Are forum platforms dead?

👋 Hello everyone. I'm Matt Mecham and today I will be your Rosieland guide.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://rosie.land/posts/are-forum-platforms-dead/
2 Likes

You make a lot of good points, which I largely agree with. But it also feels like you fail to substantively engage with the question of whether forums as an interaction style are genuinely less popular and “favored” than they used to be (I believe the answer is yes, but a well-researched answer to that question would be most welcome!). If they are losing ground, why and to what alternatives (the answers here may be obvious of course)? Perhaps more importantly, is this a problem, and if so, why, i.e. what do we as a species miss by not having forums?. Finally, is there anything we can do about it, and is anyone on the platform side of it doing some of those things?

I feel like some of the blog posts of Civilized Discourse Construction Kit (CDCK, makers of Discourse, which powers this very forum) speak to these issues. But they often do so in a, well, somewhat blindered, “partisan” way. After all, they’re written by someone working at a forum software company. And as I’ve often pointed out in the CDCK “Meta” community, while Discourse as a company is successful and growing, in comparison to other current discussion platforms it is arguably losing ground, and quite quickly depending on where you look and what measures you use. Is that a problem? Or are forums just settling into the best niche for them as an interaction method (as you point out, mostly support discussions)?

1 Like

Isn’t reddit effectively a forum platform? It seems to be that’s the main place that esoteric interest groups ended up. Like minded people with a specialist interest, who can respond to threads?

1 Like

Are forums less popular than they used to be?

I alluded to it in the blog but never implicitly said it, but yes they are less popular. The main driver is just having more options. Roll back to the early to mid 2000s and there were no Facebook groups, Slack or Discord. There were probably about 3 or 4 forum software companies competing for customers.

If you wanted to bring people together to discuss something, then a forum was the only option.

Now a forum platform is just one tool available to community builders and like all tools, you need to choose carefully, and like all tools you can exchange your sledgehammer for a diesel powered jackhammer when you have more ground to break.

There are largely three distinct forum platform types now.

  • The OG. These were huge in the 2000s and have seen sales dwindle but remain healthy enough to support a small 2-3 person team and they carry on. These service the type of forums that I talk about in this article. Generally Gen Xers running hobby/fan based sites. This will continue to reduce in size until they blink out of existence.

  • The Enterprise. Platforms like ours (Invision Community) and others (Vanilla, Khoros, Telligent) that have roots in the 2000s but are sharp enough to see where the market moves. We are seeing a move from hobby/fan sites towards large independent sites (https://linustechtips.com) and brand communities (https://forum.squarespace.com/) and forums owned by media orgs who have millions of daily visitors and tens of millions of posts (https://forum-auto.caradisiac.com, https://boards.cruisecritic.co.uk)

  • The simpler UI ones like Discourse, Flarum and Circle. These offer a different UI from the traditional structure but generally are better for smaller communities as stream based views can get messy when you have thousands of posts a day.

Clearly social media and app based communities like Discord and Slack are eating away at more casual communities. Although Discords UI is just too much and I struggle with it for even smaller communities and Slack really wants to strip out it’s free offer over time. I would argue that the communities that do well on those platforms are not really customers for forums anymore. It’s not that they are choosing Slack because it’s a superior experience, but it is a service that fits the needs of that community better. As much as I have been quite hard on those OG communities for not moving with the times, there are plenty of forums that look like relics from 2002 that get thousands of posts a day. Heck even Hackernews looks like a top lists list from 1999 and it generated 3k views on this blog entry alone.

I see forums being strong with support communities, and communities that are simply too large to fit anywhere else.

1 Like

Honestly, I’ve never really been able to enjoy Reddit. I find the layout confusing but it is really a hybrid of a forum and social media.

Here’s how I mentally visualise it.

Social Media is a city, and you can rent space in that city for your community. You never own it, and you cannot move it to your island, but it has your name on it and as Social Media is a busy city, you get lots of passing trade from the curious and those in need of help. Your website is an island, and to get to your community, you need to show people how to get to Social Media city to find your community. While they are in the city, they may come across other communities serving the same needs. The city is busy and arguments break out often, so there are robust rules and zero tolerance for challenging behaviour.

A forum is an extension to your island. You build it exactly how you want, and you can make it blend into your island perfectly. You can choose your own governance style and build your own rules of conduct. However, there is no passing trade. You need to go the city and try and find people who need your help, and then you offer them a free ride to your island. Some will take the free ticket but not stay, others won’t find the time but a few will and they’ll eventually settle in and be comfortable.

Reddit is like thousands of islands under a giant dome interlinked with roads, with a single governance responsible for everyone’s behaviour.

There are many pros and cons to choices you make for your community and I think I’ve stretched this analogy to breaking point. :grin:

2 Likes

The answers are already out on the market. Forums are long-form, text conversation. Preferred forms of interaction are trending in favor of:

  • Short form communication
  • Imagery or videography
    This is the evolution of digital communication. This is not to say that all forms of interaction will all go to short-form videos on TikTok and Instagram stories (!), but we’re seeing a greater breadth of engagement styles that previously just weren’t possible, and users are choosing these new engagement styles especially for popular lifestyle discussions.

I would argue that, from a strategy standpoint if I were the developer of a forum platform and evaluating the landscape, targeting support discussions may be a short-term win but a long-term loss. I would argue that the biggest support platform in the world is not Quora or Stack Overflow but … (wait for it) … YouTube. Watching someone repair, fix, do-it-yourself is infinitely more informative and easier to follow than a forum post, in many cases.

This is entirely my opinion, but I think we fundamentally have a media problem with forums. There should be no reason why Rosie can’t post an image, a video, an audio file, a PDF file, or a post for discussion (and have the platform optimize the UIX for that file type).

2 Likes

Hi Joel, you finally made it over to the sensible side of community discussions?

Forums will really be sustained by brand based support communities because forums are the only option, at least for now, for large scale organised long form multi-user discussion. That is not to say it will be on the only use-case, but that market will sustain the financial viability for forums to allow us to still offer a solution for independent communities who want a home outside “The City” which includes things like YT, Slack, etc as you do not own your land and it can be taken from you at any time.

YT is great for one-to-many but poor at many-to-many. The person recording the video cannot be effectively questioned or challenged and provide further information on the same URL. Of course there are comments but they are a side show and when the comments reach beyond a few hundred, they are almost impossible to navigate and come back to.

3 Likes

Hey @JoelR! Good to see you here. I would definitely agree that now, more than ever, “content is king,” and YouTube is definitely the go-to-place for mainstream content creation these days. Most product-centric support “research” definitely happens by looking up installation or troubleshooting videos, even though I do agree that, as @MattM mentioned, the comments are a mess to wade through if you want the “discussion” side of things to prevail.

I agree with this view. Strongly. Considering that many forums thrived primarily because text was the predominant form of content on the 1990s and early 2000s web, you would think that there would be a more innovative embracing of various media types to promote media discussions. But I can’t blame forum developers, really, for this - the amount of innovation and research needed, for example, to create truly findable and discernible multi-content-type “conversations” (e.g., responding to a Video with an Infographic and cross-referencing a live-stream, all in real-time, for instance), would require both more investment and more returns than the market is currently generating.

But the Creator Economy is driving a lot of the future of the web, independent or otherwise, and everything from live-streaming over Twitch and YouTube live, to micro-blogging and micro-discussions on Twitter, to meme proliferation and news-breaking on Reddit, is creating a rich truly “multi-media” experience in a way that the term from the 1990s could have never envisioned it. I just do not want the Metaverse to prevail here, because in my view, it is largely misunderstood, craven, and corporate.

An Independent Web 3.0, the likes of which Rosie discusses through IndiependenceHQ, is worthy of advancing.

2 Likes

I think it’s a fallacy to say “videos are popular now, let’s focus on video content on a forum”.

People do indiscriminately consume content from multiple sources and media types however people are also very specific where they consume content when they need help, want answers or want to engage with a regular group of people.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with someone recently who wanted to add a button to reply with a voice note instead of text. This seemed desirable because it’s more convenient and arguably more mobile friendly.

My view is that we should be very cautious of this approach. Putting aside the equality issue in that those with hearing disabilities would find it difficult to access those replies. We would also remove any tangible SEO benefit and exclude a large number of people who do not want to turn off their music or dig out their AirPods to listen to a voice note; which is not easily skimmed. You will also reduce complex conversations into short sound bites. If you feel that your audience would prefer to converse in sound bites, then a forum is the wrong platform.

My point is that forums are still focused on text, not because we are old fashioned but because it remains the most efficient and accessible method of communicating long form thoughts. Written blogs still remain popular despite vlogs existing.

There is a space for video but I cannot see it becoming a focus of forum platforms. I do enjoy TikTok and create short videos for that platform but you’re not going to run a support community via TikTok or videos.

That said, most forum platforms will convert a YouTube link into a full width embedded video so you can, if you wish, post videos and discuss them in the replies.

I go back to my point that communities fail because of leadership, not because forums lack the ability to embed PDFs and music clips. I am not absolving forum vendors from all responsibility, just that our focus is on reducing barriers to entry, better discovery tools, simpler UI and so on.

1 Like

As a species, we miss having forums about as much as we miss drawing on cave walls.

I’m not trying to be facetious. Ten million years ago (or whenever we were cave men - I might be off by a couple of years), we drew on cave walls because that was the technology available then. Then we discovered paper. Then we discovered email. Then we discovered TikTok, etc etc.

My point is that forums were useful for the technology of ten / fifteen years ago. But we’ve moved on to better and richer mediums.

The better question is: is that actually a problem? Forums don’t ‘own’ the conversations of humanity. And humanity doesn’t ‘owe’ anything to forums. And that’s okay.

I’m going to throw out a spicy take: forums aren’t very good at many-to-many support either. The linear style of forum posting is also a challenge once posts reach into the hundreds.

In particular for support forums:

  • Forums aren’t very good at pre-qualifying support questions. A user is presented with an open box, where he can write “HELP ME!!!” or he can write detailed step-by-step instructions to reproduce.
  • Forums aren’t very good at suggesting related support questions or directing users to authoritative documents.
  • Forums aren’t very good at (automatically) handling branches or splits of conversation. Long conversations usually devolve into tangent conversations.
  • Trust, authority, and expertise require much more thoughtfulness.

With that said, I agree that brand support will look to forums. I personally think now - more than ever - is an exciting time in forums. There’s going to be an identity crisis (or identity innovation!) in forums. There are a lot of different ways that forums can align for the future: customer support and response, customer advocacy and activation, customer relationship management, etc.

1 Like

Do you still have your forum, Joel? Have you see any significant trends within your community in any direction over the past few years?

Some trends were already well-established:

  • More mobile and tablet. Less desktop

Some trends are static:

  • Same session duration, pages / session, and bounce rate

Some trends I was able ot take advantage of:

  • Covid
  • Increased monetization
  • Clubs / social groups
  • Niche-specific area of growth

4 Likes

I agree with this. If you look at forums since the Ultimate Bulletin Board (UBB) standard came out in 1997 (replacing Matt Wright’s nested standard), linear conversations are rarely “many-to-many” but are largely (as their name implies) linear, unidirectional one-to-one side-conversations, or consensus-building group-talk (what we’re doing right now). The asynchronous linearity of forums doesn’t lend itself to replicating synchronous conversations, but it certainly does make it easy to preserve the content and to try and surface-up the best replies.

Once again, we agree. Communities are timeless. Forums, however, are just a situational platform. They came about as a natural web-based evolution of Usenet Newsgroups, which in turn were just “public email,” and stemmed from prototypes perfected during the dial-up BBS era’s message bases. Forums are great for capturing asynchronous text entries. But not great for collaboration, multi-person editing workflows, or even - stunningly - for legitimate discussions. Because each poster can be super-selective about who they respond to, when they respond, and can pick-and-choose contributions. So to really create “community” on forums, you need moderation. And this is where it starts to break down. And where most forum managers / admins just give up, and the forum descends into self-management or situational ad-hoc general chit-chat. And, again, today, there are far superior alternatives to both scenarios.

Forums were largely co-opted for use cases where they were never intended, because they were what was around. Facebook, Discord, and Reddit all offer superior “out of box” alternatives to anyone looking for a quick casual chat, a real-time voice-and-video-with-text synchronous experience, and a bubbling-up of best news-breaking content and replies, respectively. But all three of these social-alternatives have huge drawbacks, best discussed elsewhere.

Again, I don’t blame forum developers for this. Aside from the hobbyist market - which is all but dead now, a point that Matt rightly shares above - forums are largely treated as a “bonus” (as in Salesforce’s Community Module, which is often ‘given away’ for free to CRM customers, but offers built-in forums on-par with Lithium’s offering), because all of us who have been building communities recognize a core maxim:

It’s not the Field of Dreams. If you build it, they won’t come. You need to meet the needs of your audiences, and audiences have very specific engagement needs for which forums are, generally, very poorly situated. The exception, again, is the support case, the question-and-answer one-shot format, and the one-to-one side-conversation pot-stirring.

1 Like

I kind of have the urge to shitpost this so I shall get it out of my system

Social Media: So sad that forums are dead now.
Forums: QUIT TELLIN EVERYONE I’M DEAD!!!
Social Media: Sometimes I can still hear their voice.

More seriously like people have said forums used to be the only game in town so when alternatives come along it’s not suprising they’re used less.

I think their advantage in the peer to peer support area is simply that it’s so much easier to search them than say other types of social media and especially indexing video content is a non-trivial problem. So when it comes to companies looking to deflect support calls I don’t think any other medium has managed to do it better. I’d be fascinated to know what people are doing out there with support and other community mediums.

And @JoelR I know Discourse has some features directly related to holding users hands while they’re writing support questions and suggesting relevant forum threads as a user types their post. So there’s still innovation happening here.

But forums are still there quietly dealing with vast amounts of online support conversations for people like Microsoft, Apple and all manner of other companies dealing with tech. It’s partly they’re not sexy any more, they do the jobs they’re good at and they kind of fade into the background.

Btw Salesforce’s Community Module is in no way on par with Lithium/Khoros, it isn’t within a million miles of any real community platform and is worth less than what Salesforce charge for it. I have to deal with it every day so “flee, save yourselves” and all that.

3 Likes

I agree with you on this. In fact, that’s really the only mainstream case - and it’s a powerful and compelling one, especially for companies as we head into this recession looking to cut back on live support and switch over to distributed / asynchronous / community support - where Forums know no peer. Support Defection is an awesome case for forums.

I think of all the forum software developers, Discourse has been innovating aggressively amidst the age of social media, and I have been genuinely impressed with their platform. (I also love Invision’s holding the fort on the classic UX for communities, but I don’t necessarily consider that innovative, personally.). I know Discourse is controversial (given the founders’ spicy take on the role of community), but where game companies haven’t completely switched over to Discord they have been using Discourse to still power community conversations (such as Activision Blizzard).

I guess from my vantage point as an executive - I oversaw our Client Experience and Community Management at a couple of large and legacy software and managed services providers in my prior roles - I found Salesforce’s eagerness to just “throw in Salesforce Community for free” very interesting, and when we invited Lithium to pitch us on alternatives (we weren’t even thinking price at the time) back in 2018 (before or perhaps during the rebrand to Khoros, shortly after the Vista Equity acquisition), I didn’t see anything that stood out. Salesforce’s “killer app” was integrating all of the threads in Community right into the Contact Management and Case Management modules of the CX platform. Definitely hear you that it’s not up to par now, but if I had a Support Case system, I would want it to integrate into my Support Deflection use case (forums). So, for example, if I were using Microsoft Dynamics CRM, I would probably be looking at a Microsoft SharePoint-driven forum alternative (as terrible as they are) purely for the out-of-the-box integration with the CRM.

1 Like

I guess the question is “what is the answer” if it’s not forums for large scalable communities.

There are some communities that are just too big (https://boards.cruisecritic.co.uk) to fit anywhere else. One could argue that you could break it down into smaller communities across separate platforms but that is not a better experience for the site owner nor the community. There’s no way you could run this from YouTube, Slack, Discord or any other app based community (Circle, Tribe, etc). At this scale, I think even Discourse would struggle to make sense of it.

Sites like these get around a million topic views a day and see about 3,000 unique members (not including guests) a day.

While it’s easy to sniff at forums when thinking about smaller more intimate communities, there are a good number of this super-communities out there that forums are the only option.

Most platforms that claim to be a “modern forum” are closer to Slack than what these sites need.

I think Reddit’s ubiquity shows that forums of all shapes and sizes can and should accommodate large scalable communities. There’s no question that when large numbers of people are posting and replying to posts, only an interface that lends itself to this posting-and-replying activity can accommodate that size. And forums are clearly the only game in town for this use case. Like I said earlier, I don’t see Support Communities being able to solve their topic-specific case-deflection question-and-answer style activity anywhere else.

There are certainly many super communities that don’t need to use forums to maintain their size and scope. In fact, almost any community centered around media (live-streaming video and creative content) finds a home on Twitch, YouTube, or Instagram. But I suspect you won’t consider these valid “communities” because they are, in essence, Creator-to-Audience rather than many-to-many. (Though, as @JoelR mentions elsewhere, forums generally aren’t great at “many-to-many” interactions, either.) Consider how influencers on these platforms are able to maintain communities of hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of active followers - and over Patreon or Only Fans, almost all of these are fully monetized - and the only thing linking these users together is reactions, shares, and comments to the Creator’s content stream.

I would argue that those cases were never fit for purpose for a forum, either, but I don’t think that your definition of a large-scale site:

… are necessarily predestined for forums, considering that Influencer Communities have far higher activity levels, viewer numbers, and subscriber revenues than even giant purpose-built forums (like CruiseCritic) can muster today.

I don’t think Slack (or Discord) are suitable forum alternatives. But I also don’t think forums, themselves, are relevant to the Creator Economy, let alone typical content creator use cases (streamers, video producers, musicians, even writers and artists). In the past, forums were contorted to showcase creator content and to reorganize this content into articles or blog posts, co-opting the forum replies to create comments. The platforms that Creators are using offer superior alternatives to all of these use cases, though.

I do think that forums are essential for community-led Support Deflection and, to a lesser extent, enthusiast communities organized around a specific niche topic. But, as I have mentioned elsewhere, almost everyone I know who is interested in a niche now doesn’t search the web to find a forum-based community they can join. They just search for a question and they get a timely, relevant answer on Reddit, given the sheer numbers that Reddit hosts across all of its forums.

I think leadership of a forum-based community is more essential than ever. How you promote your community, cultivate discussions, and nurture new members to join more directly determine whether or not your forum-based community can continue to thrive and be relevant. For new entrants into this field, the use cases become smaller – less about niche interests, more about community-based deflection or discussion or a company’s products or a YouTube star’s productions. In other words, Support / Client Experience use cases. For those, there’s no question - forums remain an essential add-on.

2 Likes

@MattM Thanks for sharing your view on forums. I totally agree on the power of forum on better supporting multi-user discussion and its inclusive design. Regarding the content format, have you seen a transition from long-form text to image/video as well? Are most of the reasons you mentioned technical limitations or fundamental unfit for the forum model?

2 Likes

No, I’ve not seen a shift to video, but images have always been a large part of forum content.

I do not see video or spoken content being a large part of forums for a long time. For every person that is comfortable on camera, there are thousands that are not. Forums offer strong anonymity which would be devalued by being on camera.

Likewise, any SEO benefit is lost without strong labelling of the videos.