Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Web forums - Why they suck and what's needed.

And now for something different. You've no doubt seen all those web forums on the Internet. These systems come in a myriad of flavours, from online communities, much like the BBSs of old, through to product support forums. I will admit that they have a few advantages, such as searchable archives and strong support for threading. These are no doubt some of the reasons why many people like them. As for myself, most web forums suck. What's wrong with them?

1. They are slower than local email access. Despite access to broadband (5 - 15 Mbps download speed), and having seen how fast well written databases can work, web forums are still sluggish, and furthermore, if your Internet goes down, you can't read any more. And then your browser has to render it. I sometimes use memory constrained systems and on those, rendering time becomes an issue. Because web forums send data to the user in real time, there is little opportunity to click the "download" button and let the posts come to you while you grab a coffee. This is in contrast to email, offline Usenet and offline Fidonet readers.

2. They are "passive". This means you have to remember to log on and check the forums for new posts. Some do have email notification, but this is still insufficient, you still have to switch to a web browser and post (which is even slower on memory constrained systems).

3. They are clumsy to navigate. It takes several mouse clicks to navigate between forum posts and threads. Contrast this to my email, which I have configured in a way that a single keypress or mouse click allows me to navigate between messages, or delete those I don't want.

Can this problem be fixed? Yes, certainly! What is required is for software developers to realise that different people have different communication preferences. This means that the solution lies in starting with a decent web forum system and add bi-directional email capability, or even NNTP as well. As a number of forum packages support RSS, RSS could be a standardised way to pull new posts off the forums. Some means of posting replies that are emailed to the system would need to be added. Development of a standard here would allow third parties to develop forum to email gateways. If I was a coder, I would have had a go at adding such support to some of the open source forum packages. Unfortunately, this is not the case, but I'm more than happy to test any attempt to add email functionality to web forums.

Anyway, let's see if any of the open source developers are up to the challenge. You'll be helping a whole heap of people stay in touch with their web based communities.