A First Look at Discourse, a Next-Generation System for Forums
Forums are an important part of the Internet, but they’re also one of its most dated ones. I mean, when have you last used a forum and were wowed by how simple and fun it was? Alternative discussion systems like Stack Overflow, Quora, and even Reddit were all developed as ways to surface high-quality content that escaped the traditional drawbacks of forums.
And yet, the forum is alive and well, embodied in XDA developers (just one of the seven best forums for learning about Android, for example). That’s because, well, forums are needed. But do they really have to be so cumbersome? Certainly not, says Discourse, a cutting-edge project from Jeff Atwood, one of Stack Overflow’s founders. Let’s break Discourse down a bit, to see what it offers.
It’s a Work in Progress
That screenshot shows an error I got on Discourse this morning. That’s not to say the service is bad, but just that it isn’t ready yet: Atwood and his team feel things have progressed far enough to share them with the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete working product. There’s no definitive feature list, the demo they have online now resets every 24 hours, and you will see the random error popping up here and there. But it’s more than impressive enough to look at.
Rather than use a large hierarchy of forums and sub-forums, Discourse uses categories that feel a bit like tags:
Much like Stack Overflow, there are just a limited subset of categories you can pick from when authoring a new post:
Initially, the overview page mixes content from all different categories, but can be quickly filtered down to just a single category:
You can see who’s participating in each discussion at a glance; this view only shows up to five participants, even if a discussion has many more.
Single Topic View
Discourse is a forum, and just like every forum, it has a topic view:
At first blush, it seems similar to many other forums. An original post, followed by a reply (or 150,000, if you’re on XDA Developers). But what’s that bar under the original post? Let’s take a closer look:
This info bar appears only under the first post in a thread, displaying the thread’s vital statistics at a glance: This thread was created three days ago and last updated two days ago (it seems like not all posts are removed with every reset of the demo site). The other stats are just as easy to follow, and the avatars at the end show you who’s participating.
Authoring a Topic
Both replying and authoring a new topic happens in a bar that floats at the bottom of the screen. You can either write using BBCode or Markdown. The right side of the pane renders your text as you type, making it easy to spot any formatting errors without having to click a Preview button.
On the top-right corner of the bar, there’s a little down-arrow letting you minimize the toolbar. You can click it mid-post, and this is what happens:
Discourse saves your draft in the background, server-side. This means you can log off, go to a different computer, log back on, and continue writing right where you left off. But even if you don’t switch machines, being able to minimize the post and having it just a click away is a great way to browse other topic for reference. It makes it easier to carefully author replies, because you don’t need another browser tab to work with existing posts.
Just like many other forum systems, Discourse offers a user profile page:
The Discourse page, however, is a far cry from any other forum user page I’ve seen before. The sidebar lets you slice and dice that user’s activity, and you can click into every post they made, see what they liked, and so on. Note the “Trust Level” entry at bottom-left: Just like Stack Overflow (and the other StackExchange websites), Discourse has a self-policing system built into it. Looking through Discourse’s “meta” forum (a forum containing discussions about the platform) did not reveal much additional information about the feature, but I did dredge up a thread on automating trust that mentions a ratio between “flags” and posts as a way to detect bad users (i.e., if you don’t post very much, but a great many of your posts are flagged as bad content, you probably deserve a low trust level).
Unlike Stack Overflow, where the user’s point rank is very prominently displayed, in Discourse it has been abstracted into a “trust level” and squeezed into a tiny corner of the user’s profile. That feels like a conscious design choice: Forums are often more “democratic” than dedicated Q&A sites like StackExchange.
Not an End, But a Beginning
I love Stack Overflow, and Discourse currently gives an indication of being just as disruptive, exciting, and fresh. What you don’t see in the screenshots is how fluid and airy the system feels: Interactions are smooth even at this early stage, and the UI really does feel re-imagined. I, for one, hope to see Discourse become a powerhouse platform in the world of Internet forums. Did you try it out? What did you think?