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.
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.