What is next for message board software?

Thu, Feb 24, 2011 07:00 AM
When I was hired at dealnews.com in 1998, my primary focus was to get our message board (Phorum) up to speed. I had written the first version as a side project for the site. Message boards were a lot simpler back then. Matt's WWWBoard was the gold standard of the time. And really, the functionality has been only evolutionary since. We added attachments to Phorum in 2003 or something. That was a major new feature. In Phorum 5 we added a module system that was awesome. But, that was just about the admin and not the user. From the user's perspective, message boards have not changed much since 1997. I saw this tweet from Amy Hoy and it got me to thinking about how message boards work. Here is the typical user experience:
  1. Go to the message board
  2. See a list of categories
  3. Drill down to the category they want to read
  4. Scroll through a list of messages that are in reverse cronological order by original post date or most recent post date
  5. Click a message and read it.
  6. Go to #3, repeat
Every message board software package pretty much works like that and has for over 10 years. And it kind of sucks. What a user would probably rather experience is:
  1. Go to the message board
  2. The most interesting things (to this user) are listed right there on the page. No drill down needed.
  3. Click one and read it.
  4. Goto #2, repeat.
Sounds easy? That #2 is easy to type but very hard to accomplish. I think it is conceivably doable if you are running a site that has all the data. Stackoverflow comes close. When you land on the site, they default the page to the "interesting" posts. However, they are not always interesting to me. They are making general assumptions about their audience. For example, right now, the first one is tagged "delphi". I could care less about that language and any posts about it. Its a good try, but misses by oh so far. This is not a Stackoverflow hate post. They are doing a good job. So, what do I do when I land there? I ignore the front page and click Tags (#2 in the first list), then pick a tag I want to read about (#3 in the first list). Low and behold the page I get is "newest". So, I end up doing exactly what is in the first list I mentioned. They do offer other sort options. But, they chose newest as the default. And from years of watching user behavior, 80% - 90% of people go with the good ol' default. This kind of brings me to another point though about the types of message boards there are.

Stackoverflow is a classic example of a help message board. People come there and ask a question. Other people come along and answer the question. Then more people come along and vote on whether the answers (and questions) are any good. This is one really nice feature that I think will have to become a core feature in any message board of the future. The signal to noise ratio can get so out of whack, you need human input to help decide what is good and what is noise. I think the core of the application has to rely on that if we are ever going to achieve the desired experience.

The second type of message board is a conversational system. It is almost like a delayed chat room. People come to a message board and post about their cat or asking who watched a TV show, that kind of thing. This has a completely different dynamic to it than the help message board. You can't really vote if a post is good or bad. The obvious exception being spam would of course want to be recognized and dealt with.

So, how do you know what content is desirable for the user that is entering the site right now? This concept has already been laid out for us: the social graph. You have to give users a way to associate with other users. If Bob really likes Tom's posts, he is probably more interested to read Tom's post from 30 minutes ago than some new guy that just joined the site and posted 1 minute ago. The challenge here is getting people to interconnect...but not too much. Everyone has that aunt on Facebook that follows you, your roommate and anybody else she can. She would follow your dog if he had a Facebook account. So, those people would still get a crappy experience if the whole system relied on the social graph. The other side is the people that will never "follow", "like" or whatever you call it another person. Their experience would lack as well. One key ingredient here is that you need to own this data. You can't just throw like buttons and Facebook connect on your message board and think you can leverage that data. That data is for Facebook, not you. I think the help message boards could benefit from the social graph as well.

Another aspect of what is most important to a user is discussions they are involved in. That could mean ones they started, ones they have replied to or simply ones they have read. Which of those aspects are more important than the others? Clearly if you started a discussion and someone has replied, that is going to interest you. If you posted a reply, you may be done with the topic or you may be waiting on a response. It would take some serious natural language algorithms to decide which is the case. For things you have read, I think you have to consider how many times the user has read the discussion. If every time it is updated they read it, they probably will want to read it again the next time it is updated. If they have only read it once, maybe they are not as interested.

The last aspect of message boards is grouping things. This is the part I actually struggle with the most. The easy first answer is tagging. Don't force the user down a single trail, let them tag posts instead of only posting them in one neat contained area. That gets you half way there. Let's use Stackoverflow (I really do like the site) as an example again. The first thing I do is go to Tags and click on PHP. I like helping people with PHP problems. So,  is that really any different from categorization? Sure, there could be someone out there that really likes helping with Javascript. And if the same post was tagged with both tags then their coverage of potential help is larger. But, some of the time those tags are wrong when they tag it with more than one tag. The problem they need help with is either PHP or Javascript, most likely not both. They just don't know what they are doing. For example, there is this post on Stackoverflow. The user tagged it PHP and database-design. There is no PHP in the question. I am guessing he is using PHP for the app. But, it really never comes up and he is only talking about database design. So, who did the PHP tag help there? I don't think it helped him. And it only wasted my time. Having written all that, a free-for-all approach where there is no filtering sucks too. ARGH! It just all sucks. That brings us back to what Amy said in a way. Perhaps moderated tagging is an answer. I have not seen a way on Stackoverflow to untag a post. That would let people correct others. I am gonna write that down. If you work at Stackoverflow and are reading this, you can use that idea. Just put a comment in the code about how brilliant I am or something that aliens will find one day.

So, I am done. I know exactly what to do right? I just have to make code that does everything I put in the previous paragraphs. Man I wish it were that easy. When you want to write a distributed application to do it, the task is even more daunting. If I controlled the data and the servers and the code, I could do crazy things that would make great conference talks. But, it kind of falls apart when I want to give this code to a 60 year old retired guy that is starting a hobby site for watching humming birds on a crappy GoDaddy account. Yeah, he is not installing Sphinx or HandlerSocket or Gearman. Those are all things I would want to use to solve this problem in a scalable fashion. At that point you have two choices. Aim for the small time or the big time. If you aim for the small time, you may get lots of installs, but, you will be hamstrung. If you aim for the big time, you may be the only guy that ever uses the code. That is a tough decision.

What have I missed? I know I missed something. Are there other types of message boards? I can definitely see some sub-types. Perhaps a board where ideas instead of help messages are posted. Or maybe the conversations are more show off based as in a user posting pictures or videos for comment. Is there already something out there doing this and I have just missed it? Let me know what I have missed please.
11 comments
Gravatar for Nicky De Maeyer

Nicky De Maeyer Says:

retagging and editing other people's posts is actually possible on stackoverflow. But you can only do it if you have enough rep...
Other then that, there's some interesting ideas in here, different view on thing then my own, which is always pleasant!

Gravatar for Brian Moon

Brian Moon Says:

Not sure I see your point @tim.

Gravatar for Jared

Jared Says:

MediaWiki's LiquidThreads extension, I believe, allows anyone to edit posts. Together with keeping an edit history for them.

Currently being reengineered http://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/Extension:LiquidThreads/WMF_project_information



Gravatar for Brian Moon

Brian Moon Says:

@jared, there was nothing there about editing posts. It was about reassigning a discussion to the correct topics. Editing posts is easy. Keeping an edit history is easy. Phorum has done that for years. We just only let admins edit anyone's post. But, we can optionally keep a full edit history that anyone can see.

Gravatar for Jared

Jared Says:

Yes, its just that mediawiki embeds the tags (categories in MW terminology) into the main text, using [[Category:...]] syntax.

The only real advantage I can see from tagging is being able to post into two (or more) sets of readers with a single post.

Gravatar for Loïc d'Anterroches

Loïc d'Anterroches Says:

Thank you Brian, I especially like the conclusion. I am right now rewriting an application to go from the standard LAMP stack to PHP + Mongrel2. I know I will lose people on the way, but my goal is to get a core of 10 fanatically devoted to the idea followers. This is a bet, of course.

By the way, your post reminded me that back in 2000, I did quite a lot of Phorum installations... the time is flying. Thanks a lot!

Gravatar for Michael White

Michael White Says:

I like the idea of moderated tags but I think the best solution for that is already implemented on the posts themselves. When you grade a question or comment on stack overflow you are telling them how "good" it is. In a similar way, you could allow users to grade the tags themselves. If a tag has a lot of "minuses" it gets less weight in the search. If a tag has a lot of "pluses" it gets more weight.

Also, the content of the question and the comments could be used to affect this weight, especially for tags with no user grades yet. In this case, the comments with positive user feedback would be used to look for tag words/phrases/related topics and then those would be used to set the grade on the tags assigned to the post.

Gravatar for tim

tim Says:

My point was there is 3000+ suggestions/comments/feature requests related to tagging on stackoverflow. If your idea is great, you should share it via the meta subdomain, or up-vote/comment on a similar suggestion there.

Gravatar for Brian Moon

Brian Moon Says:

Ah, I see tim. This post was not about making StackOverflow better. It was about the future of message board software as an installed product.

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