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Monday, September 15, 2008

Forums vs. Social Networks?

I'm debating the value of forum / group / threaded discussion software vs. social network software for a particular situation.

It aims at a very broad audience that includes everyone from early adopters to technology laggards.

We generally expect users to break into:
  • 5% - Heavy Users - spend quite a bit of time and heavily participate
  • 15% - Light Users - spend a little time, participate a little
  • 80% - Fly-Bys - spend very little time, read bits and pieces
It is likely that some of the Heavy Users will be technology laggards, but they will want to participate because of the content.

Participation will eventually mean a lot of different things, but initially it will primarily be sharing ideas. A user can do this through posting to a threaded discussion quite easily. They could also do it as comments on a blog.

So, I'm trying to figure out what's going to be the right software / service to adopt, but I'm also trying to think about the differences in:

Forum / Threaded Discussion / Group

Examples are Google Groups and Yahoo Groups. Typically they center around threaded discussions. Generally are easy to get into. Options are simple.

Social Network

Examples are Ning and KickApps. They center around individuals. They form a network of people via interactions, groups, etc. Being a network, they generally are a little harder for people to understand. However, they typically try to give a better sense of the person and make interactions more social.

The distinctions here are horribly gray and most of the services end up with fairly similar offerings. A lot of what it comes down to is the primary view you show users - classic threaded discussion view - or a personal home page with all that is happening in the network.

Some thoughts I have about why we might adopt threaded discussions / forum software vs. adopting a social network solution.
  • Longer-term we want to have more of a social network where people will become more social, interact in a myriad of different ways, create groups within the site, and generally will take it into classic social network realms.
  • Short-term we want this to be really simple to get into. I'm especially concerned about the user who would want to be a heavy user - contributing lots of ideas - but who has never used a social network. Possibly they've never used threaded discussions either.
What do you think I should be considering here?

Clearly, there's a lot more to it than just the software. It's how we use the software. It's providing the necessary direction and hand holding. It's having people ready to help/guide/mentor users.

12 comments:

V Yonkers said...

Tony, you might want to look at the post, and more importantly the comments on a similar topic I wrote about on the communication structure of facebook. As Ken points out, the political environment of a social network is less obvious. I think forums are easier to "control". I also think older users find forums easier to follow as it has a definite structure.

DrBob said...

Hi Tony
My 2 cents..

I've done a fair bit of work on this (but applied to University undergraduates)

Broadly, a social network focuses on connecting expert "key" people to those interested. The problem is that you need a high level of traffic (1000 members)before they attain a critical mass and keep going. You also need to think about providing more key people as time goes on.

Forums connect interested people to interest people and the experts "catalyze" discussions. If the expert isn't around then seeds of earlier ideas may be disseminated by present members.

Social networks are high cost and risk. High risk because you are dependent on "gurus" . High cost because you need people who are prepared to follow and so the guru has to be hot. It begs the question as well.. why is the guru there and what keeps him there.

Forums have a valuable self moderating capacity. Gurus do emerge but usually their lack of administrative power and the voice of the masses produces a more balanced arena..

The upshot is that forums have a lower critical membership of around 150 members. This is usually enough (at university anyway) to generate five posts a day and keep people coming back. i.e forums are lower risk and lower cost (need less traffic, fewer experts)..

I asked my students (400 of them) if they wanted a forum of a social network for the degrees I run. They could have both (e.g Elgg, or PhPBB) They opted for and got the forum.. I've never looked back..

Mick Leyden said...

Tony,

I went through this process a couple of months back when deciding how we would help our conference delegates connect. Our user profile is reasonably similar to what you have described. In the end we went with a stripped down ning site.

It seemed like the best solution as we are able to start at launch with most options turned off then grow the site if we see the need.

We have arranged the layout to drive users to the central forum then to the groups which have been set up to cover the major topics of the conference. If users make use of the 'My Page' features we're happy but we don't want to overload them with too much functionality.

We launch on Friday, so I'm not sure how it will pan out but after looking a few different options it seemed like the best bet.

cheers
mick

Dennis D. McDonald said...

A lot will depend on what people, especially heavy users, are using already. Costs of changeover [e.g., loss of members and momentum] can be substantial if not managed correctly. Also, some moderation will always be necessary since, as the group gets larger, spammers will emerge. Finally, don't let "bells and whistles" distract you from the basic function of providing a space for people to connect and discuss common interests.

Ethan said...

As a recent college grad in the eLearning industry, I'll give my two cents:

People my age are inevitably already involved in a social network or three, so we are extremely wary to join more. I'm already on Facebook and LinkedIn, and managing another profile and online persona is a pain.

Mick's solution seems to be the best- using a stripped down Ning page that routs users directly to the forum. You may find that people get really involved with their forum avatars and want more of a social networking feel. In that case, you already have the options, rather then having to migrate from a PHP NUKE environment over to a social networking platform.

Tom said...

We're looking to experiment with something similar over at Coggno, great post. User moderation is definitely a concern we have.

john said...

I do both social networks (one on ning, linkedin, and others) and lists/forums/groups. Maybe because I've been doing groups since they were the Usenet, I tend to like them better, but I think overall the conversations are better on such forums than on social networks.

I've found that professionals tend to prefer discussions and conversation on, say, Yahoo, than on private social networks. None of the social networks in which I participate have extensively active groups. Well, they did but over time they deteriorated. Some went down slowly, others more quickly.

I think as ethan pointed out, maintinaing yet another profile is kind of daunting, too.

Go for the discussions.

Tony Karrer said...

Thanks for the input. Seems that it's pretty clear that forums are the easy way in for most people and maybe add layers on for more advanced users such as profile pages. That's pretty much the suggestion of a stripped down Ning.

Thanks for the thoughts so far! I'll be curious if anyone comes in to disagree with this?

Dave Ferguson said...

Especially because your target audience has a wide range of technological experience, the more choices you offer, the less likely the average person is to use them.

It seems to me that social networks can feel almost too open-ended. And when technology is new to someone, he has to pick up informal norms.

I don't think blog comments are an especially good way to handle two-way discussion, other than between the commenter and the blogger. And to see more than 15 or 20 pertinent comments is rare, as is seeing them continue beyond a week.

Does your intended site offer the possibility of expansion? For example, people might start with threaded discussions, but as a need or opportunity arises, some other format may apply.

Faraz Qureshi said...

To me forums vs social networks comes down to how engaged (frequency and duration of visit) the user will be with the content.

For e.g. I participate in a local entrepreneurship discussion forum. Forum is the right solution because I visit 1-2 times per week for 10-15 minutes and most of the content is text. However, if I was passionate about games, I would join a games social network because I will be more engaged, interested in meeting people in that community and spend 1-2 hours playing games with others online. Since I get a lot out of the social network, the initial 'cost' of putting up a profile is worth it.

Just my $.02. Cheers,

Faraz

Trikman said...

Well, forums and socails are different in many ways and you can't compare it. you can communicate with different people on different topics, that were established for a conference. but facebook.com or xcuber.com is some kind of ypur own space- in xcuber you can even personalize it. of course your friends can comment your photos etc, but facebook and xcuber provide you with some tools- you can rest and be with yourself, express yourself...

so forums are different from socails and this two both types may be mixed soon.

Emiko Fierros said...

Social Network and Forum has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Forums as very specific and most likely people who join a forums are only those who has a background or have same interests. Meaning a great percentage to get informative feedback from others.

Social network focus on general. You can talk anything that you want even if it has a sense or not.

Since it has been 4 years since this blog has been updated there are many sites that has been developed and one of that was this site which deals about online identity and niching