using forums

The Internet was just a communication tool. It connected a few remote sites and let them talk to each other using an agreed upon protocol. Nodes were added, complexity grew, and millions of new tools were built on top of it. Today, it’s a utility. Young people regard it like an abstract idea, its existence assumed and as technically uninteresting as a transistor radio.

One of the first tools built (and rebuilt) on top of it was the Bulletin Board System (BBS). Using a terminal (that’s a text-only interface — no pretty buttons, menus or images) to talk on an Internet server was the original online community. They became “message boards” and “forums” as they got a nicer interface you could click on, as Mosaic and then Netscape began to define what a web browser would be.

At the turn of the millennium, forum software exploded. vBulletin sold licenses, phpBB gave theirs away for free, and soon dozens more followed in their wake. Within a decade, forums were big Internet business. The larger players mostly consolidated as upstarts continued to appear. Rarely does a year go by without both a new commercial forum and a new open source forum being announced. They continue to evolve but follow the same basic model: a post is made by any user with an account, any other user can comment on it, and the posts are organized into topic areas and ordered by time (or sometimes votes). The veneer is polished, but the fundamental structure remains.

The other most durable type of web application is the blog, but that market is remarkably different. WordPress ate the market, both commercial and open source. No one challenges it; no one “reinvents blogging” every year. WordPress was the state of the art. It continues to define the state of the art. Its momentum and its flexibility seem to sufficiently address the needs of bloggers and their audience.

Why hasn’t the forum market stabilized in a similar way? Because it’s not really a market.

A forum can encompass functionality as broad as the Internet itself. It is the conceptual cardboard box onto which a bit of duct tape and a box cutter can imagine a suit of armor, a child’s magic castle, or a kitten war machine. It’s not designed to run a community, it’s designed as a fundamental communication tool, like a telephone or email. Its longevity is a testament to its flexibility, not its ability to command the market of community software. Calling a forum a community tool is like calling a spool of cotton an art tool. Well, it could be used that way, with much effort. But you could also make it into a pair of socks. What you really want is the cotton woven into canvas, stretched on a frame, and precoated. But no one’s selling that. Everyone keeps reinventing the cotton spool.

The forum was just a communication tool. It connects folks easier than the things that came before it, and was used to do a great many things: get feedback, provide support, gauge opinions, share content, and yes, build communities. But much like the needs of web apps long ago outgrew static pages, so too have the needs of community surpassed a forum, no matter how many plugins you install.

Anything claiming to be “community software” that isn’t a forum has generally focused on two things: focus and reach. Instagram rose by being narrowly focused on sharing photos. TikTok grew on the back of a best-of-breed video editor. Many smaller systems tried to distill the idea of a forum back to its basic post & comment roots. But they all went the way of the platform, which is ultimately self-defeating. Real communities must allow for complexity. Real communities must have friction that can retain unique norms. But these things are anathema to Internet companies today that value clicks, taps, and shares above all else. The idea that you would purposefully design friction into your system is heretical.

And so our community software market is a heap of marketing blunders, with companies lurching from vendor to vendor, and enthusiasts constantly in search of who will cater to their communities’ norms the best for free. I’ve rarely heard anyone describe this problem, let alone try to solve it.

“I’d like to paint something.” “Here’s a spool of cotton.”

“I’d like to sell things.” “Have you tried the Internet?”

“I want to build a community.” “Try forum software.”

It really is the same thing.