Forums are crap. Can we get some help?

Mon, Oct 12, 2009 10:01 AM
Amy Hoy has written a blog post about why forums are crap. And she is right. Forum software does not always do a good job of helping people communicate. I have worked with Amy. She did a great analysis of dealnews.com that led to our new design. So, she is not to be ignored.

However, as a software developer (Phorum), I see a lot of problems and no answers.  And it is not all on the software.  Web site owners use forums to solve problems that they really, really suck at.  Ideally, every web site would be very unique for their audience.  They would use a custom solution that fits a number of patterns that best solves their problem.  However, most web site owners don't want to take the time to do such things.  They want a one stop, drop in solution. See the monolith that is vBulletin, scary.

And what if a forum is the best solution? Well, software developers, in general, are not good designers. They don't think like normal people. And they don't see their applications as a whole, but as pieces that do jobs. The forum software market has been run by software developers for over 10 years. Most of them all are still copies of what UBB was 13 years ago. And software (like Phorum) that has tried to be different is shunned by the online communities of the world because they don't work/look/feel like every other forum software on the planet.

So, as software developers, what are we to do? We want to make great software. We want to help our users help their users. But, what we have been doing for 10+ years has only been adequate. As the leader of an open source forum software project, I am open to any and all ideas.
13 comments
Gravatar for Cesar

Cesar Says:

We must be able to change our paradigms. A nice concept is http://stackoverflow.com/ wich integrates the basic "forum" tools with colaboration. Forums must evolve into an application that can create knowladge by the participation of the community members.

Gravatar for Brian Moon

Brian Moon Says:

I showed stackoverflow to my wife. She was horribly confused and had no clue what all that was. It looks like a geek tool. Geeks will figure out how to use anything.

Gravatar for Giuseppe Maxia

Giuseppe Maxia Says:

I am also a fan of stackoverflow. IMO, anyone who has used a forum will immediately get what stackoverflow is about: an endless forum that doesn't need to be split into many.
Power users will immediately figure out the usefulness of tags, as users of Digg can tell you. The voting system, which separates the best answers from the clueless posts, is also easy to grasp, when you are interested in the topic.
Of course, if none of the topics are of interest to you (stackoverflow is a site for programmers) then you mightn't be impressed.
I urge you to consider stackoverflow model as a source of inspiration for the evolution of forums. That's the right direction.

Cheers

Giuseppe

Gravatar for Bill Karwin

Bill Karwin Says:

StackOverflow and its siblings SuperUser, ServerFault, and DocType, have nice UI, but it's hard for someone new to get started because their UI doesn't include any help, or tour, or user doc at all. It's the quintessential geek site.

There's a FAQ page but this doesn't substitute for doc on how to use the site.

Gravatar for Mark Atwood

Mark Atwood Says:

Use StackOverflow for your extremely advanced users, and use GetSatisfaction for customer support.

All forums suck, mainly because you are trying to reinvent IMAP and NNTP, poorly, over the web, all in the name of the faulty pursuit of "Ideally, every web site would be very unique for their audience".

Gravatar for Brian Moon

Brian Moon Says:

I am not talking about my users. I am talking about the general use forums out there. Mom's groups, weight loss support, model train clubs, gaming guilds, etc. Everything can't be solved by a hosted service. Web site owners are slowly losing ownership of their users and their data.

Gravatar for Amy

Amy Says:

Hey Brian, glad you agree :)

The main reason I don't try to crusade and help people in open source is that they don't want my input. I've tried several different approaches -- to be sure I wasn't just coming on too strong -- but while everyone agrees in theory that they want a better user experience, they actually reject it when one is proposed. Or they reject me. Same difference.

I think it's sad that the "best alternative" that comes to mind for people is StackOverflow. Not only did your wife demonstrate the core problem -- wtf is it for anyway? -- but it's not a forum. If you treat it as a forum, it has all the exact same problems I outlined. Plus some new ones.

I have been working on ideas for how to address the problems I raised with my post. But my real goal is to encourage people to look beyond the ends of their noses and solve the problems themselves, in a way that makes sense to them. Different people have different experiences of what's *wrong* with forums, for example. I'm not all-knowing and all-seeing. I also don't want to be the caped crusader who swoops in and lectures people on what to do.

Unfortunately, all the other commentors on that post of mine are so stuck with the idea of forums as they are, that their thinking is totally muddled. They can't imagine things being different. "A forum is just a place for chat." "If you change it, you get Twitter." SIGH!

I'll be happy to show you what I'm working on, though, and any of the concepts you like, feel free to use for Phorum.

Gravatar for Giuseppe Maxia

Giuseppe Maxia Says:

In my previous comment, I have to admit, I was a bit narrow-minded.
I usually think of forums as a place where you post a problem and someone gives you an answer. This is why StackOverflow seems to fot so nicely in my idea of forum. I don't usually associate forums with the idea of simply exchanging ideas, or commenting on something.
In my (possibly limited) experience, forums are used to ask for help, mailing lists for discussions, while blog comments fit in between.
I realize that the reality is more complex than that. Forums are used for mostly anything, not only to ask for help, and the stackoverflow paradigm doesn't apply beyond the solve-my-problem scenario. Mailing lists are even older than forums, and they have the obvious limitations of email.
I see that email is evolving into something more flexible, richer, and more friendly (http://wave.google.com) . That new technology is worth exploring to enrich the forums towards a better user experience.

Giuseppe (trying harder to listen)

Gravatar for Brian Moon

Brian Moon Says:

Having worked with Amy, I happily await any input she has.

Gravatar for James

James Says:

This goes way beyond forums. Forums are purely a collection of discussions. Information that may be pertinent to others in the future is more suited to a content management system (none of which I have seen so far have been particularly good).

It is often claimed that politicians/administrators make odd (or "crap") choices. However, a good number of these will actually have decent rational reasons behind them (believe it or not, and no I am not a politician or administrator). The problem is most of the general public will never find out why that road beside the children's playground got built, because the recording of the decision and reasons behind it, while usually of public record, are hard to find and often more of an effort to understand due to legalese. The point is, recording information is hard when you go beyond a MS Word document.

Wikipedia is successful due to a low bar to entry and openness, nothing more. However it's information is not particularly structured, merely linked and searchable.

At this point I personally believe discussions and information ought to be considered different things. The former suited to forums, the latter to content management systems. Well, until someone comes up with a better idea anyway...

Gravatar for PaulGeraghty

PaulGeraghty Says:

Interesting discussion, emantating from a great premise, that Forums are Crap.

Interleaves nicely with my belief that Blogs are Crap too, echoing a little of this guys idea http://dsandler.org/wp/archives/2009/02/26/twitter-comments

And what @James says above reminds me very much of the path I seem to be on which is trying to discover WHY we find these systems less than rewarding.

If you imagine that Blogs, wikis and forums are nothing but different ways of "organising and storing content" then perhaps you might agree that they are nothing but front ends (paradigms) to a CMS.

If you recognise that the value we place on all of these paradigms is not the storage or retrieval of the content but ;

The value of the conversation (who said what? whose advice should I trust? what was the question again?)
The currency of the advice (how long ago did they say it, is it still true?)
Where is the information I actually want

Then you start to realise that what we want from these paradigms is "Knowledge" and the more I read about that, the more I find what a flittering thing knowledge is.

(if you want to appreciate what I mean, the visit this page http://www.bcs-kidmm.org/mashup2008/index.html and read the pdf "Introductory Paper - Literary Review" below.)

http://www.bcs-kidmm.org/mashup2008/docs/MOKC_LitReview_CT.pdf

So I cannot say exactly what should/could replace or enhance Blogs or forums (or wikis for that matter) but reading that review might make something rattle round your brain, and who knows, maybe something useful will drop out.

I cannot help thinking that the answer lies in the marriage of meta data and the social web, or put another way web3.0 and web2.0

Hope it helps someone.

Paul

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