On Quora, this question was asked: “Why haven’t web forums evolved over the last 10 years?” The person who asked the question elaborated by adding: “I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Most forums are partying like it’s 1999.”
This isn’t, necessarily, an uncommon belief. Some people see forums as this archaic beast that is lingering and (in their mind, if not in reality) declining. They see Facebook, Twitter and, yes, Quora, as something completely new and fresh. But is it so?
I would suggest that forums have evolved in the ways that they should.
Forum, or community software, has greatly, greatly evolved since 1999. Install a version of UBB that was released in 1999. Now, install the latest versions of vBulletin, phpBB, bbPress, Vanilla and Invision Power Board. You should see a startling difference and a wealth of evolution.
That is where forums have, can and will innovate – in their software, in their options and features. What will not change – and what should not change – is what forums are and that is threaded, text-based conversation. Forums are everywhere in the social web.
It’s like asking “Why hasn’t the telephone evolved?” or “Why hasn’t the television evolved?” They both have evolved – a lot. But, what will not change is that the primary function of a telephone is to speak, verbally, to someone. And the primary function of a television is to view some sort of visual.
But, that doesn’t mean they haven’t evolved. With the television, for example. We have more channels, clearer, more vibrant pictures, bigger pictures, more attractive displays, a wealth of configuration settings and options. What has evolved is the quality of the core, but what is new is not the core – what is new is the complements to the core, the additional features and options.
Sometimes, we think of evolution in a way that is not fair, in a way that would mean that the thing we are thinking of would no longer be itself. For example, if the television evolves into a computer, it is no longer a television – it is a computer. In other words, it’s not really evolution if it turns into something else – it’s a new and different thing.
Even new and different things retain many of the characteristics of other things. Let me add to the comparison overload by comparing forums to bread. Why hasn’t bread evolved? Well, it has. We have more flavors, we have better ingredients and we know more about the construction of bread. However, bread will always be bread.
That said, bread is a flexible medium. People eat bread plain, they make an open face sandwich, a closed sandwich, they toast it, they chop it up, they put it in bread pudding and they add any number of ingredients to it.
Similarly, if you look at Facebook, you’ll see forums or forum-like functionality. If you look at your favorite “social network,” you’ll see forums or forum-like functionality. If you look at YouTube, Flickr and many blogs, you’ll see the same.
Quora is a forum. Questions are threads, answers are replies. It’s very much the same. Some forums have employed the opportunity to vote posts up or down (in one way or another) for a very long time.
Forums are bread. They are flexible. That is why there are such rich hack and customization communities that arise around popular pieces of software, especially open source software. Because there are a thousand different ways to do a forum. Or a social network. Or whatever you want to call it.
The direction that you take forums, your evolution of them, is on you.