The death of the message board

Written on August 1, 2019

I’ve been growing frustrated with Facebook for a while now, for many reasons. Some small, some more important. Let me expand on that a bit.

The Awful No Good Very Bad Social Network

I probably don’t need to repeat all the bad stuff that that Facebook has been responsible for but my short list includes:

Those are the important, big picture problems, and it’ll take many things to fix them. State-level regulations, internal policy updates and public opinion pressure all need to be applied to get Facebook back into a place where it cannot disrupt modern democracies (that’s true of other major sites like Twitter by the way) and get away with it.

Wait there’s more

There are other things that bother me, and those I feel are more obvious and present in my every day life. For example, well, Facebook killed the 2000-era message board/forum (as well as many community sites).

When Facebook started, it was mostly simple profile pages and photos. Not much of a threat for message boards which had a dedicated following, but year after year, feature after feature, they added all the things that people were using message boards for: communicating with peers. I’m talking about groups, events, content moderation and probably other things.

Once Facebook accounts became synonymous with online identity, it became very easy for them to lock people in. Why pay for and maintain a full website when you can just create a group, sprinkle some events, and benefit from all the content moderation tools that Facebook provides?

On top of that, the guaranteed performance, accessibility (in terms of a11y but also translation and localization) meant that message boards lost their appeal and slowly started losing steam with people spending more and more time on Facebook.

This and the advent of the smart phone caused a profound behavior change in the average message board user:

those who used to go through a cycle of checking their favorite sites when they logged in (before smart phones, log in was an action, not a continuous state) stopped doing that. Instead a common thing to do nowadays, is to either wait for notifications to pop up on your phone, or log in to Facebook (often as a reflex) to check those notifications, and then scroll down the feed and see what’s happened since last time.

We lost control

This would all be fine I guess, if the things Facebook shows you were exhaustive and predictable; if the people doing the publishing (those who used to maintain message boards) were able to rely on Facebook showing their content. But in the shift from dedicated message boards and site to Facebook, we all lost something important: user intent. And that’s a problem.

In the Facebook feed, every page and group competes with every other one. Facebook doesn’t know what you’re in the mood for or what you intend to read about right now. All it knows is that you seem to like content from xxx and from yyy. If zzz has important things to post and you haven’t proven to Facebook that zzz matters a great deal to you, well you won’t know about those important things. They won’t show in your feed, and it’ll be like zzz didn’t exist.

The solution to that is to pay Facebook to show your stuff. Does that sound like something everyone is ready to do? Of course not. And even if they were, prices will just keep rising until someone can’t afford to pay to be displayed in people’s feeds.

So slowly over the course of the last decade, us message board users have all slowly relinquished control of what we see to Facebook (and to a lesser extent, Twitter) and it’s going to take work to reclaim that control.

So what is one to do?

The answer is pretty simple: we need to stop relying on Facebook for content delivery. It means we should starve them of our content, by employing other channels:

  • newsletters have been proven very popular (although it can be hard to grow a user base)
  • posting on Facebook but linking out is a a good practice. Although Facebook retains control there, at least people get used to leaving and visiting that site that you maintain (or re-maintain!)

Those are fine ways to make progress, but IMHO, the truly efficient way to pull people out of Facebook will be PWAs.

Installing your site (now an app) on people’s phones and desktop computers means you get access to notifications, and you can really compete with Facebook: you don’t need to rely on them, you get direct access to your user. Plus, that icon on their phone means guaranteed visibility.

One could argue that the real estate on a phone is limited and not everyone can benefit like that. But I think that’s a false issue: the problem we’re talking about here is message boards and community sites. Most people only belong to a few and thus they won’t run out of space.

Conclusion

At this point we need more people building PWAs in ways that can compete with Facebook. Message board platforms need to embrace PWAs. That’s going to take some time, but it’ll be done. I’m somewhat optimistic that we’ll all be in a better position in 5 years. See you then!