• Why the consumer forum model is unsustainable

    We have already said that forums were originally intended as discussion platforms for people to share experiences and that many have turned into advisory services where people go looking for help. This model can work well for customer service forums run by companies who provide support via their forums, which follow a question and answer format and are an efficient alternative to one-to-one support by email or phone. This is particularly true of cases when there is a bug or fault and the company has found a workaround for it. Rather than repeat the same recommendations time and again to individual customers, the workarounds and suggestions can be posted up on the forums, where everyone can find them.

    Forums dedicated to consumer issues are thriving due to the lack of official sources of advice and insufficient funding for services such as law clinics. The range of issues dealt with is very wide and can be anything from a parking penalty to a large debt, from neighbour disputes to employment matters. There are lots of questions and someone has to answer them. In some cases, someone may have a similar experience to share, but it can be risky to rely on someone else's experience without knowing the full facts. The circumstances may look similar on the surface but there may be substantial differences.

    These days most consumer forums have a number of individuals who post most of the answers. Some are more knowledgeable than others but even the real experts cannot answer every question. There are issues that simply do not belong on a forum, where proper qualified advice is required, yet you see people happily debating, say 40k claims on a forum!

    All forums have a "team", also commonly known as "moderators", "mods" and "site leaders". Although each term has a different meaning, they are often used interchangeably. Some sites prefer not to have "moderators" as such because the term may suggest posts are moderated and that the mods are responsible for all content posted. Whatever their name, the skills required to run a forum are very different from those required to give advice. Admin tasks such as moving and splitting threads, editing posts and tidying up the site are what admins and "mods" should do. However, in most sites, they double up as advisors.

    The sites rely on knowledgeable posters to advice others, but there is no guarantee that those posters will always be there. There is no obligation, no contract, no strings. Even mods sometimes get fed up and move on, often without saying a word. The only way to ensure there is someone on board to answer all questions and provide support is to pay one or more people to do the job. This is how company forums work, their admin and support staff often post responses to customer queries. These companies sell products for money so they can afford to pay staff. Even when some consumer sites may charge for premium content, VIP memberships or have adverts, the income drawn from these sources isn't generally enough to cover the cost of paid staff.

    Without the guarantee of advisors on board, the sites are reliant on whoever decides to fulfil the role of "advisor", that is, not just people with varying degrees of knowledge and experience, but often with their own agendas. Some people are just bored and have nothing better to do, others have a burning desire to show off. Whatever the reason, none of these people should really be "advisors", but they have to be, or else who would be posting advice?

    Nowadays most people join forums purely to deal with their own problems and don't stick around to share their experiences. Going by their posts, most forum advice seekers tend to be either poorly educated or else their lives are in a mess, they suffer from mental health issues, depression, have been through family breakdown, etc. Those people are not going to stick around to help others, so consumer forums have become unregulated, unmonitored, advisory services.
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