Is there something about a smaller user base and topic-based structure that creates different conversations? I've had a back and forth with Hudson from Body of Water over email about this, and he left me a great response to mull over:
I think inevitably and maybe unfortunately the provenance and purpose of these platforms must be examined. I feel like, strangely, social media is about getting somewhere alone, as an individual: follower counts, post likes—metrics to make one feel success or failure. And forums are about getting somewhere together. And social media maybe began that way, about “me”. I feel like forums have always been about “us”. Maybe that's why such strange and harmful aberrations of culture arisen from social media.
Hudson brings up this dynamic between “me” and “us” with platforms that I hadn't thought of before. It reminded me of a talk from Are.na co-founder Charles Broskoski. Taking an analogy from video-games, he mentions that a platform should be able to work both in “single player” & “multiplayer” mode. The analogy stuck with me.
Because when I think of blogging, for example, it's single player by default. But once you add others replying to your posts, it becomes a multiplayer experience. The most important thing is that blogging works both ways. You don't have to care about the multiplayer component to get something out of writing on the web.
But perhaps what Hudson alludes to is the quality of the multiplayer experience when comparing social media and forums. In that, the two are fundamentally different. Bix touches on this difference when describing Twitter:
The problem isn’t so much public-versus-private accounts as Twitter’s lack of tools for user-driven community building. The test-balloon of being able to control the extent of conversation on one’s own tweets at least partially considers this, but one of the things we lost in the cultural gold rush to social media was the primacy of intentional and circumscribed communities.
The “us” found in forums are built on that primacy of intentional and circumscribed communities. It's about getting somewhere together. People choose to be on a forum for a reason. People know why they're there. With social media there is more of what Cal Newport refers to as an “atmosphere of vagueness.” I think this passage from Digital Minimalism hits home with that feeling when describing Facebook in particular:
[B]y far one of the most common arguments I used to hear from people about why I should sign up for Facebook is that there might be some benefit I didn't even know about that I might be missing. “You never know, maybe you'll find this to be useful” has got to be on the worst product pitches ever devised. But in the peculiar context of the digital attention economy, it makes a lot of sense to people. [...]
An atmosphere of vagueness leads people to sign into the service with no particular purpose in mind, which of course, makes them easier targets for the attention engineers' clever hooks and exploits [.]
And that's where the metrics of follower counts and post likes that Hudson mentioned come in. It's the only thing to go off of on a platform that isn't built to provide an intentional multiplayer experience.
Could you even argue that the single player experience is built intentionally? That's a post for another time.