Posted by Dan Gray
Why Forums are Important:
Forums are archaic and unwieldy, but right now they are also irreplaceable. No other format can support the massive amount of content generated by a large community, or allow so many ongoing conversations with so many participants. There is no alternative.
The problem with forums is fundamentally linked to their strength: The sheer number of participants they can support. While everyone can have a voice, actually getting those voices heard amidst the roaring chorus of others is difficult. The most carefully written and informative post will often be drowned out by hundreds of lesser posts, with little chance of recognition. You lose the feeling of being part of a cohesive community.
For the sake of this explanation, I'll split posts into two categories:
- Direct Response: A post directly in response to the thread starter.
- Commentary: A reply to one of the following posts.
If you are interested in the topic of a thread, you are probably also interested in peoples opinions on that topic, so it makes sense to display the direct responses. Then we have commentary, which is a level of abstraction away from the topic (i.e. opinions of opinions) and far less likely to be relevant or interesting.
Step one of the redesign is splitting the two, so we can then work on filtering the commentary posts. That's actually pretty easy: You remove the generic reply box. In order to post in a thread you must first select which post you are replying to, be it the original post (for an direct response) or a following post (for commentary). It then displays at the top of your post who you are replying to, and notifies that person with a link to your response. The key incentive of this system is the notification, as you can be sure the person you are replying to will be aware of the response.
When viewing a thread you now only see replies directly relating to the original post (direct responses), with none of the usual tangential conversations or back-and-forth arguments. That's certainly a lot clearer, right? Obviously it's not a forum without conversation, so it's important to note that the commentary isn't removed - simply hidden. The next step is adding it back in a way that works for the user.
If you're familiar with Twitter, you'll know how it keeps the feed clean by hiding @replies unless you follow both people involved, and the system here would be similar: Essentially, you create a list of members whose commentary you are interested in seeing - probably because you value their opinion to some degree. All posts from these members would now show throughout the forum. What we have now is an incredibly simple method for improving the signal to noise ratio on large forums.
Members would find people to follow via four main methods:
- Simply by reading direct responses, and recognizing members who post interesting content.
- Checking reply notifications, and finding members they would like to continue to engage with.
- Presenting new members with a list recommendations based off correlating flags in their profiles (specific interests, for example).
- Presenting existing members with recommendations based on trends in other members lists.
The final step is to combine this filtering with standard social tools, such as follow recommendations and sharing, to encourage the development of micro-communities within the broader forum community. These individually tailored micro-communities would ensure that each user is getting appealing content by drastically reducing the amount of fluff they have to sift through to find it. These smaller social groups would also create stronger relationships and greater loyalty than a broad forum community of many thousands ever could. There's also fewer opportunities for friction and argument, lowering the work load on moderation staff. Finally, the system would also encourage people to put effort into their contributions as a way to attract followers and greater attention.
You now have a forum that can be scaled to any degree without destroying the sense of community, requires less work to maintain, builds stronger bonds amongst your community members, encourages constructive and intelligent posting, and makes those posts easier for everyone else to find.
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- Gaming Social Networks [Part 2]
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