A Rant on Forums

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Dog Cow
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A Rant on Forums

Post by Dog Cow »

I found this to be an interesting rant on web forum systems, and maybe we can keep some parts of it in mind as we work on phpBB 4.
http://it.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid= ... d=29902621

by Malohin (167866) on Wednesday October 28 2009, @05:08PM (#29902621)
This is not a new slogan. "Join the 21st century" seems somewhat orthogonal to "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I wrote this a year ago, based on much older posts and e-mail:
Why I don't like forums [livejournal.com]

========

Tracking

Tracking all the user-ids and passwords for all the various forums is a pain.

Many folks use a separate e-mail alias for each forum, so they know when one starts spamming, adding Yet Another bit of bit of data to track.

Many forums require or encourage the collection and distribution of additional data: birth date, location, Instant Messaging handles, web sites, etc. Some of this may be required to authenticate when you try to recover a password or otherwise get the attention of the administrators. It's Yet Even More data to track and update, in addition to any privacy concerns.



Display

The layout of each forum is completely different. You have to figure out or recall Yet Another scheme before you can figure out what is going on.

Most forums are laid out badly. None of them offers much real customization for end-users. Were it up to me, I'd be able to make every damned one of them look exactly the same when I visited.

Many forums use a layout or style that is pretty much illegible:
Tiny type.

Low contrast text. I'm not sure which is worse, gray on black or lime green on black. No, the worst was deep green on burgundy.

Many forums give way too much emphasis to avatars, signatures, animations, etc. It can actually be hard to find the posts sometimes.

Rigid layouts that make it impossible to resize the screen or browser and see more of the actual posts.



Delivery, Attention

Posts to a mailing list sit on my machine waiting for me. I don't have to remember to visit a forum or find some way to track multiple forums.

Posts from e-mail lists arrive asynchronously and are already delivered, filtered, and sorted by the time I want to read them. With a forum, I have to go get each post or page of posts from each forum I might choose to visit, and they have to be loaded at that time.

Posts that arrive in e-mail can be filtered or organized according to my criteria. Forum posts are organized by the admins and posters into "boards," "sub-boards," and "threads" that are frequently named oddly or just make no sense.

Many forums use some sort of "newness" filter and try to keep track of what is "new" for you -- and do so badly. The user interface to control this feature (if the feature exists, if the user interface exists) range from bad to worse.

Forums show quite a bit of extraneous information. Showing the poster's handle makes sense, but each post also shows: their avatar, the date they joined, their location, title, "status," role, post count, IM handles, login status, and so on. It shows this for EVERY poster in the thread. Then there is the information for EVERY thread: number of views, number of replies, rating, activity level, various status flags, original poster, last poster, time stamp, number of pages of posts, a page list, and so on. Then the information about EVERY post: reply number, a reply-and-quote button, reply button, report button, site tools and links. At the bottom is also the actual time it took to create the page, standards compliance, etc., etc... Where was the content again?
Following discussions in forums requires much more attention than in e-mail.

Let me state this again: Reading posts on forums is much, much more work than reading posts from mailing lists.

I am on numerous high and low volume mailing lists. The incoming posts are tagged and filtered into various mailboxes as messages are delivered. At some point during the day, I'll decide to "glance over" these mailboxes. I may have already filtered and marked certain posts with tags like "interesting" or "defer" based on the author or content and can tell in seconds if a spate of posts might be interesting to me.


Compare that to the amount of time it might take me to visit one forum. I have to:

Remember the URL of a forum,

navigate to the right page to log in (this can take longer if the web site requires or necessitates I visit some other page(s) and navigate to the forum from there),
find my credentials,

actually log-in (I wish I could say this was always easy),

remember, look up, or figure out which method this forum uses to indicate new activity,

figure out which "boards," "sub-boards," and/or "threads" I might be interested in; which might have new postings; and which postings might be by people I care to read.
load the page (and avatars, and smileys, and animations, and signatures, and sounds, and music, and Flash, and JavaScript, and page images, and ads -- every time),
and finally, find the new posts, which may or may not be indicated in some way.

No, RSS feeds and such really don't help. Most of the "feed readers" I've seen are terrible. There is little or no ability to sort or analyze the items that show up and the interfaces are primitive, at best.



Posting, Responding, Searching

Every forum has some sort of web-based editor for adding new posts or responding to existing posts. Each of them is different and 99% of them are awful. None of them allow me to use *my* writing tools.

Yes, you can edit the post in whatever editor you choose and paste it in, but that's just another layer you must work through to post a new message.

Many forums have no facility or do not allow users to "preview" posts, or make it too easy to accidentally post something that is not quite ready. The mechanisms for doing this is different on each forum.

Many forums do not allow users to edit or delete posts. The mechanisms for doing this is different on each forum, and frequently the mechanism for editing/deleting a post is different as well.
Each forum has its own version of not-really-HTML, a sub-set of allowed HTML and/or CSS, or worse--a mix of several. Which forum am I on again? Coupled with a limited or nonexistent ability to edit or delete posts, it's a nightmare.

Forum post quoting mechanisms are uniformly terrible. Many don't reliably refer to the quoted post or author in some reasonable fashion.

Discussion threading models are, again, different for each forum, poorly implemented, and frequently just not used.

The search tools on most forums (if they exist at all) are simply execrable. Again, each search mechanism is completely different. The regular expressions or "wildcards" allowed (if any) are different, work differently, or just don't work, and there is usually no way to tell if they've failed or how they've failed.



Persistence, Archive, Data Retention

E-mail comes to my inbox and I can archive or delete what I wish. Posts to a forum and the archive are strictly under the control of the administration. Anything they choose to limit access to or remove is at their whim. (For example, please note the original message this article expands on was posted to a mailing list in early 2006, and I dug it out of my archive.)

Relying on a forum as an archive of posts is unreliable.

The admins may lose the domain name, hosting, the server, etc. and a forum can disappear for any number of reasons, including the admins simply losing interest or other "real life" concerns--with little or no warning.

Many forums purge old threads and posts on a completely idiosyncratic schedule, and delete items with little or no warning.
It's hard to archive messages posted to a forum. You end up:

Saving whole pages of posts (some you want, some you don't, perhaps in multiple pages) in HTML format, with images and so on, which may or may not work stand-alone in your browser

Editing the HTML pages you saved so just "the good stuff" is saved and visible, which is a TON of work

Using a simple copy-and-paste on the text, which loses any of the links and images you might have wanted to keep--which leads to extracting the links and adding them to the text, which is a ton of work.

Then you have to figure out where to keep the files and how to organize them. If this was e-mail, none of this would be necessary.

========
Have I missed anything important? Has the state of affairs really improved much? Forums are better...how?

ssnobben
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Re: A Rant on Forums

Post by ssnobben »

Great post and also something to really learn from? I think the usage of forums is really on the decline dont you think so? Question is to think about is why?

Why is Facebook so popular?

What have Facebook created that phpBB can not do?

Whats the focus? The users and their needs or the "technical stuff" the code, framework etc etc without testing phpBB on real users not the coders in this and other phpBB coders forum?

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A_Jelly_Doughnut
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Re: A Rant on Forums

Post by A_Jelly_Doughnut »

ssnoben: Have you seen this topic on the main site? http://www.phpbb.com/community/viewtopi ... &t=2083985

However, the comments from slashdot are completely irrelevant. He dismisses the entire paradigm of forum software, and there's little that can be done to change the fundamental structure of how forums work.
A_Jelly_Doughnut

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Dog Cow
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Re: A Rant on Forums

Post by Dog Cow »

I disagree with the poster on a few points, but I think that his argument does have some merit and isn't "completely irrelevant."

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onehundredandtwo
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Re: A Rant on Forums

Post by onehundredandtwo »

I agree with him on the illegible text point...

Why Trebuchet MS? There are a lot of other more readable fonts around. I'm also not a fan of prosilver's 90% layout, because the paragraphs end up becoming way to long (and hard to read) on my 1280*800 screen.

In fact, the more I read over his/her post, the more I could imagine a forum being so much more simple. I remember one time visiting a forum on the internet (searching Google) and it was... perfectly simple and easy to read. It's a pity I can't find it again.

I do, however, like phpBB better than of the other popular forums, like vBulletin. I still don't understand why some forums still have the profile info on the top of the posts.

Anyway, that's my rant for the day.
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$username
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Re: A Rant on Forums

Post by $username »

ssnobben wrote:Great post and also something to really learn from? I think the usage of forums is really on the decline dont you think so? Question is to think about is why?

Why is Facebook so popular?

What have Facebook created that phpBB can not do?

Whats the focus? The users and their needs or the "technical stuff" the code, framework etc etc without testing phpBB on real users not the coders in this and other phpBB coders forum?
Facebook and phpBB are two different things. Facebook is a social network, who allows you to visit profiles, make friends and to share experience. Forums are to discuss about things.

R45
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Re: A Rant on Forums

Post by R45 »

A_Jelly_Doughnut wrote:However, the comments from slashdot are completely irrelevant. He dismisses the entire paradigm of forum software, and there's little that can be done to change the fundamental structure of how forums work.
Completely disagree there. The comments shouldn't be dismissed like that, there is quite a bit of substance in them.

I'll put my thoughts here
Tracking all the user-ids and passwords for all the various forums is a pain.

Many folks use a separate e-mail alias for each forum, so they know when one starts spamming, adding Yet Another bit of bit of data to track.
Definitely a concern for the future of forums. Many people loathe creating new accounts for every site they visit. It can be a barrier to entry just because of the hassle. Quick integration into existing authentication systems (OpenID, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever the next big thing is) should be a core of the future forum system.
Many forums require or encourage the collection and distribution of additional data: birth date, location, Instant Messaging handles, web sites, etc. Some of this may be required to authenticate when you try to recover a password or otherwise get the attention of the administrators. It's Yet Even More data to track and update, in addition to any privacy concerns.
Don't particularly agree. This is all optional on most forums and any privacy issues are particularly due to bad administration and regulation .
The layout of each forum is completely different. You have to figure out or recall Yet Another scheme before you can figure out what is going on.
There is some truth to this. Although there are conventions, there is something to be said for a consistency in the industry. However on the flip side, giving all forums are generic structure will also hurt the differentiation between websites. A well designed UI is the answer. Differences should be embraced, but not stupidly implemented.
Most forums are laid out badly. None of them offers much real customization for end-users. Were it up to me, I'd be able to make every damned one of them look exactly the same when I visited.
For me this is important. I would like to see the future phpBB web UI modular, allowing user level customization. Users should be able to remove/add options, drag boxes around, and change the interface to their personal preference.
Many forums use a layout or style that is pretty much illegible:
Tiny type.
Agreed, especially since we all have larger monitors these days.
Low contrast text. I'm not sure which is worse, gray on black or lime green on black. No, the worst was deep green on burgundy.
True, but irrelevant for this discussion.
Many forums give way too much emphasis to avatars, signatures, animations, etc. It can actually be hard to find the posts sometimes.
Indeed. I even think prosilver has been guilty of this. The focal point doesn't always seem to be the content.
Rigid layouts that make it impossible to resize the screen or browser and see more of the actual posts.
Not really an issue here with relative layouts. But this is a web problem, made worse by the great (sarcasm) job that the web browsers have done. It is challenge to make a good scalable interface that scales well.
Posts to a mailing list sit on my machine waiting for me. I don't have to remember to visit a forum or find some way to track multiple forums.
This plays to a core question of the relevance of small forums on the web. IMO, phpBB4 should begin the true separation of the message board system and the message board interface. That is, I would like to see a robust API for deploying new UIs for phpBB (mobile apps, etc.) that will keep forums relevant with the changing ways people are accessing the web. The one website fits all build (even with distinct stylesheets) is not going to work IMHO.
Posts from e-mail lists arrive asynchronously and are already delivered, filtered, and sorted by the time I want to read them. With a forum, I have to go get each post or page of posts from each forum I might choose to visit, and they have to be loaded at that time.

Posts that arrive in e-mail can be filtered or organized according to my criteria. Forum posts are organized by the admins and posters into "boards," "sub-boards," and "threads" that are frequently named oddly or just make no sense.

Many forums use some sort of "newness" filter and try to keep track of what is "new" for you -- and do so badly. The user interface to control this feature (if the feature exists, if the user interface exists) range from bad to worse.
This goes back to the customization options for the user. Wouldn't it be amazing if a user could build their own forum index. That is, they could pick which forums they want displayed (in which order) and hide all they don't care about? We need to break apart this static forum list IMO.
Forums show quite a bit of extraneous information. Showing the poster's handle makes sense, but each post also shows: their avatar, the date they joined, their location, title, "status," role, post count, IM handles, login status, and so on. It shows this for EVERY poster in the thread. Then there is the information for EVERY thread: number of views, number of replies, rating, activity level, various status flags, original poster, last poster, time stamp, number of pages of posts, a page list, and so on. Then the information about EVERY post: reply number, a reply-and-quote button, reply button, report button, site tools and links. At the bottom is also the actual time it took to create the page, standards compliance, etc., etc... Where was the content again?
Completely agree. Everyone should take a step back (even on Area51), take a look at all the information on the page and circle the stuff that needs to visible. Possibly 25% of what we see on the screen we actually need.
Every forum has some sort of web-based editor for adding new posts or responding to existing posts. Each of them is different and 99% of them are awful. None of them allow me to use *my* writing tools.
I'm a big supporter of simple WYSIWYG interfaces. I think the *standard* post editor should have the same options the standard one in 3.0 has, just in WYSIWYG form.
Yes, you can edit the post in whatever editor you choose and paste it in, but that's just another layer you must work through to post a new message.
No web editor is ever going to replicate what you can do in a full fledged application, so I'm not sure what he is alluding to here.
Many forums have no facility or do not allow users to "preview" posts, or make it too easy to accidentally post something that is not quite ready. The mechanisms for doing this is different on each forum.

Many forums do not allow users to edit or delete posts. The mechanisms for doing this is different on each forum, and frequently the mechanism for editing/deleting a post is different as well.
Each forum has its own version of not-really-HTML, a sub-set of allowed HTML and/or CSS, or worse--a mix of several. Which forum am I on again? Coupled with a limited or nonexistent ability to edit or delete posts, it's a nightmare.
I think BBCode is fairly standard across the industry, but WYSIWYG is really more intuitive. Editing and deleting should remain admin level issues. The user is a fan of mailing lists, you can't edit or delete what you send out there. (With good reason, because it destroys the flow of a discussion).
Forum post quoting mechanisms are uniformly terrible. Many don't reliably refer to the quoted post or author in some reasonable fashion.
I do think that there needs to be a fresh approach from a UI standpoint to quoting.
Discussion threading models are, again, different for each forum, poorly implemented, and frequently just not used.
I don't really think this is as much of an issue anymore.
The search tools on most forums (if they exist at all) are simply execrable. Again, each search mechanism is completely different. The regular expressions or "wildcards" allowed (if any) are different, work differently, or just don't work, and there is usually no way to tell if they've failed or how they've failed.
Search [the interface] definitely needs work (an overhaul at that). But we get into serious performance issues with searching on the kind of hardware most forums run on. This one needs an extensive look.
E-mail comes to my inbox and I can archive or delete what I wish. Posts to a forum and the archive are strictly under the control of the administration. Anything they choose to limit access to or remove is at their whim. (For example, please note the original message this article expands on was posted to a mailing list in early 2006, and I dug it out of my archive.)

Relying on a forum as an archive of posts is unreliable.
This is irrelevant.
The admins may lose the domain name, hosting, the server, etc. and a forum can disappear for any number of reasons, including the admins simply losing interest or other "real life" concerns--with little or no warning.

Many forums purge old threads and posts on a completely idiosyncratic schedule, and delete items with little or no warning.
It's hard to archive messages posted to a forum. You end up:

Saving whole pages of posts (some you want, some you don't, perhaps in multiple pages) in HTML format, with images and so on, which may or may not work stand-alone in your browser

Editing the HTML pages you saved so just "the good stuff" is saved and visible, which is a TON of work

Using a simple copy-and-paste on the text, which loses any of the links and images you might have wanted to keep--which leads to extracting the links and adding them to the text, which is a ton of work.

Then you have to figure out where to keep the files and how to organize them. If this was e-mail, none of this would be necessary.
Also irrelevant.

SkyNT
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Re: A Rant on Forums

Post by SkyNT »

ssnobben wrote:Why is Facebook so popular?

What have Facebook created that phpBB can not do?
Facebook has no concept of "e-peen".
Many social routines of "the real world" carry over to Facebook but not at all on forums.
Forum trolls don't last long in an environment without anonymity.

The focus of Facebook is about connecting people through common interests including the real world. The focus of forums is about a single common interests connecting people. Facebook will connect you to conversations of people you are interested in (otherwise they wouldn't be on your friend's list). Forums make you sift through all the messages, most of it most people probably don't even care to read.

I could make the same comparison to twitter....

yautja_cetanu
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Re: A Rant on Forums

Post by yautja_cetanu »

A_Jelly_Doughnut wrote:ssnoben: Have you seen this topic on the main site? http://www.phpbb.com/community/viewtopi ... &t=2083985

However, the comments from slashdot are completely irrelevant. He dismisses the entire paradigm of forum software, and there's little that can be done to change the fundamental structure of how forums work.
I don't think I agree. He is making an attack on the entire paradigm of the forum software but thats not the same as dismissing. There are lots of fantastic aspects of the forum paradigm that make it intrinsically better then e-mail or newsgroups. Some of the are the parallel of things he said. Such as relying on admins to archive forum posts is sometimes better then users. Everyone on this forum will know the advantages of the forum paradigm.

The problem is, the forum paradigm is not a complete step forward for online communication. There are steps back that make forum software worse in some ways then newsgroups or even e-mail. Personally I think some kind of integration between newsgroups and forum software would be a good future. I think RSS feeds attempted this but he is totally right in that they are not good enough at solving the problems. Google wave was another attempt to move forward but it ultimately failed.

Microsoft tried a "Web-based newsgroup reader" that allowed you to add meta-date to a post to kind of merge newsgroups and forum software. But I can't find it anymore.

imo I think a clever form of e-mail integration would solve alot of these issues. Basecamp (which is used for project management not as a forum, but does involve discussions) does this pretty well. If forums allowed for better integration with e-mail (Being able to both receive from and add to a forum via e-mail in a consistent manner) I think it would solve many of his problems. http://mail2forum.com/ attempted this a while ago and is still kind of around.
ssnobben wrote:Forums show quite a bit of extraneous information. Showing the poster's handle makes sense, but each post also shows: their avatar, the date they joined, their location, title, "status," role, post count, IM handles, login status, and so on. It shows this for EVERY poster in the thread. Then there is the information for EVERY thread: number of views, number of replies, rating, activity level, various status flags, original poster, last poster, time stamp, number of pages of posts, a page list, and so on. Then the information about EVERY post: reply number, a reply-and-quote button, reply button, report button, site tools and links. At the bottom is also the actual time it took to create the page, standards compliance, etc., etc... Where was the content again?
Following discussions in forums requires much more attention than in e-mail.
Firstly I think Prosilver deals with this almost completely perfectly. Especially with user information to the right. I think phpbb more then any other software in the world helps point you to content better.

However I think this is an area where he totally misunderstands the paradigm. The fact is that forums are about creating communities not just content (CMSes are for that). So it is important there is so much information about the user posting the content because a forum is there to connect you to the person behind the content as well as the content.

ssnobben
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Re: A Rant on Forums

Post by ssnobben »

So where is the new innovation that long time disappear from the gold old "Finns" days?

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