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Shattered Rift

The Shoutbox was discussed at the beginning of the year, but it's come to my attention that the “Bring Back the Shoutbox” campaign is introducing many of you to this subject for the first time. To those of you just now joining this conversation, it may appear like several members are making a reasonable request that I'm flatly ignoring. While I have decided against restoring the Shoutbox, my reasons for doing so were stated plainly some months (and years) ago. I'm going to rehash some of the things I've said elsewhere, but for the sake of completeness I'll try to offer a more complete picture here.

In the past, the Shoutbox served a similar function to that of the home page today. It gave a quick glimpse as to what was happening on the site. It also served two other purposes: it provided a place for members to make global announcements that reached a large number of people, and it offered an easy method of communication for off-topic comments, questions, links, and more light-hearted discussion than is usually seen in threads.

It was this last point that received scrutiny, not because I don't want all of us interacting with each other, but because of the question of whether or not the Shoutbox had a negative impact on forum activity and, by extension, the site as a whole.

First, for the curious, I'll give a bit of history. Much of the Sparkbomb history has been lost (particularly from the first three years), but we do still know a few things about the Shoutbox's origin. Marcus (Coaster) installed it fairly early on (probably in October of '04). The global Shoutbox, the one that was found at the top of each page, wasn't always enabled. It was enabled at some point early on (before the end of '04), but it may have been flipped on and off a few times during those first few months. Rex thinks that it wasn't enabled during the begining of '05, and while I'm unsure I am inclined to agree with him. For the sake of putting an accurate date of birth on the Shoutbox, let's assume that it was enabled by the spring of '05. It was a permanent fixture of the site until April 1st, 2012 (a seven year run). As a combination prank/experiment, the Shoutbox was disabled, and it was never reenabled despite plans to make it into an Announcementbox. This decision, which most of the Staff agreed on at the time, makes more sense in the context of the role the Shoutbox played during the Renaissance Era (April 2009 onward).

Quite a bit of thought went into this decision, and part of this came from trends I observed over the years. The first is a memory of the Shoutbox originally being added to Sparkbomb and forum activity subsequently plummeting as the Shoutbox absorbed all community interaction. During the two years that followed (Sparkbomb's first era), the Shoutbox was a fine addition to the community that lacked any of the controversy surrounding it today. Forum and Shoutbox activity were both stable, the forums were private and hidden from Google, and there were more important things to worry about like stockpiling items in the Spark Game.

During the Renaissance Era (April 2009 onward), the Shoutbox acted a bit differently. Random Chat, a forum allowing off-topic and non-discussion conversation, was as an alternative place to encourage the antics that had previously been relegated to the Shoutbox. The community also experienced several up-and-down periods for activity during this time, effectively needing a jumpstart every seven or eight months to get momentum going again. Each time this was necessary, I felt that the Shoutbox was a hindrance. It's easier to make a shout than it is to make a post, after all. And once people are in a habit, it's difficult to get them to break their habit. During Sparkbomb's low activity periods, the Shoutbox retained some activity in the community, but this benefit was offset by how difficult it was to get forum activity back up and running.

In late March of 2012, I discussed the Shoutbox with the Staff. We disabled it as an April Fools prank, and we agreed that leaving it disabled for a few days would help us to gauge the effect on the community. The Staff was split on the issue, but there was large agreement about a couple of key points. Firstly, the Shoutbox as a chat system was largely unnecessary and potentially harmful to the site in the context of forum interaction. Secondly, the community needed a method of posting readily visible announcements. Unfortunately, the other necessary component to go with the removal of the Shoutbox, an activity push (in the form of All-Stars, a Competition, or something else), never materialized due to my real life schedule. (I was wrapping things up with my A.A. and seeking employment via Yu-Gi-Oh, and I had mentally regulated Sparkbomb to the back of my mind as a hobby.)

Permanence is another element the Shoutbox lacked. A Shoutbox, like an IRC chat, is fleeting. Words come and go. If a person isn't there for a conversation, they miss it entirely. And even if they could go back and read it, so many IMs fly by in this kind of setting that catching up is impossible. (Just think about how difficult it was to keep up with the first few days of All-Stars.) As an example, I'm sure many of you who were around a few years ago will remember the Lixyl marrying maple syrup episode. This joke might have began in the Shoutbox (I don't know if it did or didn't, and there's no way to know now), but it came to life in the threads. And because it came to life in the threads, everyone who was active on Sparkbomb at the time remembers it.

The next point is a bit anecdotal, but I trust that all of us will at least agree that the following pattern exists: very few active communities have a Shoutbox. None of the larger communities across the Internet do, to my knowledge. The successful communities that each of us have come from (IDB, PPT, X-Evo, etc) did not use Shoutboxes. Meanwhile, nearly every community I've seen that used a Shoutbox(/Chatbox) dwindled and failed. I know that correlation is not causation, but I would argue that there is a connection. Furthermore, without forum activity, there is no reason for someone to join a community. Nobody joins a community because of a Shoutbox: they join it because there's something about the community that draws them in.

This leaves two key points unaddressed: what's the situation today, and how can announcements rapidly reach every member of the community? There have been some jokes made that the Status feature on the home page has replaced the Shoutbox, and in some ways this is true. Statuses allow a similar experience. The home page is steadily becoming more and more of a hub for the community. It includes a list of Active Topics, a Staff announcement blurb that's going to be expanded in the future, a list of active Status Updates, and recent blogs. Statuses, though limited to the home page, can be used for announcements in the way that the Shoutbox once was. The home page isn't perfect yet, but it is steadily becoming the central hub for the community.

As for implementing a Shoutbox on Sparkbomb in the future, I think that it would be more of a detriment than a benefit to the community, despite how many people want it as an element of the site. For me, this subject was put to rest months ago. I understand how essential ease of communication is, and I understand how useful a more effective announcement system would be. These are elements of the site that I'm continuing to work towards improving.

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