forums, one of which I launched in May 2011, and which seems to be one of the few forums that is currently still expanding.
I am a member of a number of forums and whilst many are still recruiting new members, all seem to be showing a decrease in posting. Forums have also had a profound influence on my life.
Through forums I got to chat to gundog trainers in countries all over the world. I learnt a huge amount about how different communities hunt wild game and train their dogs. I made friends in the USA, Australia and Europe, and was inspired to create a non-competitive gundog testing system similar to that used in the states, here in the UK.
I could not have done this without the contacts I made through forums.
This article looks at the question “are people abandoning forums in favour of other social media”
Even the big players are declining
Whilst a drop off in visitors may be very easy to spot on a small forum, in a vast forum with many hundreds of posts every day a decline is not always so obvious.
Not many forums display their statistics for public viewing but the largest forum I belong to does allow access to these, and they make interesting reading.
The posting on this particular dog forum peaked in 2007 when it was three years old and has been in decline ever since. Whilst it is still very busy in comparison with many other forums, there is a steady year on year downward trend in forum posting, a 47% fall overall since 2007.
When the question of forum decline comes up on the forum itself, forum administrators tend to refer to their member ship stats which may show a growth in new members. They remain tellingly silent as to the number of posts being published.
It would seem that people are still joining and viewing on forums, it is the contributions that are falling. The number of new members joining the dog forum I mentioned above for example, has gone up by 35% in the same time period during which posts have fallen so dramatically, this means that proportionately, posts per member have suffered an even greater fall.
You could argue that this particular forum has just reached a point of natural decline, but the same issue seems to be being discussed on forums everywhere. People are joining, and reading, but not posting. And where will that end?
A reference library paused in time
It seems that perhaps people are using forums more as a resource for finding a solution to a problem, or perhaps simply to research an interest, rather like they would use a reference library. And are no longer as interested in using forums as a social meeting place.
The problem is that unless people contribute, the wealth of information will not continue to grow. How long can forums survive as libraries in a world where nobody writes books any more, in a world where all the writers have gone to live on planet Blog?
Facebook and Twitter
The use of facebook during the last three years has exploded. This is despite the fact that many workplaces have banned the use of facebook on all their computers. Many forum members are blaming facebook for the decline in forum postings.
There is no doubt that some of the most useful forum contributors were not purely posting for altruistic reasons. They were also posting to promote their services or products via a signature link or profile. Perhaps they are now seeing a better return on their invested time through facebook and Twitter. The microblogging site continues to grow, and is an increasingly popular way for businesses to promote themselves.
The rise and rise of the Blog
The number of blogs being launched daily is a staggering figure (thousands upon thousands) no matter which source you refer to. People do not always think of blogs as being a social medium but with the easy commenting systems now available, they can be a very social tool.
Many newpapers now also have a commenting function on all their news topics. The opportunity to discuss and contribute is everywhere.
In answer to the question “Are people abandoning forums in favour of these other social media” I think the answer is probably yes. In which case the next question is “why?”
The increase in popularity of smartphones
Like many people I frequently access facebook via my phone. Currently there is no really convenient way to use forums without sitting at a computer . It is certainly hard work typing a forum post on a telephone, whereas ‘like’ buttons, and the short comment style of posting accepted on facebook are a simpler option.
Most forums are ‘powered’ by quite a small number of prolific posters. Many of the most prolific forum posters do so because they have two things in common.
They really enjoy writing, and they have some kind of skill to offer.
This is true for me. I love writing and I have some skill in dog training which I enjoy putting to use to help others that are struggling with their own dogs.
One problem with forums for anyone that loves writing, is that in many cases they automatically lose control over their copyright. The forum whose statistics I quote above is a particular example . This is what they say about my copyright when I post anything on their forum
7. Submission of Content on this Web Site
By providing any Content to our web site:
(a) you agree to grant to us a worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, non-exclusive right and license (including any moral rights or other necessary rights) to use, display, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, distribute, perform, promote, archive, translate, and to create derivative works and compilations, in whole or in part. Such license will apply with respect to any form, media, technology known or later developed;
This is more extreme than some other forums but for any writer agreeing to let another (possibly incompetent) person modify, adapt, or publish their work is quite a big step.
An alternative for keen writers that want to maintain control of their copyright is a blog. When we post up our thoughts, tips, photographs or information on our blog, we get to retain all rights to our original work. We also have much more control over how they are displayed, what other sites we link to and so on. Many writers and photographers now have blogs and I see this as a growing trend.
For more personal conversations, the issue of privacy is an important one. When you post on a forum, you post to the whole world. On facebook you can choose whom you post to. The sort of idle chat that many of us used to engage in on forums is so much more suited to facebook, where you know who is reading what you write.
If I want to chat about my grandchildren, what I had for breakfast, or just moan about my day, facebook is a much safer and more appropriate place to do this.
The value of forums
Forums are a unique source of reference, containing as they do, information contributed by a whole range of different people with one connecting interest. There is still nothing else quite like them online in this respect.
In addition, the information held in forums is usually neated stashed away in individual topic specific boards. It is easy to find what you want.
Facebook ‘pages’ are growing in number, and these do connect people with similar interests but they not generally a good source of reference information. Nor is the information within them organised in any meaningful way. I suspect this may change in the near future.
I believe that niche forums still serve this function of bringing together people with a common interest better than facebook does. And that they are still a wonderful source of information. But forums are costly and time consuming to run. Those providing them need to see that they have created a thriving community. This is their reward for all the hours spent deleting spammers, and ensuring that the forum runs smoothly. If no reward is forthcoming, we will almost certainly begin to lose some of our valuable forums in the future.
It seems to me that forums have two main functions
- Connecting geographically disconnected people with a shared interest
- Providing a source of reference on a specific topic, supplied by a range of contributors
This two functions are now being fulfilled by two different types of application.
Will facebook ‘pages’ eventually take over this function of connecting people with similar interests in a useful and meaningful way?
I am not sure, but with some improvements to the way information is organised on facebook pages, I believe they will.
Will blogs take over the provision of a source of reference on a specific topic?
I suspect that they will. And though many blogs are simply the personal ramblings of the author, there are an increasing number of excellent ‘how to’ blogs now available, with large archives of reference information. Many popular blogs now also provide ‘guest posts’ so that the reader can view a range of opinions, not just those of the author.
It is a little harder to find the information you need on a blog, but I am sure this technology will improve, and blogs are generally a whole lot easier for the owner to manage and control, than a forum
There is only so much time in the day for each of us, and a limit to how much time we can spend in online communications. Something has to give at some point. And I suspect that something may be forums. I am sure that they will be around for a while, but I believe that their long term future is uncertain.
What do you think? Are forums social media dinosaurs doomed to extinction, or do they have a future?