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What’s the best way to build community? Delete your forums

By on December 1, 2009

Forums are nasty, inbred places where aggressive denizens fight hard to keep outsiders at bay. So why do so many games companies believe that community = forum.

Forums seem like a great idea. “Hey, we can offer a place where our customers can talk to us, and to each other. We’ll put it on our website, we’ll make users register with us and hey presto, an instant community.”

But they’re not.

Most forums start happily. A few, engaged, interested users join a forum because they really want to talk to the developers of their favourite game. A genuine dialogue emerges where consumers discuss features and ideas with each other and with the developers. Ideas get shared,

And then it goes wrong.

Clary Shirky credits Geoff Cohen as saying “The likelihood that any unmoderated group will eventually get into a flame-war about whether or not to have a moderator approaches one as time increases.”

Godwin’s Law states “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

To put it another way, communities start to bicker, argue and fracture. Moderators can help, but there is a much bigger and insidious point: the treatment of newbies.

The tougher the initiation, the more loyal the group

American fraternities are strange organisations. I don’t understand them. But I know two things about them:

  • Their members are very loyal to them
  • They have horrid initiations (some of them are called “hazing” and are banned in many US states, partly because they have led to fatalities)

But the really interesting fact is this: the more tough and unpleasant the initiation, the more loyal the pledges become to their fraternity.

Researchers call this cognitive dissonance and theorise that the reason is that once you have voluntarily put yourself through such an evil initiation, you’re damned if you’re going to admit that it was a ridiculous mistake. Nope, you have to continue making the fraternity a core part of your life, otherwise you have to admit that you’ve been a Grade A doofus. And no-one likes doing that.

More than that, no-one is going to let new members into the group without making them go through a similarly unpleasant experience. To do so would devalue their own experience, so it won’t happen.

But forums aren’t fraternities

Forums start out nicely. The early members have an “Initiation” that simply consists of being there from the beginning. They feel that they contributed to the growth of the forum.

Then someone turns up and innocently asks “Hey, I’m new here, how do you play.”

And they unleash a tide of vitriol that is shocking to behold.

“RTFM”. “n00b”. “Search the forum before posting”. “You haven’t earned the right to post here”.

The crowd unite to dissuade new members from joining unless they are brave enough to get through the initiation process. Which involves being flamed and attacked for being new until they’ve earned their stripes.

And that, dear games companies, is your community: a group which will only continue to be cohesive if it makes it difficult and challenging for newcomers to join.

That’s not my definition of a community.

Is that all that’s wrong with forums

Not even slightly. Off the top of my head:

  • Forums require you to register before you can comment. In this era of Facebook Connect, Twitter, Disqus and OpenID, it is getting harder than ever to make users register. And asking them to register simply to comment on a forum is a very slim incentive
  • Forums are unstructured.On a busy forum, there is no way of keeping track of which threads matter. On some online games I’ve played, keeping up with what’s happening in the forums can take more time than playing the game
  • Company announcements disappear. It is hard to separate critical information from the company from personal discussions driven by your users.
  • Forums are ugly. That may just be personal view, but I have yet to see a forum that is easy to navigate, easy to search or pretty to look at.


So what’s the solution?

Community is made up of so many different elements. Different tools are better for different purposes. Forums remain, unfortunately, the best medium for allowing users to talk to each other. But they are terrible for letting the company talk to its customers, for marketing the company or product, for attracting new users or for allowing users to share content with their friends. So the solution is to treat the forums as a tiny part of your community.

  • A blog is the ideal medium for communicating company strategy, product launches and new features to consumers. The benefits are huge:
    • All key announcements can be found in one place. They don’t get cluttered by forum dross
    • Gamers can comment directly on the posts. (Blogs without comments enabled are pointless.)
    • Press and other commentators can find your announcements easily.
    • URLS are easy to share and are usually search engine friendly.
  • Twitter enables rapid dissemination of thoughts and ideas. If your product breaks down, Tweet it. Tell everyone what’s happening and when it will be resolved. Announce new products through Twitter and it will be re-tweeted rapidly. But be honest, be personal, be real.
  • Facebook is still struggling to make Fan Pages work. But it can be useful as a rapid way of collecting a user base you can speak to, without them having to register with you. Facebook is likely to keep improving Fan Pages to make them more useful to companies and their customers, so I expect them to become even more important over time.
  • YouTube is often dismissed but it is a key community as well as a marketing channel. It offers subscriptions, comments, channels and video replies. Games companies, which often have great video assets, are naturally suited to this environment. Build content, share it, communicate with your fans, cross-promote it.
  • Listening: That’s an important part of community. I think it’s very hard to listen in a forum – there’s too much shouting. But these other environments are easier to track and follow, and senior management should use them to listen.


So should I really delete my forums?

Forums are a place for the hardcore. The most loyal fans, who are usually also your most misguided and least profitable. The ones who think that their demands are the most important, because they care so much. The ones you should rarely listen to as you develop your product for a larger audience.

So yes, you should consider deleting your forums. But if you don’t, remember that a forum is a closed shop with incentives to keep newcomers out. It is not a community.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: