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[Invisionize.eu] Matt's Blog - Why social networking is not the end for forums

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I see a lot of questions centred around social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook and how it will affect forums. I also see a lot of people saying that we should focus on social networking for IP.Board to stay competitive. This crops up every few days. It’s regular enough for me to try and encapsulate my thoughts in a single easy-to-link-to blog entry.

Before I get into the real meat of the debate, let’s first take a look at social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

You’d be a fool to ignore the speed at which these sites have grown in popularity. I joined Facebook several years ago before the boom. Back then it was very US-centric and was literally a profile page with a few tools to communicate to other Facebook users. Twitter started life many years ago as “Twittr”; a simple service to allow remotely scattered developers working for a single company to keep up-to-date. Both of these sites have grown rapidly and evolved into hugely influential websites boasting trillions of page views and millions of users.

So, it’s natural to point to these sites and ask “Why can’t I have that?”.

The reason you can’t replicate Facebook on your own site is that forums are little islands of content. Your site is in a great and vast sea with many other islands all competing for the same tourism. Facebook and Twitter is a giant metropolis of users generating user-focused content. These users are well connected with new friends just a short click away.

The humble forum hasn’t changed much over the past decade. Sure, they look a bit cooler. They have a few more widgets and offer more interactivity but essentially they are the same as when I started hacking up BoardMaster ten long years ago. Back in the dark days of the internet forums were ‘bulletin boards’. Very simple programs in which you “logged on” and left a message. This evolved along with “listserv” another simple program to consolidate email conversations into a threaded discussion. The only real revolution came when Infopop (now amusingly named ‘Groupee’) created the flat view board that we’re all familiar with now.

The first question we should ask is why hasn’t the core functionality changed?

The answer is quite simple. The way we interact with forums hasn’t changed. Forums are content-centric by nature. This is a very important point to make. Very early bulletin boards cared little for the user apart from their email address or name so that one knew who authored the content. Think about the forums you regularly visit. Do you visit them to catch up with your buddies or do you visit them to join in a themed conversation? To get support on a product you own maybe? Or perhaps to catch up with the gossip after last nights X Factor? Whatever your reason, it’s almost certainly because of the content, not the members.

Forums haven’t changed because we still need strongly organised and categorised discussion. Facebook may have “discussion boards” on its group pages but it is a weak system. There have been a few stabs at changing forum software, but in most cases they are not successful because they miss the point.

I don’t wish to single out a single application, but Vanilla springs to mind. At first glance, it’s a nice clean board with minimal clutter that will surely appeal to many. But could you run a support community with that software? Can you imagine if you had five software products, how would you categorise the conversations? With Vanilla you couldn’t. And it’s the same with the Facebook discussion plug-in.

Successful forums have a purpose. I’ve seen hundreds of “My Chat Site” forums appear and vanish as quickly because they offer nothing unique. There are thousands of active forums that focus on a single interest, such as fitness, movies or cars. If these forums continue to market themselves correctly and generate a good deal of unique content each day they will be under no threat from Facebook or Twitter.

So, nothing’s changed in ten years?

Not quite. We, at IPS, have made a subtle change in our verbiage. We sell community building software, not forums. This is not just marketing mumbo-jumbo. It underlines that our software has features and tools to build a community. IP.Board is still content-centric but it has greatly expanded the amount of user-centric functionality. We have extended profiles, such as the user-photos, the about-me box, as well as blogs and gallery. These tools add value to your members and give them a secondary reason to come back to your island regularly.

So, why can’t I have a slice of Facebook for my Twilight fan site?

Facebook works because it’s a single site. If Facebook was downloadable software that you had to install then it wouldn’t work. You would need to create different log ins for each site and update each status update individually. Quite clearly that’s not going to set the world on fire.

Twitter works because you make a status update and it’s immediately available to millions of people who can click a button and follow me, or reply to me, or RT my tweet. If you had to copy the tweet to your own Twitter site and paste it, or you had to sign up to my Twitter site to reply, it wouldn’t work.

You can distill this into a simple statement: Facebook and Twitter is centred squarely on its members talking about themselves. A bewildering and expansive array of random subjects.

We, at IP.Board, could easily replicate Facebook’s tools and indeed we have started to see a few creep in, like status updates. But no matter how many “social networking” tools we add, I’m not going to join a Twilight Fan site just to update my status so I can tell its users about my day. Why would I? A Twilight Fan site is full of Twilight fans talking about Twilight. I have no interest in that, and they surely have no interest in me.

I’m sure many Twilight fans are interested in PHP coding, but you wouldn’t add a PHP coding forum to a Twilight fan site and expect it to generate hundreds of new members.

But Facebook is killing me and stealing all my users!

I don’t wish to be obtuse, but if Facebook really is stealing your users, then you need to take a good hard look at your forum and its place in the world. If you don’t have a strong theme or compelling content then your users won’t have a reason to come back and the few friendships that your users develop on your forum will be moved onto Facebook because Facebook is a much better at developing online friendships.

Take a look at any popular site. How about Idol Forums; a forum for American Idol fans. Could you run that 21,000,000 post community from Facebook or Twitter and have it continue to thrive? Of course not.

So you’re saying that IP.Board will eschew social networking as if its some kind of pariah?

Not at all. This is the problem with stating your point of view, it’s instantly assumed that you oppose the other. This is not true. I see value in adding secondary reasons to get your members to come back. Whether that’s to check their personal conversations, or to write up their blogs, or to add their holiday snaps to their gallery. This is what makes your forum a community.

IP.Board 3 already uses Facebook Connect to allow you to syphon off a good slice of Facebook traffic into your community. Don’t expect people to join up just to chat. But if you have a unique reason to visit, people will. Especially as you can effectively log right into the board with your Facebook account.

You can use Facebook and Twitter to generate traffic to your site. We have an official twitter account and an official Facebook page. We use both of these mediums to drive traffic back to our site.

Keep marketing yourself well, compliment your site with social networking, keep your members happy and generating good content and you will continue to thrive.

I’ll leave you with this final thought, Jerry Springer style: If social networking is an unstoppable juggernaut that will devour the forum format then why have forward thinking companies such as Vodafone and O’Reilly just commissioned new communities built with IP.Board?

Zobacz Artykuł w pełnej wersji

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