The following is a copy of one of the first threads on the old Social Future Forum:
What really annoys me about most online discussion platforms is that they are rather unstructured. Sure, you have groups in Facebook, different mailing lists in your inbox which you can sort into folders manually, different blogs for different topics, but there’s no good public structure in all of these. In a forum that is different. This forum has categories and boards into which posts have to be placed into. This places the burden of categorization on those provide the content, and not those who read or react to it, which is an advantage if you want to get a quick overview over what’s actually going on in the discussion space.
This public structuring is the biggest advantage I see in forums. It helps to keep the interaction and conversations manageable. In social networks discussions are all over the place and not really focused. For 1 discussion or post you are interested in, you are confronted with 9 moderately interesting, but mostly irrelevant posts. Forums are better to stay atop of the important debates, because you can find them much quicker without having to go through all the irrelevant chaff.
Any discussion platform that doesn’t include the multi-layered public structuring of topics cannot be a full replacement for forums! And the navigation needs to be user friendly, so that you can dive into the categories that interest you quickly and find the discussions that are important to you not much later. Anything other than “classical” bulletin boards are really bad in comparison.
If we want to make a difference, we need to facilitate effective discussions. You cannot be effective when you are drowned in moderately relevant to totally irrelevant stuff!
So, the main advantage of forums in my opinion is that they put structure into the focus, not convenience of data aggregation (mailing lists, social networks), or post / reply ratings (Reddit, Quora, “StackWhatever”, etc.), or content presentation (blogs, wikis), or speed of interaction (Twitter, Facebook, chat platforms). The second advantage of forums is that they are still best for relatively even level discussions that have the slight chance to be actually productive – though you might want to couple a forum with some other content management platform like a wiki to get to the “actually productive” stage easier.
Now, if you really want a publicly structured discussion platform, how would it need to look like? And what features should it have?
- The primary focus of the user interface should be to get a quick overview over all possibly relevant activity. Classical forums do this relatively well, but they could still become much better at that by more aggressive use of AJAX technologies. Think forum + Facebook notification bar + different “frames” for navigation and interaction.
- Activity notification by email or RSS/atom/whatever feeds. With personal customization and filtering.
- Chatroom-like instant messaging capabilities, implemented via the XMPP protocol for example.
- Content should be able to be formatted easily (WYSIWYG) and richly, ideally with at least as much possibilities as with HTML + CSS.
- The platform should ideally not be controlled by a corporation which owns all the data on that platform and has the capability to censor and shut down discussions and people.
- It should enable collaborative editing on some kind of common canvas. Wikis can do that. Google drive documents enable that feature pretty nicely, too. Google Wave could enable pretty awesome collaborations while it existed (though long waves got terribly laggy).
- The platform needs to be search machine friendly like nothing else! It should provide the top search results for every interesting conversation that is going on within it!
- There should be an options to integrate the platform with reputation systems.
- Interoperability with existing social networks would be a plus.
- It should be fast
- It should be secure
- It should be really public (unlike mailing lists which you have to be in to read them, or Facebook which you have to register and log into to see what’s happening there)
- It should be fun to use, but not so much fun that it is used to spam it full with mindless content
- Discussions should be archived (and backups stored in a distributed way), and ideally the system should have version control capabilities!
I think that a forum like this one could in principle be most easily extended to fulfil most of these requirements. At least in comparison to other platforms.
[Remark from 2015-02-04: Discourse seems to be quite good at satisfying most of the points I wanted from an ideal discussion platform. Sure, it’s not 100%, but it seems to be significantly better than anything else out there]