I think the discussion has come up at least twice on every mailing list I'm on: Why don't we move this discussion to a web-based forum? When it came up for the umpteenth time on the Seattle Tech Startup list earlier this week, I jumped in with this comment:
Well, I really do my best to stay out of this type of "meta"
conversation, but I'm always puzzled that people don't know how to
manage their e-mail. Especially on a tech startup list.
I mean, seriously, what e-mail client can't direct mail meeting a simple
set of criteria to a separate email folder?
Harsh? Perhaps. But then I got to thinking about it -- why do I, and so many other competent, technical folks prefer the archaic mailing list format to an online forum? And especially why when part of my business involves creating online forums?
The answer is simple: quantity. I think that those of us who prefer mailing lists simply participate in more different communities.
The benefits of web-based forums
Sure, there's lots of reasons why web-based forums are great:
- Conversations are grouped by topic
- There is one place to go to see an entire history of the community
- Forums are usually better-organized, easier to browse, easier to search
- You can subscribe to some topics and not others, have a very granular control over what you pay attention to
- Forums are "pull" -- you have to go to the site and "pull" the content down, instead of it being pushed to you and possibly interrupting your other activities
In contrast, mailing lists seem archaic, with lots of downsides:
- More stuff to manage -- it all ends up in your inbox if you don't set up smart rules for dealing with it
- Harder to find answers, archives are generally organized by date not topic
- The same questions get asked over and over
Why people want forums
Forums are better for two groups of people: newcomers to a community, and communities where participants invest a lot of time on a daily basis.
If you're a newcomer, you can see all the past activity, and perhaps find your question already answered. You can ask a question without actually subscribing to a mailing list--the barrier to entry is much lower.
Conversely, if you're really invested in the topic, you probably also like having a forum. You can see all the new posts, you can easily answer questions, and you can do it on your schedule. For support groups, community associations, and other groups with people volunteering their time and resources, online forums can be very effective.
For a successful online community centered around a forum, there are some important conditions for success:
- A sufficient number of experts/mentors/senior folks available who actively participate and can fulfill the main purpose for it being there
- A strong moderator to keep out the spam (because with a lower barrier to entry, spam is an ever-present problem)
- Enough "regular" participants to keep the conversation going
Why Forums suck
There's lots of reasons the very people you want to participate in your community might shy away from an online forum.
Forums demand a greater investment in each participant's time.
There's a lot of different software running forums, bulletin boards, and the like. They each have different options, a different way of using them, and different functionality. You need to learn the quirks of each individual forum. And while this is rarely that big a hurdle, it's a mental adjustment you have to make each time you go to another forum.
There's generally a lower signal-to-noise ratio
Because it's easier for newcomers to post to a forum, there's often less interesting stuff there to keep experienced people around. Which means there's generally more beginner posts/requests for help than people responding to them.
Spam can be a problem for both mailing lists and forums, but on forums it can be harder to stop. Spammers find online forums to be a more valuable target, because their goal is to add links to their site to the search engines, and the whole world can potentially see the spam. On a mailing list, spammers can only reach the people who subscribe--so generally there's not as big a spam payoff for the effort.
There are definitely some online forums where you will find solid technical help, extremely helpful people, and vibrant communities--but I would argue these forums have very strong leaders who prefer the online forum format, and have fostered and cultivated a thriving community. Without this type of leadership, or some overriding shared interest that keeps people coming back every day, forums tend to stagnate and die off.
Forums are Pull
In the web bubble, there was a lot of hype about "Push" technology. Basically, "push" are things that come to you, while "pull" are things you have to go visit. E-mail is push, web sites are pull. News feeds are push (once you've gone to your news aggregator).
With push, the content comes to you, you don't have to go out looking for it. With pull, you have to go seek it out.
Many, many technical people participate in multiple communities. At one point I was on upwards of 30 mailing lists, and all this traffic came into my e-mail without me having to seek it out. With a couple of e-mail management techniques (a separate e-mail address for list traffic and automatic routing of lists to their own folders), it's really simple to manage your time and not get overwhelmed by hundreds or thousands of incoming messages. It's a lot harder to regularly visit 30 different web sites to see what's new.
While you can subscribe to (most) forums via a news reader and RSS, you never quite know what you're going to get -- are you going to get new topics, or just new posts on topics you've subscribed to? With e-mail, you get everything, and can then sort and filter as desired.
And because you have exactly the same interface for all your mailing lists -- your e-mail program -- it's easy to learn how to search, sort, and filter messages to find things of interest.
Why your mailing list won't switch to a forum
The bottom line is that in spite of all the flaws of mailing lists, it's much easier for people to participate in many communities at once when they all come to one place -- email.
You will find lots of differences of opinion, but in the open source world, a huge number of competent developers hang out on mailing lists, and simply do not have time to participate in forums. If you want to reach them, you go to where they are. And lots of other communities grow under similar circumstances.
How to make your forum succeed
Ok. I mentioned before that we create forums as part of our business. We do that and lots more, because we can--it's easy to plug these things into Drupal and make them work on a technical level. That doesn't mean they will succeed!
If you're going to add a forum to your site, be aware of the limitations--and the necessity of establishing and leading a discussion until it gets off the ground. Do not expect it to run itself--if you do it right and get some good conversation going, it may take on a life of its own--but it's going to take a lot of work on your part to get it there. Remember that the people who may have the most to offer your community might find it too much work to participate--figure out what you can offer to keep them coming back!
So what do you think? Did I miss any major point here? Do you have the same observations, or see things differently? Leave a comment below!