The inimitable Aussie Lee Borkman has created a forum application ala Joel0nSoftware (which, by the way, is an absolute must-read – great stuff). It’s written in ColdFusion, in Fusebox 4 (although due to hosting constraints, a temporary Fusebox 3 version is up).
Lee’s forum is a great implementation of Joel’s forum principles, which are part of Joel’s philosophy on how online communities behave. While some of his ideas make sense for new communities, I don’t particularly agree with all of them, particularly for established communities. As a regular user of forums, I kind of think that I’m qualified to comment too. Lee has summarized the most important ones as:
- No threading
- Conversations are sorted by the date they were CREATED, not by the date they were last updated
- Direct quoting is discouraged
- Controls appear at the bottom the conversation, to encourage the user to actually look at the history of the discussion
- No facility to receive email alerts when a particular conversation is updated
- No registration
- Unobtrusive (sneaky) “deletion” by the moderator of undesirable conversations or comments.
Now, no threading is fine – I agree with Joel’s assertion that Usenet is atrocious in that respect. I love Usenet, don’t get me wrong, but a few months ago I had to seriously cut back on things that were making me less productive and unfortunately Usenet got the chop. Most of what goes on is just whining and arguments about semantics anyway.
I absolutely love the sneaky deletion of posts – in Joel’s forums the posts are invisible to everyone except the original poster, so they think that no one is interested rather than getting all up in arms about being censored. I can think of a few people I would like to apply that to.
Direct quoting is one issue where I’m not 100% sure of my stance. Used selectively, I think it can be useful and time-saving. But I can see the negative side too.
To explain what I don’t like about the other principles listed, I’m going to use the Port 80 forums as an example. Port 80 is the local Perth web industry association, and the forums have been going for nearly 18 months. I’m a regular contributor, and while I don’t have any real stats, there’s definitely quite a large group of people (maybe as many as 15 or 20?) who read daily and post regularly, for the most part. The interaction is techie-based but largely social. Originally the forum was using Ikonboard, but changed recently to the ubiquitous phpBB.
Registration is important, I think, to develop rich online personalities. You get more of a feeling for what a “person” is like by their posting icon, their signature, their number of posts. It’s part of the fun. The longer the forum has been established, the more important this is. When my post count eclipsed the forum originator’s, he bought me a beer at the next physical meeting (he subsequently caught up and passed me again). When some crazy Dane eclipsed my post count, despite not joining the community until much later, that was a significant and remarked upon event too. It all adds to the character of the forum.
Having the posts listed in the order they were created and the controls at the bottom, to force people to read everything, would discourage participation in well-established communities, I think. I know that I can go to the Port 80 forums in my lunchbreak or while I’m waiting for something, check for new posts, and be my way. If I knew that process was going to take serious concentration or considerable time, I’d be less likely to do it so often.
Same with email notifications. Usually, I’ll only use this if I’m very closely following a thread and want to know the instant it is updated, or if I’ve posted a question and I really want to know about any answers, without needing to check back every five minutes (which is no good for the host’s traffic costs, either – a definite concern in Australia, where we have “boundless plains” but pricey bandwidth). Take away email notification and people might forget to come back and read more. When the Fusebox forums RSS feeds died a while back, it was quite some time before I even realised that I hadn’t been there for a while. Luckily, now they’re back.
So while Joel Spolsky’s forum app might work for the applications he’s using it for, I wouldn’t want to participate in one of his myself. I can imagine it would work for a software support forum… but not for an active community, where time-saving features are what help people take time out of their daily schedules to participate, where regulars will read every post anyway, and where the sense of community – which is enhanced by registration – is what attracts new users and encourages them to stick around.
But then again, what do I know…