Are Expats Still In Love With Forums?

December 2010 The Expat Telegraph published an article I had written called Thoroughly Modern Expats.

For a number of years following I was a regular monthly columist for them.

Reading through the original articles that I submitted recently, I was taken by a) how relevant many of them still are today, and b) I had no online record of them of my own.

So I have added the original submissions to this blog, so if you want to read more of them just search for telegrapharticles, and while you are at it you may want to search for expatarticles as well to see other columns I wrote in the past for various newspapers in Spain.

I have been revisiting a number of old friends these last few weeks, and without wanting to sound too harsh, the majority really haven’t aged very well.

To be precise many actually look much the same as they did many years ago, and in a lot of cases it is true that they ‘haven’t changed at all’. In theory that is a good thing and I suspect many of you have already concluded that I am a tad jealous that they have survived the ravages of time better than I. In normal circumstances that would be hard to deny, but in this case I believe that remaining the same is a hindrance not a help.

I am referring to Forums, one time first port of call for many an expat seeking information relating to living life abroad, offering an amazing range of advice on pretty much every topic under the sun, with the benefit of the content being provided by people with actual experience relating to the question you were seeking an answer for.

It is hard to make a forum look attractive as in essence they are no more of less than a list of questions and answers: practical rather than pretty, the short term rather than long stay car park of the internet, a place to dip into for an answer, they served one purpose and did that very well, a place to ask questions from like minded people and ‘hang out’ in an online community.

Anyway my recent sojourn down the memory lane of forums did little other than to remind me of what I never liked about them, with my chief pet hate being that far too often people didn’t bother to leave a message to say whether a piece of advice had worked. Is there anything more frustrating than to spend an hour finding someone with exactly the same problem as you and a piece of advice that sounds like it would be perfect but never knowing if that is the case. Tempting as it is to assume that the person was so deliriously happy that they just forget to say thanks, the pessimist in me tends to assume that the advice didn’t work and they were left to carry on searching other forums in the hope of eventually finding an answer.

No surprise then that I swapped over to Twitter and Facebook in my search for help and advice. Two factors appealed: the speed of response and the fact that the answer was going to come from a friend, or a friend of a friend, or someone that I had never met but somehow had come to be friends with!

The question and indeed the point of this month’s column then is this: are expats still in love with Forums?

I started my research looking for a number of forums that indexed on Google with a high page rank for their target keywords

As you will have guessed from the introduction to this column my first port of call research wise were a number of forums. To ensure that I was impartial and didn’t concentrate on forums I already knew I used a SEO Services site, SEO Ladder, to help identify twenty from a variety of sectors, all with high Google Page Ranks, and all on the front page of Google for their target keywords. My first issue it must be said was contacting the sites. I gave up on a number as it wasn’t apparent where their contact details were, and those that I did find in general were tucked away in the footer of the site, or low down in the sidebar. Very rarely did I come across a prominent means of making contact though, and to be honest I wish I hadn’t bothered! I received a grand total of two replies, one inviting me to join their forum and ask my question which as I pointed out was a little pointless as I was after feedback from the owners of the Forum, and a very helpful one from Giampiero Ambrosi of Virtual Tourist who offer “the inside scoop from a million members on 61,083 destinations and counting.”.

In general, I’d say that Facebook hasn’t had much of an effect on Forums. We have a very active forum in which travelers asking questions typically receive detailed, helpful and expert answers in a very short time frame from our community of fellow travelers (and) that hasn’t changed. In the 10 + years that our forums have been operating, I’ve seen some of the most obscure questions answered in great detail over and over again within a few minutes of posting. Since the advent of Facebook, I’ve noticed that some of the purely social interaction that happens in our Miscellaneous Chat Forum has lessened since the word games, “what’s in your fridge?”, and share a joke activity has migrated more to there. For travel answers, our forums are as strong as ever. For whiling away a few minutes online, most people turn to Facebook.

Over on Linkedin I asked a number of groups if they thought that Facebook has had a negative impact on Forums. Linda Sanders from the St Cloud Chamber of Commerce Florida who proudly declare they are “planning for the future while preserving small town life” told me that they had recently held a similar discussion asking if the various social media services actually promote or are they really a place to ‘have a chat’ and in effect hinder and take resources away from more effective media. They concluded that the jury is still out, but it is evidence that the debate is being held, and people are not simply taking for granted that forums and social media do add value.

Still on Linkedin Scott Bean has noticed that forum activity is lighter, but commented that direct questions do get answers and that niche forums such as the invite only “community for expatriates and global minds” InterNations are good for specific information gathering, networking and ‘helping’ folks, although he admitted they only received ‘occasional visits’ from him these days.

Justin Aldridge founder of Eye on Spain , who claim Spain’s biggest online community says that over the last six months he has seen a significant increase in the number of people setting up their own blogs to promote their businesses and to take the opportunity to earn money through blog advertising via services such as Buy Blog Reviews, who put advertisers and bloggers together, and focus on achieving higher search engine rankings, which after all is the modern day ‘Holy Grail’ when it comes to the internet for anon with anything to promote or sell.

But what of the expats view? Joanna Wynne Simm, an expat living in France, has over the last 8 years of being an expat noticed an increased use of blogs, and of company sites, to gather information. She still uses Forums ‘from time to time’ for a specific question that requires a direct response, and is a big fan of Facebook because of its immediacy, but noted that many companies have now incorporated blogs, expert advice, testimonials and videos which means that she can more easily get the information ‘direct from the horses mouth’ so to speak, with the John Frieda corporate site currently one of her favourites.

Graham Hunt an expat living in Spain and running the Spain is Different magazine, an online magazine based on the famous 1960’s tourist slogan for Spain that became very popular and which claims that Spain is still different is a huge fan of twitter (@grahunt) for gathering information and content for the magazine, and of course for distributing it, an advantage that Facebook and Twitter obviously have over the Forums.

Putting aside my prejudices: that they look old fashioned, are almost impossible to contact, are full of dead ends, and have a tendency to be dominated by a few die hard fans, I would be loath to see them disappear. For niche and specialist topics they remain a really good source of information, and they remain my preferred source of support and help on technical matters, but for lifestyle and community matters I think they will continue to struggle against Facebook, Twitter and in particular blogs and specific sites dedicated to the subject, for example the Health Poise site offering general health tips , much the same as Health Tips Forum for me is just simpler to navigate, better laid out, and gets to the point a lot quicker.

That though is my opinion, as ever I would love to hear yours!

Please feel free to search on Google for the published versions of these columns.

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