Forums vs. Blogs: A Feature Show-Down
The question comes up time and time again: What's the difference between forums and blogs? At first glance they might seem the same thing, both technically and socially. But at final glance, although forum software and blogs end up sharing a great many features, there are unique differences between them.
Forum Software: First and Not So Fab
Forum software for the Web has been around for just about as long as the Web. In fact, such software in its essence easily predates the Web by many years. BBSs and forums were run on a variety of standalone computers, Internet networks, and commercial networks such as the long-retired GEnie. Other familiar faces on that playing field included CompuServe, Delphi and Prodigy, MSN, and, of course, AOL.
All these services provide (or provided) some type of forum technology. On the proprietary services, especially, the technology worked well enough to allow for the formation of very strong communities that have held together despite massive changes to the way people access shared information online. So the first thing to bear in mind is that forums were always created to be forums, places in which people came to very specifically interact with groups of people sharing similar interests. This fact gives rise to a number of technical and social differences that have resulted as each type of application evolved.
Technical Aspects of Forum Software
It wasn't a huge step to think that we'd want to move what was a very successful technical and social success to the growing interest in the Web itself. The BBSs and forums of the pre-Web days were a natural offering for the Web, at least conceptually. When it came to actual implementation, though, things became a bit more challenging.
As you are probably aware, creating Web applications in 2005 is no easy task. Imagine trying to build forum software for the Web of 1995? It wasn't easy, but many of us worked hard to figure it out. During my time at the Microsoft Network, I worked on a team that was responsible for first building the proprietary forum system for MSN. We then scrapped it to make the move to the hottest gig in town: the Web. Making this move was not only technically challenging, but we had to figure out ways to successfully get our community members transferred over to the new Web-based system, which frankly wasn't as elegant. We pulled it off somehow, but to say that the Web-based forum system was clumsy in comparison to non-Web systems would be an understatement.
Once some semblance of more robust forum software became widespread, the term "community" became the big buzz. Popular Web forums remain in place today. A classic example is Slashdot, and there are many others that have become extraordinarily effective and successful.
But forum software is distinct in many ways from blog software. Some of the features might overlap, but out of the box, forum software offers features that blogging software requires advanced customization to attain.
Some of the built-in features of forum software include the following:
- Security. Authorization systems and other means of keeping the forum secure is a mainstay feature of forum software. Security for blogging software often relies on how the blogs are installed, how the servers they run on are configured, and whether any additional security must be customized to the individual scenario.
- Ability to create unlimited forums with ease. You can create unlimited forums with most forum software. Blogging utilities often limit the number of blogs you can create, or it takes a little bit of server "fu" to be able to use blogging software in this fashion.
- Very robust formatting options. Forums typically support a wide range of HTML formatting within posts. Although blogs also support this to a certain degree, the support is not as robust, nor is it meant to be.
- Full-bodied administrative controls. Forum software is created with the understanding in mind that some form of moderation will be required. To that end, forum software tends to offer far richer features to its moderators: ability to easily create user groups, to control user access to different levels of the forum, to control and limit the way posts are handled by different access levels, and to easily lock out problem posters. Although blog software could certainly benefit from having more robust controls for this, they don't at this time.
- More user controls. Unlike blogs, forums expect to have a lot of different users. To that end, there are all kinds of options for users that make the forum experience more full. From member profile pages to private messaging, users have a lot more to do on forums than they might on a blog.
- More post features. Probably the defining difference between forums and blogs is that forums can be read linearly, or in a threaded view—and this option is rarely found in blogging comments, where comments are typically logged in backward chronological order only.
There are other differences, too, and many of them will depend on your forum software's feature list. If you're in the market for a forum, be sure to study the feature lists to make the best selections for your particular needs. Note also that many Web site providers offer certain forum software as part of your overall package.
Social Constructs within Forums
The other fundamental difference between forums and blogs is that forums are different social constructs than blogs.
Forums are specifically used for some type of community and are typically founded around a specific topic or community group such as crafts or textile artists.
Although there may be a leader or moderator, or even several moderators, that moderator is there to help ensure that questions get answered, that "troll" behavior (disruptive or negative posting) is kept to a minimum, that technical issues with the forum are managed, and that the conversations stay on topic and lively.