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What is next for message board software?

Note: This article was originally published at Planet PHP on 24 February 2011.
Planet PHP
When I was hired at dealnews.com in 1998, my primary focus was to get our message board (Phorum) up to speed. I had written the first version as a side project for the site. Message boards were a lot simpler back then. Matt's WWWBoard was the gold standard of the time. And really, the functionality has been only evolutionary since. We added attachments to Phorum in 2003 or something. That was a major new feature. In Phorum 5 we added a module system that was awesome. But, that was just about the admin and not the user. From the user's perspective, message boards have not changed much since 1997. I saw this tweet from Amy Hoy and it got me to thinking about how message boards work. Here is the typical user experience:
  1. Go to the message board
  2. See a list of categories
  3. Drill down to the category they want to read
  4. Scroll through a list of messages that are in reverse cronological order by original post date or most recent post date
  5. Click a message and read it.
  6. Go to #3, repeat
Every message board software package pretty much works like that and has for over 10 years. And it kind of sucks. What a user would probably rather experience is:
  1. Go to the message board
  2. The most interesting things (to this user) are listed right there on the page. No drill down needed.
  3. Click one and read it.
  4. Goto #2, repeat.
Sounds easy? That #2 is easy to type but very hard to accomplish. I think it is conceivably doable if you are running a site that has all the data. Stackoverflow comes close. When you land on the site, they default the page to the "interesting" posts. However, they are not always interesting to me. They are making general assumptions about their audience. For example, right now, the first one is tagged "delphi". I could care less about that language and any posts about it. Its a good try, but misses by oh so far. This is not a Stackoverflow hate post. They are doing a good job. So, what do I do when I land there? I ignore the front page and click Tags (#2 in the first list), then pick a tag I want to read about (#3 in the first list). Low and behold the page I get is "newest". So, I end up doing exactly what is in the first list I mentioned. They do offer other sort options. But, they chose newest as the default. And from years of watching user behavior, 80% - 90% of people go with the good ol' default. This kind of brings me to another point though about the types of message boards there are.

Stackoverflow is a classic example of a help message board. People come there and ask a question. Other people come along and answer the question. Then more people come along and vote on whether the answers (and questions) are any good. This is one really nice feature that I think will have to become a core feature in any message board of the future. The signal to noise ratio can get so out of whack, you need human input to help decide what is good and what is noise. I think the core of the application has to rely on that if we are ever going to achieve the desired experience.

The second type of message board is a conversational system. It is almost like a delayed chat room. People come to a message board and post about their cat or asking who watched a TV show, that kind of thing. This has a completely different dynamic to it than the help message board. You can't really vote if a post is good or bad. The obvious exception being spam would of course want to be recognized and dealt with.

So, how do you know what content is desirable for the user that is entering the site right now? This concept has already been laid out for us: the social graph. You have to give users a way to associate with other users. If Bob really likes Tom's posts, he is probably more interested to read Tom's post from 30 minutes ago than some new guy that just joined the site and posted 1 minute ago. The challenge here is getting people to interconnect...but not too much. Everyone has that aunt on Facebook that follows you, your roommate and anybody else she can. She would follow your dog if he had a Facebook account. So, those people would still get a crappy experience if the whole system relied on the social graph. The other side is the people that will never "follow", "like" or whatever you call it another person. Their experience would lack as well. One key ingredient here is that you need to own this data. You can't just throw like buttons and Facebook connect on your message board and think you can leverage that data. That data is for Facebook, not you. I think the help message boards could benefit from the social graph as well.

Another aspect of what is most important to a user i

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