Usernames and passwords are the most egregious violation of “don’t make me think” left on the modern web. This might sound like an extreme statement, but when you think it over it’s really just obvious. On basically every website that handles accounts you have the same bottleneck at sign up, you have to think really hard twice to come up with a good name and then a good password. It’s such a pain point that there are entire applications whose purpose is to manage it like KeePass and 1Password. People keep trying to solve it with centralized identity schemes and weird hardware, or even just plain bizarre amalgamations of grab bag authentication methods. It essentially constitutes a UX tax on every web service, that for the service to survive it must generate enough value to pay.
While for most this is a mere inconvenience, social networks are devastated by it. Until it hits a critical mass the expected value of a social network is zero. The cost of signing up for a social network on the other hand is fairly substantial. Most of that cost is in the creation of a username and password, but even making the decision to check things out is effort. Nobody wants to be the sucker that pays the cost of coming to the party if no one else shows up. There are several potential solutions to this particular chicken and egg problem, the easiest is probably to start with value.
To illustrate the concept of start with value, I want you to imagine an online bulletin board. No no, not a bulletin board, the bulletin board. You know the one I mean, it uses the same damn VBulletin layout as every other online bulletin board and you’ve seen it a thousand times. You’re sick of seeing The Bulletin Board, but it doesn’t go away. The bulletin board keeps asking you to sign up, this is the dozenth time you’ve signed up for The Bulletin Board and you just want to puke thinking about it. Every so often you see someone create a new instance of The Bulletin Board and desire to throttle them, they title the boards things like ‘Rational Discussions’ and you facepalm into the vomit dripping from your mouth.
It sounds like the problem is the layout, but it’s actually expected returns. Yes you should change the layout, and that will relieve most of the nausea but only because it shows visitors you actually care. When you start a new bulletin board you need to convince people that signing up is going to have some kind of value return. An obvious solution then is to provide some kind of value that isn’t the forum until the forum provides enough value on its own to be self sustaining. Even better than just sounding like a good idea, it’s empirically how a lot of forums I’ve used got started. Some examples that come to mind:
I used to hang out at ForgeHub when I played Halo. The basic history of that forum is the founder, TrueDarkFusion, started a wordpress blog to post his Forge maps and had a lot of friends who ended up making guest posts to it with their own cool maps. Eventually the blog outgrew the comments section and they made it into a forum instead. The forum then had a healthy base of elite users that posted new maps to drive new traffic and users.
Another forum I used when I was younger is now defunct, but at one point was hosted by Ron Fontaine at SurvivalTopics. Same basic story, the founder had this successful blog that drew in traffic from Google and the like on survivalist topics, then he had the idea to start a forum based off it. The forum had plenty of people drawn in from blogs and the rest was history.
A few years later I discovered Hacker News, which is a fairly successful tech-focused social news site in the vein of Reddit that encourages much more mature and serious behavior from participants. It was created when Paul Graham decided he wanted a news site that startup founders could share news on specifically about tech startups. The value he started with was YCombinator and his extensive set of essays to draw people in. When you get a group of ambitious people taking real action like startup founders in the same room, especially ones hand picked by Paul Graham, you’re pretty much set when it comes to an initial userbase.
The famous (and infamous) web forum SomethingAwful seems to have had a similar origin story going by its current website which appears to be a satirical humor site that has a web forum associated with it. I can’t really say this one for certain since I’m not familiar with the history, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
When Eliezer Yudkowsky decided to try his hand at tilting the world more towards his vision of sanity the resulting series of blog posts drew people into LessWrong, an online web forum to discuss the ideas and create new ones. While it’s currently in a state of terrible disrepair and community decay, the basic principle of attracting people to a forum with other value tied into it remains sound.
Reddit and Quora both built their initial userbases by starting with value. Literally they spent a good deal of their first months in operation pretending to be their own users and roleplaying discussion on the site. By showing up as multiple guests to their own party they managed to give the party value and encourage people to join in until it was self sustaining.
These are just the examples that come to mind breaking down to write a blog post having just explained this concept for the 3rd dozenth time. I’m sure there are many, many more to look at and analyze if you go searching for them. For someone who is looking to start a popular social network or even just create a new bulletin board, asking how to create the network is solving the wrong problem. The question is how to provide value, solve that, provide a network, and your forum creation problem will solve itself.