In my recent soul-searching post on where digital engagement is heading next, I mentioned that social media needs to embed itself back into digital work as a whole.
This is in part for protection – if ‘playing around with Facebook’ is a separate team or activity, it’s ripe for being cut, frankly (I worry for those few social media officers out there).
But it is also for the reason that an integrated approach to digital, including traditional web stuff, plus email, plus the interactive bits, probably makes sense. Of course, there is then the next stage of integration, which would be into other, non-digital comms and engagement activity – but I’m even less of an expert in that sort of thing so won’t talk too much about it.
A direction that this line of thinking took me in the other day was towards forums: pretty traditional bulletin board style sites that feel like they have been around forever.
In case you were wondering, forums are online discussion sites, where threaded conversations are organised into topics. Users can quote and reply to one another in a fairly linear way.They’re most un-social media like, for a number of reasons, some techie, some not.
For example, the technology is not always the most sophisticated, and it doesn’t tend to integrate too well with your other online profiles. Also, unless the people running the forum manages it really tightly, they can quickly degenerate into bickering bear-pits where nothing constructive is ever discussed. It’s also pretty hard to keep conversations on track and to make it easy for people to find information – topics are often repeats of those already discussed, which can frustrate everyone involved.
But it strikes me that despite Facebook’s huge numbers, and the growth of Twitter and blogging (all great things, by the way, and I am not suggesting anybody stops being involved with them!), an awful lot of mass engagement online is with the forums.
Think about some of the big online communities, and what technology drives them. There are the communities of interest, like NetMums (and MumsNet), Money Saving Expert, the Student Room. Also the communities of place, like the Sheffield forum, the East Dulwich forum – and smaller ones like Around Ampthill. The number of active members and posts on these sites can be frightening.
Support communities around software or services are almost always traditional forums, and despite some of the drawbacks of the medium, they thrive, and are full of great content, interesting conversations and detailed information.
Also, those spaces which include forum-type elements are pretty much always the most popular. Think about the Ning sites you belong to, or the Communities of Practice. Try as you like to get people to blog, or contribute to wikis, it’s the forums they always gravitate to first.
There are also some other online communities, which have a rich culture and an insanely dedicated following – but where government folk should generally fear to tread, like 4chan and b3ta for instance (I’ve linked to their Wikipedia entries rather than the actual sites to save your jobs). These are fascinating examples of genuine communities of quite remarkable levels of online influence – and they have pretty simple bulletin board style technology at their heart.
What’s interesting especially about 4chan is the fact that it is anonymous – the very opposite of what social networking online tends to be about. I’m always happy to lecture people on the need to use real names in online spaces to build trust – and I think it is true as a general rule – but sites like 4chan, chaotic and anarchic as they are – seem to succeed without the need for this.
So what’s the point of writing about all this?
Well, when thinking digital engagement, don’t just think social media or social networking. People coming together online has been happening for a very long time and it is vital to focus some of your attention on some of the older-school communities, as well as Facebook groups and Twitter streams.
Second, the best thing about these forums is that they already exist – building them can be very time consuming. It’s a great example of the use of cognitive surplus, with a bit of big society thrown in for good measure, that volunteers are running these spaces (ok, some make money, but not many). Approach those behind these forums and see if there is a way you can work together – they often have a loyal band of motivated and enthusiastic people who care about stuff ready and waiting to contribute.
So are forums the cutting edge of technology? Not really. But they aren’t going away any time soon, and right now they are, I think, one of the most dependable sources of interested, web-savvy people to get involved in digital campaigns. Don’t ignore them.
21 thoughts on “In praise of forums?”
Nice reminder that forums are sometimes enough. I use one (www.louthnet.com/LAMB) for a particular niche interest (mountainbiking in Louth in case you are interested) and have a lot of interest…but almost no interest in taking up Twitter, Foursquare etc. There is a bit of Facebook interest from a few, but for most users the forum is where it is at.
If there’s a subtitle to this blog, it’s this: ‘And how boring can be actually quite cool.’
Quite often people can get absurdly hung up on new tech. From the Twitter discussion that preceeded this blog post there was the beginnings of a rudimentary cool tech map. Stephen Fry’s boxfresh ipad hand signed by Steve Jobs is at one end. Nick Booth’s mum’s 10-year-old mobile switched off to save the battery is at the other. The rest of us are somewhere in between.
Like most people, I cut my online teeth on a forum. Mine was a Stoke City forum called The Oatcake. It could be a useful place to go. It could also be deeply irritating. There are still people on there who to this day are slugging it out over whether or not Gudjon Thordarson should have been sacked three days after winning the Play Offs to get into the Championship in 2002.
However, I’d echo the point you make above, Dave. Without careful and regular moderation you can end up being a platform for trolls, keyboard warriors and wind-up merchants.
Here is another point which in some ways echoes the praise for forums. What is quite groovy is e-mail. Why? Because it’s hugely democratic. Virtually everyone has it. What made me think differently? Two things. The Business Desk in the West Midlands is a business targeted website that drives 90 per cent of its traffic by targeted emails. Those are significant numbers that made me really re-evaluate how we should be communicating. By all means keep the council Twitter streams. But if an opt-in email means that business gets to learn when there are big projects that the council is loking to procure for then everyone is a winner.
Secondly? There was some useful research done by Liz Azyan on the massivegrowth in email use that dwarfs other platforms and means of communication. Liz is rarely wrong on this stuff.
Boring as it is this form of comunication has numbers that others can simply dream about.
** I’m now going to click the box that asks for an email to be sent if there are follow-up comments **
I’d agree with most the points you raise. I’ve been involved in Forums for many years, and the one I currently run has been going since 1996/7. They are great places for specialist, or highly topical knowledge.
They have their own social aspects, hierarchies and ‘feel’ as members pass through them.
Yes Facebook/Twitter is great, but they don’t allow for certain forms of communication – i.e whereas but forums/newsgroups can you openly share your thoughts, at all times, with people with similar interests (whether due to locale, or interest). FB/Tw allow only small fragments of comms.
It’s a huge area I could natter about for hours, and have done on many occasions!
I’d probably disagree about ‘Also, unless the people running the forum manages it really tightly, they can quickly degenerate into bickering bear-pits where nothing constructive is ever discussed. It’ – After a while no need to be tight, just have clearly defined scopes, and area. As well as dealing with political/tension on your site in the appropriate way to desist any form of rebellion.
i love forums and, if I could get officers to commit to engage, we’d use them.
however, when we (North Devon Council) did a survey two years ago (admittedly before social media became mainstream), we asked what kind of online interactions would respondants like to see:
1st – email
2nd – subscription newsletters
3rd – what’s on calendar
4th – webforms
5th – webcasts
6th – blogs
7th – RSS
8th – IM
9th – forums
10th – podcasts
my view, whatever methods you use, put the resource into them to keep them alive, active and engaging. if they become inactive, remove them.
Thanks for dropping by, Peter. I do think it is important given time and cash restraints that existing forums and networks are used by local government to engage locally – I don’t think I would advise a council, say, to create its own forums.
The other thing is just about treating surveys such as the one you carried out with a little caution. After all, simple choices can still mean different things to different people, and there is probably an issue around understanding – probably a majority of people still aren’t really sure what RSS is.
Indeed with a few of the choices on your list, it’s possible to see them in two very different ways: podcasts – the council running its own, or tapping into an existing one? Likewise with blogs, forums, etc etc.
thanks for the response.
i agree with what you say about surveys. we used the results as general pointers and there are other sources of feedback that we use. we’ll be doing real live guerilla user testing – (c) paul canning (or was it jakob nielsen) – very shortly.
we were social media naive when we carried out the survey. if we were to ask the same question now, the choices would be very different (if we were to run such a survey). btw, we did try to explain RSS in words of one syllable.
the survey did, however, give useful pointers and feedback so far has been generally positive.
as for forums, yes we need to tap into existing ones (resources permitting) the same way we use social media, but i wouldn’t rule out running a council run forum for specific topics such as planning policy.
At Staircase.org.uk, we recognised very early on that the traditional forum concept is something that is really useful in engaging people. At the same time, there are certain features from Facebook, Twitter, et al, that are also very useful for engagement.
What we have implemented in creating a new platform for community engagement is a kind of ‘open forum’ system in which every post from a user or organisation is itself part of a forum thread. Our main premise is that people are engaging for personal or community advancement, so they want others to see wha they are saying. We provide a number of different ‘views’ and filters for them to discover new topics adn engage at the level they want to.
If they want to engage with a select group of people, they can create or join a public or private group, the main focus of which is a (traditional) forum, with threads only visible to members of the group.
We are quite keen to hear what others think of what we’ve created so please join us and share your views.