How to have a constructive forum for engagement?

About 10 years back, I was engaged in setting up an exciting forum for discussions between radiation oncologists. The forum is dead now, for obvious reasons, but I learned a lot in the process. I stumbled on this interesting HN discussion, and it brought in memories and ideas from a previous venture.

The question is- which is better? A forum style or “Reddit Style”. For any online medium to build up to scale, you need the network effects to kick in; i.e. a large number of users should find utility or value in that. That explains the success of WhatsApp (and Facebook) because they have network effects built-in. Anyone and everyone you know is invariably on the platform.

The next question is- is this a suitable medium for discussion? In groups, there will always be someone who posts, people who agree or disagree and the ones who always lurk in the background. This hierarchy is almost always seen in any of the online communities. The trick is to scale up engagement. That degree of involvement is challenging to enforce.

One of the reasons why Facebook is so wildly popular (as an advertising platform) is because of the degree of engagement of users who matter (and falling in the bell curve of the demographics that advertisers wish to target). It is not perfect, and for apparent reasons, digital marketing has its pitfalls. However, it is precisely the reason why Twitter is a fail whale because of pitiful rates of engagement and inconsistency of the ad networks.

Then what really explains the “popularity” of Reddit? I think it has to do with the freshness of the content- an average Joe clicks on the community to find other average joes upvoting or downvoting content. It is moot if the chatter around the issues contributes to the “discussion” because primarily it is a black hole. Outside Reddit, no one knows you are a Redditor.

The following taken from the discussion stream perfectly encapsulates the idea:

Threaded-forums had a format, which I would argue is specifically designed around their fundamental premise: asynchronous small group single-threaded discussion(even if they have a tree-based format of categorisation to help get to the specific thread/topic).

That works out great for a small,tightly-knit community, and one where you recognise or want to recognise who it is you’re actually talking to and are genuinely interested in a long-form discussion. But that doesn’t scale well, for several reasons:

1) Humans can only keep track of a small number of identities.

2) Most people aren’t genuinely interested in participating in discussion (that is to say, amongst the general cateogry of humans, and by discussion I mean a back and forth sharing of ideas/information), let alone “long-form” discussion over a significant period of time.

3) On forums you’re consistently stuck having to follow the path of a given thread, whether the path it takes interests you or not or veers off on a tangent.

4) The typical format of the forum was weighted towards a classification-drilling-down-search to find specific topics on which one specifically interested, rather than a ‘bubbling up’ of statistical popularity as the foremost mechanism.

Which one is better? I prefer the imperfectly asynchronous method of discussion on Telegram. I engage deeply with just one group because I perceive that it provides value to me (intellectually). Otherwise, I let it pass. Twitter, as I had mentioned earlier, is a useless construct for conversations as you’d drown out in deafening noise.

Telegram provides perfect tools to discuss specific issues, even in the groups, through the use of hashtags (that is the most potent underrated feature). You can have topics (as hashtags) and discuss around it (and share papers, for example). However, it is tough to get a committed set of users willing to understand a new medium of technology.

via Aliens in the valley: The complete and chaotic history of Reddit (2014) | Hacker News