Facebook discussions are my generation's bulletin boards.

There was recently a minor blow-up in on my Facebook timeline around various allegations of misconduct within a particular dance community. The comment thread got heated, went on to 100-plus entries, and I’m starting to see these monster threads pop up in more and more groups recently.

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Facebook has become the new bulletin board.

In case you weren't a geek in the mid-90's to early-00's, forums/bulletin boards were community sites formed around common interests, hobbies, or subcultures. Users could start topics in one of several different boards, and reply to others' posts.

Forums were a step forward in Internet communication – less ephemeral than chat rooms, more navigable and discoverable than email listserves. Subforums, threaded replies, searchable threads and permanently linked posts made it possible to have long, in-depth conversations on a topic, especially if the board had a solid culture and good moderators. They were ugly compared to most large consumer websites today, but damn it, they worked.

I was a member of one forum for alpine snowboarders, and through that community got a used race board shipped from Canada (delivery pretty much on the honor system), lots of great newbie advice, and even some ride partners for a few fun days on Mt. Hood. Trolls were few, moderators were strict, and most folks on the board were just there to meet like-minded people with a common interest. Niche seems to be key for signal-to-noise in forums: more general boards have larger populations, more anonymity, and less of a core interest to rally around, which makes the trolls come out. Many of the biggest general-interest forums have been skeletonized by Twitter, Reddit, Stack Overflow, Quora, and the rest, but there are still some (like Badger & Blade) that are thriving.

Facebook is the first time that a large part of mainstream America is being introduced to threaded, asynchronous discussion, and it’s fun to see. I love seeing people I know write at each other – friends who don’t maintain blogs or other public writing suddenly penning multi-paragraph posts and comments.

But Facebook threads have some major issues:

  • No permanent linking: the thread originator can delete their post at any time, and POOF! The entire thing is gone. I've seen hundreds of multi-paragraph comments instantly deleted. One of the key tenets of a forum is that if you're going to put something down in writing, you better be okay with it being there to stay. Users often had the ability to delete their own comments, but not entire threads of other peoples' words.
  • No threading: want to comment on something somebody said five comments back? Good luck. Facebook threads are a single, flat list, and there's no way to figure out exactly what is in reply to what.
  • Limited admin and organizational powers: in one group I’m a member of, group admins are enforcing forum-like rules (on-topic threads, posting no more than once every 15 minutes) purely operationally, through chiding comments or just nuking posts. 
  • No search: discussions are tricky to impossible to find again once they go stale and stop hitting your news feed
  • Skinny! Text content on Facebook never gets over 400 pixels wide, which means a post that would otherwise be a line or two suddenly takes up half your screen.

So why do people use it?

I was at a talk with Des Traynor from Intercom, and he had a great slide on how tools that simplify workflows even the slightest bit have a high chance of going viral. The examples were digital photography cannibalizing traditional photography, and then itself being cannibalized by Instagram and the like – a long physical process became a digital workflow, which then became just one or two taps on your phone.

And that’s kind of why, despite my annoyance with them, Facebook is currently winning. Fewer functions than other discussion sites? Sure. A worse experience in many ways? Yep. But Snapchat isn’t worth billions because it’s good at organizing, tagging, and editing your photos – it’s successful because it shrunk “Share a picture with a few friends” into a two-tap, five-second process. 

That’s why when people have something to share or ask, they do it on Facebook. Reddit or a forum may have better moderation, and Stack Exchange is pretty much guaranteed to get you a better answer. But Facebook weaves the conversation into its dopamine drip of likes, pictures, event invites, and messages, and adding your own comment is always just a click or tap away. 

As Facebook groups get bigger, though and participants in a thread are not all necessarily real-life friends with each other, the problems get exacerbated. Flame wars start, replies get impossible to follow, and the all-or-nothing delete functions on posts and threads mean that a single thread representing dozens of people and hours of writing can get nuked forever. There’s also the lack of a draft function – for anything longer than about a paragraph, you have to compose in an external editor or risk it being deleted.

I hopethat as these long-running threads become the norm, we might see Facebook address some of the broken pieces. Not permalinking or exporting your data – they've always been about sucking everything into their walled garden – but maybe some variety of threading, or moving some of the search/draft functionality from Notes into comments. 

If not, maybe there’s a market for a Facebook Connect-enabled Branch or Discourse analog that makes it simple to take a Facebook conversation out of Facebook, with a UX that distances itself from old BBSes. I love seeing what my friends write, I'd just like to be able to view their thoughts somewhere other than in a 400-pixel-wide news stream.