Thursday, August 11, 2011

Why the decline of message boards is unfortunate

This blog post takes a look at the slow decline of message boards, pretty much all of whom are dying a slow death as people move towards blogs, Facebook, Twitter and similar sites. I'm reminded of the first message board I ever used, the BaseballBoards, which then became FanHome, which in turn was absorbed by some unholy conglomerate which may have been absorbed by ESPN.

Eventually, FanHome re-emerged independent as TheScoreBoards, but only as a shell of itself. That the most active part of it is its off-topic political discussion board tells us something about the power of the Internet, as people who on the surface can't stand each other start what might well be their second decade of discussing politics with each other. My affiliation with the site in its various incarnations goes back eleven years.

The main difference between Facebook and Twitter underlines the importance of message boards. If I have something intellectual to share, I'll put it on Twitter. If it's something more personal, I'll put it on Facebook. For a majority of people, I suppose the latter is more common, and understandably so, but the practice of talking to strangers on the Internet is vastly underrated.

I learned to write by debating strangers about baseball, politics and later football and running over the Internet. It's how I learned to evaluate the strength of an argument and someone's reasoning, a process that I would formalize years later in university, but it began with the Internet. Indeed, much of what I know, I've learned by discussing a variety of topics with strangers on the Internet.

A future talking only to people you know is in many ways a dull future because it's a closed loop. Talking to people you know about the things you know takes us back to the '80s when information was exceedingly hard to access and someone interested in Bactrian camels would simply be out of luck if he or she did not know any other enthusiasts of Bactrian camels.

Up until recently, the Internet was a fantastic way to learn in that strangers around the world could be united by their enthusiasm over a common topic and learn from each other. If this phenomenon becomes less common, we'll just read about things we agree shared by people we agree with.

More than a decade ago, I became interested in white nationalist message boards, first reading the Vanguard News Network until its profanity made it illegible, and then migrating to the paranoid, deluded and yet more-or-less comprehensible Stormfront. Some might argue that there is no edifying component here, but I would also like to add message boards like Cool Running and LetsRun, especially the former, where I learned a great deal from runners much better than myself.

If now I'm supposed to use Facebook or Twitter to connect with other runners, there simply won't be that depth of discussion you can find on LetsRun. LetsRun, the message board of choice for people who believe that you have no business running unless you are presently an Olympic gold medalist, but also that your gold medal was the result of doping, is a website that made me a much better runner.

Stranger-based communication allows for people in dissimilar situations to connect. But if it's going to be replaced by talking to runners you know in real-life, like with anything else, the discussions simply won't be as passionate. The anonymity of message boards allows for ideas to be examined and criticized with greater scrutiny than you might present in real-life.

If I sit next to someone at a wedding who believes that there are only 42 elements in the periodic table, I can either gently correct them or politely accept their world view. On the Internet, I can let them know in detail, with references, just how wrong they are. Maybe this exhibits some anti-social tendencies, but for the wider audience and maybe also the original poster, it presents a learning opportunity of how to call out someone for their nonsense.

But someone that I know in real-life who posts on Facebook that compression socks allowed them to run a half marathon forty-five minutes faster, I'll probably just click the 'like' button instead of pointing out that they'd have been lucky to get forty-five seconds of benefit from the sucks.

Admittedly, civility on many message boards is lacking, though the better message boards out there are far closer to real-life interaction than, say, the comments on newspaper articles, which by far trend to the absolute lowest of human interaction with near universality, a trend that I have never understood. But it's also true that a great deal of people have never read or never posted on a message board for the reason of manners, among others. Message boards might not have been for everyone, but for those who used them and have used them, the benefit was great.

Some of the message boards I've read over the years, which are still standing:

LetsRun, since 2003
Stormfront, since 2001 or 2002
TheScoreBoards, since 2000 in its first incarnation

1 comment:

Rob-o-SE-yo said...

Did you see this Ted Talk by the guy who founded 4Chan?