High Programmer > Alan De Smet > Rants > Web Forums: Ignoring twenty years of work

Web Forums: Ignoring twenty years of work

Why, for the love of Postel, why?

Another perfectly good mailing list I'm on has been "upgraded" to a web forum. Another group of otherwise sane people have decided to ignore the lessons of the past, to make old mistakes with a new technology. It's as if the early 90s never happened!

Wanting to facilitate public discussion online is not some crazy new idea born with the web. Email mailing lists and Usenet (occasionally known as netnews, or "the newsgroups") are both well over twenty years old. Both were intended and succeeded in allowing public, online discourse between large numbers of people.

Both mailing lists and Usenet started small, but experienced explosive popularity. As they became increasingly popular, they were refined to be more efficient and scalable. The flood of people generated a flood of information, so the tools and protocols were refined to make it easy for readers to sort things out quickly. A good modern email user agent and the modern Usenet user agent are carefully honed tools based on decades of work. ("User agent": the program you run to interact with the service. Microsoft's Outlook Express is a popular if low quality user agent capable of handling both email and Usenet.) They are suitable for working with high traffic discussions with hundreds of participants. With a good set of email tools, you can easily handle hundreds of messages a day (I do); with a good Usenet client, you can easily track groups with thousands of messages a day. In both you can easily distinguish which messages you've already read so you can skip them and immediately see more recent follow ups. You can thread the messages to make it clear who is replying to who. If a particular topic of conversation branches into two unrelated topics, you can easily follow them separately, perhaps choosing to skip one (or both) of them. You can use your user agent to automatically skip over messages from people you find offensive or topics you're just not interested in. Your user agent can highlight messages from interesting people or on interesting topics. If you're stuck with a very slow connection (a modem, or perhaps a mobile connection like your cell phone), both make it possible to quickly skim the indexing information and only download messages you're interested in. A multitude of user agents exist, allowing each user to find one that presents the information just as they want. Each individual user's own computer did most of the thinking, making running a server simpler and making the user's experience more responsive.

Apparently the hip thing to do these days is to junk all of this hard work. On a typical web forum, messages are linearly displayed, as a result different topics are intermingled. It's impossible to be sure who is responding to who. Each different web forum has its own specialized interface, you get to repeatedly learn the local idiosyncrasies. If you don't like the interface, well, too bad, you're stuck with it. There is no way to look at an old thread and only see new messages. There is no way to filter out topics and people you're not interested in. The computers of individual users are left as unresponsive dumb terminals while the web forum operator must invest in a massively powerful computer (or set of computers) to offer even a fraction of the functionally an email or Usenet user agent easily provides.

Welcome back to the stone age of the 1980s. If you're not willing using a desktop computer from 1985, why are you using software from then?

Of course, as you need these features to support large scale discussion, web forums are slowly trying to add them. The most advanced at this point is probably Slash. It still lacks key features I was using back 1993 and running it on a large scale requires a team of administrators and some extremely expensive servers.

It's not surprising that most web forum software tries to hide this flawed foundation with gaudy crap. Every piece of popular forum software feels the need to replace traditional text smileys like :-) with little yellow graphics. It seems like a good idea, but a screen full of little yellow dots draws your eye away from the text, making reading a page straining.

Users are also typically allowed to include graphics in their posts. While sometimes useful, it's all too often used to include their favorite two or three megabytes of pointless, self-aggrandizing graphics. Given a dozen or so users doing this and you can be waiting a long time for a page to finish downloading and rendering. Worse are systems that allow you to embed anything, including Flash animations. A few dozen cute Flash animations on a web page can cause even moderately beefy machines to slow to a crawl.

Of course, no forum supports actually hosting the graphics themselves, they encourage users to host their own graphics and embed them remotely into the forum. Of course, most users can't actually find a place to host the images. Even if they do, creating their own image and putting it online is just too hard. It's much easier to search the web for an image that looks about right and embed it directly from the original server into the forum. The result is both copyright infringement and theft of bandwidth from the poor image source. It's not the web forums fault, but they're sure as heck enablers.

Many forums had also decided to add "experience" systems: the more you post, the higher the "level" you attain. Are we trying to have a public discussion, or are we playing Dungeons & Freaking Dragons! The number of posts someone has made has no bearing on how interesting or insightful that person's posts are. This idiotic system encourages users to post for the most mindless reasons, after all, it increases your experience level.

All of this is a stupid step backwards, shunning advances in communication technology. Is there some sort of mutant Society for Creative Anachronism yearning for the days of Compuserve?

Perhaps they caught on because they're easy. You don't need to learn much to participate, you don't need to configure anything. That's great, if your goal is to have Internet newbies visiting a handful of times and never returning. But for the long haul, the minor investment in learning necessary for participation in mailing lists and Usenet is paid off with huge benefits in efficiency and general comfort.

Web forums are a step backward. Why are we ignoring twenty years of work? Just because it's "on the web" doesn't magically make it better!

(Discussion forum for this article. It will probably only be functioning for a few weeks (perhaps through the end of May 2003. Yes, it's a web forum. There are a small number of cases where a web forum probably is the appropriate place, this is one.)

Contact webmaster - Copyright © 2003 Alan De Smet (2003-05-16)