Forums were huge at the turn of the millennium. I know, I helped write two of them. But now that we’re over 20 years later, are they dead? Should they be? In my short version I’m going to say they are in a difficult place but shouldn’t be dead. They still have a place on the internet and should moving forward.
Before the year 2000, there were plenty of forums out there. Some of them still exist to this day. With the rise of social media and other forms of content consumption though, they seem to be slowly dying off. They aren’t used as much and often you’ll see them being closed in favour of things such as Facebook groups, Discord or Reddit among other places.
Back in those days I helped convert a Perl based forum into a PHP based forum. That PHP based forum is still alive and called Simple Machines Forum today. I haven’t been involved with it in a very long time, almost 20 years now. However, I still check in on things from time to time to see how it’s going. I like to see it do well and hope it remains for a very long time.
Over those many years I’ve seen activity drop off pretty hard on the site. Not only in the amount of development being done but just the general use of the site. Long gone are the days of the chit chat section being filled with people happy to be there. Is this unique to SMF? No, not at all.
Forum use overall is down across the internet. Some forum packages out there are still doing quite well and growing but they need to keep pivoting to stay relevant. Social media mage a significant dent in forums. With everyone loading into Facebook, Facebook Groups became a huge place for people to chat with their audiences and groups. Places like Reddit and recently Discord have also helped pull people from forum use overall.
I have often wondered why this might be. Why did people migrate away and what can be done to bring them back?
I think the number one issue is that social media has been designed to be attention grabbing. Often quick, short hits are what matters and what a lot of people like to take part in these days. These sites keep you on their site by feeding you a lot of information. Timelines, feeds, they all keep you scrolling. I’ve seen some forums use chat boxes as a way to have some constant chatter but I have never found them to be overly sticky. The single sign on for these sites also means you don’t need to register for each site to chat about different subjects.
Another issue is the lack of innovation in forums. The forums of the early 2000’s are mostly still the same thing (there are, of course, exceptions to this). While some find the familiarity comforting, it can also be off putting by appearing very outdated. Keeping up to date to bring in more social features would help keep people around more.
Mobile phones are everywhere, everyone has one, and they are all consuming media on their phones as opposed to their desktops these days. Forums have barely changed at all for the mobile world. They have added some more mobile friendly options but I don’t think they have gone far enough. I, personally, don’t care for browsing forums on my phone at all. All the stuff I do consume is via an app.
Discoverability is another huge issue forums have. If you visit a site and they have a forum you can join it. Once you join the dogs forum, how do you find others? You have to find other sites about dogs and see if they have forums but there is no easy way to get other forum suggestions.
I don’t have the answers to these issues although I do have some ideas but I need to figure out if it’s worth the time. I have often thought about getting involved with the old SMF project. Thought of creating something new, even was messing around with one as I was learning Syfmony. The itch is there, I need to decide if I’ll scratch it. I don’t feel they should die off as I feel they have a very important part in the internet still but they need some changes.