When I first found my people online, forums were the main way people gathered to discuss shared interests. Web-based bulletin boards allowed members to have ongoing, asynchronous conversations over days or weeks as participants logged in to read and respond on their own schedule. Topics were neatly divided into threads, which made it easy to follow specific conversations. Unlike ephemeral chat platforms, forums preserved discussions as reference material for both veteran members and newcomers. Communities sprung up around forums for every hobby and interest imaginable. Absolutepunk (now Chorus.FM, and still going strong), the Wolfenstein3d Dome and others were my home away from home.
But over time, forums have waned in popularity with the advent of modern real-time chat platforms like Slack and Discord, which allow for instant communication. The number of active forums has drastically declined over the past decade. Why log in to check a message board when you can open an app and talk to people in real time?
Sadly, these slick upstarts also come with downsides for online community building. And I believe it’s time to revive the good old-fashioned forum as the true home for discussion, collaboration and relationships.
While enabling instant communication between members around the globe, Slack and Discord weren’t necessarily designed to facilitate rich, long-term community interactions. Conversations quickly become disorganised and fragmented across multiple crowded channels. Discussions end up fractured instead of developing depth in a single thread. There’s no central repository of reference material for members to search or easily browse. Information gets dispersed and lost.
In globally diverse communities, conversations on Slack and Discord become segregated by time zone. The active discussions might thrive for a few peak hours centred around North American or European work schedules. Late joiners end up scrolling through huge, flooded backlogs to try to piece together context. Quieter members in far-off time zones feel left out, and trying to catch up or contribute meaningfully is a full-time job.
Forums allowed more gradual onboarding by browsing archives to build knowledge before contributing. But real-time chat platforms pose a high barrier to entry for newcomers trying to penetrate established communities. The firehose of running conversations, inside jokes, complex terminology, and unfamiliar cultural norms can overwhelm new members. As a result, too many Slack workspaces and Discord servers have trouble retaining and integrating a steady influx of new members into the fold.
For online communities looking to grow beyond just small circles of like-minded friends, pairing real-time chat platforms with traditional discussion forums could provide the best of both worlds. Reserving Slack or Discord for time-sensitive conversations and logistics while hosting deeper discussions and collective intelligence on forums may improve engagement and inclusiveness.
Unlike most chat apps, forums allow conversations to develop at more thoughtful pacings with well-constructed dialogue. Members can take time crafting articulate posts, which persist as valuable community resources, instead of being lost in ephemeral streams. The asynchronous nature ensures all global contributors can participate comfortably regardless of their timezone. Exploring archives helps new members progressively build knowledge, context, and relationships within foreign communities without being overwhelmed.
Modern forum platforms have caught up by supporting helpful features pioneered by chat apps, such as rich media embeds, reactions, search, tags, notifications, and mobile apps. Plugins can optionally embed forums into Slack/Discord servers to seamlessly bridge these platforms. Members can opt for real-time or asynchronous discussions based on their needs and availability.
It’s not that Slack, Discord, or real-time messaging don’t have their place. Instant messaging delivers unparalleled immediacy and quick coordination that forums struggle to match. Relying solely on chat channels for community growth leaves users shouting into the wind instead of engaging. Without content preservation, cohesion, organisation, or accommodation for multiple global use cases, Slack and Discord create a dangerous level of fragmentation rather than cohesion. And in a world that has become increasingly, violently divided, we need communities who can come together, engage in a discussion and share at least some common ground. We don’t need an ever-increasing number of bloated group chats full of angry, shouting assholes.
The heyday of forums may have passed over a decade ago as real-time chat emerged. But it’s time for deeper online discussion to make a thoughtful comeback.