And when I say “Forum”, I don’t mean Facebook, Twitter or any other social networking site where people stick to their own little walls or flock to hashtags; I mean an actual discussion forum with many topics of interest and people share meaningful views and feedback on said interest. I mean the predecessor to the blog where there were categories for discussion and people posted in coherent sentences and in greater than 140 characters. I mean where you actually got to read an entire category, which means you got to see input from friends, acquaintances and enemies alike.
The bigger your world is, the smaller you feel
Are you part of a community of millions? Then, you know how a single plankton feels. It’s nice to think that your comments will be seen by millions of people, but the reality is that the larger your community, the less of a change there is that any significant number of people will see anything you post unless a moderator or admin sticks it to the front page. Much like how the Freshly Pressed front page works on WordPress.com.
What about the good old days of the internet before spam and porn (the latter is probably debatable for some) when people just posted to discuss topics of interest and share knowledge?
I thought about what it would take to really make a discussion forum usable, compatible with a large community and still feel small and cozy (this might be owing to my liking of small homes). The wheels started turning after I read how a WordPress blog can work nicely as a DIY Case Management System. It’s a brilliant, yet simple, solution to a seemingly complex problem.
First, let’s talk about what we can leave out of a forum.
Categories are dead; Tags are the future
Let’s face it, we don’t just stick to one or two topics of interest these days so it makes sense to be able to browse many at the same time. WordPress already does this and by moving away from categories and into tags, users can have the option of adding multiple tags to their posting options rather than be tied down to one category, theyreby circumventing arbritary limitations on appropriateness (“Your post doesn’t belong here!”). If a topic belongs to none of the existing tags, add your own!
Tags free the user to focus more on what they’re writing rather than where it belongs so the categorization can come from the body of the topic itself. Tags, after all, are a cross-sample of the content.
Groups are not Roles
And promoted or otherwise ostensible roles are silly in most online communities.
This might seem counterintuitive, but think about it: A group may have a set of actions they can perform which means certain groups have certain roles, but groups are not roles themselves. Groups within the same community may also be a source of contention as some people who have been around longer and accumulated more experience may leverage said credit to grow weeds of narcissism. So groups can be a bad thing if that leads to an unwarranted sense self-importance.
Ranks are usually only appropriate when there needs to be a clear reason as to why an admin or moderator needs to show that they’re an admin or mod other than to satiate egos. Breaking down the high walls between staff or authority and ordinary users is a key step in making a community feel like one.
Quicker & Easier to use = More usage
Many moons ago, Joel Spolsky wrote a wonderful treatise on Building Online Communities and while the post is old, the tennets still hold true.
One of the key issues he brings up is the number of steps required in order to post and navigate on a conventional forum. On many of the online communities, the registration, login, password reset and the actual content itself are on disparate locations and most require registration driving away potential contributors. So the trick is to combine most of it into one location without making the place look crowded and have the least number of steps necessary to start posting.
While Joel makes a point on registrations being unnecessary for the most part, if the process is made easy enough, and if it introduces features such as being able to subscribe to many tags at once, registration is a handy way of managing the community. There is, of course, little reason to prevent anonymous posting altogether since every community needs active moderation these days anyway and the majority of mischief can be handled via filters.
Putting it all together
Early this morning, I set about sketching up what would be my ideal discussion forum.
I elected to recycle the HTML5 version of my Simply theme rather than writing something from scratch in order to save time and not reinvent the wheel (and because I’m lazy).
The front page should have all the basics including the latest topics, a tag cloud, a form to add a new topic, a login and registration form. Naturally piling all this onto one page and showing them all at once is confusing, so I elected to use jQuery UI Tabs to organize things. Other than an individual topic view page and a “Home” or “My Account” page, which will serve to aggregate subscribe tags and manage the user profile and subscriptions, 90% of what a forum does can be described in these sketches.
The goal is to be more functional than Twitter while having the same ease of use and less bloated and restrictive than the forums at SomethingAwful.com while having the same capacity to accomodate a large userbase and varied interests.
The front page:
Add new topic
And that does it for what I want in a forum. There’s ample room for improvement for sure, but I think this “less is more” approach can help people bring the focus back to the discussion and not about the software itself. Also, the less there is to show, the less there is to fail.
Also note, there are no membership lists. Members will come into the spotlight as they’re posted and as long as they’re active in their tags of choice, they will be noticed and users can browse as many topics that are recently posted or as many topics on each tag(s) they want. No need for something like “Freshly Pressed” or “Readomattic” to get noticed no matter how many posts are made every minute.
I may actually turn this mockup into a working project and add features like author subscriptions, like blog subscriptions we have here, and write it up possibly ASP.Net and MVC when I have the time, but for now, the images will have to do.