It’s easy to forget just how long the forum format has been kicking around. When I first started posting on forums, I don’t think the term “social media” had even been invented, and there certainly didn’t seem to be much of a sign that it was going to take over the world in a few years. The social media menu now contains Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram and a dozen other imitators and innovators that my tiny bear mind doesn’t have room to store.
In light of this glut of competing mediums, a lot of people might be asking why they should go to the extra trouble of starting a forum. Why not just interact on Twitter, start a facebook group or pin an... interest with a... pin or something. I don’t use Pinterest. The crux of the matter is this: what does the humble forum offer that its competitors don’t?
One of the first things that springs to mind is age. Forums have existed for so long that the mechanics are now down to a fine art. There’s a moderation tool for every problem that’s likely to arrive, knowledge of bbcode is widespread and there’s no longer an excuse to use the clunky, slow software that we were stuck with back in the day. It’s a format that people recognise, that’s been hammered out and refined to the point where the unique culture and cadence of forums are familiar and easy to grasp. Unlike say, Facebook, we can rely on the fact that forums aren’t going to reinvent themselves every six months. While forums are far from the hippest and most edgy thing out there, that very fact sets them apart from the rest of the achingly hip social media market. Forums aren’t cool, they don’t need to be cool and that coolness can never be taken away from them.
The second is verbosity. Social media is largely associated with short, sharp thoughts and phrases. Twitter is, of course, the pinnacle of this idea. There’s a lot to be said for having a fast way to share those one-liners and brief thoughts, but we’ve all seen things spiral out of control when anyone attempts to use Twitter for anything that approaches an in depth discussion. Forums remain the best way for people to exchange more complicated ideas online. Not just for overbearing political nonsense either. Whether it’s superheroes, videogames, music, knitting, hedgehog husbandry... whatever you can think of, there’s a forum that provides real, in-depth discussion of it.
The last, and perhaps most important, is community. Not in the boring, technical sense by which we refer to all forums. Real community, a real home. People from all over the world coming together to talk about things, blow off some steam. I’ve seen countless friendships form on forums, dozens of relationships and even marriages. Is this possible on other forms of social media? Sure, I’m betting it happens all the time. The nature of social media dictates that all forms of said media share the benefits of all the others. Community is where forums really shine though. Facebook and Twitter can be your private Oasis in a sea of private Oases, but a forum puts you together in a shared environment with dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of other people. You all follow the same rules (hopefully), read the same threads, love and hate the same personalities.
Other forms of social media allow you to share content better than ever before, but forums allow you to share a culture, a dialogue, a community. They require work, expertise and curation in the way that short-form social media don’t (or at least don’t admit to), but nothing compares to the rewards you’ll see from them. Those rewards are greater than ever.
Guest post by Patrick Groome. Patrick is the Administrator of the Penny Arcade forums. Penny Arcade is one of the most popular and long running gaming webcomics and organizer of the PAX gaming conference.