The Blurring Line Between Blogs and Forums

Filed as General on November 30, 2009 3:45 pm

What separates a blog and a forum? It’s not as simple of an answer as it was just a few years ago.

Forums have long been making use of RSS feeds and some have even adopted more blog-like layouts. Now many forum applications have begun sending pingbacks and trackbacks to articles linked in posts, an activity that began and, previously was limited to, blogs.

However, blogs have also begun to become more and more forum-like. Though comments have always been a major part of blogging, many are also encouraging original submissions. They are also placing a heavier emphasis on comments and services such as Disqus and Intense Debate provide greater commenter identity and cross-site accounts.

In short, where forums have been pulling from the playbook of blogs in their newest features, blogs have been gradually becoming more community-oriented, turning away from the author-oriented approach they are often associated with.

This has had the effect of blurring the lines between the two and confusing many who are building new sites.

To help make sense of it, I decided to turn to my long-time friend, podcast co-host and all-around community expert Patrick O’Keefe in hopes he could provide some insights into their similarities and differences as well as help sites decide which format is right for them.

Conventional Wisdom

According to most definitions, the blogs and forums have a lot in common. This is something Patrick agrees strongly with, pointing out that blogs mirror the structure and format of forums in many ways.

“Forums and blogs share natural characteristics. They are different but they have more in common than a lot of people realize. Blog posts are the firsts posts in a forum thread. The author is the topic starter. Comments are replies.”

The difference, traditionally, has been that only the blog author(s) can post on a blog. Where comment is for anyone, conversations are only started by blog authors. Forums, on the other hand, can have topics started by anyone.

However, that is not universally true. Many blogs accept submissions from users and even encourage users to create their own blog posts and many communities have single-author forums, where only one or two authors can post new topics.

The matter is blurred even further by the integration of blogs and forums. bbPress, for example, makes it trivial to integrate a forum into your WordPress site. However, having a forum to talk about the same topic as your blog has the very real danger of overlapping your blog comment section, which is why bbPress can integrate the two together.

This creates a very difficult problem. When looking to build a new site or revamp an old one, it can be very difficult to know which format to go with. If your site is going to be community-driven, as many are, then one of the toughest choices you have to make is whether to use a forum or a blog as your beginning platform.

A Big Decision

The decision as to whether to use a forum or a blog format is much more important than just the decision to use WordPress vs. bbPress. The decision goes beyond the platform you use and steps into the realm of what visitors expect from your site.

On blogs, visitors typically expect original content to be created by site contributors, whether the owner or writers under the site’s employ. While forums certainly have officials, moderators, administrators, etc., they are typically equal in terms of content generation to the other members. On a forum, a post is a post is a post, save important ones that are “sticky”, but on a blog, there is a clear separation between the content of those who write for the site officially, and those who are part of the community.

As a result, blogs typically have tighter editorial control, as it is easier to maintain but the emphasis on officially-generated content is higher. This means, typically, less new material per day and a greater pressure on the owner of the site to put out new content. This is typically true even of blogs that accept user submissions as there is usually some editorial control that prevents submitted content from being published as a new post unchecked.

However, as Patrick explained, the two are not mutually exclusive, “Blogs and forums serve specific needs and both platforms are the right answer – depending on what the question is. They can also work well together, a blog can serve as fodder for your forums and your forums can help stimulate the community that exists around your blog.”

In short, when deciding which to use, the answer may very well be “both”.

Evolution

It is easy to see how, over time, various sites would evolve to include both forum and blog elements. A blogger, for example, may want to give his community a home once it reaches a certain size while a forum admin may, as he gains notoriety, want a place here he can write without interfering with the forum. This is why WordPress, bbPress and other platforms, both blog and forum, have plugins and extensions that allow them to interact with each other.

However, as mentioned above, without clearly-defined roles for the two areas, one area can cannibalize or replace the other, rather than expanding on it. If you offer an RSS feed to your forum, for example, are visitors more likely to subscribe to the blog, the forum or both? If both, which will they read more? Though adding a forum or a site can be a great way to grow it, it is also a great way to sandbag it.

You have to take a frank look at your site and your site’s objectives before making any kind of move. You also have to be honest about yourself and your site to see if it could sustain such a move.

Given the overlap between blogs and forums, there is a lot of danger in splitting up your site as it can, very easily, split your audience if done poorly.

Bottom Line

The debate over which approach is right is muddled more and more as the separation between blogs and forums becomes razor-thin in places. However, Patrick takes a different perspective on it.

“One could say that forums have become more blog-like or blogs have become more forum-like, but what I think is true is that because of their similarities, they simply adapt to good ideas regardless of where they start or gain popularity.”

In short, whether you are running a blog or a forum, it is about the community and the type of community you wish to create and choosing the right tool to do the job.

While the two tools are very similar in terms of what they can do, there are clear differences in what they are best for and that is the real difference. Not whether the tool can do the job, but which is best for it.

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  1. By Byrne Reese posted on November 30, 2009 at 6:17 pm
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    The difference, traditionally, has been that only the blog author(s) can post on a blog. Where comment is for anyone, conversations are only started by blog authors. Forums, on the other hand, can have topics started by anyone.

    However, that is not universally true. Many blogs accept submissions from users and even encourage users to create their own blog posts and many communities have single-author forums, where only one or two authors can post new topics.

    I think your definition is perfect – the difference between a blog and forum is not defined by the software, but by the editorial policy of who has the power to determine the editorial direction of the site: a closed (blog) or open (forum) group of people. Spot on.

    So when you find a blog that challenges this definition, don’t change or weaken the definition of the word just because there is an outlier. Maybe the outlier in question is just not what you always thought it was. Perhaps that “blog” is actually a forum.

    Reply

  2. By Ciprian posted on November 30, 2009 at 7:20 pm
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    Thanks for sharing this information about blogs/forums and how to choose the right one. It’s been something I’ve considered for quite a while, and you have spurred me to get serious about blogging.

    Regards,
    Ciprian.

    Reply

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