Monday, April 29, 2013

The Lost Worlds

The other day, I was going through my list of bookmarked websites and came across an old forum I used to frequent. It wasn't anything special as far as forums go - it was a small Proboards forum made for video game fans to talk about stuff. Back when I was 15, the forum had some good traffic, catering to about 20 different people on a regular basis.

As of yesterday, nobody's posted in the forum since 2010, and the last time anyone had an honest-to-goodness conversation on this forum was 2008.

Remember when 2007 was a year? I think that's when I got a Facebook.

It's a bit strange to go through an old forum like this for me. There was a point in time where people would go on this website on a regular basis and talk about what was going on with their lives. It was all between strangers on the internet, but there was some acquaintanceship in being able to unwind through written conversation. Plus, seeing the same people online - hanging out in the same place - does create a sense of community after a while.

And now, years later, it's completely abandoned. All that's left is an archive of a 2-year bloc of social activity from over half a decade ago. The message board is dead.

How many forums have ended up like this? Hundreds? Thousands?

Before social networking hit its stride with the mainstream, your two real options for online communication were instant messaging clients and forums. You had some options for what forums you wanted to go to - if you were a kid and you were really into video games, you can go to GameFAQs or IGN. For an more general crowd, you could find your way to 4chan or SomethingAwful. Other sites, like YTMND, Gaia Online, and Newgrounds also offered forums for people.

We've talked about these kind of places before - they're the online hubs, with extended histories and bustling communities even to this day. But those are the "big" forums - they can move fast, they can be profane, and they aren't run by you. There's always been demand for the smaller forum setting - the forums that can go at the pace that we desire. Sometimes you see this manifest on the big forums - a website like GameFAQs has a forum for every video game in existence, and sometimes people from more popular game boards will go to obscure boards to foster their own "secret" board.

Still, there's always been the available option to simply make your own forum. Services like Proboards, phpBB, and InvisionFree have been in the business of hosting forums for people since the early 2000s. They offer an easy cookie-cutter design that an interested party can use to make their own custom forum. There's a low barrier of entry, since getting your own forums just requires filling out a short online form and email verification. For more advanced users, there are many options to customize the forum as well.

It's estimated that about 20% of Americans use forums in some fashion. There's no way to get an exact number on how many forums have existed, but it would not be surprising to get a figure in the tens of thousands or more. They are diverse in content, and more often than not foster friendships and communities. Forums are such a prolific part of the Internet that someone even made a role-playing game about the internet forum experience. It isn't so crazy to assert that there's probably a forum for everything.

No, really. For everything. It isn't always great.

Activity tends to be the traditional metric for deciding if a forum is successful: forums with lots of user activity - lots of new threads, new posts, etc - are considered alive. A forum that lacks regular activity - or is even completely abandoned - is considered dead. Therefore, the worth of a forum (or board - "forum" and "board" can be used interchangeably) is ultimately tied to its community.

Explaining why any given board comes to existence is fairly straightforward: Someone was interested in creating a discussion space that they could independently monitor. Either the forum administrator had a group in mind for their forum in advance, or the forum earns its members from web traffic, or both. Users start leading conversations. People start coming regularly to your forum and start recognizing other regulars. Before you know it, activity is bustling, a community is forming, and the board is alive.

But, why do boards die?

The simplest answer is that boards die when they become a redundant service.

Sometimes the administrator of a forum goes inactive for long periods of time. There might have been a substantial user base to the forums, but individual members do not exercise control over forum layout, features, and maintenance. As discussions on the forum evolve over time, the forum cannot be modified to respond to these changes. This causes the forum to become restrictive, which ultimately discourages forum use. Eventually, an individual in the lingering group realizes that there's no reason to stay on the current forum when they can make - or go to - a new forum that's actively monitored. In this situation, the original board dies.

Sometimes the purpose of a board isn't suited for building a community, or is inherently redundant. A generic social forum, among hundreds of other social forums, isn't going to stand out by itself. If there's no incentive for people to stay to a particular forum when they can find something better in another forum, the board dies. At the same time, a forum for a business website can probably be expected to act more as a resource for customers than it would a community domain. Such boards would only be used insofar as a utility related to the business is concerned, and would probably never be very alive to begin with.

Probably not the most active forum in the world.

But sometimes, redundancy of the board is a natural consequence of its community's dynamics.

If people on a forum legitimately enjoy interacting with one another, then oftentimes they'll exchange means of contact outside of the board itself. Oftentimes this is just an exchange of instant messenger usernames; chat clients enable us to communicate with one another with faster gratification, emulating a more conventional flow of dialogue.

There are some pros and cons to communicating on a forum versus communicating via chat. Forums are better for busier people, who can get home at the end of a day and catch up with new posts in a thread. They also lend themselves to more lucid communication - you can meticulously think through what you want to say since there's less of an expectation for your message to be "instant". But for people who are online a lot, and just want to casually talk about whatever's on their mind, the chat option's faster pace will generally be more appealing. If enough people in a community have this option, then what's stopping them from migrating to a chat client?

This question between forums and instant messenger services is very different today, in an age where social networking can offer the best of both worlds and smartphone internet access makes most things essentially "instant".

Despite the continued strong presence of forum communities, the current Internet is a lot different than it was ten years ago. Social networking sites have offered competition in the realm of online communication, and they've had greater proliferation. More than 50% of all Americans had a Facebook by 2011, and the number has only risen from there. 15% of all Americans used Twitter by 2012, a number that approaches people's use of forums. This goes without mentioning blogging services, microblogging services like Tumblr, and Reddit, whose subreddit infrastructure offers a more comparable competition to forum-hosting.

Now, instead of weird forums, we can have weird subreddits!

A lot of forums are on the decline. There are simply too many other ways to reach people now. If you want a discussion space for a group of friends, why don't you just make a Facebook group? I've friended people on Facebook that I've known online for years, and once you cross that bridge, the original message board stops being so necessary.

The forums that do manage to persist are forums that are tied to a website with broader functionality - IGN forums are tied to the IGN website itself, which serves as a gaming media outlet. The media outlet already attracts people to one place on the internet, and the forum becomes a convenient place to talk to people with common interests.

Larger online hubs manage to stay afloat by virtue of being super-structures of human interaction. Interacting with people on Reddit or 4chan offers a plethora of unique information to the viewer. These larger boards also often have some novelty or appealing 'flavor' that keeps them alive - 4chan's forum infrastructure as an anonymous imageboard has managed to keep a certain crowd on the internet very enthralled.

Smaller forums, however, will find it harder than ever to find their start, let alone sustain activity.

Done in jest, but somehow the Onion is just always on the nose.

Proboards has an interesting thing on their site called the forum directory, where consenting forum communities can have links to their boards publicly listed. If you trawl around those lists, you'll find some boards that are still alive and well, with a couple users online and a couple posts made on the same day that you found them. You'll also find some boards that were never alive. These are the boards that got false starts, with about five posts total from 2010 and spam bots advertising kitchen supplies.

But then you have the forums that are in the middle. The forums that were alive. The ones that have hundreds of posts and a decent number of registered members, but nothing new has been posted for years. You might look through the threads, and you'd find posts that were once relevant and important to a group of people that you previously knew nothing about. Maybe some of the things they said were cringe-worthy (as internet posts often are), but maybe some of the things they said hit close to home. Maybe you find something that was actually really well-said, and for a brief moment, you really want to respond to what you just read. And then you realize that that person is long gone.

These are the lost worlds of human interaction. They are the Internet's own version of ancient civilizations, streamlined and archived for the modern world.

What can we learn from them?

There's a lot of potential data to be mined from the many old forums that exist like this. These are testaments to how people interact in the modern day, and are a true litmus test of our modern social needs. These are showcases of how people attempt to govern and regulate themselves in fairly isolated settings. We can draw lines around behavior by age, and perhaps even correlate behaviors with members' locations by IP. We are privileged with being able to approach such boards from a broader perspective. We can study their rise, their peaks, and their eventual decline.

Perhaps we can take away some lessons from online forums. But we should probably keep away from the ones for weird fetishes.

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