Thursday, 30 December 2010

State of the Forum: Purge Bot

FFN keeps purging its forums, which keeps causing shifts in the ranks.

Unlike the first purge that took literally two thirds, tens of millions of posts, the recent one was more mellow. Some forums didn't even notice the hit, but the forum history has never been so thin. Time is running out if you're doing research on FanFiction.Net.

Recently, I've asked members of Writer's Anonymous when FFN introduced avatars. I didn't find the exact date on Fan History. However, I doubt there will be a credible answer because that community has been in the doldrums after the first purge. Pushed from the second page deep in the ranks, chances of getting new members are as slim as the recommendations the members give others. With core users becoming more idle, might as well look for another source of information. The problem with that is there not being an alternative. Surely, the Literate Union should be the #1 spot for information on FFN's activities, but even there you won't find many regulars from pre-avatar conditions. Yes, there was a time when FFN didn't have an avatar service. Its introduction was actively discussed in forums back then, but this "back then" is more than two years ago, so the site culled through itself as a primary source. As I'm thinking about facts worth referencing from FFN, I keep procrastinating and hope someone else will do it. Obviously, this won't happen.

Forums will keep shifting, and assure only the leanest boards ever make it to the top for as long as they are top in real time. There is no regard for historic value or past achievements, only the now. While evolution proponents would preach the system as gold, ditching those silly oldies into the bin to refresh the front pages of fandoms. However, evolution takes place if there is something to evolve from.

This is very important. Fans are impressionable, and they fall into trends often. A fandom with a rich forum culture is bound to get richer via "i want one, too!" as it is with illegal stories. You know, someone posts a story in script format, and a member then writes "everybody's writing these, so i wanted to have one, too". Same applies to forums. Different forum communities inside one fandom fluctuate and overlap, making it easier to integrate new members. Fandoms with a slim forum population are more likely to stay that way. For starters, it's difficult to gain members and keep a forum a float. And now that purges occur, successful attempts at forum-making are erased, leaving the least motivation yet.

What's the point in creating a community if it enters a deletion queue during conception?

FFN's activity has been all but pristine in the last two months. Their latest announcement deserves a pat on the back for villainy and devilry. Oh, I am talking about:

"December 24th, 2010 -- Merry Christmas and Happy New Years to everyone from the staff of FanFiction.Net. For the past two weeks we have been upgrading our network nonstop in preparations for 2011 and for the wave of improvements currently being cooked up in our lab.

Enjoy the festive season with your family/friends and with a daily dose of imagination courtesy of all the dedicated writers here. For all the readers, now is a good time to thank all the writers of FanFiction.Net that have given you countless moments of joy this past year."

Merry Christmas? If you recall, FFN purged forums on Thanksgiving. Round two happened on, you guessed it, Christmas. When's the next big holiday on the calendar? Come closer and buy front-row seats to the Easter Massacre! But it's not that simple. When you think the purge is happening in waves, in this case, either by-holiday or by month (exactly one month happened since it began), here's when things are grim: the periodic purge is much more frequent. The site's been clever in its choices, no doubt. Christmas season has gotten FFN a dip in traffic, and forum activity was thin. A jolly good moment to put forums on a stricter diet.

What else has the FFN "feature lab" done to communities on the site? Havoc in content. Just several months ago, the only forum able to get to top 50 or top 25 of a large fandom had to have a post count done in thousands, not hundreds. In Naruto, Sonic the Hedgehog, Twilight and especially General forums, post counts on page one were dealt in 10k, with as much as 50k separating forums in the top ten. It provided incentive and differentiation. New visitors could decide whether to become a part of a forum with a rich history, lots of members and lightning-fast activity cycles and round the clock excitement, or the underdogs or strict conservatives on page two. The underdogs had not yet achieved their full potential and every new member could be the one to push the community forward to the front page. It's a well-known fact that once you are on the front page, in top 25, your community is viewed by anyone, who noticed the fandom having a forum section. Conservative forum owners do not strive to appear in "consumer" spots on the front, but a clever theme or loyal members have contributed to their slow, but steady growth.

Post-purge, these choices no longer exist. Conservatives are culled through first because a topic that gets high quality, low numerosity posts, as was the case for Writers Anonymous, does not generate enough momentum to outrun the purge bot.

The historic forums with plenty of members are also crossed out. It's obvious that the richer the environment, the more quality choices it gives, the better are prospects for growth. FFN trims all of these, turning every forum into, well, an underdog. In this perspective, there are no leaders, no trend-setters because everybody knows this time next month, a quarter, half or more of the forum will disappear. No incentive to get attached and be loyal to one's community.

A lack of incentive creates a controversial situation. By default, communities and "groups" flare up and disappear. On FFN's forums, a group could have re-emerged like a Phoenix because the forum was still there, with a basis for new members to build on. Could have before a short period of inactivity became punishable. No second chances, ladies and gentlemen. The Literate Union was and is an exception in both environments, an exception that is causing more off-shot forums than I can count at the moment. At first, there were two distinctive alternatives, the LU and Veritas. They catered to a different public, but had the same consequences: their presence high in the rankings inspired others to create forums dedicated to improvement. Amusingly, the process is still very much alive. Its outcome is particularly vocal in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians fandom, where half the front-page forums are flamer friendly. Truly, an anomalous environment.

Anomalies created by select communities aside, the trend has not been so positive overall. The LU and Veritas are an exception, not a rule, mind you. And I use them as alternatives because they are and have always been independent neutrals for each other. The trend is easiest to depict with The Domain's forum network. It has been a sight to behold when nearly half of the largest forums in the General category was somehow affiliated with The Domain and its more than half-a-million posts. The first purge has been a devastating blow to nearly all forums in the network. T/D itself got halved, and A Little Piece of Heaven (labelled as "the nicest forum") dropped out of the first page. The latter's perspective is specifically grim after 70% of its posts disappeared without any recovery. When your forum is balancing on growing quicker and slowing down, a purge makes decisions easy. Down.

And this happened to a network of forums, with loyal members, many of them. These people shaped forum culture in large categories or were otherwise affiliated with the trend setters. How did it affect smaller communities, lacking a web of support from other forums? The best example is what goes on on the second page of General forums. Public forums. There are three private roleplay forums there. One of them has exactly two members, and it got onto the second page. In 2009, the LU and Lurker's Paradise (RIP, L/P) had a highly competitive battle for their place under the sun and in the fans' heads. While the forums were very different and practically belonged to the same network (T/D), the fact members of both knew one another and could easily compare activity thresholds created an atmosphere of trying to show the counterpart forum "how it's done". Without such an attitude, getting anywhere would have been next to impossible as activity was encouraged throughout the place. Bouncing in the ranks, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, till both forums reached their goals, was, in part, responsible for motivating members to contribute more. Everybody won from the competition. Lurker's Paradise appeared in top ten, and the LU came to top five.

Since the purge destabilised the situation, inter-community relations were broken. Lurker's Paradise was deleted, another top ten General forum closed, and we have three private roleplays on page two. Private means closed, despite being public. Such behaviour and extreme individualism, not allowing outsiders to your public forum, does not lead to motivation. When a newbie finds competition and some objective, letting him or her feel like a team player in the winning team, it's a growth prospect. During 2009, forums were very much interested in getting those team players, too. When the same newbie sees closed hermetic communities with no possibility of becoming part of the "in-crowd"...that's discouraging.

And discouragement has been the result of this forum evolution. When the active public forums turn private and reject any outsiders willing to test the waters, what's next? Whatever's in store, I'm not sure I want to be a part of this. From my antiquated point of view, forums are about openness and community spirit. You don't create a public forum on the biggest fan fiction website for yourself, and ban anyone wanting to join in if their name isn't "zach2895" or "polly251".

Further illustrating what is going to happen, FFN had a large and sudden drop in traffic in mid-2009. June. It never recovered from this drop or reached above the drop's lowest point. With forum activity, deemed as a downward current since 2008, going through unprecedented deletions, how high is FanFiction.Net willing to jump? It's commercial value is estimated at $1.6m. A quarter of what it was two years ago.

Private public forums are the future, dear readers. Make one yourself and enjoy the show while it lasts.

Edit: During the event, the last available date in forums was March 25. Five days later, it's March 27th.

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