Can we build better forum software?

I think most forum software (read: phpBB and vBulletin) sucks, and is stuck in a late-90s design rut.

It struck me that a lot of Quarter to Three’s forum problems are software problems.

What if we built a better forum mousetrap? Lest you think I’m full of shit, and admittedly I frequently am, I’ve done this before with Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange. I’m no longer a part of that by choice, but we left a lot of stuff on the table by explicitly adopting the no-nonsense, high signal low noise Q&A format. I think I want to circle back around to pure forums and leave Q&A behind.

So let’s brainstorm a bit: what should next-gen forum software look like? Let’s start with some shared research and due diligence on what’s already out there, first.

  1. What forum software do you think currently works best – and why? Provide specific URLs with some rationale behind your choice.

  2. What are the essential features of forum software? What do you use every day?

Two errr three ideas I had:

a) What if certain trusted users – those that consistently produced quality content and were (somewhat) sane – could be democratically voted AUTOMATICALLY THROUGH SOFTWARE into the position of mini-moderators? Perhaps even on a subforum basis?

b) The disparate nature of voting (or favoriting/starring) on a forum, where you could be voting “up” on a post for dozens of wildly different reasons. Still, I think it’d be nice to come into a giant thread like this one and not have to read 50+ PAGES to find the 20 or so excellent posts absolutely buried in there. Surely there’s a way to escalate or highlight these excellent posts without wading through so much noise – and also preserving the rest of the thread in situ for posterity.

c) this would be more of an explicitly open-source thing from the beginning, aping the WordPress model. But written in node.js so it’ll be riding the leading edge of Atwood’s Law and not the hell on earth that is PHP.

Forum software has to be aesthetically pleasing. I loved how the old blue boards here looked, and have never really enjoyed the new looks on any of the upgrades.

Need a quick way to catch up on the new posts since the last visit. I used to read every post, but I haven’t done that in ages. Now I mostly just look at posts I’m subscribed to, but I end up missing out on a lot of new stuff, which I just don’t have the time or inclination to find. If I see a post I’m interested in, I try to make a comment so I’ll be subscribed. I realize I could subscribe to threads, but I find it easier to just make a comment, even if it doesn’t add much to the discussion.

Ok so other than Ye Olde Blue Boards, what other forum software is “aesthetically pleasing”? URLs?

A bit Q&A-y, as it is used as a support forum, but per all 37signals stuff, a clean design.

http://answers.37signals.com/basecamp

Vanilla Forums has a pretty decent design

bbPress isn’t… terrible…

http://bbpress.org/forums/

all of these are of course PHP/MySQL, the herpes simplex of the web.

XenForo (as used on Broken Forum) seems like the state of the art to me.

Yikes. You like those?

Forums exist to promote community discussion, to enable conversations. The user moderation problem was solved a decade ago by slashdot, where you just read at +2 and avoid all the cruft. This works well for filtering out the cruft in responses to a curated post or Q&A (like your sites) but doesn’t promote open discussion.

Also you only really need user-moderation for communities that are very large, composed of non-vetted low quality posters, and not revenue-generating, where it’s effectively impossible to moderate via coordinated volunteers or paid forum mods. That primarily applies to MMO forums and sites like reddit that are really dozens of mini-communities and a popular frontpage.

On the tech side, Qt3’s problems are that our host constrains disk I/O and that we’re running a version of the forum software that doesn’t work with innodb. Neither PHP nor mysql are problems, they scale way, way higher than we need.

Yeah, I don’t like any of those…especially the last one. It’s hard to tell what that is.

XenForo is very nice and modern-looking. It’s all rounded-corners and attractive fonts and animations. But other than the ‘like’ functions, I don’t see that it does much more than this forum software.

Xenforo is quite attractive, but as far as I can tell, all the “likes” do is add a line below each post telling you how many people liked it. It’s a popularity contest that doesn’t so anything to improve usability or eliminate cruft. It’s the kind of crap I would immediately turn off, right after signatures.

“Thanks” buttons, on the other hand, make sense for certain types of forums. They allow people to click a button rather than making a content-free post just to say “wow thanks that worked”.

My favorite forums over the last decade used vBulletin. I have an emotional attachment to the look. That pretty much puts an end to it as far as I’m concerned.

I can’t really answer what the OP asks, but I can say something about my user preferences.
I like bright text on a dark background. I spend enough hours of the day staring into a lamp.
I would like if threads could be tagged with “editable by multiple users” or something similarly wave-like.

Otherwise, I’m perfectly fine with the current format.

By the same token, a “Like” button eliminates the need for pointless “lol” or “this” posts.

Gawker’s “Pow Wow” project is attempting to attack this problem. I’m not familiar with the nuts and bolts algorithmically, but the idea is that they’ll be able to surface the most interesting comments automatically, with more or less no user interaction. How well it work is anybody’s guess. My suspicion is that it’s going to be a little confusing for both new users and constant visitors, but I appreciate that they’re trying to solve the problem in a way that doesn’t involve raw upvote/downvote interaction. However you slice it, to me this is one of the most interesting questions in user content right now: how do we get around the often tyrannical up vote system without losing its ability to catch novelty as well as humans do?

I’m getting ready to move into a new position (not at Gawker) where we’re going to be spinning up a brand where user interaction could be tremendously useful (a lot of local, city-scale articles). But my inclination these days toward comments is almost that they’re not worth the trouble they involve, both in moderation and in an overall sense of entitlement that they engender.

On the other hand, I love forums. There’s something about the flat, egalitarian space that makes the communities that spin out really wonderful, all caveats for the occasional troll and what not.

But it’d be nice if there were a way to showcase the especially brilliant posts without losing the context of the thread above. Typically I check Qt3 by clicking the “Quick Links > Today’s Posts” link and then selecting the tiny little button next to the topics that look interesting. It’d be nice (for me, at least!) if there were a way for the forum software to give me some sort of generated digest, showing the most interesting posts, maybe Instapaper-style.

Xenforo is a good reference, thanks for that, but I have some issues with it, mainly the GINORMOUS AVATAR SIGS. I’m thinking a bit more minimalistic.

Gawker’s “Pow Wow” project is attempting to attack this problem. I’m not familiar with the nuts and bolts algorithmically, but the idea is that they’ll be able to surface the most interesting comments automatically, with more or less no user interaction

I’ll take a look at that. I’m not sure “blog post” --> “comments” is an exact analog to the discussion forum format, but it’s in the ballpark.

But it’d be nice if there were a way to showcase the especially brilliant posts without losing the context of the thread above. Typically I check Qt3 by clicking the “Quick Links > Today’s Posts” link and then selecting the tiny little button next to the topics that look interesting. It’d be nice (for me, at least!) if there were a way for the forum software to give me some sort of generated digest, showing the most interesting posts, maybe Instapaper-style.

That’s definitely the problem I want to solve. It’s worth noting that there are different types of threads, and not all have the same problems.

“Thanks” buttons, on the other hand, make sense for certain types of forums. They allow people to click a button rather than making a content-free post just to say “wow thanks that worked”.

Conceptually “thanks” and “likes” are really the same thing. You’re going to “like” things that work for you, yes? It is crazy that Xenforo isn’t using that to affect sort order, or generate a best of highlight reel for the thread.

The user moderation problem was solved a decade ago by slashdot, where you just read at +2 and avoid all the cruft.

Yeah, that’s why there are so many discussion forums that emulate Slashdot. Er… no, there aren’t. Slashdot’s system is at best an oddity. It hasn’t contributed much if any DNA to the other systems out there.

Also you only really need user-moderation for communities that are very large, composed of non-vetted low quality posters, and not revenue-generating, where it’s effectively impossible to moderate via coordinated volunteers or paid forum mods. That primarily applies to MMO forums and sites like reddit that are really dozens of mini-communities and a popular frontpage.

IMO none of that is true, the crappy phpbb/vbulletin software lineage doesn’t surface user moderation in a way that makes sense (or AT ALL, actually), so it’s considered impossible instead of the norm. Software does shape the way users behave.

On the tech side, Qt3’s problems are that our host constrains disk I/O and that we’re running a version of the forum software that doesn’t work with innodb. Neither PHP nor mysql are problems, they scale way, way higher than we need.

I wasn’t referring to technical scaling issues, but

a) attracting the right kind of developers (eg the smart ones that know PHP/MySQL is an option, yes, but a poor one compared to today’s tools)

b) setting up a new source code lineage based on tomorrow’s standard, so we can break free of all these inherited phpbb/vbulletin diseases while retaining the parts that work.

You put squiggly lines through the like buttons? What is wrong with you.

I’m with you on the enormous avatars, but some sort of profile customization is nice. Maybe something like Facebook’s profile picture. It’s relatively small, uniform size, and easy for a user to change.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of 32x32 user icons for quick visual identification of who you are talking to, but that 128x128 stuff is absurd. Also, the identity of the user is NOT more important than the words they type into the textbox. For cultures where we read left to right, that user stuff needs to go on the bottom right, not be the first thing you see (and ginormous).

I also don’t think collaborative wiki-style editing, which is a crucial part of our Q&A design, is a good choice for a discussion forum. We can justify “anyone can edit what you write” when the goal is to generate these permanently useful creative commons Q&A artifacts, but that’s not really the goal for a discussion forum. It sometimes happens accidentally, yes, but it’s not the reason they exist, nor is it a justification for participation.

This forum isn’t about the single brilliant post which works on sites like Reddit - but the discussion, all of it, is the interesting bits. Deemphasizing that would hurt the site and remove the more casual discussion.

Did you read all 55 pages of this?

I did. And let me tell you, I want those hours – literally, hours – of my life back.

Anyway, the rest of the thread will always be there for completionists. I’m not proposing that we do away with a regular chronological view at all. But for uh, cough busy people who have, like, lives and kids and stuff, we need a way to get to the essence of the discussion in an epic thread (or just the useful bits) without devoting our lives to clicking “next page” – that’s what this is about. Give us the Reader’s Digest version, mang! The highlights reel! The BEST OF! THE GREATEST HITS!

Hell, the sad part of threads like that is that there are 20-30 posts that are freaking brilliant in there, but good luck excavating them out of the 55+ pages of cruft and diversions and bickering and thread-jacking to get to them. What I propose would save these posts from obscurity, that is the opposite of hurting the site and removing casual discussion.

Have all the casual discussion you want. It’s like Jay Leno with Doritos. We’ll make more.

I don’t even understand wanting to have any type of sorting for forum discussions. Forum threads are basically conversations, so listing posts in chronological order is all that really makes sense to me. You want software that allows for the sorting of completely subjective things like the worth of people’s posts, which just sounds complicated and weird.