The Discussion Forum Universe is Dying, I know Why...

Discussion in 'Managing an Online Community' started by SkepticGuy, Mar 30, 2016.

  1. SkepticGuy

    SkepticGuy CEO, The Above Network

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    I was having a private chat with Sandman, on the subject, and thought it might be productive to bring the core idea out for public scrutiny.

    First, I haven't been very active here lately, I used to be quite a bit. My forum experience is mostly related to our one very big site, http://www.abovetopsecret.com. We have more than 20 million posts on more than 1 million topics that span over 4 million pages as indexed by Google. There's a massive list of headaches associated with managing a discussion community of that size, many of which are technology related.

    We are seeing a gradual drop in overall traffic from new users. It's not yet alarming because we still get good spikes from hot issues in the news, and social media. However, I've been seeing lots of formerly decent boards fade away, if not disappear entirely. I'm sure everyone here has noticed the same, and is concerning.

    I know why

    The primary issue is that the UX (user experience) of discussion forum software has not kept pace with the rapid evolution of the broader user experience expectations of the modern digital user. For the most part, every major forum software provider is still relying on the core UX and information architecture first conceived in the 1990's. From a user experience perspective, discovering new and interesting content takes an effort, and this is the problem.

    Sure, there have been some improvements in the front-end design, but it's just polishing the turd. ;)

    When you compare the overall user experience of popular digital products (especially mobile) like Uber, Facebook, Instagram, Pandora, Evernote, Twitter, Trello, and FitBit, discussion forum software is insanely confusing and complicated by comparison. This makes adoption by contemporary digital users highly unlikely.

    To me, this seems obvious. And we've simplified our UX over the years to keep step as much as possible. So why haven't those with an invested interest (forum software vendors) kept pace with modern UX sensibilities? This is the problem. And anyone using their software is suffering from it.
     
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  2. The Sandman

    The Sandman Administrator

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    Are you sure it's the software?

    It seems to me the social networking sites are built on a foundation of a relatively close-knit demographic - family, extended family, friends, friends of friends, etc. who then talk about stuff, post pictures and videos, link to things that interest them, etc.. There is an inherent connection among members of a group.

    Forums OTOH are built on a foundation of a single similar interest that makes for a much more diverse demographic - the potential for discussion is great but there is such a wide range of members who in the normal course of life would never directly interact with each other. From there you can easily veer off into either divisiveness or lethargy.
     
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  3. SkepticGuy

    SkepticGuy CEO, The Above Network

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    Social media plays a role, but more as a distraction as people become obsessed with how many are following them on Instagram.

    But if you really examine what's happening on the social media venues becoming more popular: Instagram, Facebook Messenger, SnapChat, etc., the type of activity is very similar to the forum experience -- lots of people interacting with each other, who normally wouldn't.

    They discover photos, videos, and short messages that interest them, then comment and share. The activity is often with a broad universe of users who become interested in the hashtag or keywords being used in real time. But the key aspect is that it's easy: the user experience is enjoyable and content discovery is easy.

    When you show someone like that, who is used to that kind of user experience, a typical discussion board, their eyes gloss over and they move on.
     
  4. cheat_master30

    cheat_master30 Moderator

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    What about Reddit? I'm no design expert, but that's got a very forum like look to it, and a lot of 00s style design elements.

    Same with a lot of other popular aggregator sites. Heck, if you want a real retro look, try Hacker News:

    https://news.ycombinator.com/
     
  5. Alfa1

    Alfa1 Administrator

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    Facebook is dying just as much as forums are. Social media were the problem many years ago. There now is competition on many levels. Not just social media. But from informational sites like stackexchange, Reddit as a massive multilingual social groups site and various other massive sites. Many of which are clunky and hard to use. Reddit for example.

    I think the main failure of forum software is that it tried to be forum software only. Very similar to what it was decades ago. One language. No real groups. No end user control. No wiki included. No gamification. Incredibly hard to join. No mobile services and sharing. Forums just need a lot of work. Making a forum successful likely means implementing tons of tweaks and addons. Even if it already has traffic.
     
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  6. LeadCrow

    LeadCrow Apocalypse Admin

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    Once UX is no longer a problem, users of big sites remain troubled by exposure to too fluff, in the form of undesired discussions and interests.
    Reddit thrived partly because it allows users to expose themselves to the sections they are directly interested in, and filter out the site's default sections if they so wished. There's nothing similar for forum except 'ignoring' sections (by simply not visiting, hiding them, or joining usergroups with access to different sections). That list is not fixed over time and membership, which probably helps ensure some variance in activity.
    Personally I think 'hashtags' should replace sections as categories, for everything except as a storage location for discussions (with moderation extended to management of hashtag misfiling/abuse). Follow the topics you want, ignore specific ones, retain a simple experience and do not be penalized for not opting into the site's full spectrum of discussions (which could be considered distractions).

    Existing forum software generally lacks methods to 'filter' exposure to activity to that of relevant usergroups or individuals (say folks with high reputation, a minimum veterancy, and any other criterias that can reduce premium users' exposure to too much fluuf, and similarly increase the visibility of activity you're most interested in - like your forum friends'). The commonly favored solution on forums is still having separate sections for specific usergroups (like premium/paid folks), except it can lead to duplicate sections and discussions. An approach similar to Slashdot and Reddit's could've perhaps contributed to boost the visibility of meaningful contributions, and incentivize users to actually improve their submissions instead of leverage chronologically ordered replies like is still the norm today (IMO threaded post ordering itself is not to credit for the improvements on those platforms, as nothing really prevents the same model from being extended to scripts with chronologically ordered posts).
    On boards with huge activity, allowing users to hide (or just reduce the visibility of, like by collapsing) post display based on a users' own criteria and threshold could IMO only increase retention of those users.

    All such there are strictly opt-in, so interest is already demonstrated and justifiable. Over time, one can also reduce their exposure to content and people there, like by reducing the visibility of certain types of content or unfriending people.

    To extend an analogy to forums, think of your new membership to Facebook being initially preseeded with a preselected list of topics and friends, exposing you from the get-go to a torrent of status updates, instead of a carefully nurtured list of pages and people you manage at your comfort? Big, very active forums can feel this overwhelming.
     
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  7. Drastic

    Drastic Habitué

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    Facebook isn't going anywhere. It's a solid #2 in the world.

    What may be getting smaller is your personal network who uses it. My friends don't post as much as they did ten years ago. It's getting old/boring for us, and for certain friends who have certain jobs - they're not even allowed to be on Facebook without facing scrutiny, so we resort to texting.

    However, for everyone of us who may be 30+ and haven't posted as much, there's tons of new teenagers and college students on it.

    It's not that it's going away for everyone, just for people who have gotten older or who graduated from their university and took jobs that require a clean profile.

    It will go in waves...as you get older or gain jobs that require a squeaky clean profile, that's when it slows down for you, but there's youngin's behind you picking up the slack. That's what's going to be so damn hard to make a Facebook killer...it's literally timeless and everyone has access to it.

    Damn shame one of us didn't think of it!
     
  8. Drastic

    Drastic Habitué

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    That is exactly what happens when I show my Facebook followers the website. They will share and comment anything I post on Facebook, but if I post a link for them to check out the site, and say something like "here it is, and sign up to join us in conversation at the site" they barely click and they don't ever register.

    Too much work involved in registration and not enough instant gratification.
     
  9. SkepticGuy

    SkepticGuy CEO, The Above Network

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    Reddit is a different beast, a phenomenon. But still, the overall usability and discoverability of new content is much better than the average forum.

    Consider the audience, mostly back-end engineers.
     
  10. Empire

    Empire Devotee

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    How can forums make it better?
     
  11. Drastic

    Drastic Habitué

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    More focus on attractive content, easier/faster ability to post new threads, best content on a homepage instead of a forum list that has cut off titles and empty center of a screen. Can start there.

    There's plenty of ways to manipulate XF with the right skills. I don't have the skills, just the ideas!
     
  12. Shawn Gossman

    Shawn Gossman Tazmanian Master

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    To me, this is the foundation of the issue.

    When I login to most forums, I am seeing a different 'environment' and 'culture' than I am seeing with social media connections. People want to be connected with those they care about, know and closely relate to while also being able to get plenty of 'me time' as well. Social media provides that outlet. Many message forums do not because the community is more 'wide spread' than that of social media.

    Not all forums are doomed, though.

    This solution isn't software related and it cannot be solved with a third-party addon. It can solved with culture and the efforts of the owner of the forum. My Skywarn Forum is my experiment into this matter. It is my biggest forum, it is my baby. I've even acquired the main competition and merged it into the forum, that is how dedicated I am to that forum.

    I didn't intend to make Skywarn Forum into the ultimate forum for storm spotters to discuss storm spotting. I made the forum to be the ultimate forum for storm spotters to join and CONNECT with other storm spotters, a social networking outlet for the spotters if you will. When I new member joins, I instantly look at my option on how I can encourage other members to connect with the new members and develop a strong bond and friendship right off the bat. I don't want to focus on members coming back to the forum for the content, I am focusing on members coming back to the forum to see their friends and connect with other members. Content is king in some aspects but in a way, connection is growing into the next king and its eyeing content's throne. Social media is making this into a reality.

    Am I making any sense here?
     
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  13. SkepticGuy

    SkepticGuy CEO, The Above Network

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    I've spend years trying to figure it out. While still not perfect, I've zeroed in on a set of strategies that work. Trouble is, it's all my proprietary work, so the forum software vendors would need recode most of their entire approach.

    The first, and most important thing, is what I call TUX, or Total User Experience. Mobile is vital, especially the mobile user experience. So I don't just create a responsive front end, we have a completely different site, optimized for mobile users. It uses about 50% less overall HTML for faster load times... and is nearly ready for Google AMP.

    As Drastic has pointed out, you need content on the home page, and more. Our home page is a summary of all the popular and important topics from the prior few days. This is the most critical first step for content discovery. Also, you'll notice the main menu is very non-forumish, and is sticky at the top.

    Then we also have Top Topics and Category pages that highlight another easy way to discover interesting content.

    The Recent Posts page is available to all, not just logged-in members. I have no idea why this is disabled for non-members by default in many forum systems. The recent posts threads can also be sorted by flags (likes) or replies.

    The Forum Home Page is also atypical, and not your standard table-styled list of forums.

    Because of our scale and traffic, we serve a "light" version to non-members, and a very rich experience for members. See the thumbnail below which showcases our huge avatar possibilities.

    ama.jpg

    And for the most part, we don't have any tricky jQuery and Ajax feeding/updating content on pages. These things can get in the way of SEO, and really slow things down for people on slower connections.

    I didn't mean to get into self-promotion mode here. :p There's a lot more that needs to be done from a UX perspective, but what I've done with ATS seems to be working as we get about 50 new registrations from social media every day (users can register with Facebook, Twitter, etc.).
     
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  14. sdev

    sdev Aspirant

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    I agree with SkepticGuy. Forums today have a UX-problem, they are just too hard to use. Especially posting new content when you compare to Facebook. And I think FB is the whole problem, many discussions move to FB groups I've seen.

    With that said I actually own a forum that's thriving. The catch? People want to be anonymous while posting. So that's one advantage forum can have (having two users on FB is not practical)

    Wrote this post in another thread, relevant for this thread also:

    Solution brainstorming: Making a forum with only one category, showing all posts directly on the front page (why reinvent the wheel if it works?). (Auto)-login with FB account for posting. Changing posting name should be easy if you want to do that. Next problem is the app. Having an app per forum is not a good idea... I guess Xenforo have to make one for that.

    With this idea you have the fast FB UX-way and you can show ads and have everything Indexed by Google. Might work.
     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2016
  15. Drastic

    Drastic Habitué

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    Off to the drawing board!
     
  16. s.molinari

    s.molinari Leader of Skooppa

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    I agree partially on the position of today's forum software not being "up-to-date" enough for the current world of users. Getting a software like forum software to work equally well on all forms of devices is a huge challenge too. But, it is possible and it is correct that forum software vendors need to step up the game a bit in this respect. However, this stepping up the UI game isn't going to solve the real issue.

    I believe the real reason for the "dying forum universe" is the many other ways to get people together available out there on the Internet, which are much easier than starting a forum. Facebook groups/ pages. Slack Channels. StackExchange sites. Google groups. etc. etc. Sign up, setup the community. Done.

    With forums, it is buy/ get the software, get web space or a server, upload the software, set up the database, install the software and set it up. Setting up a forum takes more steps, and also takes money and more time and even some extra knowledge/ learning. That is simply too high of a hurdle to compete. Starting up a community needs to be sign up, setup the community - Done!

    Edit - oh, and for more flexibility than what is currently available, there can also be a charge.

    Scott
     
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  17. Monkey Wrench

    Monkey Wrench Enthusiast

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    But in what way does this affect the average user?

    I do believe forums currently are not up-to-date with this world. And the UX is part of the problem. I get more and more questions from new members how they can start a new topic, how can they send a private message, who is in charge of the forum, how they can post images, etc.
     
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  18. zappaDPJ

    zappaDPJ Administrator

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    I'm going to have to jump on the bandwagon here and agree that forum software is years behind where it should be. I think part of the problem is coders taking on the role of designers. I wonder how many forum brands actually employ a dedicate designer.
     
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  19. SkepticGuy

    SkepticGuy CEO, The Above Network

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    They likely all do to some extent. However, in the modern digital world, design is typically a subordinate role to UX design.

    With all the apps/products I mentioned previously, and in the case of just about every startup with an app trying to vie for your install, UX design begins first. Planning and mapping the optimum user experience for all the possible constituents is a specialized skill/talent, equal in important to the creative director at an ad agency.

    Consider the default xenForo: It's fundamentally no different than the default vBulletin of August, 2001. Sure, its colors are more modern and its not using HTML tables any more, but that's about it. The user experience hasn't evolved in 15 years.

    Vanilla Forums is just a messy Reddit clone. Phorum suffers from 1998 syndrome. Burning Board was supposed to be different, does have some nice HTML5 techniques (overusing jQuery a bit), but still gives limited access to non-members (insanely stupid). PHPbb is an absolute UX nightmare from 1998, as is SMF... seriously.

    Moot tried to be a very different Disqus styled forum solution with a tech press fanfare two years ago, but uses way too much Ajax tricks and lazy-loading that almost seem designed to prevent search indexing.


    And because of all of this, and the downward spiral of an important Internet niche, who would possibly be disposed to invest time, effort, and capital to retool the concept of discussion boards with modern UX strategies?
     
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  20. Alfa1

    Alfa1 Administrator

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    I dont think that UXD equals design.
    What is the difference between top topics and hot topics? views vs replies?
     
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