Are Internet Forums Obsolete?

The Digital Life

dinosaur

In the last half of 2015 I didn’t post much here on PopUpBackpacker.com. Life was getting in the way of living – meaning work was interfering with my leisure time and backpacking and camping trips declined. However, I have corrected this deficiency in life. Let’s move on to the subject at hand.

Since you are reading this, you probably know what an Internet forum is, and I would venture to guess you have participated or presently participate on one. Forums or their ancient electronic relatives from the 1980’s and early 1990’s: bulletin boards, CompuServe, Delphi, or AOL were all precursors to what we now categorize as social media. All of this is leading to the question: Are Internet forums obsolete?

I’m not going to bore you with a history of electronic social media (whatever that is), suffice to say I dinked around with early text-based BBS utilizing 300 baud dial-up modems as a computer learning tools starting with a Commodore VIC 20 computer. I later graduated to faster modems, a Commodore 64, then eventually 8088, XT, and AT class PCs, and today a Mac. If all of this is gobble-gook to you, that’s okay – ignore it.

black hole
BLACK HOLE

After the BBS experiment, I found that online social interaction was time black hole.

In the 90’s I did get involved with a couple of guys (who I never met) and we built an online library of digital wave-forms of automotive electronic sensors and other components. At the time it was leading edge stuff, educational, and relative to my career. But it encroached into my free time and I soon abandoned it.  I was done with social media for a while.

In 2003 Joyce and I decided to remodel our 1992 Starcraft tent trailer. I joined a tent trailer forum, popupexplorer.com (PUX) and was fairly active there for a few years. The reason for joining was to get some ideas and information for our remodel. It was time well spent. After our remodel was complete and perfect, I continued to participate — my way of giving back to the community that provided me with some great ideas and advice. My interest in that forum declined considerably by 2008, when I started to refine my 30-something year old backpacking gear.

In 2008 I joined backpackinglight.com (BPL) and now I find my interest in that forum is waning too.

There is nothing bad about either forum, but I think there is a life cycle for these kinds of forums and after a period of time they begin to die. Part of the reason might be the forum owners get complacent with the forum software infrastructure and perhaps lack forward thinking to innovate on aging technology, or lack the capital or personal drive to adapt to an ever changing electronic universe. Perhaps they can’t compete with or underestimate the impact of blogs or other social media have on their forums. As popular forums gain membership, the time and money required to maintain them constantly grows into a full time job with no pay, and the owner must figure out a way to monetize the site – that is a difficult challenge with so much free content on the Web.

Blogs have become (or some blogs that is) a plethora of quality, and in amazing quantities, useful and entertaining resources. I highly approve of the phenomenon.

The other competitors for our valuable time are the popular social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and the rest – all of which I disdain, although I admit I really don’t have any experience with them. I don’t have to use heroin to determine it is bad, I can see the devastation it does to those who use it. I have also witnessed the addictive neurotic users of Facebook and similar media; indecisive, insecure people living in some sort of bad dream alternative reality.

But let’s talk about Internet forums. This is my website and I get to choose the content. PUX and BPL are camping and backpacking forums, which is the main content of my website.

INTERNET FORUMS

First and foremost, a forum is a vehicle for discussion of topics of common interests. It is a place to share ideas and experiences with like-minded people. This is a good thing. But there is a cycle to this, and perhaps there might be a limited life of a forum, leading to its eventual demise.

Forum Life Cycle

forum life cycle

www.popupexplorer.com

pux logo

This is a forum for owners of tent trailers and is also known as PUX. I was one of the early members, joining in its first year of operation. This forum was started when the most popular tent trailer forum at the time, PopUp Times, went to a paid membership format. There was a mass exodus from PU Times, and it died. I never visited PopUp Times and know nothing about it.

In its early days, PUX was awesome. Part of this was the owner’s philosophy of “be nice” and no discussions of the 3 G’s was allowed (guns, government, and God). Moderation of the forum and removal of offensive threads really made it a friendly place to visit.

As the forum grew, it became necessary for the owner to monetize the site (no surprise). So ads were added to the site. Many people complained, of course they have never owned a business and had no concept of what it takes to run one – the general evil in our society of entitlement – too many people wanting something for nothing. In addition, the owner added an online store to sell tent trailer related items. Things moved forward and the site prospered. Then it went into decline.

The decline wasn’t due to anything the owner did wrong; it is just the nature of the beast. You see, tent trailers are pretty simple. Almost all brands are the same, and the tent trailer manufacturers buy all their components from the same vendors. There is little innovation in tent trailer design, so after a period of time discussions deteriorated the critical mass of sustainment with nothing new to discuss. Also, during the past 10 years, ultralight full size travel trailers entered the market at a similar price point of high end tent trailers, and many PUX members sold their tent trailers and moved on to larger travel trailers. So with nothing new to discuss, the only way the forum could continue to grow was to attract a larger following of new members.

Most forums have some sort of search function and within the forum database is a gold mine of valuable information. If you are new to the forum and need to obtain information, it would seem logical that you would simply do a search to locate the needed material. Alas, too many people are lazy. So new members ask the same questions over and over, which becomes tiresome and redundant to the long term members. To add insult to injury, new members with little experience or knowledge continuously challenge the expertise of the seasoned veterans of the forum who are answering their questions; answers that could have been answered with the search function. An atmosphere of discord permeates the forum and members leave. New and old members leave, plus potential new members opt not to join because they don’t like the constant controversy.

I think PUX is dying. I have no idea how many visits it gets each month, but I know that active posting is in serious decline. It used to be if I didn’t visit the forum for a month, there would be more than 30 pages of new posts. Nowadays that number has dropped to 2 or 3 pages.

I still like PUX, even though I no longer have a tent trailer, and I do post occasionally. I will be sad when it eventually disappears, which will probably happen.

 

www.backpackinglight.com

bpl logo

This site has gone through a similar cycle as PUX. I joined in 2008, and the forum had been around for about 8 years. The focus of BPL is lightweight and UL backpacking – that is, you can enhance your skills and knowledge enabling you to lighten the weight of your gear without endangering yourself and have more fun in the wilderness with a lighter pack. Great concept and I whole heartedly agree.

There is much more emphasis on gear than actually backpacking experiences. The problem with backpacking gear, like tent trailers, is that little has changed in 50 years. Other than lighter fabrics and the availability of lighter materials, the gear designs have changed little. The focus really should be on skills, not gear. But the subject matter at BPL has also lost the critical mass of sustainability of nothing new or significant to discuss. Close to 50% of the posts on BPL are for the selling of gear – this boggles the mind. Why are so many people selling their used gear? Obviously many bought gear that didn’t work for them (a lack of knowledge) or it is consumerism at its worst. Again, too much focus on gear, especially when so many BPL members profess a passion for protecting the environment and living a life that embraces a minimalist approach to hiking and even life in general.

Like PUX, BPL has over the years suffered from new members asking the same questions over and over, and the old dogs often being mean to them. One difference between BPL and PUX, is BPL has no “be nice” rule, so posts are often pretty nasty. Over the past few years I have seen a huge negativity cloud descend on BPL.

The membership at BPL seems to be higher educated in general than PUX. This is not meant to criticize PUX, but there are a lot of professionals and scientists on BPL, so some conversations can be quite intellectual. I like that.

BPL has the same monetization problems as PUX, and BPL’s financial model is a little different. BPL did try an online store to sell backpacking gear, but that failed. Like PUX, BPL has moved to ads on the site, plus there is a subscription model for all content. Basic forum membership is free. BPL publishes some great articles that are only available to paying members. But most of the paid content has gotten stale and there are fewer authors submitting articles. It is backpacking after all; how much new stuff is there to write about? And of course there is the entitlement factor, so there is continuing whining about the ads, the forum software, and a desire for complete access to everything for free. Lastly, BPL offers courses (online and hands-on outdoor treks) to teach you how to backpack. In my opinion, backpacking is just walking, there is enough content there and on the Web to teach you how to backpack safely, so I don’t understand why people pay money to learn how to backpack.

I haven’t participated on BPL in many months; just got tired of the constant whining and combative posts. I’m not saying I not going to participate anymore, I’m just not as interested as I once was and the constant complaining about the forum software, policies, and ownership has become a drag. I think BPL is going to be around for a while, but the ownership really needs to figure out what his customers (forum members) truly want, how to deliver it, and how to make it financially successful. It is funny, a few years ago the owner of BPL was complaining about the lack of innovation in the UL backpacking industry, and now he is in the position of needing to come up with some innovation to make his site prosper. Time will tell.

My suggestion to you, the reader, is to go camping and/or backpacking more often. This can be accomplished by freeing up more leisure time in your life, which means spend less time on Facebook or Internet forums. If you need to research subjects pertaining to your hobby, you will probably find better content on Web blogs.

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