Robin Linden, VP at Linden Labs, dropped a bombshell yesterday when she announced that most of the discussion forums on the Second Life website will be closed down in the near future. As she explains:
I know many of you feel passionately about the community you’ve built up on the discussion boards, and I can’t minimize its importance. But the cost in Linden staff time in moderation is too great, as is the rancor that often spilled over from the discussion forums into other areas. That said, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water as a few of you suggested we risk doing. We want to preserve that which has been successful, while trying to eliminate the areas which cause the most pain.
All-in-all, I think this was probably a smart decision.
As a newb, I don’t have strong feelings either way. I surfed into the forums every once in awhile to see what the latest drama was. As the moderator of my own hyper-active discussion board, it was painful seeing the constant flaming, bickering, off-topic stupidity, and general chaos of the SL forums. The Mac sub-forum was almost useless as a way to get any information on how to effectively use my iBook and MacBook Pro in Second Life.
I certainly understand Linden Lab’s decision, as a for-profit company, to close the forums. Why does it add value to your product to spend hours of expensive staff time policing debates on Bush and abortion? And with the meteoric ascendance of blogs, phpbb type forums seemed like an antiquated mode of chat next to the cutting edge tech that Second Life is supposed to represent.
The value of discussion forums over blogs is that they more easily support a large community of hundreds or thousands of people engaged in asynchronous conversation on a thousand different topics. They pool related discussions into coherent containers allowing for easy searching and scanning for things you might be interested in. Posting to the SL forums made you feel like you were in a central space where potentially every resident was present, like a very crowded town hall meeting.
But forums are very rough tools for highlighting certain posts and content, guiding the conversation day-by-day. Well-run multi-user blogs like slashdot and Gothamist resemble a 24-7 talk show with a constant stream of interesting, funny, smart guests and lots of opinionated and snarky audience members.
Moving much of your discussion content over to blogs still requires careful moderating and guidance. And moving the off-world SL conversations over to a hundred different personal blogs risks further atomizing the population of residents into various semi-closed subcultures and ghettos. There is a real felt need for some sort of central gathering points in SL, and outside of SL, for those who feel that their virtual life is an important part of their life.
So while I respect the Linden Lab’s decision as probably good for the business, it still makes me a little sad. We have so few agoras in modern public life, so few places we can stake our soapboxes and shout about what we are upset about. A blog is a poor replacement.