(Possibly Premature) Eulogy for the Online Forum

I was linked to this article from the New York Times today and it provided some food for thought, in that don’t-speak-too-soon-for-the-wheel’s-still-in-spin vein.

I’m not posting to agree or disagree with Heffernan. Is she right about forums being on the wane? She seems to be. Is she right about Web 2.0 being the reason why? I don’t know.

What I do know is that online forums have played a rather large role in my life–on and off the internet.

I was on the internet before most people knew what the heck the internet was. I dabbled with BBS’s in high school, used bitnet and the (nascent) internet in college, gopher and listserv in grad school, and finally got on AOL in the late nineties. But the internet was a long way from becoming my primary timesink like it is now. Really, what all was there to do?

Image courtesy of Induo Wireless

That changed when I discovered online forums. I made my first forum post in 2002, and within a few months I felt like a new world had opened up in front of me. The internet stopped being a resource and became a place to spend way too much time. But for all the negative comments one can make about people who spend too much time online and have no “real life,” the internet enriched my life. I’d never been able to find more than one or two people who shared my interests and my outlooks before, but online I found whole communities of people who valued what I valued. I had come home.

And the effect on my life wasn’t just online. I made the majority of my best meatspace friends as a direct result of my online involvement. Heck, I was a groomsman at one of my friends’ weddings–to a woman he met at the same forum. Because of forums I gained confidence that the things that made me different actually made me special. I was valued for who I was–an experience plenty of people find elsewhere, but one that was pretty special for me.

And I don’t post in them nearly as much as I used to anymore.

A lot of my personal bandwidth has gone into Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. . . . where many of my friends are people I first met on these forums. So if I’m still interacting with the same people, is it fair to say that nothing has changed but the venue?

Well, no.

The difference is when I started on the forums I was interacting with strangers. And even though I got to know the community, more strangers came along over the years. Facebook doesn’t really replace that.

It’s certainly possible to interact with strangers in a post-forum age. You can go comment on YouTube videos or newspaper articles, right?

Image by George Crux

Yeah, maybe not so much. But it’s precisely forming relationships with strangers that made my online experience so meaningful. Having reached a self-sustaining mass of friends is nice and all, but where’s the fresh blood come from? What forums provide that most other online interactions with strangers don’t is a self-selecting community. Sure, there are trolls on forums, but for the most part, you find people with at least one abiding interest in common, often with roughly similar education levels, and often with an interest in creating community. And you find diversity too, because once you get past the things that bring you together, you find infinite combinations of everything else.

The closest equivalent I find to that experience now is hashtag chats on Twitter. Since the hashtag allows your tweets to be seen by people who don’t follow you, that a great place to meet people who share an interest in whatever the topic is while being different in myriad other ways. The big downside is how ephemeral the conversations can be. You can meet some really cool people, but the sense of community really isn’t there.

The nice thing about the internet is nothing really dies, though. Did you know that Gopher is still limping along somewhere? I think it’s still possible to play the old ADVENTURE text game online. So forums may diminish in importance, but they’ll still exist somewhere, for those folks who still find value in them. And I think the internet will keep on providing ways for people to figure out that, no matter how weird you think you are, you’re not alone.

Hopefully it will still be possible for the Makers of the world to build relationships and even communities. If so, I guess that matters more than the precise mechanism behind that Making.

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