The social dynamics of online forums [Infographic]

In the playground, in the office, on the rugby field, in a political world…social dynamics are fascinating, complex and volatile. Naturally this translates directly from the offline world into social media.

Nowhere are the complexities of online social structures better illustrated than on forums. In many ways forums seem “old school internet” but that’s where many commentators miss the point; social media isn’t about the technology, but the interactions.

There have been plenty of attempts to pigeonhole internet users (as an aside, I nearly typed “web surfers” there, but realised nobody’s used that term since about 2007). This is one of my favourites – not far off the mark:

Faces of the Internet infographic. Source: Flowtown

For our part at Ipsos MORI, we did our own analysis of conversations relating to a high-street bank. Among other things we found that contributors to discussions naturally broke down broadly into three groups. Firstly information seekers: people asking their peers – whether friends or the social media world at large – for their opinions. You could also include a sub-group of this: forum lurkers as well as casual viewers who might have stumbled across a site on a search engine. Secondly there are the advice givers: perhaps people who have specific experience of a situation or product that is being asked about. Finally, we found community influencers; these are the people who take the lead on a broad range of topics. The people who people sit up and take notice of when they make a point.

This broadly tallies with my own anecdotal experience. I’ve been a member of many different special-interest online forums over the years: covering everything from music to football to wild camping to front-line policing. While they have diverse audiences and subject matter, there are certain features which all of them have in common. They’re a horrible social media cliché, but it seems to me that “community influencers” really do exist.

Take three forums as an example. For a start there’s a large football fansite. Not a place for the faint-hearted, moderation is almost non-existent and many threads quickly descend into slanging matches (where you can pick up some new words quite unsuitable for polite company). At the opposite end of the scale is a forum for volunteer police officers. By contrast, this is tightly moderated – not only for unsuitable content and language but also for threads veering even slightly from their original intended purpose. Finally, there’s a niche music forum – now in its third incarnation, with a very small, close-knit group, mostly from London, who (although we might not want to admit it) are pretty much groupies of DJ Gilles Peterson.

The three are hugely different in set-up and ethos, but based on my own observations (and these can only be considered anecdotal) there are more features in common.

1. A fierce sense of identity: members of all of them believe that they have “something special” going on over and above similar “competing” forums.

2. Members love existential discussions. Every few months there are lengthy discussions about “the future of this site”. The general conclusion is often “it’s not what it used to be” (usually accompanied by virtual nods and winks between the “original” members reminiscing about prior halcyon days).

3. Cliques abound. There is usually a core of members who seem to know one another. In-jokes and even a distinct subculture unique to that forum sometimes exist – including idiosyncratic language (an example: “whackproofing”, meaning adding a small amount of on-topic text to an off-topic post, to ward off over-zealous moderators).

4. Forum respect is not always earned as a result of specialist knowledge. Perhaps it’s obvious, but the “leaders” tend to have high levels of activity, a willingness to chip in to any type of discussion, and probably a sense of humour. That said, being a specialist “experts” – perhaps a minor celebrity in one’s field – seems to help garner online respect for obvious reasons.

5. Arguments and bitterness are rife, no matter how polite or well moderated the discussions are. Opinions – as elsewhere in social media – tend to be ultra-polarised. In my own field of social listening research, where sentiment analysis inevitably forms a part of many projects, this can be a challenge to overcome.

6. Nevertheless, forums tend to be self-policing. Moderators attract respect and revulsion in equal quantities, but on the whole there seem to be social norms which are tacitly accepted by most. Members step up and “act” as moderators in some circumstances.

7. Forums can foster a tight-knit sense of community, but in all the forums I’ve been a member of, this has been galvanised with offline meetups. My first was in 2005; tweetups are the norm these days no matter what your platform of choice is. On the Brownswood music forum, we organised record-playing nights in bars from time to time; we had forumites travel from as far as Serbia and the US specially to come along. These can often further the sense of clique; where meetups take place regularly, it can appear difficult to be a “certified” member until other members have a face for a name.

Talking at Ipsos ASI’s “Digitally Ever After” event, Twitter Sales Director Bruce Daisley compared hashtags to campfires around which people gather. This seems to me a perfect analogy, and perhaps Twitter hashtags are just the latest incarnation of special-interest forums – although in many cases they can be far more ephemeral than a forum.

I find the complexities of human interactions on forums fascinating. But as a regular forum user myself, am I falling into a misty trap of nostalgia? Am I over-emphasising particular sociological traits? Will most forums be dormant in five years time, rendering this post an irrelevance anyhow? Time will tell.

Eoghan O’Neill is social listening analyst at Ipsos MORI. He tweets at @EoghanLondon and blogs occasionally.