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Are forums still relevant in a Facebook world?

Posted by Yi-Wyn Colaco on July 12, 2017 at 7:30 AM
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Last month in Chicago at the Facebook Community Summit, Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s new mission to empower communities and grow FB Groups to one billion users. Currently Facebook has 100 million people (5% of all users) in meaningful groups. To grow Groups by 10x, the company will emphasize community-based features in its product roadmap.

Facebook unveiled five new admin tools at their Community Summit. These tools allow group moderators to: schedule posts; block and add members more easily; analyze group metrics; and link groups to help you find more FB groups to join.

All this begs the question: Does Facebook have plans to make online forums obsolete? The explosion of time-sucking sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat seem to suggest that it would. But roughly 20% of Americans still contribute to forums, according to a PostRelease/Synovate study, and nearly 30% read forums online, according to a recent Forrester report.

Online forums have spent more than two decades working on building highly-specialized communities. Whether it’s dedicated to off-roading Jeeps in extreme weather or solving HTML5 problems for software developers, forums act as powerful communities for connecting users.

People often end up on forums because they provide unique and specific information that blogs, news outlets, or other social media platforms don’t provide. For instance, I’d like to buy a running shoe to replace one that New Balance no longer makes. The goal is to find comfy shoes that will fit my customized orthotics. Turns out a running forum was the best and most efficient way to find my answer and hear from other runners who’ve dealt with the same problem.

Forums also foster a strong sense of identity among users. Whether people initially join a forum like WDWMAGIC, a community dedicated to all things related to Walt Disney World, to discuss the closest hotels to the Orlando park or the best way to beat long lines, what keeps users invested with the WDWMAGIC community is meeting others who really love Disney World too. And it’s that strong connection that drives users to participate and make useful contributions within a forum.

“From a core social perspective, the [desire] to feel connected is a prime social need,” said Jessica Salvatore, a psychologist who studies group dynamics at Sweet Briar College. “The communities that you find in forums are emergent powerful identities.”

In a 2015 study on online forums, Salvatore argued that identification within a community leads to a healthier well-being and drives offline civic engagement like volunteering or campaigning. This is exactly what Zuckerberg hopes to achieve by “bringing the world closer together” by building meaningful communities. What it will come down to is how well Facebook can get users to engage on Facebook Groups instead of other community platforms.

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Getting one billion people contributing to “meaningful communities” within five years won’t be an easy task for Facebook. No doubt Facebook is the king when it comes to social and sharing. Using its new group moderator tools to recommend related groups to join is one way to achieve growth. And once you are on Facebook, whether you are on a mobile device or desktop, it’s incredibly easy to share out a post that appears within your feed back to your FB Group.

But Facebook falls far behind forums in several critical areas for building meaningful communities. Anonymity can be a huge plus for people who join forums, especially forums that can be stigmatizing, such as health-related or sexual orientation issues. On Facebook, members must be approved or invited by a member to join a closed groups, and posts are seen only by members. However, any Facebook user can search and see who is in a closed group. Only secret FB groups provide some level of anonymity. Even then, your profile picture and name still appear in a secret group.

And there is still no real way to archive valuable threads and see comments on Facebook the way forums are set up. The FB Group user interface requires a user to continually scroll through the feed. This is fine when a group is very small, but when you have 1,000+ or even 10,000+ members posting every couple minutes, the user experience becomes unwieldy. Too often, all that rich content gets buried in scrolling purgatory.

Search is difficult within a Facebook Group. It isn’t ideal on forums either (unless you install Threadloom’s simple search plug-in right now). But the inability to search comments easily within a FB Group means users end up posting the same question often, which leads to more spam within the feed.

“I’m on [Facebook Groups] all the time and I can’t just search a term. There’s no capacity to hone down on what you’re looking for and that’s a real negative,” says Louise Pendry, a psychologist at Exeter University in the UK, who is currently studying the benefits of closed FB Groups. “What keeps people on Facebook is making real friendship and connections. But the old-style forums is still easier in accessing that information.”

Topics: Research, Social