With blogging going mainstream, do we still really need forums in their current form? I think it might be time for a shift.
But before I begin talking about that, let’s define what forums and blogs are to make the differences clear.
A forum is a place, a website, where people with similar interests gather. People start topics to talk about, others can reply to those. Topics are usually categorized into boards on certain subjects.
A blog is a website written by usually one person, sometimes a group. Sometimes an idea is brought up, sometimes a question is asked, sometimes a question is answered, sometimes visitors are just pointed to interesting ideas or discussions. Blog posts can be categorized. Some bloggers blog about one subject, some blog about a wide variety of subjects.
Both forums and blogs allow for discussion. Forums centralize the discussion on one site, blogs have distributed discussions which are made traceable through links and trackbacks.
When I participate in a discussion on a forum and I think I have something notable to say (which is longer than a couple of lines) I have to decide if I post it on the forum itself, or if I post it on my blog where a broader audience will read it. Sometimes I double post it or link to my blog post on the forum. I feel that if I put a lot of effort into a forum post it will quickly disappear in the loads of other posts and the effort seems lost, that’s why I like posting it on my blog. It’s easier to find things back and to keep a record of the things I write.
Sometimes I find out about somebody who often has interesting things to say, I would like to know what this person writes, not just on one forum but everywhere.
What if we would post everything we had to say on our own blogs? Would it be possible to recreate the forum experience (easy to follow discussions, only one place to go for topical discussions) with the content coming from blogs? Could we get the advantages of both blogs and forums at the same time?
Well partly this is already happening. If you look at ‘Planet’ sites, sites that use the Planet software, such as Planet Java and PlanetRDF, these take a first step into that direction. They aggregate feeds of blogs that talk about one subject. The blogs itself doesn’t have to be purely about one subject, it’s just the posts that are in one of the blog’s categories (related to the planet site) that are being aggregated. Many pieces of blog software support this, like WordPress. If you would only be interested in posts about my personal life, you could subscribe to this feed for example, which only lists posts in my “Personal” category.
So what you have on a planet site is basically a big group blog of people talking about the same topic. Great, but still not hardly as convenient as a forum. What we want is grouped discussions, a view on how the discussion started and evolved from there. On these planet sites discussions between the bloggers take place but they’re not easy to find as it’s simply presented as a long stream of posts with no easy way to see links between them.
A site like TechMeme takes a more clever approach. What TechMeme does is aggregate a number of blogs and see what they link to. If they all seem to link to one particular page, that’s apparently something important that’s being talked about there. This popular page (or one post linking to it) is promoted to being a main article and the other blog posts linking to it are grouped with as discussion of the main article. The more people link to the article, the higher it ends up at TechMeme.com. The result of this is actually very interesting. It is very easy to see what’s hot on technology blogs right now. And it feels a lot more like a forum already.
I wonder, wouldn’t it be possible to generalize and improve this idea a bit?
Say you’re very interested in poodles. You got friends who share your obsession and you want to set up some kind of place to discuss them. Instead of starting a regular forum each of you start a blog. This is easy and free. Everybody can start one at for example Blogger. Then you create a website for your poodle website and install this new kind of forum software, that I’ll call Forum 2.0 software for now. In there you can add all your friends’ blogs and it will automatically poll them from time to time to see if there are new posts. The new posts are republished on this central forum and if links between the posts are found a thread-like structure is created from them (a bit like TechMeme). As people in this small blogging club link to posts more they are ranked higher. It now becomes very easy to track discussions about poodles now. As new people find out about this forum they want to join in. They can easily add their blogs too.
In the future it would even be possible to query sites like Technorati to find blogs outside the list that are linking to posts of listed bloggers. Additionaly features can be imagined here. Digg-like features that are also present in forums, like rating topics. Maybe even allowing users to post on their blogs from inside the Forum 2.0 application (this is possible with the different weblog APIs available), this way people don’t even have to leave the application to respond, the forum experience can be exactly the same as in a “Forum 1.0” application. Still the actual posts are stored on each of the people’s blogs.
In this way you no longer have to cross-post on forums anymore either. You just add your blog to each of the forums you’re interested in and your contributions will appear there automatically.