Discourse: The WordPress of forum software

Discourse logo Discourse is a new discussion platform (ie: forum software) from Jeff Atwood, Robin Ward and a host of other smart people who have founded a new company together. As Civilized Discourse Construction Kit, Inc they intend to create ‘the WordPress of forum software’.

Discourse is a product that is badly needed. Most forum software in use today is showing its age1, but forums themselves are still going strong.

Forums are the dark matter of the web, the B-movies of the Internet. But they matter. To this day I regularly get excellent search results on forum pages for stuff I’m interested in. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t end up on some forum, somewhere, looking for some obscure bit of information. And more often than not, I find it there.
Civilized Discourse Construction Kit – codinghorror.com

Discourse screenshot

Discourse brings the modern features we are familiar with from sites like Twitter and Facebook to the forum. Some of the most interesting evolutions are the use of infinite scrolling instead of paginaton, real time updates, Twitter-style @mentions, replying to one thread by creating another linked thread and the ability to invite your friends by email to reply to a topic without having to sign up.

I particularly appreciated the idea of having categories that grow as your forum grows. They have clearly recognised that dividing a new forum down into dozens of sub-categories — although it seems like a smart idea from an organisational standpoint — has the effect of making small forums feel like a big house full of empty rooms.

Having an open2 discussion platform is important to help combat the rise of services like Facebook and Twitter. These two companies (and increasingly Google too) now own most of the conversation space online, subjecting us to their real-name policies, ever-changing privacy agreements and growing restrictions on how we can use our own content. (By default Discourse will apply a Creative Commons licence to user-generated content. The platform itself is GNU.)

It’s early days for Discourse yet, but the founders say they are in this for the long run (and for love, internet style). The WordPress model is a great one to imitate and if they are successful this kind of forum could become very familiar over the next few decades.


Footnotes

  1. phpBB and vBulletin are the old dogs of the forum world. I’m still a member of a few communities that run on these and I always experience a sense of nostalgia when I visit – they are exactly how I remember them: table-based, clunky, ugly, slow and old-looking. Vanilla Forums are more modern and have adopted the WordPress model of having a free self-hosted version and a paid hosted alternative. Automattic also have a foot in the forum business with bbPress. If you’re in the WordPress ecosystem, using bbPress may make a lot of sense. Ning were an interesting option for a while too.
  2. Discourse on github for all your open source needs.
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