In the beginning, the Internet was populated by an infinite number of ad hoc communities. From ANSI BBS dial up communities in the 80s to the Internet Newsgroups of the 90s to the forums of the 2000s, there have always been private and personal virtual online communities that have have served their members honestly, openly, through trust, and protected by the power of anonymity or through members-only protection. Over the past decade, these safe and private communities have been consumed and subsumed by Facebook, Google, Twitter, Reddit, and others.
In 2015, there will be a return from renting a little piece of a very large development to buying one's very own retreat for his or herself and a number of close friends. Until now, the barrier has been the technology, but as we move forward, it's easier, cheaper, and more convenient to take the bull by the horns and create a space of one's own without the noise of advertisement, without the threat of eavesdropping, and without the guarantee that things will remain the same into the future.
We live in a post-Snowden world. Who trusts Facebook? We live in a world rife with cyber-bullying. Who trusts the Internet?
We live in a world where we're being lead down the garden path by Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat. Take control of your fate. Own your own content. Don't be a Facebook Rube anymore. Facebook owns your content and all the work you've put in. When push comes to shove, you don't own the last 4 years of content you've created and shared in that Group you created on Facebook - and neither do any of your fellow community-members.
Create a safe, easy-to-use online, community for you and your posse that is protected through anonymity (for people who need to share but also need to hide their identity - popular amongst recovery groups) or through the protection of a gated community. Back in the day, forums were generally free-for-alls and online virtual communities like The Meta Network, The Well, EchoNYC, were walled gardens where people were who they were, real names were enforced, but there were no creepers, voyeurs, trolls, bozos, or lurkers allowed. These days, post The Well, if you're not interested in hitching your wagon to a subreddit, a Google+ Group, or a Facebook Group, then all you have are online message boards and forums.
Even reddit and Wikipedia can be hostile. Reddit's known for it's personal pile-ons. In a world where we're the products being sold to advertisers, more and more communities are moving away from the Pages and Groups offered on these global online communities and moving back to launching their own online message boards and forums.
Quicker, Cheaper, and Easier
It's quicker, cheaper, and easier than ever to start an online community. If you can set up a WordPress blog you can now set up an online forum of your own; and, while the NSA and other law enforcement groups will surely be able to easily access your community's back-end database, all your words are your own and the community will only be as monetized as the owners allow.
You don't even need to pay for the software that serves your online community. Some of the most famous and popular online forums are actually built into most of the popular hosting services and can be automagically installed through cPanel, Webmin, Virtualmin, etc., using script installers like Softaculous, Installatron, and Fantastico. As easy as signing up for BlueHost or Totalchoice Hosting and digging a little into their admin panel and installing a couple-few free PHP/MySQL options. Of course, unless you make other plans, you will be responsible for updates, backups, and resource-management.
Even though it's not one of the freebies, be sure to give vBulletin a chance. It is commercial software and can be costly, they do offer a pretty cheap cloud-based hosting service that starts at $19.95/month. It's also enterprise-class and can easily scale to whatever size you need down the road. vBulletin also offers it's own bespoke mobile download so if you'd like to offer your members a dedicated and branded mobile experience that they can download to their iPhones, iPads, and Android devices (in addition to or instead of Tapatalk) that available to you.
Own Your Own Content
No longer will you be held hostage by Facebook's Terms of Service, you and your community can make up your own. And, when push comes to shove, you and your community own the content of your site, including copyright, usage, and all of that.
What does that mean? Well, you could very well choose some boilerplate to protect you and the community against being sued over copyright and fair use and all that, but other than that, you can come up with your own policy, politics, and rules.
Set Up Your Forum to Serve Your Community
And, once you create your own community forum, you'll be able to set it up in any way you like: fully anonymous? No worries. Enforced real names? Easy! Do you want your community to be a discrete walled garden, safe for all the members? Well, it'll be as secure as your members allow it to be. Remember: loose lips sink ships.
When it comes to protection against bullying, there seem to be two ways of dealing with privacy and protection: open anonymity and walled garden with real names. Choose your own and set it up however you and your community want. If you turn your community into a walled garden, you'll never be able to properly monetize unless you get a site sponsor or grant that is willing to underwrite your community. If you open up the doors to web search and lurking, your site can also be open to advertising possibilities and so forth, but unless you enforce anonymity, you will be telling your secrets in the town square.
Telling secrets in the town square is essential to make sure secrets and pain is exposed and so that other people will better be able to discover and uncover your community and your combined, shared, community experience so that other people who are having the same problem, suffering the same indignation, or being held in the same prison will be finally able to find birds of a feather and then be able to join the flock. However, just like how AA's anonymity is paper thin and kept out of respect of the program, the anonymity of most message boards and forums are about as easy to break if the right person is interested in learning who you are. Let that be a warning. That said, it really is up to an informed community to decide how they want to be protected and managed.
Forums are the New Blogs
In 2015, blogs are a tough sell. They've evolved from being engaged communities centered around the blogger and his or her topic. Bloggers were like professors and commenters were like students. Bloggers blog and commenters comment. Commenters never have any power on another person's blog unless you posses their own blogs.
But online communities are different. They're FUBU: for us, by us. While there may well be an all-powerful owner, all participants have the opportunity to become first among equals through the sweat of their brow. While I might be the visionary who has the desire, technical skillset, and scratch to launch an online message board or forum, it won't last unless it gets the buy in from everyone else.
So, message boards are a cornucopia of engagement. People spend hours on message boards and forums. I know that once I launch Tapatalk on my Android Nexus 7 I am done for. I'll spend hours on the Adventure Riders Forum, living vicariously through all the amazing global ride reports reported by our members.
For any virtual online community to get off the ground there needs to be a certain level of meritocracy, a modicum of democracy, and a heaping helping of trust. Some trust issues: spotty uptime, slow site, content censorship, selling of personal info to a third party. Generally, being dodgy.
Communities understand just about anything if you lay it out there. "We've grown so much over the last year that the hosting and bandwidth fees are sinking me. I will need to either monetize this community with ads or sponsorship or request a membership. Does anyone have any ideas?" Maybe you can get a member to step up as a co-owner or maybe you can sell your community to someone with deeper pockets. If your community is really against ads, then let them help you come up with a solution.
Thank God for Tapatalk
I had pretty much given up on message boards and forums until I discovered Tapatalk. Tapatalk is a gorgeous app that you can download for Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and Windows 8 (sorry Blackberry). Tapatalk offers it's own single sign in login and stores all of your logins and passwords for all your forums internally, so you only need to set up the system once and from then on, you can sign on to your Tapatalk account from your Nexus 5 or iPhone or iPad and you'll be able to jump into your communities right where you left off. Each community does need to be both Tapatalk-compatible and Tapatalk-activated. Here's a list of all the forum software that are compatible with Tapatalk:
People have felt so beat up and so abused - so exposed - online that the Government has considered both litigation and legislation in order to fight the roving bands of abusers that skulk, insult, attack, and even abuse online. If you or your community are at the verge of leaving the Internet entirely, don't. There many very simple, cheap, easy, and simple solutions to both keep the conversation going while also protecting the identity of those involved, either by allowing all members to be able to choose to register anonymously or by just making sure your community is protected from the lurkers, spammers, trolls, and haters by disallowing non members from engaging at all in the conversation - or even being able to access any conversation outside of a more open community square.
2015 will be the year of taking back control of the social network and returning to tools and platforms that are both familiar and also much more configurable than their big, global, extroverted, social networking brethren.
Let me know what you think. And, always remember: go git 'em, Tiger!