Looking Forward: The Forums, and a Flummoxed Fandom?
by, 18th July 2010 at 11:09 AM (281 Views)
Note: this essay was originally composed for National Bulbagaraphic by request of DCM. Since we've decided that's not going anywhere, I reposted it here with some edits and additions.
As members of the Pokémon fandom, we have it good. There's a vibrant online community, with multiple major websites—each with its own style and attitude. The games we all enjoy so much still come out on a regular basis; we do not encounter the same problems, as a fandom, that face Star Wars fans or (until recently) Transformers fans. There's an anime that continues to put out new episodes and a trading card game that is still very much alive. Put simply, there is a regular source of new material that continually refreshes the franchise and brings new blood into the community while keeping the old crowd engaged.
But a question is sometimes asked of me, and I have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer: “where do we go from here?” I was hung up on this for a while, unable to really see a path forward for the fandom as a whole and Bulbagarden in particular. But after musing on the topic a bit (and being pushed to write for NB by Clapton,) I've come up with a two-part approach that will ensure our fandom's continued relevancy and, in particular, Bulbagarden's place as a major player in the fandom.
First, in spite of the immense popularity and utility of Bulbapedia, the fandom is a fundamentally social entity. Bulbapedia (and wikis in general) can be social, but most of the work on a wiki is done alone, and the product of that work is viewed in a “drive-by” fashion. When I look up which routes are most favorable to battling Pokémon with attack EVs, there's no person between me and the data. Certainly, someone took the time to put it up—but who that is remains a mystery to me. Forums and blogs require interaction, and it is that interaction which fuels the fandom.
I was under the impression that forums were a dying medium, especially as I watched the rise of Bulbapedia. I thought people wanted information faster and had no interest in wading through the social aspect of things. I can only speak for Bulbagarden; I don't know or have access to any other site's traffic statistics. But I know that the staff of Bulbagarden worked to constantly tweak the forums in an attempt to keep them relevant, and it has paid off. User activity is up over 100% year-to-year. Posting is up over 230%. While Bulbagarden has become more popular, posting has increased even more than user activity--a sign that more talking is taking place. So somehow, in a year, talking to people happened more and more often. Interaction became meaningful again.
This is not to say that the use of wikis is a failed experiment. They have immense value in a fandom; they are the easiest way to generate information and one of the easiest ways to access it. But they are not a replacement for the social component of fandom; they augment it. Speaking from my perspective, Bulbapedia and the Bulbagarden Forums grow together.
Second, content is critical. By this, I mean that sites will need to differentiate by what they can provide outside the social experience and outside the data. So Bulbanews is good because it provides news and high-quality opinion content. The forums provide a venue for an exchange of ideas and information at a high level. And hopefully it turns out that this content is interesting and relevant and enjoyable for members of the fandom to read.
Other sites are also putting out new and original content. National Bulbagraphic was an idea borrowed from Smogon, even if it did not work out. Everybody else has a forum where debate and discussion can take place. So now we're competing on what we offer on the forum and elsewhere on the site--where we can be interesting. And the users can decide the quality and value of the information and discussion and “vote with their feet,” visiting the place where the highest-quality, most-compelling things are happing.
Why is this “content” aspect so important? Every major site has a forum and each forum has its own personality. People will go where their friends are and where they feel welcome. It is very hard for a site to change its culture, so unless a site closes up shop completely people will not change forums, unless their friends make a mass exodus. And all the data is basically available everywhere. Sure, some sites are more thorough on one dimension of information, but the differences are fairly small for the casual fans. So differentiating on content is critical.
Two things will drive the fandom going forward. First, I believe we will see a recognition that we are a social fandom. People like other people, and sites will continue to build in ways that emphasize interaction. Additionally, we will see content-driven competition. The fandom has reached the critical mass of age and experience where people can write informed commentaries on issues that are relevant and thought-provoking for a very large portion of the fandom. If these trends hold, it will be an exciting next couple of years as we head into Generation V and beyond. Our fandom will not be flummoxed; our path over the next few years is clear. Fans will follow the content. And sites will give it to them.
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