Through no fault of my own (note: lies), I have spent a humongous amount of time on web forums in the last year. And really, they’ve always been a part of my web diet, but only in rarefied varieties – the run-of-the-mill phpBB-style forums have never been to my taste. They just feel a little bit wrong to me, like somebody is trying to hide something in a honeycomb of twisty little text boxes all alike. (It doesn’t help that people keep trying to use phpBB and its clones as blog engines. Stop that!) And increasingly, the form of forum discussions in general have started to feel stultifying, like the hammer that makes all computer-mediated communication look like a nail. An overwhelming, unfocused nail.
Forums don’t consider human needs very well. Typically, they let you know how many postings are new to you (which we know from our experience with email to be a source of nothing but stress for most people), but that’s about it. About the only helpful thing they offer to do is tell you via email when someone’s replied to you. The rest of the time, when they aren’t busy burying you in an info-snowdrift, they are exemplifying every problem and then some from Clay Shirky’s brilliant essay A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy. (Haven’t read that? Do it now. Seriously. You won’t be sorry.)
It gets even worse when you set loose a lot of game designers. They (okay, we) start trying shit like “okay, everyone, only women post in this thread! Oh, and also, the notice to that effect will be in the same tiny type that the forum software uses for the categories you don’t pay attention to.” We mean well, really, we do, and experimentation is sorely needed. But without code to back it up… as often as not, humans have to intervene, and for all kinds of reasons, that makes for an emotional bear trap waiting to snap shut (usually on small game).
We sorely need actual tools – not just ideas, but tools – for shaping conversations. We need well-thought-out ways to take conversations that go off topic apart into different conversations. We need to give people the ability to restrict a thread to certain posters when they start it (transparently, please – if all we wanted were drama, we already have LiveJournal). It would be trivial to allow thread-starters to set a pace for the conversation – specifying a maximum number of replies before the thread closes to all but the thread-starter, giving them a chance to catch up and open it again. Or some other way. Or every way we can get somebody to write a plugin for. But as far as I know, no one’s even trying.
A bunch of people in the forum communities I’ve been frequenting are excited about a site called Tangler, which seems to just be a place to create your own forum, except Web 2.0′ed up in a bunch of little ways. And that’s helpful as far as it goes, but I’m like, this is all it takes to excite people? (Even though I know that what really has them excited is the simple fact that they can make themselves a new space that isn’t overwhelmed with people yet, and thus get sweet relief from the chore that a busy forum quickly becomes.)
Of course, I can’t do all this bitching without explaining why I haven’t cut some code myself to try to address these issues. Two reasons: 1) I still really need to cut back on unpaid programming projects, and 2) the sorts of problems that need solving in the forum space are not generally problems that anyone wants to admit that they have, let alone pay anyone money to have solved. People tend to think that totally free, unregulated conversation is what makes the Internet great. They are half right, and in the big picture, their half is undoubtedly the most important half. But the other half is holding all of us back. Shapelessness – lack of constraint, that is, and therefore lack of structure – too often saps conversations of all of their power to change things. When you’re lucky, you have human leaders to take charge of forums and keep them on the rails, despite all the social heat they end up taking for it. And that might always be the ideal case.
It’s possible that you can’t add much in the way of conversation-shaping constraints to forums, without making something that isn’t a forum anymore (you know, the same way that email sucks, but if you fix the problems it stops being email and having the strengths of email.) So really, this post is a plea to all of you, to try thinking about forums and how they came about, and what purpose they serve, and about whether we can do some refactoring to better serve those needs. Reading Shirky’s essay, linked above, would be an excellent start. Another start might be to look at the kinds of constraints that people apply to forums explicitly for the purpose of playing games, because games are in the end just social interaction with rules… just like forums.
Here’s a fascinating play-by-forum-post game inspired by the Myst series of adventure games, and here’s a forum that does a lot of play based on tabletop roleplaying games as well as a lot of talking about the play-by-post medium.