Can we build better forum software?

As one of the oldest and most stable(ish) forum communities on the web, I’d like to solicit the feedback of the Straight Dope forum regulars.

(if you’re curious, here’s what this forum looked like in the year 2000! Picture.)

I think most forum software (read: phpBB and vBulletin) sucks, and is stuck in a late-90s design rut. To the extent that we have amazing ten (!) year old forum communities like the one at Straight Dope it is in spite of the forum software, which is uniformly terrible and has evolved hardly at all in the last decade.

Almost all the social forum problems I see are software problems. By that I mean the software is doing almost nothing to encourage users to follow the social norms in outlined in the faq. Your community has grown up, but the software hasn’t.

So … what if we built a better forum mousetrap? Lest you think I’m full of shit, and admittedly I frequently am, I’ve done this before with Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange. I was a co-founder and not only wrote much of the Stack Exchange engine software but held the vision for what we were doing, and communicated that that to the broader community and the world. I’m no longer a part of that by choice, but we left a lot of stuff on the table by explicitly adopting the no-nonsense, high signal low noise Q&A format. I think I want to circle back around to pure forums and leave Q&A behind.

So let’s brainstorm a bit: what should next-gen forum software look like? Let’s start with some shared research and due diligence on what’s already out there, first.
[li]What forum software do you think currently works best – and why? Provide specific URLs with some rationale behind your choice.[/li][li]What are the essential features of forum software? What do you use every day?[/ul][/li]Here are a few ideas I had to get us started:

a) of course we’d adapt, in some form, the general reputation system (probably per-subforum), badges, and governance (meta) concepts behind Stack Overflow/Exchange. AKA “The Gamification”

b) What if certain trusted users – those that consistently produced quality content and were (somewhat) sane – could be democratically voted through a software election process into the position of mini-moderators? Perhaps even on a subforum basis? It’s absolutely crazy to me that forum software doesn’t ship with a built in immune system that lets the community protect itself from trolls and other bad actors.

c) There has to be some kind of voting (or favoriting/starring) system for posts, even though it’s tricky because you could be voting “up” on a discussion post for dozens of wildly different reasons. Still, I think it’d be nice to come into these, uh, thousand plus page threads and not have to read 100+ PAGES to find the 20 or so excellent posts absolutely buried in there. Seriously, who reads pages 1 through 2,000 of these threads? What’s the point? Surely there’s a way to escalate or highlight the excellent posts win a thread ithout wading through so much noise – and also preserving the rest of the thread in situ for posterity.

d) this would be more of an explicitly open-source, we’re-not-about-the-money thing from the beginning, aping the WordPress model. I want the whole web to benefit from better forum software, FOR FREE. But written in node.js so it’ll be riding the leading edge of Atwood’s Law and not the hell on earth that is PHP.

I have no illusions that better software will make every community magically work. That’s crazy. However, I do believe very strongly that
[li]most of today’s forum software has evolved hardly at all from its late 90’s origins[/li][li]the hard-earned lessons of these thriving 10 year old plus forum communities should be baked into forum software itself, as much as we can[/li][li]improved forum software design would give new communities a better chance at actually succeeding and surviving[/ul][/li]Heck, we launched Stack Exchange sites all the time that failed (gadgets, atheism, ai, howthingswork…), and that’s after they went through the (typically) 6 month extensive vetting process at Area 51 plus a private beta period.

Believe me, I know that failure is always an option. I love failure, that’s why I do it so much. I just wish it wasn’t so common, that’s all. And I wish we were learning from these 10+ year old forum communities and baking as much of that shared knowledge and experience into the “cake recipe” of the forum software so new communities can create… y’know, all new, all singing, all dancing new mistakes instead of repeating the same classic community mistakes over and over.

I can only predict that this will not meet your desired effect. The SDMB as a group is extremely averse to change, as you can see every single time something very basic like introducing avatars is discussed. Many users see the very basic design as a feature, not a bug.

Also, I don’t really see the problem with the way things are now. We have moderators to keep out the spammers and to ban trolls, and this isn’t Yahoo! Answers, where having the “best” answer win makes sense. Maybe in GQ, but even there answers reference each other, and to read them out of sequence really screws up the meaning of most of it. Not to mention debates or other discussions, where we are all responding to each other all the time. There are very, very few 100+ pages threads, and they are usually not meant to be read front to back, but they’re rather general discussion threads, like the WoW one.

Not to put down your professional web design skills, but your Stack Overflow example doesn’t really help your case. At first glance, I get about 1/4 of the threads on the screen as compared to the SDMB design, while providing no additional functionality, apart from the tags which we don’t need since, as I pointed out, we’re not Yahoo! Answers.

I don’t mean to be negative, but you’ll find this board is very, very much like a huge ship, and any major change would require almost unanimous support, which you’re very unlikely to get.

Welcome to the SDMB, codinghorror. I frequently encounter your blog on StumbleUpon and often find it insightful. Nice to have you on board.

Full stop. I want to mirror what Pitchmeister said. This board is more resistant to technological change than my dead grandmother. The chances of implementing a crowd-sourced SDMB v3.0 is pretty much zero. Neither the admins nor the general audience gives a damn, so mentally prepare yourself before you decide to devote any energy or braintime to the idea. It’s sad, but that’s the way it seems so far. Maybe once the Old Guard starts to die off things can change… SDMB’s been around for more than a decade, so it can’t be that much longer, right? :wink:

But if you want to try it any way, I think vBulletin is actually just fine for what it does and in fact preferable to models like StackOverflow or Slashdot. Ratings-based models seem to encourage point-seeking behavior, which is correlated with but not necessarily causal to post quality.

Simply put, ratings put people’s egos front and center and distract them from organic discussion. Rating systems are necessary to artificially increase the SNR of spammy groups (which is what 99% of the Internet is) but for whatever reason, the SDMB already has very high post quality, either in spite of because of a lack of meta-reputation. If you’re known, it’s because you’re known by your post quality as determined by each reader instead of your ability to “please the crowd”.

To be clear, I think a reputation system would be a detriment to this board.

The changes I WOULD like to see:

  • AJAX previews
  • A more reliable subscription notification system (meaning it’s not read until you actually read it, not whatever the current method is).
  • Zombie Alerts
  • A better search engine, preferably with AJAX auto-complete
  • Open-sourcing would be nice but not necessary. Back when I played with forums, vBulletin far outshined the open-source offerings. Sometimes you do get what you pay for.
  • A way to “star” threads or label them (visible to the user only), a la Gmail, for easier retrieval later on
  • An longer edit window with pop-up edit history on hover. (You have, say, 30 minutes instead of 5 to edit. When you mouse over the edit timestamp, a wiki-style diff is shown.)
  • Vanity/reply tracking (as opposed to simple subscriptions). It would be nice to know when someone has replied to/quoted one of your own posts, instead of just posting another post in that 15-page thread you participated in.
  • (Maybe this is where a reputation system would be interesting) A separate “Best of the SDMB” section, untied from the board proper, where people can nominate and vote for the best threads and/or posts (a la Bash or SeenOnSlash).

I’d like to see WierdAaron’s cool Greasemonkey scripts hardcoded (If he was still around maybe he would’ve updated them, because some features don’t work in the latest Firefox versions).

And I’ve always been pro-avatar.

Apart from that, I’m pretty happy with the status quo.

Another messageboard I frequent uses Xenforo and that seems to be doing rather well, but the software’s only up to v1.1, so it’s an immature platform and I’m happy with letting others find all the problems

Jeff, nice to see you on the straightdope.
Interesting question, in general (for all forums, not just the straightdope, per se).
b) and c) in your original post sound a lot like how and to a lesser extent reddit work - super users get points and spam content gets pointed down, and since the default displays hide negative points posts, it might as well not exist. And indeed on slashdot once there are enough posts only the highly voted posts, the “quality” posts show. I find that sometimes that works very well, and sometimes very poorly - it depends whether the discussion that led up to that point is relevant to the “quality” post.
I do wonder if the “gamification” on a forum should be implicit or explicit, though. On stackoverflow and stackexchange sites its more clear what criteria a “good” vs a “bad” post has- since most of the sites you are trying to solve a problem, a “good” post helps solve the problem while a “bad” post adds little. On a forum though, explicitly showing points, ranks, etc on the posts/threads themselves might lead to “gaming the system” posts. IE posts that are popular with the board but not really “quality” - for example a straightdope post might be “Obama is the best” type posts, since this board is majority democrat.

Which is to say, is it possible to solve the issue somewhat by making the pointing “implicit” - everybody gets to vote, but nobody sees the votes - votes you get make your votes count more, and “quality” posts are determined by going over some hidden threshold that isn’t displayed.

I think some of the biggest hurdles to forums in general are simply barriers to entry - were I creating a new forum system today, I would base it transparently on facebook logins (while allowing google+, openid, etc), such that being logged into facebook means you can post instantly. Concurrently I’d develop facebook and google+ apps for the forum users to install so people’s news feed evangelizes the forum and brings the highest quality posts to the users attention.
Perhaps a bigger and harder improvement would be “individual quality” rather than “group quality” - on slashdot today, and on stackoverflow, etc, you get what the “group” considers quality- but on a forum, or something that subjective in general, what you personally want to read is more important. If you can get everybody voting on posts by making is super easy, you can cross the data such that you display to the user only posts upvoted/liked by people who also upvoted/liked posts that the user also liked, or at least the user initially clicked on/read.

Posting again to add. and have a lot of what you are talking about too - badges, voting, gaming type items. But they are still their own walled gardens - would they be better if you broke down the walls by making them based on facebook, and maybe even throwing away the concept of needed a login at all ? - Just create an account automatically when somebody posts and super cookie the user.

I missed the edit window, but the whole “no logins” thing made me thing about it a little bit more, so I made a decently long blog post about it here about a “no logins”

The Chicago Reader, owner of the SDMB is up for sale again. Even if you had the forum software you envision for this place, were willing to donate it/install it/manage it, nothing would happen. Notwithstanding the other posts in this thread so far, but the current owners will not make any changes to the furniture with the for sale sign in the front yard.

What, specifically, is wrong with the current software?
One big point to keep in mind is that the “best” software for one forum or community is not necessarily going to be the best-suited for another. To take just one example, around here the moderators run a pretty tight ship, which would render some changes unnecessary or even counterproductive here that might help to raise the level of discourse somewhere else.

I’d like to see a forum that isn’t browser-based at all.
Make the data available via the Internet, but the front end is a program that is installed on the user’s machine. Then you would have all the power and usability of a desktop program.

Newsgroups were killed by the spammers but I’ve never had a better forum experience than a newsgroup reader running locally.

[quote=“codinghorror, post:1, topic:615723”]

[li]What forum software do you think currently works best – and why? Provide specific URLs with some rationale behind your choice.[/li][li]What are the essential features of forum software? What do you use every day?[/ul][/li][/QUOTE]

Essentially this one. There are certainly some issues I have with it, mostly that the software seems to flag all posts as read for no discernible reason arbitrarily whenever it feels like it which breaks the else wise incredibly useful go to first unread post feature. But else wise it just works. It’s simple, straight forward, and provides all the essential and most of the useful forum functionality.

All that I would consider the essential features of forum software is the basic threaded conversation functionality and maybe the quote function.

As far as other features I find useful a lot of it depends on the forum community. On some forums, for example, I find avatars very useful. Mostly if it’s the norm in that forum for people to maintain the same avatar permanently or close to it, because I’m terrible at remembering names but can remember an image well enough. On forums where the culture has people changing their avatars often they become basically visual noise. The go to first unread post function I previously mentioned is perhaps my favourite forum feature as in response to:

Me. And there is no real point it’s just fun. Or interesting. Of course I’m not(usually) reading through them at once but whatever new posts there are since I last visited the forum over the weeks, months, or years that the thread lives for. The idea of being able to find the most exceptional posts in a thread is a good one but in reality threads are usually discussions and the most entertaining posts are, more often than not, only going to be that entertaining when you put them in the context of that discussion. You cant reorganize the thread based on the votes on a post because then you are reading a discussion out of order which is likely to read like gibberish. But if you don’t reorganize the thread with a vote up/down system than the votes are pointless. I’ve been to forums that have that and my mind just ends up filtering out the vote buttons & numbers as visual noise. Basically I just don’t feel gamification concepts work for discussion forums as well as they do for a QA site.

There are features I’d like to see added to forums. I’d like to have threads I’ve participated in that have new posts be automatically placed above other non-pinned threads in the list. I’d like to see my posts, and quotes of my posts be highlighted in some unique colour. I’d love to have hotkeys to go to next page in the thread list and inside a thread.

I use Stackoverflow and its other variants (Boardgames, Gaming and Roleplaying); my belief is that those are fantastic platforms for questions and answers, but not so much for a community. For instance, it makes sense that posts are in chronological order because we are mirroring a real life conversation, but only in digital form.

There are some ideas we can use from StackOverflow - tags, favourites and search. Instead of a vote system, we can have a ‘recommend thread’ for the Best of Straight Dope. I’m not sure if self policing will work, given the divide the community has on certain issues. A watch list to see what your friends have posted and getting a response when someone posted in your thread will be nice too. Some way for friends to recommend threads to be will be good too.

I went through and read your posts and other’s posts about this on the other forums I found it on (SomethingAwful, Quarter Past 3, a few others). Very interesting, and note to other Straightdope posters, clearly this isn’t about replacing our messageboard in particular.
Reading the other comments, It seems like there are “stages” in the life of a forum. On a new forum, even toddler sized barriers can cause it to fail (ie, having to create an account at all). As the forum grows, moderation becomes more important, and as the forum gets supersized dealing with spam, and completely off topic issues that might derail the board entirely.
Can that be dealt with by software ? Could the product automatically start out in something like 4chan mode, where there are no barriers to entry, and automatically push into making new posting harder ?
Could spam and even bad posters be dealt with more like email spam is ? That is, could all the “CodingHorrorForum” forum installations share data and create blackhole style lists by using the data from all sites put together. Including moderation decisions - on any active sites you have human curated, high quality data about posters by way of moderation decisions, could that apply to all sites ?
Edit to add: I’ve also found that splitting forums can sometimes cause them both to die; and initially any subforums at all can cause issues. Is there a way to create virtual subforums using tagging or something similar rather than hard dividing lines, allowing things to split naturally ?

The thing that annoys me the most on this forum is when entire subforums (and the topics therein) get marked as “read” without me having read them. I don’t know why it happens, because there are boards built on the same software coughGiraffecough that don’t have this issue. I literally become angry with rage when this happens. I’ll click any given thread, read it, then go back to the subforum… where all the topics (whether I’ve read them or not) have suddenly been marked as “read.” It happens randomly and often, and I have no idea what triggers it.

What’s the point of showing a “read/unread” designator if it doesn’t even work??

I’m going to move this to ATMB.

Agree. One of the reasons I like this place is because minority or unusual (but rationally defensible) viewpoints can be stated without being shouted down or sidelined. People who are able to articulate off the wall viewpoints are the lifeblood of this place, both intellectually and for entertainment value.

The day posts get elevated because they are popular while less popular viewpoints get buried is the day this place becomes like the mass media - and about as useless - and is the day I leave.

If you don’t want to do the work of wending your way through the discussion and paying attention to the whole of it, then go play somewhere else. This isn’t the place for you.

How about this?

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I find this idea fascinating.