Yes, the launch of the forum is not a mirage!

Several web-watchers have wondered if the forum is obsolete. We live in an age of blogs and Facebook, where everyone and their mother can voice their opinions for the world. The forum is less necessary now, when it was the primary way for people to express their opinions.

Color me unconvinced. Blogs and social media can’t mimic the sense of community or conversation forums can. Blog comment threads have been compared to forums, but the problem with blogs is that, most of the time, only one person can create a post. That one person ends up setting the tone of the conversation and determining what everyone talks about. The fact that many popular blogs on general enough topics end up resorting to the “open thread” to allow people to talk about topics that the blog author hasn’t seen fit to post on suggests that such blogs are missing something by not having forums where anyone can post.

One of the blogs I regularly follow is the Frank the Tank’s Slant blog, which became rather unexpectedly popular after its author wrote a rather provocative post on college football conference realignment. Shortly thereafter, the author decided to launch a forum for the site, but shuttered it shortly thereafter, citing as part of the reason why that he liked that “each blog post has turned into a free flow discussion on expansion issues, with news articles and viewpoints converging in a centralized place”, preferring not to have to hop to different places to follow a discussion. To each his own, but I find that to be something I don’t like about Frank the Tank’s Slant: that each comment thread becomes an unwieldy stream-of-consciousness discussion of issues tangentially related to the subject of the post and impossible to follow in full, because people are using the most recent post, whatever it is, to put up links, current news articles, and other such things they wouldn’t need to use the post for if they could start a thread on a forum. (I have a feeling what “Frank the Tank” really wants is a chat room, or something else akin to a forum with one thread.)

Nor am I convinced by the argument that these issues can be averted by stringing several blogs together and allowing them to “talk” to each other using trackbacks. Blogs are not Facebook, and blog posts are not forum posts. Being a blog author necessarily makes you the center of attention for that blog, and within the confines of that blog you’re expected to speak with a voice of authority, to everyone, at least when it comes to actual posts. Even if you don’t want to use your blog this way, no one follows every single blog in existence, so you’re expected to provide some summary of what you’re responding to to get people up to speed. Obviously, such circumstances don’t lend themselves to conversational discussion.

Sites like Facebook, meanwhile, have many of the same problems as blogs, while also in some ways having the opposite problem. Facebook does not lend itself easily to organizing discussions according to topic as opposed to who your friends are, and similarly you can only hope to even find a discussion, let alone follow it, on Twitter by already following someone involved in the conversation, and preferably at least two, and to follow it in real time you pretty much have to be following all of the participants. Ironically considering their alleged nature, such sites don’t lend themselves well to creating a community around a topic and holding discussions about that topic. “Frank the Tank” does have a point when he talks about having a centralized place for discussion as opposed to having to follow it in a bunch of different places. (I’ll have more on these issues and others later, possibly as soon as next week.)

Da Blog doesn’t have much of an audience at all, let alone a “community”, nor does it have any sort of single topic around which a community would form. So, other than ego, why have I long wanted to launch a forum? There are a lot of reasons, but I think a lot of them come back to some of the overarching guiding principles of Da Blog (and as a whole. The forum, as I see it, is intended to be a logical extension of Da Blog as a whole, where people willing to think can engage in the sort of in-depth analysis of various topics I try to engage in on Da Blog. One of the purposes I had for Da Blog was as a place where different viewpoints and interests could come together and discover each other, and thus have their horizons broadened. If the two subsites I have now catch on, people who come for my Sports subsite will be able to discover this webcomics thing that’s out there. (Not that they’ll find anything that necessarily appeals to them.)

Like Da Blog itself, the forum is about nothing in particular. No topic is off limits; you can talk about whatever you want to talk about, and I’ve tried to make sure there’s a forum about whatever there is you want to talk about. (There isn’t a Webcomics forum; any webcomics talk can go in the Comics forum.) With the forum, I’ve also tried to create a place for intelligent discussion of whatever topics people are talking about; there is a single Politics forum, and if I ever get the sense that one political persuasion or the other is not welcome there, I’ll split it into Liberal and Conservative forums, but the long-term goal will be to create a place where, as I have often said, liberal and conservative can come together and develop a newfound appreciation for the other persuasion. As such, I’ve tried to make the rules fairly lenient, hoping to encourage frank discussion.

Because of the way bbPress works, the same system powering the forums is also now powering the comment system. That means the following changes to how commenting works, as well as some things you need to know about how the forum works:

  • The forum rules also apply to comments. I’ve created a comment policy page that will serve as a brief introduction to the most pertinent rules for anyone who doesn’t go into the forum, but the forum rules will always supercede the comment policy in the event of an apparent conflict. Even so, people who do venture into the forum should check out the comment policy anyway, as it contains important clarifications on how the rules apply to comments.
  • There are actual user accounts now, as well as all sorts of cool stuff you associate with forums, like formatting and such. You can also comment the old way, but you won’t be allowed to use all the cool stuff.
  • Ding, dong, first-comment approval is dead! Both guests and logged-in users will have their first posts show up right away.

One other thing: I have made the difficult decision (followed by the difficult process) of downgrading WordPress to 3.2.1, whereas earlier I had upgraded it to 3.3.1. This is not something WordPress makes easy to do, as WordPress constantly bugs you about upgrading to the newest version and doesn’t maintain any old versions, but as I’ve said before, when you create something that relies so heavily on plugins you have to make sure those plugins continue to work with new versions or people will be slow to update to those new versions because they want their plugins to continue to work. The first applicable plugin for bbPress I saw in the directory, the plugin to give people formatting controls, doesn’t work with WordPress 3.3, and its proprietor is already showing signs of falling off the face of the earth like the one who ran the plugin that powers the Sports and Webcomics subsites (which also now work properly, and even have more elegant logos as opposed to the old abominations). I don’t know how long I will continue to run an outdated version, but once all the other plugins are updated and I have the time I’ll not only update WordPress but overhaul the entire site and put the subsites on a firmer foundation.

Also, bbPress is kind of kludgy, so the forum will remain under construction for a while as I get used to it, and I can’t guarantee that all the functionality implied in the list above or the forum rules will actually be there (for example, right now you do have to be logged in to post on the forum). Still, I hope that even in this state, the forum will become a place that will raise the IQ of the Internet at least a few points, and that will help the site live up to its “Ideas every day” motto.

(Of course, maybe I’ll run into another reason why “Frank the Tank” shuttered his forum: the potential for it to become a massive time-suck!)

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