Why I Shut Down the Forums

In this post I’ll share more details about the reasons I decided to shut down the discussion forums on this site. As I stated in my previous post, I closed them on Dec 26th.

Forum vs. Blog

First, let’s talk data.

After more than 5 years online, the forums had a total of 48,465 registered members. Registration was required to post messages and send private messages, but anyone could read the forums without registrering. Registration was always free and took just a couple minutes.

That may sound like a large community to some people, but the total number of forum members after 5 years online was still less than one day’s traffic to my blog.

Out of all those members, less than 10,000 of them posted more than 5 messages total, so most of them didn’t participate much at all.

On any given day, however, only about 400 members would visit the forums, although many of them would visit multiple times per day. Even if we include non-registered “lurker” traffic (which includes search engine referrals), it’s clear that the forums aren’t even in the same ballpark as the blog when it comes to traffic.

The truth is that the vast majority of visitors to my blog simply aren’t interested in our discussion forums.

How did the forums become popular in the first place? They were always attached to my blog, which fed them traffic. The forums were always busy with activity due to this connection to the blog. Without the blog it’s fair to say that the forums wouldn’t have been nearly as popular.

Some people have asked me what impact shutting down the forums would have on my blog and my business in general. The answer is that it’s not going to make any discernible difference. Relative to the popularity of the blog, the forums never had enough interest to matter in that regard one way or another.

What about all the content in the forums? Our forum members posted about 1.03M messages across 67K threads. You might think that all this content must generate a lot of search engine traffic, but relative to the blog, it’s still negligible. One popular blog post of mine will generate more search traffic than 10K forum threads.

Forum threads can help with the long tail of search, but they don’t help enough to matter. They can rank in the top 10 for phrases that aren’t competitive, but these are phrases that hardly anyone searches on. Even with lots and lots of threads, it’s like trying to earn a living by hunting for pennies. You may find many pennies, but even a lot of pennies just doesn’t amount to much.

Forum threads aren’t very good at generating human referrals either… unless it’s a thread about the forums being shut down, as I recently discovered. 🙂

I just want to point out that business-wise the forums were never a wise investment of time and resources.

However, I neither launched nor terminated the forums for business reasons. It was a personal decision to create them and a personal decision to shut them down.

A High-Maintenance Community

My vision for the forums stayed pretty much the same throughout its existence, with minor tweaks along the way. I wanted to create a place where growth-oriented people could come together to help each other in a positive and supportive environment. Overall I’d say the forums did a pretty good job of holding to that vision, thanks in large part to the wonderful moderators who helped make it a reality.

By and large our community rules were common sense — the same conventions people naturally adhere to in face-to-face conversations. Most of our members had no trouble following them. When we banned members, usually it was for spamming, and our mods were really good at catching spammers early.

This wasn’t the first forum I founded. I’d already had years of experience as an admin with a previous forum I created for indie game developers. That community is still online by the way, even though I haven’t been involved with it for 7-8 years.

The forum on this site was much bigger from the get-go, and it took a lot more admin and moderation work to keep it on track.

I had zero interest in creating an unmoderated forum — for the most part I consider such things to be junk. I knew this one would require careful moderation. The vision dictated that.

In the beginning we were definitely too lenient. Some sneaky Internet marketers got in there, and trolling was a recurring problem. But we kept tweaking things, and I feel that for quite a while, we got it mostly right.

I don’t think perfection is a reasonable standard, but it’s clear that many of our members felt there was no other forum quite as good as ours. In the area in which it worked, I believe it was the best available. You could say that was part of my vision too — to create the best personal development forum on earth.

One thing that was impressive about our community was the diversity of topics. Anything related to personal growth was fair game, including health, work, relationships, finances, spiritual development, politics, and more.

The community took a lot of work to maintain, but for much of that time it was a labor of love. I know it did a lot of good for many people. I know because people kept telling me that it helped them.

Entitlement Creeps in

As I wrote about in a previous article, we had some issues with entitlement creeping into the community. Some people seemed to feel they could annoy other members as much as they wanted as long as they stayed within the gray area of the rules. Others felt they could push further in the direction of using the forums to promote their businesses or affiliate programs. The mods and I often had to make tricky calls in this zone, but we did our best.

Some people would assume that the top standard was fairness. It wasn’t, at least not for me. Forum participation isn’t a fair trade to begin with. It’s a gift. In practice the standard of fairness doesn’t work well; it allows trolls to linger too long and to degrade the community experience for too many others.

Fairness is also very costly. It may make sense for a democracy that has tax revenues to pay for all the structures required to be reasonably fair, but a very active forum that doesn’t tax its members can’t adhere to such a standard. We’re not going to give someone a 12-person jury trial every time they break the rules and claim otherwise. Instead we have to make the best judgment calls we can, and we have to do this quickly.

The top standard I used was to maintain a positive and supportive community. When people worked against that vision, I sought to weed them out. The community rules were designed to support that vision too. Sometimes this meant doing things people felt were unfair, but usually that wasn’t necessary.

The Regulars

As often happens in online communities, ours developed a core group of regulars over time. I would estimate there were around 100 people in this core group at any one time. It wasn’t a sharply defined group though, and some people wouldn’t even be able to say whether they were in this group or not. One thing was clear though — many members felt like outsiders relative to this group.

Some members considered this group rather cliquish, but I wouldn’t use that label. I saw it as a bunch of people who participated in the forums so often that they got to know each other and became online friends. This happens in many forums and was nothing new to me.

You could also say that many of them were quite addicted. Some of them spent hours on the forums pretty much every day. I didn’t have a problem with them using the place as a social hangout too, as long as they weren’t interfering with the overall forum vision. But increasingly I found that they were clinging to the social aspects and nudging the forum away from its original vision.

I don’t think there was any deliberate intent behind it, but this core group collectively became the dominating force in the forums. Some of them served as moderators, whereby they were often charged with moderating people who may have been their friends. This had positive and negative aspects. These friends usually helped keep each other in line by exerting social pressure when someone began to stray, but they also became somewhat protective of their own, as we saw whenever one of them ended up getting banned.

How did these people dominate the community? By sheer volume of posts.

The average community member made a total of 21 posts. The top poster, by contrast, had 22,520 posts. That’s 1061 times the average. And there were many members with 100+ times the posting frequency of the average member.

If you’re willing to outpost someone by a factor of even 10-to-1, I’d say you can dominate them pretty easily as far as a discussion forum is involved.

This by itself garnered some complaints, but if the people in this group were being helpful most of the time, then I didn’t have a serious issue with it. Again, I was evaluating the forum health relative to the overall vision.

The Cancer of Entitlement

Over time I felt like this core group was developing too much of a sense of entitlement. It was detracting from the forum vision, and wasting my time and that of the mods. We spent more time managing social interaction problems with the members of this group, and it often seemed that they were posting just for the sake of posting as opposed to using the forums purposefully. The signal-to-noise ratio degraded.

The mods were pretty efficient at catching and nuking spammers, but more time was being chewed up dealing with the personality clashes of the regulars. It seemed like my job as admin was devolving into babysitting. I wasn’t interested in dealing with it, so I let things slide for a while as I focused on other projects like my workshops.

The mods easily handled the routine items, but when it came to controversial bans involving one of the regulars, they had a hard time pulling the trigger. They frequently opted to keep giving warnings instead. But this response amounts to what’s called intermittent reinforcement conditioning. Effectively this rewards the negative behavior and conditions the offender to do more of the same by proving that s/he can get away with it. So things gradually got worse during this time, and some members quit the forums because of it. I don’t blame them.

When I decided to look into fixing these problems, I tightened standards and reminded mods that we shouldn’t be giving members half a dozen warnings. The rules are simple and not at all difficult to follow. But when the next incident came up which seemed pretty clear cut, they still hesitated. I could see the mods were agreed on the right call, but it was hard for anyone to step up and take responsibility for it. So I sped things along because it would have been worse not to act quickly. Then I had to deal with the banned guy emailing me to complain and then trash-talking me elsewhere. Truth is he’d been behaving like a jerk for a long time and should have been banned much sooner. Some forum members expressed great appreciation that he was finally kicked out.

In some cases it may have been hard to ban one’s friends, but I don’t think that was an issue most of the time. I’d say the bigger problem is that too many mods were hesitant to act on their calls. They’d seen what happened to other mods who ended up having to ban one or more of the regulars. Collectively the regulars would often unload lots of whining, questioning, criticizing, and pleading upon any mods who made unpopular calls. And when you’re dealing with forum addicts who can post like there’s no tomorrow, this post-storm can seem a bit overwhelming, as if you just inflicted some grave wound upon the community. The calls were right, but I can understand why some mods were hesitant to deal with the social backlash.

I felt the mods were excellent at making the right calls, and I agreed with their calls virtually every time. Where we disagreed was on what to do about it. I was in favor of quickly pruning out the forum members who couldn’t play nice. The mods overall fell back on warnings, but we could all see that these warnings were not proving very effective. The mods were quite good at pruning new members who caused problems, but they had a hard time enforcing the same standards with the regulars. I think it’s reasonable to be slightly more lenient with people who’ve been contributing for a while, but not lenient to the point of allowing negative behavior to linger.

This reminds me of a management study I read about many years ago. Testing showed that managers who didn’t get promoted were just as correct in their decisions as managers who did get promoted. The difference is that the promoted managers were willing to act on their judgments and deal with the consequences.

If it sounds like I’m placing blame on the mods for these problems, I’m not. It was my responsibility. I could have invested more time in training them, and I could have replaced them if I felt they were being too wishy washy. If I had it to do all over again, I’d have been far more strict when it came to enforcing standards. The rules worked great and remained very consistent throughout the forums’ existence. The problem was consistent and efficient enforcement.

When this lack of decisive action lingered too long, it created a problematic climate. There was a conditioning effect on the community as a whole. It taught them that we were going to be exceedingly lenient on the regulars and that they could get away with stretching the rules quite a bit. This had a deleterious effect on the community over time, and it drove some people away.

Despite these problems, I still wanted to turn things around and get the community back to its original vision. I realized that wasn’t going to be easy, but I thought it was doable.

A Turning Point

Then an interesting thing happened. Apparently some members and ex-members of our community got together to create their own discussion forum.

That didn’t bother me at all. If the circumstances by which this played out were different, I’d probably have been supportive of them doing that. After all, having some of them jump ship would have made my life easier.

Instead, the way this played out was that I learned that they were secretly using the private messaging system on my forums to send out dozens of unsolicited messages asking people to join them. This mainly involved sending the same copy-and-pasted solicitation to multiple recipients.

This is called PM spam. It doesn’t happen very often, but we’d seen it several times before throughout the forums’ history. When people do this sort of thing, we ban them outright since we have zero tolerance for spamming. Normally no one even notices when PM spammers are caught and banned, but this time the people involved were regulars and were promoting their own private project, so of course they and their friends made a stink about it, even as others thought that banning the offenders was more than warranted.

Some people seemed to think I reacted negatively because I felt hurt or betrayed that these people were sneaking off to another forum. Seriously, I couldn’t care less about that. I don’t own our members. I interact with other communities too, not just this one. What annoyed me was that they did this clandestinely by using our forum’s PM system for their recruitment. Spamming in all its incarnations, including PM spamming, has always been against the rules, and I wouldn’t tolerate it from regulars any more than I would from new members. In my book these people had clearly crossed the line.

The fact that they were promoting another forum was incidental. My reaction would have been the same if they were promoting a blog, affiliate program, Facebook group, charity, event sponsorship, school project, or any other kind of link. When the same message is sent to dozens of our members unsolicited, it’s spamming. I realize that some people felt it was okay due to the nature of the message and the fact that it came from forum regulars. I was most definitely not okay with that. It’s an abuse of our system and a direct violation of our rules. And this sneaky behavior doesn’t mesh with the forum vision either in my view. The fact that they kept this a secret was a hint and half they knew they were doing something wrong.

And so I banned some of the perpetrators that I could readily identify, and when someone in the forum asked why the bans occurred, I quickly explained the reasons. Normally I wouldn’t bother with that, but I wanted to take responsibility for the decision, so that if they wanted to hold anyone accountable for it, it would be me… and they wouldn’t start bashing the mods for doing so.

Of course since the people who did this were among the regulars, they had a lot of friends in the community. There was some outrage in response, which was predictable.

At this point I hadn’t decided to shut down the forums, nor did I have any intention of doing so. However, I began to seriously think about it as the situation unfolded.

It wasn’t the spamming that led me to think about shutting down the forums. The spamming incident was surprising and annoying, especially when I discovered that some of our mods were involved too, but I didn’t see it as a reason to close up shop by itself. I dropped the mods that I could verify were involved; they’d broken my trust, and I wasn’t willing to entrust them with such responsibilities after that.

The decision to shut down the forums resulted from a shift in perspective I had upon seeing people’s reaction to this event. A bunch of people began taking sides. Some people were curious and wanted to know more details. Some just wanted to play up the drama. It was a very divisive time. That part still didn’t surprise me.

Overall, however, I began to understand just how ridiculous this attitude of entitlement had become. I grew increasingly turned off by people who felt they should be entitled to do things that may negatively impact our community just because they want to and because they expect their friends will back them up.

At this point I felt I had two basic options. Either I’d have to get serious about cutting those members with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement — and quickly. Or we’d have to call it quits. I wasn’t willing to keep the forums going under the current climate.

Some people wanted me to open a dialog with the people involved in the spamming, but I declined. Their motivations were irrelevant. I’m sure everyone who spams can justify it one way or another, but I wasn’t interested in their justifications, and based on how they’d behaved up to that point, I didn’t trust that they’d tell me the truth after the fact anyway.

I was basing my decisions on the facts of what happened, and those facts weren’t in dispute. People disputed the various interpretations of what it meant, but in the end it was my call to make. I still feel it was the right call. If I had to do it all over, knowing what I now know, I’d make the same call.

Testing the Waters

At this point I was about 60-80% convinced that a forum shutdown was likely. There was way too much of a sense of entitlement in the place, whereby a number of members felt they could nudge the rules aside and get away with it, if only because they had the support of their friends within the community. Perhaps they perceived a certain strength in numbers.

But my vision wasn’t to provide a social hangout for some friends who wanted to chat each other in circles. I wanted a community with high standards for interaction and a core focus on growth. If people want to chat with their friends on my site, that’s okay to some extent, but not if it interferes with the overall vision. I felt that over time, they were interfering with that vision, and the forums became more of a social hangout for them and less of a place where people were really helping to support each other with serious growth in mind. So it was actually a good thing for me that some of them created their own forum since it would have made things easier for me if they just left. However, I wasn’t willing to have them secretly using our forums as a recruitment center for their own.

Of course this is a judgment call, but it’s my place to judge it. After all, I was the one paying for it.

I finally concluded that enough is enough already. I was no longer willing to host a forum on the terms they seemed to be demanding of me. Either they could abide by my vision and follow the rules and stop acting like spoiled children, or they could leave.

So I began cracking down and banning those members who tried to push their entitlement attitudes too far. Some encouraged their friends to act out, and those people were kicked out too. Some came back with fake accounts, and they got banned again.

I hear there were quite some lively discussions on Facebook about how I must have turned evil or something… or perhaps that I was evil all along. That alone makes me glad I don’t have a Facebook account anymore.

Some of the people who got booted tried to open a discussion with me, even as they lashed out in other channels, but I wasn’t interested in dialoging with them. I’m still not interested. I simply wanted them out, not just out of the forums but out of my life. Their reactions afterwards only served to convince me that I’d made the right call. They acted like I’d violated their civil rights when I was simply closing their accounts to a service I provided free of charge, and only after they abused it and/or me.

In the end they found out just what they were entitled to.

But I also realized that my efforts to finally get those people out of the forums wasn’t going to succeed. The problem had become too systemic at that point. I could ban a few more people, and that actually did help in the short term, but it wouldn’t have worked in the long run. We didn’t have a closed system. Many of those people were so outraged that they made it clear that if we ever opened up registrations again, they’d come back with fake accounts and try to destroy the place. I think that if it came to that, they would have succeeded in making things a lot harder for us. At least one person from that community was openly discussing using illegal means to damage the forums. Enough is enough.

By waiting so long to get these people out, I had lost too much of the support of the community. Getting things back on track may still have been possible, but I concluded that it wasn’t likely to be worth the effort. It would have been a major uphill climb.

The attitude of some people towards me after being banned was like that of a drug addict whose dealer cut them off. Some blew up with anger. Others begged. Some wanted to pepper me with endless questions and alternatives. And at least one person even tried to drag my kids into the discussion.

This is an online forum we’re talking about. It was a good one to be sure but still one among thousands. I knew that no matter what, I was done dealing with them.

One way of describing the problem is that many of these people were loyal to each other, but I was loyal to my vision. I don’t see any practical way I could have convinced enough of them to buy into my vision for the forums once they began treating it as their personal online home. Ultimately they wanted to make the place into something different, but it wasn’t something I was willing to provide. And they made it clear that if I was to hold to my original vision, some of them were going to fight me on it. I didn’t take that as an idle threat since I’d seen just how much time they were willing to spend online. I concluded that it was time to give it up. I’m sure there are better places to invest my time.

Partly this can be explained as a technology problem. If people were personally identifiable instead of being able to easily create anonymous accounts, we wouldn’t have to worry about them coming back after getting banned, and they’d likely behave with greater maturity. I like that Google+ requires people to use their real life identities. I think that’s one reason the discussions there tend to be very civil, and moderation is rarely needed. With different technology we may have had an easier time solving some of these problems.

I think the bigger problem was how I set things up to begin with. This was a free service to the community. Perhaps the fact that I provided this service for free led too many people to take it for granted. Maybe they figured they could behave like spoiled children and that I’d keep providing this service just because I’d been doing so for years. But when the community standards fall this low, it’s just not worth doing anymore. My terms for creating this community were that it must hold to a certain vision, and when I felt that vision was no longer realistic, closing the forums was inevitable.

Overall I think most of the community really did buy into my vision, and I believe they appreciated it. I’m not the kind of guy that needs to be lauded with “thank yous” for doing what he feels is right. But I don’t think I deserve all the “f— yous” from those who took advantage of my generosity, fell into the entitlement trap, and expected that I’d let them continue on their own terms. At least now they’re free to go develop their own community the way they see fit, and hopefully they’ll soon forget this one and won’t resort to illegal means just to get back at me for what they perceive as unfair treatment.

Overall I’m very grateful for this experience. I learned some powerful lessons about creating and maintaining a community of this nature.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d have been a lot more strict about holding to the forum vision. I’d have done a better job of recruiting and training mods who could be loyal to the overall vision, regardless of their loyalties to other members or their fears about being perceived as the bad guy. If people harshed on the mods for doing their jobs, I’d have empowered the mods to prune those people right quick too. And I’d have pruned some members a lot sooner who were clearly visiting for reasons other than to grow (such as forum addiction). Charging a modest membership fee might not have been a bad idea either.

My Community or Yours

Obviously I don’t own people’s relationships with each other, but I was the one primarily responsible for creating and maintaining the forums. I created the community vision, bought and installed the software, paid for the hosting and bandwidth, invited people to join initially, designed the categories and wrote the descriptions for them, wrote and revised the community rules, recruited and trained moderators, promoted the forums, and interacted with the community to help set the tone.

I had a lot of help along the way of course. There’s no way I could have done this alone. But if I hadn’t decided to make it happen, it never would have existed.

I created this community with the goal of manifesting a certain vision. I wanted to create a specific type of online community that would be unlike any other I’d seen. For me this was a personal choice, not a business one. I wanted to create something unique that would add value to the world. I also felt it would be an interesting challenge.

Despite how it ended, I consider this project a great success. During its existence it helped a lot of people, even apparently saving some lives. I know that many people are very grateful for it.

Once the forum reached the point where I felt it could no longer hold to its vision, I decided to shut it down. Some people say this was a selfish decision. From a certain perspective, they’re right, but then they should acknowledge that it was just as selfish to create it. You can’t pick up one end of that stick without picking up the other.

I don’t feel any animosity towards anyone in shutting down the forums. We had a really good run, and I think many people recognize that its time has come. I would rather consciously end it now than watch it die a slow death.

If you’ve been very active in the forums, then perhaps this is a good time to evaluate whether continuing that sort of activity is how you really want to spend your time. This is a nice opportunity to consciously re-evaluate your priorities. I, for one, am really going to enjoy having this off my plate. There will be more adventures ahead.

Some people have suggested handing this community over to someone else to run, but I’m not interested in doing that. When people asked about this in the forums, I usually gave them some shallow technical reason for why it wouldn’t work. But in reality I was putting them off since I didn’t want to get into it with people one on one. Some of the more technically minded people saw through my feeble excuses, but I just wanted to hold them off long enough to explain this in a blog post.

First off, I don’t know anyone with the technical skills, vision, and willingness to pay the hosting costs for this community that would inspire me to hand it off to them. Secondly, if we transfer things to someone as-is, they’ll end up with the same entitlement issues to deal with, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. And if I hand it off just for the sake of preserving the community, I can’t see it becoming any better than it was at its peak, especially without my blog constantly feeding it traffic. I wouldn’t want to be associated with something less.

So I’d rather consciously pull the plug on this. People can still retain the connections they’ve made if they desire to do so, and there are plenty of options for that (email, social networks, other forums, etc).

I think most people will be able to understand this, even if they don’t agree with my decision. It was the right decision, and I have no regrets about how it played out. Once the decision was made, I felt a speedy resolution was best, but I wanted to allow sufficient time for people to wrap up existing threads, suggest alternative forums, exchange contact info, and say goodbye. Now it’s done, and everyone is free to move on to a new chapter in their lives.

If anyone else thinks they can create something better than this, then I invite you to do so. Now that the forums are closed, I’m going to fully enjoy the peacefulness of its absence. After 5+ years, I more than deserve a break from it.