Who Still Uses Message Boards?

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To say I was shocked was an understatement. Last week John Mackey, CEO of organic grocer Whole Foods, admitted that from 1999 to 2006, he had been anonymously posting messages to Yahoo's message board under the pseudonym "Rahodeb," praising his company's performance while knocking his competition and acquisition target Wild Oats. Shocking.... people are still using message boards?

Message boards, a communication tool that predates the modern Internet and Web 1.0, were popular amongst geeks and early adopters as early as the late 1980s when users would use their modems to connect directly into dial-up message boards. In the mid- to late 90s, message boards became popular forums for users to discuss publicly traded stocks.

We're now in an era where MySpace usage is growing at a phenomenal rate, Wikipedia has over five million entries and users are posting their video commentary along with exploding Diet Coke/Mentos videos. Yet message boards devoted to financial information, as well as a myriad of other topics, continue to thrive — even in a time when most mainstream online participation is user reviews and blog commentary. And as we've seen with many Web 2.0 applications, anonymity, a key feature of message board postings, can call into question the veracity and motive of the boards' content.

Yahoo! Message Boards is ranked as the 223rd most popular Internet site in the U.S. for the week ending July 14, 2007, according to Hitwise. It was also the 25th most popular Yahoo! Property during that same timeframe.

Demographic data reveals that today's message board user does not belong to the typical uber-geek segments of the 90s. Message board posters, many of whom post anonymously like Mackey, most closely resemble someone you might run across at an exclusive country club. The predominant users of financial discussion boards are male (77%), over 55 years of age (35.8%) and members of the most affluent segments of suburban society. According to Hitwise and Claritas, a company that segments the U.S. population by consumer behavior data, the typical financial message board poster lives in the world of large homes, expensive clothes, luxury cars and foreign travel, and holds the largest share of the nation's personal wealth.

Search term data reveals that discussion topics on these sites can range anywhere from personal opinion and speculation on stock values to meaningless chest-thumping and flame wars. But the majority of search terms sending traffic to today's message boards are stock symbols. TRMP (Trump Entertainment), MCZ (Mad Catz video game accessories), NVAX (vaccine maker Novavax), NPLA (InPlay Technologies) were the most popular over the last four weeks.

Mackey, in his alarming lack of judgment, reminded us not only of the dangers of anonymous information exchange, but also of the persistence of pre-Web 1.0 technology in an over-hyped Web 2.0 world. The Securities and Exchange Commission has now commenced an informal investigation into Mackey's message posting activity, possibly endangering Whole Food's potential acquisition of competitor Wild Oats. I wonder what "Rahodeb" would have posted about that.

Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise. Full disclosure: in the interest of avoiding the appearance of impropriety that befell Mr. Mackey, Mr. Tancer discloses that he is a shareholder in Whole Foods Market Inc.