My first real programming experience was with a scripting language called AutoHotkey. This was before I was fluent enough in English to join the English-speaking community around this language. But luckily, there was an official German forum. It was really active, not only consisting of newcomers to the language but also veterans. When I joined this forum in my teens I quickly went from just asking beginner questions, to enjoying helping other beginners, that asked the same questions as I did previously. I got better at the language, learned new programming concepts all through reading posts, helped others, and shared my projects on this forum. I got excited when I saw a post from other users that I recognized. When AutoHotkey got forked and the new interpreter introduced classes and object-oriented programming, I felt in way over my head. Since I was not alone in this, one person took the time to write an incredibly detailed guide as a forum post. I recently found this post printed on paper. I had printed it right before going on vacation since I desperately wanted to learn but knew I was not going to have access to the internet for a while. Unfortunately, the German forum has since been discontinued, but some of the pages are still up on the Way back machine.
Another community I used to be really active in, was for a small indie roleplaying game called Illarion. Again, the community relied heavily on a forum for communications. This time it was used for players to engage in "out of character" communication, as well as a way to simulate a metaphorical bullet board in the game town square where characters could leave notes for each other. Since the game was closely inspired by TTRPGs like D&D, the role-playing part was more important than the in-game mechanics. The forum allowed characters to interact with each other that were not online at the same time. Again, I got really invested in this community, even going so far as joining other guild-specific forums.
I eventually moved on from both of those amazing communities, because my interests changed. I left the AutoHotkey community because I started to get more involved with other programming languages, and I left the Illarion community because I (with the support of my parents) was looking for a less time-intensive game. Unfortunately, I never happened to find another online community like those two ever again...
Sometime later I joined Reddit and was amazed. It felt like a place where all communities come together on a single site. No need to check on multiple websites for new posts, everything neatly together in a single website, accessible on a single (third party) app. I remember wondering why people were still using forums when Reddit was so much simpler.
Jumping to the present and I realize that I was wrong. Even though I am subscribed to a bunch of communities on Reddit, I barely comment on any posts and posted even less. While I am a community member on record, I do not feel like one. The wealth of communities, as well as the incentive to go on the front page to see the most popular posts of the whole site, made me want to open Reddit, but it did not give me the feeling of belonging. I rather felt like a spectator that from time to time gathers the courage to shout his own ideas into the ether.
Side note: Discord comes much closer to the feeling of community. However, the nature of chat makes the interactions fleeting, being in a chat room with a few hundred other people, where every message is just a few sentences at most does not lead to the same connections. No one expects their message to be read again after a few days.
Now the company behind Reddit started to lose the goodwill of the users. While I don't think Reddit will die anytime soon, I think there are a lot of people looking for alternatives. And the best alternative to the website that killed forums is... forums.
While forums largely still work the same as they did 15 years ago, there have been developments that might make them more feasible for our desire to have everything accessible on a single site or on a single app. Last time a social media company, Twitter, annoyed its user base, the fediverse, and more specifically Mastodon, started to go more mainstream. This time I hope there will be other projects that profit. I have heard people mentioning the projects Kbin and Lemmy, both forum-like platforms that implement the ActivityPub specification. Same as Mastodon, this means users are able to interact with users on other instances. Even further, this should also allow users of any federated social network, such as Mastodon, to post and comment on any federated forum. Even established forum software such as Flarum and nodeBB are considering adding federation support.
I really hope that forums make a comeback, not only because of the nostalgia but also because to me it feels like a more sustainable way to build a community. And now with the possibility to federate via the fediverse, a forum doesn't have to be a walled garden of members any more. In the end, most importantly I hope people are still finding communities they can be as passionate about as I was, without any corporate overlords trying to keep their eyeballs on ads as long as possible.
My experience of using forums in my teens, what changed after I started using reddit and my hopes for internet communities in the future./blog/2023-06-16-forums