When we started our discussion forums nearly three years ago, we thought ourselves pretty clever. The process is straightforward, n’est-ce pas? Vet the options, imagine the use cases, and construct the perfect environment.
So that is what we did. We narrowed down a list of a half-dozen competitors to two or three that best fit our criteria: free and open source; single-sign-on ready; easy to customize and manage; feature-rich; well-supported and credible.
And then we laid everything out just so. People will need to just ask questions! Cool. Make a forum called “Questions”. People will need to report bugs and stuff! Make a forums called “Errors, Bugs, and Obstacles”. What if we want to just share some news? “News” Tips? “Tips”. Suggestions? “Suggestions”.
Wait...people will need to interact with other students in the same level, area of study, and course, right? Right! Solution: make a forum for every single one of those things, arranged hierarchically. It certainly looked and felt beautiful, like a well-organized documents folder on one’s computer.
With good faith and enthusiasm, we had created hundreds of tiny, empty rooms. By the time we realized our mistake a few months ago, plenty of damage had already been done.
As of this writing, there were 383 forums, sub-forums, and, yes, sub-sub-forums, containing 1,893 topics and 7,687 replies from 5,984 people.
Those numbers work out to about 4.9 topics per forum, 4.1 replies per topic, and a total of 1.6 posts per person. In nearly three years, on average, each little room had just five conversations, with five exchanges each, among some sub-set of fifteen people (pretending, for the moment, that people “stand” in just one room).
Generally, those conversations deserved a larger room with more people. Many smaller conversations — and there are many with just one voice speaking into the void, if we can call that a conversation — might have found eager participants in a larger room. Our system, so meticulously designed, had ultimately just thrown up hundreds of walls to isolate visitors and suppress open exchange.
And that is just the part we are directly responsible for.
The software we use was well-supported, but key improvements like better spam control, up/down-voting of posts, @mentions, and threaded replies relied upon idiosyncratic plugins riddled with conflicts. Nor is the administrative backend much better; power to delete spam posts does not necessarily translate into the ability to do so. These problems, coupled with the atomization of the forums community, have made it difficult for staff and the rest of the community to properly keep up.
The story is not all bad, of course. The averages given above obscure the fact of many thriving conversations and useful exchanges. Nevertheless, the emptiness weighs heavily on the community and every unanswered question and undeleted spam post and unreplied-to hello is something worse than a missed opportunity. This is on us; we have created a very large garden to tend, and empowered relatively few people to tend it. (There are a few heroes of the forums, we must say, and those estimable people, one hopes, know who they are. In a stronger community, they would certainly know who they are.)
For the reasons outlined above and many more, we are trialling new forums software that promises to support a much more robust community. On that proposed platform, we have written about the problems with our existing forums and the solutions we hope to see in a newer system:
Part of what I hope this new software could solve is the atomization of conversations; the existing forums carve up content into a bunch of very tiny rooms…it’s likely that a student taking CHEM101 would not bother to open the door, figuratively speaking, of the CHEM102 room, and vice versa. Nevertheless, a question asked by a 101 student can definitely be answered by a more advanced student and, again, vice versa. Indeed, it is perfectly likely that my chemistry question can be quickly answered by a student taking an English course, but in the current forums system, we may never run into one another.
One can, and should, use the search feature, but in my experience it is fairly mediocre on the existing forums — not terribly dependable and does not typically offer useful snippets for me to choose the best results.
Empty rooms also become self-reinforcing; many people swing by, but all decide that the room is empty and move along.
With these beta forums, I hope that having people and content more mashed together will create not confusion and claustrophobia but rather discoverability of content and more easy connection. Also better search. That does not help now, because not many people are here. But such is the idea.
So what happens now? If all goes well, we rebuild (well…build) a thriving community from the ground up. We have a core of experienced, dedicated students. We have eager staff who carry the experience of having made many mistakes. We have a host of new students looking to connect, some because they buy in to our dreams for our community, but many others because they want to learn and know they can do so better with company.