The 'decline of online message boards' doesn't have to happen

Virginia Heffernan wrote this week on the New York Times website about Decline of the Online Message Board. Heffernan recalled several of the message boards that she frequented in the past, noting the precipitous decline in traffic on many in recent years.

While I have no doubt that many discussion boards have suffered under competition from social media hubs such as Facebook and Twitter, those sites aren’t killing off every board on the Internet. But board administrators will have to recognize their true purpose in publishing if they are to help their boards survive.

Why are some boards thriving while so many others whither over time? As with many other online efforts, the answer is found in its publishers’ commitment to community – not simply to amassing a collection of readers, but creating a true community where participants inform and care for one another.

Discussion boards, by themselves, are simply a tool – as are blogs, wikis, emails, text messages and, yes, even news articles. While any of these tools can provide value to a publication, as other tools come along to compete with it, these tools’ value to a publisher ultimately is measured by the value their content provides to readers and users.

Discussion boards proliferated online when they were easy to set up and provided the only way for large groups of people to communicate with one another. They’re still easy to set up, but now readers have so many other places to gather and communicate, such as Facebook, Twitter and now, Google+ (which I finally did get on, by the way. Here’s my link.)

Of course boards that can’t offer their readers something more than that competition are going to suffer. While that’s no big deal for cooperative boards, run by volunteers who never made any money from their sites and who are happy to shut down and let Facebook do all the work, this is a very big deal for publishers who grew to rely upon income from these boards.

If you’re earning a living from publishing, you ought to be paying attention to what’s happening to online discussion boards, and learning these lessons so that your publication doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Don’t focus on tools – focus on what you can do with them. Like newspaper publishers needed to learn to see their publications as something more than a collection of staff-written articles, discussion board admins needed to grow their sites from simple boards into true community hubs. That might mean expanding beyond the board to add blogging, news articles, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages to provide multiple avenues of communication for readers. And it might mean that board administrators themselves grow from simply managing the board tool to becoming leaders willing to advocate for issues and causes in the community’s best interest (as the best newspaper publishers have done for generations).

Remember as well that as a publisher or a featured writer on a website, if the only way that people reading the site are communicating is with you or through you, you don’t have a true community. You have a kind of cult of personality, one that will whither without your daily participation. You must find ways to get readers engaged with each another, and ideally in ways that get them engaged with each another in common cause offline as well as on. Message boards can continue to be part of this mix, but if the board’s identity needs to extend beyond the board tool itself.

Your community must provide value to its financial supporters, too. This isn’t simply about selling advertisers access to your readers’ eyeballs (though that can be part of the financial value you provide) – this is about creating community engagement that creates value for people, businesses and organizations in your community who are willing to pay to support it.

Yeah, this is harder work than simply opening a vBulletin account. Not everyone who attempts this hard work will survive in the online publishing businesses, either. But those who do prosper will be the ones who have found ways to lead and develop communities that can grow beyond their message boards.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Joe Ewaskiw says:

    Great perspective, Robert. As the provider of one of the most-used forum software products on the Internet, we at vBulletin hardly think online message boards are in decline. Rather, it’s been more of a shakeout in the space. Strong, quality boards have grown and thrived as the Internet has matured, while neglected or irrelevant boards have seen deserved declines in users.

    What makes a strong board? A variety of relevant content (including photos, videos, blogs, reviews, and rich user profiles), keeping up to date with new forum software releases, and adding expected features like the ability to log in with a Facebook account and offering the forum as a mobile app so users can interact with the forum on the go. All of this is possible, but it takes regular attention from the board operator(s) to nurture a community and encourage passionate interaction among users. As you noted, operating a forum is much more than opening an account and “setting and forgetting” it.

    Facebook and Twitter are amazing social networks, but they tend to be very broad in terms of social connections. Out of all your friends on the “big” social networks, you probably won’t find too many who are interested in constantly and obsessively discussing your favorite obscure hobby. So there’s still very much a place for quality message boards with a defined purpose.

    To add some perspective, we have more people running vBulletin on their websites today than at any time in history, and our largest customers tell us that their traffic measures on their vBulletin websites (page views and unique visits) continue to grow around 20% year-over-year. In many cases, these site operators are seeing profits growing at an even larger rate as advertisers understand the value of these niche communities.

    Message boards are hardly relics from Web 1.0. They are the original social networks, and we strongly believe they will continue to evolve with the Internet for years to come.

    Joe Ewaskiw
    Public Relations Manager
    Internet Brands, Inc., parent company of vBulletin
    (also USC Annenberg ’05)

  2. says:

    If you think “caring” is what boards are all about, think again.
    This will strike you as conceptual, but online community, as expressed through message boards, is very much akin to anti-Hate groups acting in actual practice, i.e. “it’s Hate under a different name”. If you doubt this, try an experiment. Have just one or two semi-major boards rescind all rules re: prosocial behavior, for 48 hours (announcing this, a priori). All moderators must Stand Down. It won’t be a lake of sickness and Hatred you’ll be reading, and it won’t be sailed upon by just a few. It’ll be tidal, 10’s and 10’s of thousands.
    Online boards are dying, because of stringent “scat cleanup”; as a result, only the mildest and (strangely) emotionally dead, stick around. Thus, the % takes a colossal nosedive. You haven’t corrected anyone’s behavior in order to be able to “play”, you see. You’ve merely made them go away. Perhaps that’s a good thing, but by juxtaposing this (conceptual) bit of wisdom with your article, we see the downside: If one insists, now, Today, on the proprieties at all times, you’re left with about 1/20th of whom you invited to your party.

  3. Although I can’t speak to the overall health of discussion boards, I was recently witness to their particular power. I am a lurking member of the Professional Pilots Rumour Network (PPRuNe,, which is an online water cooler for commercial, military, and cargo pilots and affiliated professions. For years, the Military Aircrew forum has hosted a “sticky” thread dedicated to exonerating the pilots of an RAF helicopter that crashed in Scotland in 1994, killing the pilots and 27 others. A subsequent Board of Inquiry found the pilots guilty of “gross negligence,” a charge that many knowledgeable people felt was unfair given the prevailing weather conditions and questions about the helicopter’s airworthiness.

    For over a decade, PPRuNe members (including serving military personnel contributing anonymously) used the thread to argue and clarify the issues for over a decade, pass along news and information about efforts to reopen the investigation, and to gather support from the broader aviation community. In part due to the efforts of the thread participants, an independent legal review was recently completed that cleared the pilots of the charge of “gross negligence.”

    As a spectator, I have absolutely no stake in or knowledgeable opinion about the case or its outcome, but it was nevertheless a vivid object lesson in the power of forums, and one that convinced me that forums have very important roles to play, many of which may not have even been discovered yet.

  4. says:

    The biggest board killer is Disqus. If you can have comment threads right on the site of the content itself, why bother discussing it on a board?