In defence of forums

When I put “forums are” into Google, the first options that come up are: “dead”, “stupid”, “full of idiots”, and “a waste of time”. Granted, many of those are sensationalist titles for posts refuting exactly those things. Though the idiots are indeed plenty, online forums themselves are far from dead. Modelled on bulletin boards and UseNet of the 70s and 80s, forums are simply threaded discussions around a niche topic, with an invested core membership of subject matter experts. Usually. Naturally, a number of elements are needed to ensure ongoing usefulness, but as a framework for building knowledge and community, they’re pretty solid.

I’ve been an avid participant of different forums over the years. (Catching up on new posts is a great way to fill in time between those adrenaline-induced moments of “stuff is broken!” in a tech support job.) But when Facebook, Twitter, and other activity stream-style options appeared, forums suddenly looked a bit dated.

Online forums haven’t seen much innovation in that time. Some still look dated, while others like Vanilla, have improved the user experience somewhat. Game mechanics, forum analytics, search, curation and moderation functionality are all features that make forum management and engagement easier, especially when aligned with purpose. But the framework of the forum hasn’t changed much because it doesn’t have to. The structure is familiar, and versatile.

Let’s consider what forums offer:

Persistent topics – People can read and add to threads and topics any time, at a time that suits them. There’s more opportunity for a discussion to grab attention than in an activity stream where it might scroll by and escape notice.
Taxonomy – The structure of sub-forums and categories provides a browsable taxonomy. With thoughtful management, that taxonomy can grow as the community needs it to.
Deep engagement – Forums are an efficient many-to-many platform of communication, but they also allow for one-to-one and one-to-many conversations that add to the overall knowledge of the group.
Owned platform – Forums can be owned and managed by the organisations and communities who use them, which puts the security of the data in the hands of the owners; and they won’t be subject to changes at the whim of a provider.
Searchability – As long as relevancy and quality are part of the algorithm, forum searches can return related posts irrespective of age.

While I think forum software doesn’t need a whole lot of innovation, it’s the attitudes to adoption and use that do. Purpose is paramount. Clearly define and communicate the reason for the forum’s existence. Measure the engagement and the contribution to the related business outcomes. Moderation may be critical to a good experience, or maybe you’ll just need to set some guidelines for self-governance. With care and consistency, forums are fertile ground for long-lived relationships and ongoing learning, so don’t write them off yet.