Worlds are colliding, people. Your friendly neighborhood message board is not alone in the online community world any longer.
This year we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the message board. Since that time, interfaces have improved, email has been integrated, but comparatively little has changed regarding the basic structure and intent of the message board.
However, in the last few years, w've seen the arrival of a new set of tools and processes that offer additional opportunities for message board-based online communities. The appearance of weblogs have left many observers, including me, wondering about the differences between the two technologies and how they will be used inside online communities.
Are weblogs really that different from message boards? How?
Note: Below I make assumptions and generalizations about message board and weblog design. My goal is to discuss what I think are standard practices across the technologies. I realize that the assumptions below may or may not match with your experiences and I present them as suggestions. Please comment or email me with any input.
First, I believe that weblogs and message boards *are* different -- different enough to happily exist together in the same online community web site. My conclusion is that online communities will use the two resources to fill two different roles. Their ability to fill independent niches will make the subtle differences between them make more sense.
The table below outlines the differences I see. Below the table is a description of each row.
Locus of Control
Perhaps the most compelling difference in weblogs and message boards is the locus of control. Weblogs are individual or small group resources- the control of content and value is driven by a single person or small group. Message Boards are group resources- the control of content and value is shared equally across all users.
Authoring of New Topics
The locus of control matters most in defining who can post new topics, which drive the content of the resource. In weblogs, this role is centralized, with new topics being presented by a defined and focused person or small group. This centralization facilitates focus and direction on behalf of the webloggers.
In many message boards, all members usually have the ability to create new topics. This decentralization allows for more emergent and unpredictable directions that may reflect the group's desires as a whole.
The centralized vs. decentralized nature of the technologies fit nicely into two distinct intentions. With weblog authorship being centralized inside a community, they can easily become news sources, where trusted individuals provide accounts of events and information. The decentralized nature of message boards works well to accumulate group input and facilitate collaboration and group decision making.
Weblogs and Message Boards both allow for responses from the community- new topics can be responded-to by others. Weblog topics have comments and message board topics have replies. This subtle difference in syntax reveals a difference in the roles. The word comment for weblogs implies that the author does not need further participation to reach a goal- comment if you want. Reply, on the other hand, implies that participation is explicitly requested by the poster. A discussion is not a discussion without a reply.
The appearance of weblogs has brought a number of new tools to users and most facilitate the ability to read and link weblogs together. They include: Trackback, RSS, Aggregation, Permalinks, Cross linking, etc. While these are currently in the domain of the weblog, I believe they will soon be integrated into message board tools.
The order and presentation of topics across message boards and weblogs relate another difference. Weblogs are consistenly arranged with the most recently posted topics at the top of the page, regardless of new comments. With a message board, the posting of replies can govern the presentation of the originating topic- topics with new replies are often presented at the top (but not always, of course). This illustrates the relative importance of replies in message board discussions. Replies can keep a discussion alive and at the top of the page for months or even years in some cases.
Due to consistent and centralized authorship, weblogs can allow online community members to develop personal connections with the webloggers relatively quickly. Message boards, on the other hand, offer a broader look at a larger number of members as they interact with one another in a group setting.
Since a weblog depends on a single person or select group, the likelihood of off-topic or inappropriate topics (or responses) is greatly reduced. Further, as discussed previously, weblogs do not depend on responses to provide value. So, in situations where spam or flame wars are a problem, weblogs can turn-off comments and depend on new topics from the webloggers for value. Being group resources, message boards do not have the luxury to turn off replies, but do prevent problems with moderation of each new topic or response.
How topics are archived and organized provides another look at the differences. Often, each new topic in a weblog is assigned to a category that is used to organize the topics for future reference. A single weblog may have many categories that archive and organize posts that were originally presented on the weblog's front page. Message boards are often presented with multiple starting points for creating a new discussion. The member chooses the appropriate location to post a new topic, depending on subject matter. In this way, message boards create multiple front pages, spreading the presentation of new topics across locations/content buckets in the community.
A look at the future:
This is my current thinking. In the future, I think well see a blending of the best parts of each tool. While they may continue to fill disparate rolls, I think message boards will begin to integrate weblog tools like trackback and RSS/aggregation (some are now). We'll see online communities that are made up of multiple weblogs, where discussions occur across weblogs in a single domain instead of in a message board format. This may look like a microcosm of the blogosphere we see today. I'll save more on this for another post that may also bring wikis into the fray.
Again, I present this as a starting point as opposed to a proclamation. Please comment with any thoughts or suggestions.
Special thanks to Nancy White for help with this entry. She previously linked to other perspectives on this post.