A New SitePoint Forum Experience: Our Move to Discourse

Sarah Hawk

Edit: the new SitePoint forums are live! Read our launch post or just go straight to the forums!

I have been the Galactic Overlord of the SitePoint forums for half a decade now, and on the staff in some capacity for twice that long. In that time I have experienced many of the highs and lows that one would expect of managing a forum of our size, and the best is yet to come. We’re about to embark on one of the bravest, scariest and most exciting things that a community can undertake.

We’re moving to Discourse at the end of this month.

There are a number of reasons for this decision. From a business perspective, SitePoint has grown and changed a lot over the past year and it’s time to expand that growth over to the community side of things.

From a technical standpoint, SitePoint and Discourse are a marriage made in heaven. It is an open source JavaScript app using the Ember.js framework, running Rails server-side. We’re a Rails house, which means that we have the resources to maintain and customise the software so that it works for us. Our devs have been tailoring the front end and writing plugins for 6 months already, so we’re pretty comfortable with how it all works. While they’ve been doing that, our forum staff have been testing and documenting the new processes that we’ll all be using.

From a community point of view, our forums have reached a tipping point. If you’re a member, you’ll be aware that for some time now we’ve been fighting what can best be described as a monumental battle against scores of bots, spammers, and posts of little or no value. We’ve tried out a number of different initiatives in an attempt to turn things around, but the effects have been negligible. It’s time we tried something drastic.

You’d be fair in thinking that a change of platform won’t fix an unhealthy community, because that’s true. So we’re going to do more than that. We’re proposing not just a new platform, but a new SitePoint Forums experience.

Picture this…

A forum that provides you with tools to positively influence the behaviour of other community members. A forum that empowers engaged members to hide posts that are low quality and recognise those that offer value. A forum with built in immunity from spammers, bots and trolls. A forum that runs on a platform that is flexible and open-source, meaning that you can help us to make it the kind of place that you want to spend time in.

If that sounds good, then stick around, because that’s what we’re offering you.

I think it goes without saying that a change this big is going to be difficult for lots of people in lots of ways. Change always is. We’ve been working on this all year and have done as much as we can to ensure the ride is as smooth as possible. No doubt you will have questions. I’ll answer some of the more obvious ones here, but if you have more, please ask. The more information you go into this armed with, the easier the move will be.

It wasn’t long since the last change. Why change again?

When SitePoint relaunched last year, we upgraded the forums in an effort to maintain some cohesion of brand, but it really was just a reskin. Our forums currently run on vBulletin, which was great back in the day, but it no longer serves us well. Coupled with that is the undeniable fact that we are no longer moderating the community in a way that is allowing for healthy growth. Over the years we have formulated moderation processes and procedures that worked well at the time and with the limitations that vB put on us, but things have changed and those processes are no longer as effective as they need to be. To a degree we have become stuck in our ways, so this change is as much about revising the ways that we manage, moderate and support the community as it is about the platform on which it sits.

Why Discourse?

A lot of time and thought went into the decision. Discourse is controversial because it is new and different. There were other options but they really just felt like newer versions of what we already have. The danger with that is that we’ll just keep doing things the way that we always have. The key here is to establish new patterns of behaviour, among both staff and members.

Discourse is mobile friendly. It was designed for high resolution touch devices, and has a built in mobile layout, meaning you no longer have to fork out for third party apps if you want to browse the forums on your phone.

From a sociological standpoint, Discourse is a breath of fresh air. As users participate in the community by reading, posting, and liking valuable posts, they gain trust. With that trust, they gain the power to perform actions that help keep the community healthy and thriving, and drive away spammers, trolls and other undesirable characters (as my father would call them).

Any change takes some getting used to, but Discourse has a UI that is simple to use. You can drag images straight into a post. You can multi quote while checking incoming responses in real time. Your posts won’t get stuck in a moderation queue for no apparent reason, and if you’re too busy to visit the forums for a while, you’ll get a handy email digest so that you can see what you’ve been missing.

You can read about Discourse and what it offers in detail here.

What are The New SitePoint Forums going to look like?

That’s the million dollar question. I could have included screen shots here, and I almost did, but I like the element of surprise. If you’re already a forum member, it’s only a matter of weeks until you move into your shiny new home. If you’re not, then you really should sign up as soon as we move, to see what you’re missing. Discourse really is like nothing you will have experienced before.

What’s in it for you?

In short, a community that you’ll want to be part of for a long time to come.
A number of people have asked us why we’re fixing something that isn’t broken. I understand why it might appear that way, but what we currently have is very, very broken. If you’ve been part of this community for more than 5 years, you’ll remember what it used to be like. It used to be somewhere that people joined to get help, and stayed because it was a great place to hang out. It didn’t used to just be about signatures. We’ve been fighting a losing battle and it’s taking its toll. We need new tools to deal with the new generation of internet users, in order to provide you with an environment that is stimulating and interesting.

What will happen to all your existing posts?

Good question. It depends when you made them and whether they are still relevant. Any thread containing a post made within the last 5 years will be migrated over to the new forum (along with a list of frequently viewed threads based on analytics), with a redirect in place from the old one. Any post that doesn’t fall into that category will be HTML archived as part of the old vBulletin forum, so that it is still searchable but you won’t be able to add new replies. That probably raises questions about your post count. Discourse doesn’t display post count in the same way that vBulletin does, so it’s not really an issue. The New SitePoint Forums experience is more about your current engagement than what you did in the past. Discourse runs on a system of trust levels, which I mentioned briefly above, and you’ll come to understand more once you’ve spent a bit of time there. Note that only users who have visited the forums within the last 5 years will have their account transferred. Anyone else is free to sign up with a new account, of course.

What are the biggest changes?

Discourse doesn’t look like vBulletin. It doesn’t really look like any other forum software, but that’s the point. Here are a few of the biggest changes:

Some exciting new categories

Yup, categories. That’s what sub-forums are called in Discourse, and we’re introducing a few new ones that we think you’ll like. First up, there is the Showcase, which is a place where you can self-promote to your hearts content, provided you’ve been around for long enough to show us that you really want to be a part of the community – it’s based on the new Trust Levels. Then there’s the new Jobs category. Ever since we did away with the SitePoint Marketplace, there hasn’t really been anywhere for you to find the right person to help you out with building a script or a plugin, so we’re rectifying that.

We also now have separate Perl, Python and Golang categories. One of the things that I love about Discourse is that it offers us the flexibility to introduce new subjects with tags on a test basis, and if prove popular we can create categories for them. We’re starting off with these three, but as web development grows and changes, we’ll add more. This is our opportunity to keep up with the times.

No signatures

Yup, that’s right. No signatures. Some of you will feel pretty annoyed about that, and I get that. For those of you that are legitimately part of this community to participate in positive ways, it may feel like you’re being punished for the misbehaviour of others. I’m sorry about that. The upside of this is that you’ll now be taking part in a community where everyone is legitimately here to participate in positive ways. You won’t have to sift through the dirt to find the gold. You’ll still be able to customise your profile page to display a link to your site.

We have Likes

One of the things that I love about Discourse is the Like button. Rather than filling threads up with millions of ‘Thanks’ posts, people can acknowledge great posts with the click of a button. A quick and easy fluff deterrent.

Changes in moderation

I mentioned earlier that this change is about more than just software. Trying to find a healthy balance between being welcoming and not allowing people to take advantage of a situation is one of the trickiest aspects of running a community of this size. The rate at which the SitePoint forums community has begun to deteriorate into a seething mass of link droppers and signature abusers implies we haven’t quite gotten that balance right, and it’s time to address that. As of now, we’re taking a hard line. Discourse doesn’t have signatures. If you create a fake one, you’ll get a warning. If you disregard that warning and do it again, you’re out. Hard but fair.

Flags have consequences

At the moment, if you flag a post in vBulletin, it sends a notification to the forum staff, who make a call as to what to do about it. In Discourse, the same thing happens, BUT… if more than one person flags the same post, that post is temporarily hidden and a message is sent to the original poster, who has the opportunity to change what they wrote, in order to make it reappear. That means that if someone goes around spamming the forum, you have the power to deal with it without having to wait for a moderator. That frees up the forum staff to actively take part in more discussions around the place, rather than having to act as police all the time. Taking a more holistic look at this, you will be empowered to shape the community into the kind of place you want to frequent, by encouraging great content, and discouraging rubbish. Note: there are checks and measures in place to ensure that people don’t abuse this system.

What existing community members can do to make the transition easier.

There are a few things that you can do. You can keep a positive attitude about this change. It’s going to be huge, but we’re doing it for you. We want the SitePoint forums to once again be a place that people feel proud to be a part of.

You can ask any questions that you have now, so you feel prepared. You can ensure your email address is up to date on vBulletin so we can contact you to let you know how to set up your new account. And lastly, if you want to keep the information that is currently in your private message folder, make sure you follow these steps.

So that’s enough information for now. I welcome your questions and your feedback, and I’ll do my best to address any concerns that you have.

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  • Test McTest

    Great move! I admit I’ve not used the SP forums in quite a while (years), but venturing into them a few days ago one does feel difference between the StackOverflow experience and what VBulletin can offer. I’ve found the Discourse codebase a great way to learn about the innards of a large, modern Rails codebase

    • Ralph Mason

      “one does feel difference between the StackOverflow experience and what VBulletin can offer”. Yes, definitely. That’s one of my favorite things about Discourse: it brings some of the immediacy, freshness and modernity of something like Stack Overflow to the discussion forum. I enjoy Stack Overflow, but hanker for real discussions, which it doesn’t really allow. Now I’ll be able to have those discussions without having to go back to an interface that feels like I’ve traveled back to the 1990s. Really looking forward to the move. :-)

    • http://thehawk.wordpress.com Sarah Hawk

      Thanks Test (interesting name btw). I hope you become a regular again, once we make the move.

    • HAWK

      Thanks Test (can I call you that?). I hope you’ll start to hang around again once we move.

  • OphelieLechat

    I’m lucky enough to be on the staff, so I’ve had an advance preview of the new look, and it’s amazing. I can’t wait to show it off to everyone.

  • http://onsman.com/ ronsman

    Good luck with it all – looking forward to seeing how it develops.

    • http://thehawk.wordpress.com Sarah Hawk

      Thanks Ron, much appreciated.

    • HAWK

      Thanks Ron, much appreciated.

    • HAWK

      Thanks Ricky, much appreciated.

  • HAWK

    Yes we do plan to use Discourse commenting in the short to medium term Johan, but that won’t happen at launch time. Once we have the community settled and things are running smoothly, we’ll make that move. We have some fairly heavy customisation of the plugin to do first.

    • Thomas Semmler

      Is there a specific reason for that? Are you unsatisfied with Disqus? Would be interesting to hear the reasons for this move.

      • OphelieLechat

        I manage this side of the site, so I can take this one: while Disqus has served us well, and it’s an improvement over standard WordPress comments, we’re running into its limitations on a daily basis. It’s also much more difficult to run a cohesive community when we’re using two different platforms.

        As @disqus_ce1hdsNA07:disqus mentioned, we’re making some pretty heavy customisations to the plugin and creating something that’s perfect for the entire SitePoint community: readers, active community members, authors, editors, and moderators. That’s just not something we can do with Disqus at the moment.

        • OphelieLechat

          (Ahem, the ugly mentions are one of the above-mentioned limitations. @disqus_ce1hdsNA07:disqus should read @ Hawk)

  • Thomas Semmler

    There is no week where I do not encounter the endless quest for the perfect forum software. I guess you have considered other solutions as well, are you having an article on this specific subject? I imagine it might be extremely helpful to hear, what your investigation on this subject looked like.

    • HAWK

      Hey Thomas,
      I’ll do all sorts of writing on the subject of this migration once the dust settles. In the mean time, if you have any specific questions, feel free to ask.

  • Loganatan

    Good Information.. Let me join back at least now

  • http://markitwrite.com/ Kerry Butters

    Sounds interesting – looking forward to checking it out :)

  • HAWK

    Yes! Discourse does a really great digest email that is forum wide, and you can set the frequency. You can also follow individual categories if you’d prefer.

  • HAWK

    Hey Steve,
    Discourse are actually running the migration for us. We have a hosted site. We’ll definitely share as much of the process as we can once things have been successfully completed.

  • HAWK

    We had to ‘apply’ to become official beta partners with them. I’m not sure that it’s a service that anyone is eligible for, but hey, it can’t hurt to ask.

  • booruguru

    When I browse pages using the new SitePoint forums, none of the pages I visit are recorded in my history because I technically never leave the page according to my address page. I figure this must be intentional (via JavaScript), but I fail to see the point. What’s more, the content is now sprawling across the screen instead of being contained. This negatively affects readability. I’m by now means a luddite, but I fail to see how Discourse is an improvement.