Several friends asked me recently why I started Threadloom. This isn’t easy to answer in a blog post because there were many reasons; and the problem with talking about any single reason is that it implicitly conveys priority. But you know how these things work — it’s a lot to ask even a good friend to watch the History Channel with you. So I decided to talk about one reason that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: the value of community.
As a kid, I spent a lot of time on BBSes and in IRC chat rooms. (As a father of two young kids, this is not something I recommend as a general parenting strategy.) Since then, there’ve been newsgroups, forums, and Y!/Google/FB groups. For the past 30 years, I’ve been amazed at how a group of people who care deeply about the same thing can instantly share a special connection — even without being able to see, hear, or touch each other.
After leaving Google last year, I had an idea to pay top forum contributors to write blog posts. I asked contributors what they thought. Without exception, they hated it. It wasn’t that they disliked money — it just wasn’t their motivation. They wanted to learn and help people. Getting paid would turn something they loved into a job and break the trust within the community. I remember sitting at a Starbucks with a contributor who had 40,000 posts. As he explained why my idea was terrible, I thought, Man, people like this are why the Internet is so awesome.
After this meeting, I started keeping a log of how online communities were helping me. My wife and I shopped for a piano for our kids and found that the best advice was in PianoWorld and similar forums. The contributors weren’t paid and didn’t collect affiliate revenue — they just loved talking about pianos. I searched for a bike rack for our Toyota RAV4 EV and found a forum where someone had detailed the installation process and provided links to the specific hitch and bike rack. After installing them, I ran into a problem: There wasn’t enough clearance to open the rear door. I searched online but couldn’t find a solution, so I sent the contributor a message. He responded the same day: If you knew how to hyperextend the bike rack (which he explained how to do), the rear door would clear it by a centimeter. It worked.
Friends shared similar stories. A college friend whose daughter was born with Kawasaki’s disease used parenting forums to get encouragement and learn about how to raise her daughter with this disease. My best friend used homeschooling forums to find curriculum ideas and moral support. A former colleague told me about a nonprofit that he was on the board of that used forums to counsel thousands of teenagers struggling with depression.
But as often as I heard about how helpful forums were, I also heard about how painful the experience could be. Most forums were helpful, but sites were often slow with a complicated UI. The biggest complaint? It was impossible to find anything. Digging out info was tedious — scores of searches and hours spent scrolling through posts. The best content on the Internet was barely searchable and largely inaccessible.
I figured someone had to be solving these problems. After all, a lot of people use forums. I spent months testing software, interviewing companies, and talking with people. I learned that while most of the Internet was benefitting from the rise of modern search and analytics, forums were largely being left behind. No one was providing them with the tools to improve search and discovery on their sites. And aside from a few companies, most organized efforts were trying to either disintermediate or replace communities rather than help them.
This bothered me for several reasons. One was because of how much valuable info and expertise was inaccessible. Another was the amount of wasted time and energy. My friends know I’m an efficiency nut. The idea of 100s of millions of users wasting countless hours each month digging for info was unbelievable. How much more time could be spent on family, friends, hobbies, or helping people? The technology to make this happen was available — it just wasn’t being applied.
I decided to test a new idea: What if we developed a search and analytics package that solved search and discovery for forum users and gave forum admins the tools they needed to grow their communities? We’d build the best forum site search product and give it away to small forums, and sell it at a fair price to large forums. Meanwhile, we’d also create the first growth analytics product for forums on a freemium model. I interviewed admins, contributors, and users. This time, there was overwhelming support. No one had ever offered something like this.
I often hear people criticize forums for being outdated. Someone on Quora even called them the armpit of the Internet. Ok, so, maybe. But forums are also the most dynamic, thoughtful, and generous communities organized around common interests. It’s where you go to discuss and expand your knowledge about whatever it is that you’re passionate about, whether it’s vintage classic cars, cooking, or underwater plants.
I’m excited for the future of forums. If Threadloom can help make the best part of the Internet even better, I consider our time well spent. My hope with Threadloom is that we can help people waste less time trying to find information, and spend more time doing what they enjoy — learning, helping, and connecting with people who care about common interests. This is the value of community.