Help My Business Plan Fail! Forum software design

As alluded to in another thread, I am “going pro” in the sense that I quit my job and I’m trying to make a living through my blog and building web properties. This thread is your big chance to contribute to not only my virtual but actual real world failure! Failure is always an option!

There’s not a lot of overlap between the Q23 audience and my blog, so I figure it’s safe to ask questions and gather feedback here. I do ask that you please don’t cross-post any of this information on my blog.

It’s also appropriate to ask here because the “web property” I alluded to is a sort of forum itself, and Q23 is one of my favorite forums, if not my favorite forum of all time. The signal-to-noise ratio here is outstanding, and it’s often the place I turn to when I have weird questions that need reasonable answers, like where I can find T-Shirts of +1 AC. Q23 is a great community and a perfect illustration of the power of focused community as a forum.

The forums we’re planning to build are somewhat specialized. They’re not meant to be one-size-fits-all like phpBB and vBulletin and the like. We’re designing them to accommodate software developers and other technical geeks. We will be seeding it with the fairly sizable audiences that have grown up around my blog and the other (unnamed) person who is sponsoring this project.

My love of blogging has evolved from the fact that I can put quality information on the 'net that actually helps people understand and solve their problems. And even make a living at at it! But I’m only one guy, and although millions of people post on forums, very few want to start a blog. I’d like to build a system that lets everyone participate in this virtuous cycle. The one-sentence version of what we want to build is this: like Experts Exchange but without all the nausea-inducing sleaze and quasi-legal search engine gaming. It’ll all (eventually) be ad-subsidized, no subscriptions or purchasing anything per se.

We’re still in the “tossing around feature ideas” stage now. This doesn’t have to be a super-complicated project; just a focused (on techies/geeks/programmers), smarter, easier to use version of the forums we all know and love. Here are some of the ideas we’ve floated so far:

[li]clean, simple, clutter-free 37signals-esque design. Even this forum (vBulletin) is far too cluttered with a bunch of feature noise I never use.
[/li][li]some form of “achievements” system, ala Xbox Live, to encourage participation in meaningful ways
[/li][li]The ability to mark a good answer to a question, and float it up under the question so you don’t have to read an entire thread (and the many wrong or half-answers) to figure out what’s going on.
[/li][li]The ability to collaboratively summarize threads, wiki style (think meta-reviews of all the reviews), and float that to the top.
[/li][li]When you post a new question thread, automatically perform a Google or Lucene search to see if your question has already been answered-- without moderators or other users having to manually chime in, “read the FAQ / Sticky”.
[/li][li]Digg style voting Yes (was helpful) or No (wasn’t helpful) on individual posts
[/li][li]Once you accumulate enough Karma / points / whuffie, a “hire me!” option opens up, so people with a lot of expertise in a single area can be recruited, if they want to be. This is sort of like starting multiplayer games on Xbox live and looking for people with 800+ points in Guitar Hero, for example. You know they have to be pretty good, right?
[/li][li]Not only post “how do I…” threads, but post “here’s how you…” articles as well. Forums can accommodate both of these kinds of threads, but we’ll make the distinction a little more explicit.

Some other sites that do similar things, for background: and
Google Answers (defunct)

So what do you guys think? What features would make sense for this sort of next-gen technical forum? If you’re in that audience (eg your job or background is technical), what would you like to see?

As an overlapper, I do feel more comfortable posting here!

Automatic parsing of <code> tags to automatically suggest categories for inclusion into an index. Parse by language, function/method call, include/import, etc.

Parse and syntax highlight, both automatic and user selected so the important code chunks can stand-out while remaining nice and monospaced. Code fold boilerplate.

Personal pages of developers, but only after they’ve gotten enough whuffie.

Support for embedded developers and less trendy languages who are too often resigned to ghettos or abused by the cool webkids.

threaded forums. I hate the QT3/NeoGaf/EvAv style with pages, no one knows how a conversation started.

what do you mean by “threaded forums”?

Threaded forums are a fucking blight if you want to read the conversation in chronological order.

yes, because when things were said is more important than what they were said in response to, when you’re trying to figure out what someone was actually referring to.

there is no need to read a conversation in chronological order, when what you’re actually reading are three different conversations happening at the same time.

But then the page gets all distorted and shit, and it looks ugly.

Threaded forums are like droppings from Satan’s ass.

But it’s not three conversations happening at the same time, it’s three branches, spawning new branches. If I post something and get three different replies I want to see those replies first, not have to scroll past the first reply as it branches out into a conversation about whatever for thirteen posts and another two branches, then reading the second reply to my original post which touches on the issue but doesn’t help me but is in turn answered by five posts that branch down before finally coming down to reply number three which this time contained the info I was looking for in a direct reply.

But, you say, the solution is to hide the branches until I want to read them, and just present me with the first three replies right away? No, I respond, because forcing me to click for additional information is annoying and since I never know how far down into the branches I have to go to find information I could find useful it just forces me to open more pages repeatedly until I have read it all. Instead of seeing 25 posts per page I’m now seeing 2-5 (or something, numbers made up to approximate reality). I want as much information available to me as possible at a glance.

I see the benefits of threading for following specific paths of conversations, and for certain Epic threads that grow too massive to handle it’s nice to have shortcuts, but for everyday use like this particular thread for instance, I find it massively impractical to read.

what do you think of reddit’s comment system? It offers threaded and flat modes.

personally, I think flat, with best content bubbling to the top, is easier. But I agree that threading is useful in certain circumstances, too…

what world do you people live in? have you ever READ this forum, the one you’re posting on?

for example, I don’t think wumpus’ key concern is the formatting of the forum, he probably has an idea how he’d like to do it. but instead of simply skipping past every reply from my original threadjack on to the next tree that is useful, he has to read every successive reply to see what they’re talking about.

it’s pretty easy to see the subject lines of the first three replies, then decide where you want to go from there. The whole idea is that you can skip the bottom of a useless tree, instead of this format, where you read every reply, no matter what it’s about or who they’re replying to.

for ex. another forum I post on - threaded (and I don’t mean like /., I have no idea what their system is, and never have. in over 10 year,s I’ve never been abl to follow a conversation there)

but on okp, you can very easily look at the summaries and see where a conversation went, then go to the reply you want to read. no one comes in at page 1000 asking a question that was answered on page 30, but no one can find it because god forbid you should have to check each page.

Please God no threaded forums. That was the single worst idea of usenet.

If you want to rate things, take a clue from reddit vs. and don’t allow downranking. Downranking attracts trolls.

It seems like you are focusing on encouraging the generation of (useful) content. The key there is some kind of reputation/reward system that encourages folks who know what they are talking about to post answers. I see questions all the time that I could answer, but I don’t, because typing in a long (technical) answer is a lot of work. I do provide answers on our internal board at work (and see others do it as well) because the benefit is a lot more obvious. It’s hard for that benefit to work unless the poster is using their own identity, and there are some obvious corrollaries there, e.g., you can’t mix casual discussions and work-oriented posts.

So to summarize:

  1. Your revenue model is acting as the intermediary between people looking to ask technical questions and people answering them.
  2. Your competitors are the general search engines and the existing sites trying to do that.

I don’t think X feature in your forum design is going to matter a damn here;. Design won’t matter either, as Craiglist succeeds and my cat could shit out a better design. What will make or break you is:

  1. Recruitment and retention of quality answerers.

  2. Findability and mindshare with the questioners.

  3. A way to convert the transactions into cash (ads is obvious, but there’s probably more).

  4. Users actually finding previous answers.

  5. is a SEO + business development/sharing deals question that I have no special insight into; 3) is fairly straightforward; 4) is also a fairly straightforward tag/search/categorization problem. The killer is 1).

You’re competing with a seemingly endless number of sites already doing this. What are you going to give answers to make them invest the time on your site? I don’t think “hire me” reputation on your website only is going to cut it; that will only matter if your site is already the biggest player. Think about is as building portable reputation for your answerers - attached blogging, reputation cards, microformat drop-ins to anywhere else on the internet, resume-building, etc. Along this lines, see here and here. For social networking reputation systems, see everything this guy has ever written. For the heaviest academic treatment of reputation network design and social production, see Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks. I can’t recommend Benkler’s work strongly enough.

Jason has it right. Qt3 succeeds mainly because of point 1 on his 4 point list. I have no idea how that happened here. I think it actually helps that the forum looks bland, as that tends to attract a more mature crowd, but it didn’t always look like this. IIRC, this forum was pretty much invite only at first. I mean it was word of mouth, not that Tom literally invited each person. So people invited people that would have reasonable discussions, as a rule.

Plus, where exceptions to this have happened, those people have ultimately been banned and/or persecuted away by the rest of the forum.

Still, I’d love to have a solid theory about why Qt3 is the way it is. I’m barely touching on the reasons in this post.

I think you should 7777 777777 777 777777 77 7777777777 77777777 777777777

Jason-- search engines aren’t competition. They’re the engine driving growth. We expect to end up very high in search results organically through providing a simple layout + quality information.

You’re competing with a seemingly endless number of sites already doing this.

Yes, and we believe most of them suck horribly, eg, Experts-Exchange.

What are you going to give answers to make them invest the time on your site? I don’t think “hire me” reputation on your website only is going to cut it; that will only matter if your site is already the biggest player.

I appreciate the feedback. I can’t reveal who the other player is at this point, but I would estimate their audience is 4-5 times larger than mine. My audience is around ~80,000 RSS subscribers, plus around 50,000 daily web visitors. None of this is a secret; it’s all verifiable from audit / metric / stat links on the main page of my blog.

I agree that one of the biggest challenges is getting an audience-- that’s why most brain-damaged “job network” sites are destined to fail. They have to buy eyeballs, which means they’re in a breakeven scenario before they even start. Every month there’s some new job network begging me, in saddest poor-doggie style, to put their job ads on my site.

but thats 8 groupings of 7 …

Threaded forums suck.

Yeah, that’s a really interesting subject to speculate on. I’d like to note though that qt3 isn’t universally appealing. I’ve linked to qt3 tons of times, and I have to confess that my personal blog has become more of a “as seen today on qt3” thing than I’m comfortable with, but even of the people that have liked the stuff I’d linked to, I don’t think that a large proportion of them actually stay. To us qt3 has a high signal to noise ratio, but to other demographics, it has a low excitement to word count ratio.

Reading your blog is a lot different from bothering to answer questions on a linked site.

deccan, people can’t actually post on qt3 without getting through the vetting process, so maybe that’s part of why they don’t join the community. We are also pretty hostile to new members sometimes. But I’m curious about what you mean by low excitement to words. Is it that we don’t have enough pics? Because I think the writing and such is pretty good on this forum. In fact, the quality of posts is MUCH better than pretty much every other forum I’ve ever visited. There are also plenty of interesting things said here, IMO. Maybe it’s just a taste difference, but I’m curious about where you get the impression that the people aren’t impressed by this forum. Is that what they’ve told you? Have they ever explained why?

Oh, and Bill…you SUCK!!! I thought I could share my weakness with my friends (read: online strangers who may or may not be real). Now I am sadness :(