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Social networks need to be more like online forums

Engadget Engadget 1/07/2016 Nicole Lee
Faces on discs randomly connected by arrows © Provided by Engadget Faces on discs randomly connected by arrows © Provided by Engadget

Social networks are the modern day watering holes for the internet. But back in the '90s, I didn't have Twitter and Facebook. Instead, my destination was the online forum, a site where I could discuss a variety of topics in the form of posted messages (hence the term "message board"). Be it a bulletin board system (BBS) or a Usenet news group, these message boards were my first introduction to the social web. They're still around today of course, but I've largely stopped using these forums in favor of the aforementioned social networks. But there is one thing I do miss about them: a sense of community.

When I first hooked up my computer to a dial-up modem in 1997, it was a revelation. See, I was a lonely nerdy girl in a small Southeast Asian country. But through the magic of the internet, I stumbled onto a world where I was no longer alone. I came upon online discussion groups, which offered me the chance to interact with like-minded people. Some were local, while others indulged in my interest in comic books, Conan O'Brien and MTV's Daria. These were places where my thoughts and opinions mattered, where I was no longer just a quiet, meek face in a crowd. Soon, I found new friends, several of whom lived tens of thousands of miles away. I eventually met a few of them in real life, fostering friendships that last to this day.

On Twitter, however, I am just one of many voices. While I can certainly use it to keep abreast of what's going on in the world, that feeling of being a part of a community is diluted. Sure, I can joke around with friends but it's a lot harder to make new ones and connect with people outside of your immediate circle. After all, no one can see you tweet if you have no followers.

Most message boards have some kind of Newbie forum or an Introduction stickie where newcomers can wade in, but on Twitter, it's often up to you to branch out and make first contact with specific people. Even Facebook is really only beneficial if you already have a network of existing friends. Of course, it's also a lot harder to keep away from nasty trolls and spammers on Twitter compared to a message board that's moderated.

And this, right here, is the problem. On the face of it, it seems that both message boards and social networks bring people together. But social media isn't about building communities; it's about sharing your thoughts with the world. Unfortunately, this often just means shouting into the void. Instead of a place where your thoughts and opinions matter, social media is where you need to fight to get your voice heard. This creates a culture of one upsmanship where the popular get more popular, the obnoxious get louder and people are vulnerable to hate.

If Twitter and Facebook want to start earning more goodwill, they need to do more than just tweak their algorithms. They need to start building communities too.

[Image credits: Getty]

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