Crowdgather: The Importance of Forums on the Internet

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Tom Murphy has worked as a producer and cameraman specialising in current affairs and documentaries, filming in many different environments, hostile and otherwise, throughout the world. @tom_murphy

Sanjay Sabnani is the chairman and CEO of Crowdgather, a network made up of over 65,000 forums generating over 90 million page views per month and 4.5 million visitors a month.

Back around 2005 Sanjay looked at all the press in terms of valuation of user generated content sites and social networks and realized that forums seemed to have very valuable content, very strong ties between the members and really no love from the mainstream community. We asked him why he thought that might be?

“For some reason there seems to be a general reluctance amongst advertisers to advertise on user generated content. You have to message down to the individual and to the small groups. Back in the nineties that was not how it was done. The manufacturers and advertisers wanted to control the message and did not have any dynamic feedback in their approach where they could learn from their users.

“That’s all changed now and we are already started to see traction. We have grown from 12 million page views a month last year to 90 million page views a month.”

But haven’t social media sites subsumed the role of forums?

"There is a substantial difference between forums and social media. At the same time there is a huge amount of ignorance about forums and their place in the eco-system.

"I believe that Twitter and Facebook are the training wheels of the true, deep internet experience.

"On forums most people use imaginary user names. Who you are in the real world, how big your bank balance is, how pretty or handsome you are does not matter on a forum. What matters on a forum is the worth of your intellect, the merit of your thoughts and your ability to communicate them.

"Unfortunately, they are not very pretty. There are legacy issues in how pretty they can be made because of how arcane the software is. But if you look at them for what they are — as vehicles for many to many communication — they are the best applications of many to many interaction.

"Facebook is not many to many. It is me and my friends and at any given time it’s me communicating with my friends or me participating in the communication of my friends. We are never all in it together because I may not have friends that overlap your group of friends.

"Forums are designed for a multiplicity of people to communicate with a multiplicity of people and they are done in an organized fashion with a taxonomy that makes sense.

"If you go to a standard forum you will find an index. There’ll be be a section that has an introduction for new members and a section to put your complaints. You’ll find the subject you are interested in is broken down into various sub-headings. It is very easy to find the information and, specifically, the conversation that you are looking to create or participate in.

"What forums allow you to do is the sum total of everything you can do on the internet.

"On a good forum you can read a review. You can have a member do a tutorial on how to jailbreak a phone or how to hack something. You can have your typical Q&A threads. You can post a question to the community. You can also share. There are very few places that have this aggregate of knowledge.

"Facebook allows you to share social linkages. You see pictures of your friend’s new born child and you get to congratulate them. Linkedin captures your work history; who you have worked with and the chronology of your work experience. Twitter allows you to broadcast to your followers.

"There is nowhere else [besides forums] on the internet where your passions, your hobbies and your knowledge base is sufficiently given credit for."

Apart from being a powerful advocate for forums Sanjay also runs Crowdgather as a business.

"We are focused on what is unique about forums. In the meantime we pursue an acquisition and advertising driven business strategy because in order to get to our dreams we need to have a day job. Get bigger, charge more for ads and give advertisers access to the constituents they are looking for.

"The software that we are developing seeks to expand on this folio and create a system that allows all forums to be interlinked so this history and this collective knowledge base can be better utilized and accessed by the masses that are now cutting their teeth of Twitter and Facebook.

"Forums are highly valued by search engines. You take any other form of social media; you take a blog, you take Facebook, you take Twitter, what is the policing mechanism on the links posted in those types of sites? It’s zero.

"On a forum if you showed up as a new member and in your first several posts there were links to a commercial product you would be ridiculed, insulted, banned and the link would be removed.

"Forums are the only class of site other than Wikipedia type sites that has a built-in peer review mechanism. Search engines have already looked at and identified this process as a very powerful form of curation of good answers. There is a framework of well-understood conduct that you must abide by."

Forums, with their roots in the pre-internet days of networked modems, are the largest repository of high value, user generated content on the internet. Despite their somewhat unfashionable status it is impossible to imagine a worthwhile or particularly useful internet existing without their presence.

Forums might never be cool enough to have movie like "The Social Network" made about them but with people like Sanjay as advocates there is a chance that they might receive a bit more love and respect than they do at present.

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