Monday, December 06, 2004

Blogs v. message boards

In the course of our internal blog proof-of-concept, the issue of blogs v. message boards has arisen. Ari, who is leading the blog POC, simply views them as two different tools used for the same purpose. This may be due to his experience with XOOPS, which he turned to after our disappointment with the lack of WYSIWYG editing in WordPress. XOOPS has both a blog and a message board, and users in the very small test group have been gravitating towards the message board.

As someone who has spent far too much time on message boards for far too little return, I don't really understand this perspective, although I've heard it before. The affordances of the tools are so obviously different to me that I haven't spent a lot of time trying to articulate what those differences are.

Obviously, I'm not the first one to attempt to define the differences. I really like this analyis of discussion and citation in the blogosphere by Tom Coates, and in particular this illustration:

Tom uses the following weblog posting typology, originally from a Microdoc News article that now 404's:
  1. Lengthy opinion and molding of a topic around between three to fifteen links with one of those links the instigator of the story;
  2. Vote post where the blogger agrees or disagrees with a post on another site;
  3. Reaction post where a blogger provide her/his personal reaction to a single post on another site;
  4. Summation post where the blogger provide a summary of various blogs and perspectives of where a blog story has got to by now.
As Ross Mayfield observes,

Odds are, types 2 & 3 have less value to most readers. If posts of these types were made on a discussion board, readers of the thread would be obliged to consume them. Amounting to spam. Most people have enough spam in their lives. Tom notes that with discussion boards, either the thread is good or not.

Exactly. The signal-to-noise ratio is so much better on blogs than on message boards. You don't have to slog through the garbage to find the good. Instead, you are handed a map that gets you their directly. You don't have to read everything to find the good stuff.

This analysis by Common Craft is provides a different perspective. Rather than focusing on information filtering and mapping, it describes differences between blogs and message boards on nine different areas. I disagree with two of these: intent and tools.

Viewing the intent of blogs as "personal accounts, news, reflection" isn't that far off, although I do bristle a bit at personal accounts, which sounds a bit too much like the diary meme. What it misses is that most bloggers aren't (intentionally) posting into a vacuum. They are hoping for a thoughtful response, a give-and-take, an expansion of their understanding. On the other side, I haven't seen much use of message boards as decision making tools. I would also add that the lack of reflection is a detriment. Most message boards read like IM conversation logs. Posts are short, links are few, substance uncertain, and the level of discouse is low. As Adriana Cronin-Lukas says, forums are like a collective drawing, while a blog post are like a piece of art on which others comment.

While adding RSS and similar tools eliminates the need to visit the board to see what is going on, notification doesn't solve the signal/noise ratio problems of message boards. You still have to read through the "voting" posts in a thread, deal with multiple threads on the same topic, etc. You don't control the channel; anybody can post, and it shows up in your reader.

And that channel control is desperately needed, as The Forager points out in Comics Bloggery vs. Message Boarding Actions. While I have never been to a comics board, this experience echoes mine on sports boards:
The key to the problem is that message boards seem to encourage ever-escalating arguments, while bloggers tend to engage in more reasonable discourse. This is primarily because blogs are both more permanent and more personal than message board threads: bloggers (generally) don't write things about other bloggers that they wouldn't also say face-to-face.
Now, in a corporate environment, the shouting match effect shouldn't directly be an issue, but you still may end up with more in the way of voting posts than real discussion. The bigger deal may be the perceived ephemerality of message boards, resulting more in reaction than reflection. More thought, more reflection, and more analysis go into a blog post because you know that it is permanently associated with you.

So, don't be confused. Blogs and message boards are very different beasts.


Blogger Guy said...

The world emphatically prefers blogging, as I've long evangelized.

The map analogy (and graphics!) resonated for me, too. Perhaps I should do another post on the joys of mapping. Hmmm, stay tuned.

Quite a lot of thought went into this one.

Can't Ari post himself?

{nudge, nudge ..}

6:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having password issues...Ari

The diagrams are helpful, and I agree that they are an accurate representation of the way that blogs and message boards work.
I think that some of the assumptions you are making are false. First, it’s backwards for us to tell people the ways in which they should communicate. If we attempt to do so, what we are offering is a solution in search of a problem. I tried this approach, fully selling all features and benefits, and got nowhere.
If people are more comfortable with a free-flowing exchange that includes a lot of noise, so be it. There are attractive social advantages to free-flowing discussions. Humans are social creatures. Don’t we want people to participate voluntarily? Meetings with agendas are the place to be structured. And when you say “you don't have to slog through the garbage to find the good,” that assumes that everyone shares your opinion of what is and is not garbage. I also feel very certain that people will be far more thoughtful and serious in a corporate setting than they are on the outside. Flames and endless threads that go nowhere would be frowned upon. Philosophically and experientially messages boards and forums may be different on the outside, but there is nothing about them per se that says that the things you refer to must be so. They are the due to the behaviors of the people who use them. If the Worldwide Web is the Wild Wild West, what does that have to do with us?
The blog format reminds me of the editorial page of a newspaper, or maybe a press release. Comments are welcome, but this is not a brainstorming situation. The blog format may has its place in this organization, but unless we have enough thread starters, we can forget it in the context you are proposing (witness this site).
To be clear, I had no issues, personally, with WordPress. In fact, I thought that its shortcomings could easily be dealt with by even inexperienced users. My notion of using the message board was based on admittedly limited feedback from the dozen or so IT employees who chose to participate in our little test.
Since I changed focus, I have received more feedback. At the Columbus tech fair, I showed both products to people I spoke with. Again, the message board was the winner.
I also spoke to two individuals in Marketing, and received valuable feedback from both conversations. My conclusion is that we may have a use for each of these formats.
As a result of a discussion I had with Jamie Sandford, I challenged myself to think differently about this initiative.
First, I think that blogging has its place, and I think that place is in the hands of groups such as Public Relations, Environmental Affairs, and so on, for an externally-facing site. Sites like these already exist for other organizations, and the obvious benefits are that they give the company a personal face, and they create an outlet for releasing news and info to the public.
The Achilles’ heel of both the message board and the blog, for us, has been a user base that is too small. Taking public message boards as an example, consider what the ratio of regular participants to occasional participants to lurkers might be. We need to establish a larger presence so that we can reach a tipping point and gain adoption. 20,000 would seem to be a nice round number.
The additional benefits of a message board become evident here. It can be segmented into sections, subsections, and sub-sub-sections, private as well as public. Furthermore, it is no accident that board admins refer to their forums as “communities.” I think that a sense of community fosters communication and collaboration.
We need to think bigger on this concept, and get an executive sponsor who can advocate for us. Then we can finally turn this into an actual project. No customer equals no project.

11:09 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Several interesting points, Ari. I'll address as many as I can remember, since Blogger doesn't make it easy for me to look at your post as I reply.

I don't think that it is an either/or situation. As the Common Craft link notes, there may be room for both. My point is that they aren't really substitutable. They may be more complementary.

As I say, some of the worst aspects of a message board aren't going to show up in a corporate environment. I don't see the lack of reflection and pull-it-all-together posts changing much. Message boards are much more like IM than email.

By their nature, boards are community oriented. However, blogs are community oriented too. Hopefully when I post here, I'm not posting into a vacuum. You may comment on the blog itself, which is essentially creates a mini-message board around the post. A perhaps better alternative is to post a response on your own blog. Trackback or Technorati or Bloglines references will show me the responses. You can even leave a brief comment pointing to the response on your blog. The interconnected networks of readers of various blogs forms a community.

We don't typically dictate how people communicate, especially around new stuff. As critical mass grows, people's expectations dictate how tools are used, and some folks may not like how others are using the tool. How many times have you heard "email is not appropriate for that discussion" from some manager? Guess what? Some group decided it was. The last email holdouts in the real world are getting on-line, because as one said to me, "You don't exist without it."

Critical mass is needed, but this isn't going to be a mass rollout thing. It's going to be organic growth. When we are ready, we will get the management buy-in for our expanded POC. We haven't begun that yet. We are just kicking tires now.

Good stuff!!!

2:11 PM  

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