Internet Forums Reimagined: The Future Of Online Discussions
Last year, I wrote about the history of online communication and how it has evolved all the way from online bulletin board systems to social media. But what does the future have in store for us in terms of communicating online?
The latest iteration of online communication may indeed be social media, but it seems that the most popular avenue is still the old-fashioned internet forum. It remains today as an excellent way to structure a community on the web. While social media can be somewhat amorphous at times, forums provide order and a sense of home.
I believe that forums will never die out, but forums will evolve and adapt to advancements in web technology. Please join me as I take a look at a few forum software systems that are so innovative that they’ll transform the concept of the forum forever.
Moot (Beta) is a very interesting project in my eyes because there’s a bit of tension in its design philosophy: it wants to take a step back into the past and recover the lost relevance of meaningful discussion (which they claim have died with social media) while incorporating features of the future (clean and responsive interface).
But more importantly, Moot is entirely embeddable, meaning you don’t need to download a package and upload it to your own web host. Instead, all of the data and control is done through your Moot account and your forum theme; forum content are embedded directly into your site wherever you want it to go. It has been designed from the ground up for complete and easy integration.
Other notable features that Moot is pushing:
- Both forums and comments. Moot is a full-fledged forum embed system AND a comment embed system. Unlike other forum systems where comments are just normal forum threads with their post data molded and displayed differently, Moot lets you embed unique comment threads onto pages using one line of HTML. Each comment thread is unique, dynamic, and separate from your forums.
- No content deletion. Moot is taking a hard stance: deleting posts and comments disrupts the natural progression of a discussion, resulting in an incomplete thread that’s harder to follow. Therefore, once content is older than 2.7 minutes, it cannot be deleted. Also, if a post or comment has received any replies or likes, it can’t be deleted.
- Complete control. Even though Moot is a third-party service that you have to embed onto your site, you will have full control over it. You can alter the design using CSS . You can also alter the behavior and extend Moot functionality using an API that will be released in the near future.
The mentality spurring the Discourse team is the desire to “raise the standard of discussion on the web through better forum software.” Core to their actions is the belief that forums are an integral aspect of proper web communities, yet most forum designs are stuck in the 1990s. With Discourse, they want to make forum hosting easy, flexible, and appealing to the 21st Century.
The Discourse interface takes a lot of inspiration from social media: just-in-time loading of content, flat and sleek aesthetics that are indicative of social media design, @replying to users, logging in with social media accounts, real-time stream updates, and more. But unlike Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and the others, Discourse remains faithful to big blocks of text for deeper, more meaningful conversation.
Other notable features that Discourse is pushing:
- Notifications. One big problem with legacy forum systems is the lack of convenient notifications. Up until a few years ago, the best we ever got was clunky email notifications, then we had RSS subscriptions , but both of those had their limits. Discourse will regularly notify you on the site when someone mentions you, replies to you, quotes you, or anything else that involves you.
- Forked conversations. Instead of having a linear thread where users reply to multiple users in a single post (often using ugly blocks of quotes to establish context), Discourse allows discussions to fork by letting you reply to individual posts and branch off.
- Smart interactions. One awesome feature of Discourse is that you can begin writing your reply even before you’ve finished reading the thread. The reply box will follow you no matter where you are on the page, which means you can reply while you read. Also, when you prematurely leave a thread (maybe you had to go somewhere), Discourse will remember your place and start you there the next time you come back.
- Dynamic moderation. As users participate on your Discourse forum, they gain something called trust. Users that have trust can help with forum moderation by culling spammers, flamers, and trolls before they get too big.
We took a detailed look at Discourse when it emerged on the scene.
Moot and Discourse are relative newcomers to the forum scene, but Vanilla has been innovating the forum concept for years already. Honestly, ask anyone (who has forum experience, obviously) which forum software is the most non-traditional and I’m willing to bet that most would say Vanilla.
Vanilla has gained a lot of traction over the years. Big name sites, like Penny Arcade, are starting to turn to it for their discussion needs because of its cutting edge design. This is a free, open source project that really is revolutionizing the forum landscape.
Other notable features that Vanilla is pushing:
- Scalability. One major issue in many free forum systems – and some paid systems too – is that they buckle under too much traffic. When it takes over 10 seconds for a thread to load, users are too frustrated to continue a discussion. Vanilla is built for speed and can handle millions of users right out of the box.
- User reactions. With Vanilla, you can set various “reactions” that users can have to content: like, dislike, spam, off topic, insightful, funny, or whatever else you can come up with. These reactions have actions associated with them (e.g. add score to the post). The result of the user reactions system is that users can decide on and promote valuable content.
- Built-in gamification. Gamification describes the addition of game elements in a non-game context for the purpose of engaging users. By participating, users can earn badges (achievements) and reputation (score) which lead to user promotions and access to more features if you choose to set it up that way.
On paper, these systems may not seem like a huge deviation from the usual forum platforms that we typically see. However, paper can be deceiving. Take one look at each of the solutions above and you’ll notice a landslide difference in the end user experience. And in my humble opinion, all three systems are doing a heck of a job in refreshing the boring realm of forums.
Do you use forums? Know of any other forum systems that are revolutionizing the field? Please share with us in the comments!
Image Credits: Chat Bubbles Via Shutterstock
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