April 19, 2013, 8:00 AM —
I don’t know what it is, but people love them some forums. I’ve struggled with this phenomenon for my entire internet life and to this day I regularly debate the need for them on new projects, or the need for them at all for that matter. Recently however, a new forum system has emerged that threatens to change my view on the subject.
My problem with forums
Forums have never seemed right to me. When you navigate to a topic you’re taken to the first/oldest post in the thread, which may be several years old and hundreds of pages behind the current conversation. This generally leads me to do the next logical thing, which is to search for what I’m looking for inside the forum. In most cases, this requires you to actually join the forum, confirm your account, etc. which I have no interest in doing.
Alternatively, I might jump to the most recent post in hopes of finding something useful only to be mired in a dialog referencing the entire history of the thread. This leaves me with two options if I seek help on the topic, I can read the thread in its entirety, or I can ask a question. If there are around 10 pages in the thread I’m inclined to try and help myself by reading each post, but when there are dozens or hundreds of pages, I might create a new post asking my question. If you’ve used a forum like this I don’t have to tell you what happens with the latter option, you’re scolded by some super forum user and told to read the previous 900 pages. In fact, if I’m not taken directly to the page needed to help me via a Google search, the chances that I’ll find what I’m looking for are essentially zero.
Ok so I’m generalizing here, but that really sums up my view on forums. Aside from GIF’s and Android ROM’s, I have no love for forums.
Discourse - A step forward
Discourse is a new type of forum that has recently emerged. It is an open source project, built in Ruby, spearheaded by Jeff Atwood (Coding Horror, Stack Exchange), that aims to reboot forum software and provide a desirable platform for the next decade of forums.
At its most basic level, Discourse is attempting to focus on the conversation more than anything else. Gone are the hundreds of pages per topic, they’ve been replaced by infinite scrolling which allows you to continue reading a topic uninterrupted. Want to join the conversation? Log in using one of many social accounts (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, GitHub, Persona) or create a traditional account for that site. By using a social account you can easily join other communities without having to create a new account each time.
It’s true that Discourse holds true to the core forum belief that you should start at the beginning of the conversation and orders its posts by date ascending, but it provides several mechanisms to make this less painful and enhance the conversation, such as automatically remembering what posts you’ve viewed as you view them.
The improvements don’t end there, some awesome features include:
Twitter style @notifications. When you’re mentioned you’ll automatically be notified.
Flat post style (sequential) but replies are attached to the original post that you can expand to gain additional context.
Dynamic replies allow you to continue to read and scroll as you compose a new post or a reply. This allows you to improve your contribution and you read.
Automatic link expansion will pull in a paragraph of text from certain sites instead of just adding the link in order to make the link more useful.
Real time updates will trigger a message allowing you to load any new posts while you continue to read without having to refresh the page, similar to twitter.
Drag and drop or copy/paste images into your post to easily add your most important GIF’s and meme’s.
The world’s first useful forum search function.
Built for mobile from the beginning, no app required.
But don't take my word for it, give it a try for yourself in their sandbox.
A change of heart
Discourse is still a forum, but I’m considering (for the first time in forum history) implementing it to bolster a web community. It’s not that I was never able to understand the value of a forum as a tool for community interaction, it’s more that every implementation of it to date has just felt broken to me.
With the modern features and conveniences provided by Discourse coupled with Jeff Atwood’s track record, I’m actually excited about the prospect of a forum.