Occasionally, startups will ask me for advice. That's a shame, because I am a terrible person to ask for advice. The conversation usually goes something like this:
We'd love to get your expert advice on our thing.
I probably don't use your thing. Even if I tried your thing out and I gave you my so-called Expert advice, how would it matter? Anyway, why are you asking me? Why don't you ask your community what they think of your thing?
And if you don't have a community of users and customers around your thing, well, there's your problem right there. Go fix that.
Like I said, I don't get asked for advice too often. But for what it's worth, it is serious advice. And the next question they ask always strikes fear into my heart.
You're so right! We need a place for online community around our thing. What software should we use?
This is the part where I start playing sad trombone in my head. Because all your software options for online community are, quite frankly, terrible. Stack Exchange? We only do strict, focused Q&A there and you'd have to marshal your proposal through Area 51. Get Satisfaction, UserVoice, Desk, etcetera? Sorry, customer support isn't the same as community. Mailing lists? Just awful.
Forum software? Maybe. Let's see, it's 2013, has forum software advanced at all in the last ten years?
I'm thinking no.
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.
There's an amazing depth of information on forums.
- A 12 year old girl who finds a forum community of rabid enthusiasts willing to help her rebuild a Fiero from scratch? Check.
- The most obsessive breakdown of Lego collectible minifig kits you'll find anywhere on the Internet? Check.
- Some of the most practical information on stunt kiting in the world? Check.
- The only place I could find with scarily powerful squirt gun instructions and advice? Check.
- The underlying research for a New Yorker article outing a potential serial marathon cheater? Check.
I could go on and on. As much as existing forum software is inexplicably and terrifyingly awful after all these years, it is still the ongoing basis for a huge chunk of deeply interesting information on the Internet. These communities are incredibly passionate about incredibly obscure things. They aren't afraid to let their freak flag fly, and the world is a better place for it.
At Stack Exchange, one of the tricky things we learned about Q&A is that if your goal is to have an excellent signal to noise ratio, you must suppress discussion. Stack Exchange only supports the absolute minimum amount of discussion necessary to produce great questions and great answers. That's why answers get constantly re-ordered by votes, that's why comments have limited formatting and length and only a few display, and so forth. Almost every design decision we made was informed by our desire to push discussion down, to inhibit it in every way we could. Spare us the long-winded diatribe, just answer the damn question already.
After spending four solid years thinking of discussion as the established corrupt empire, and Stack Exchange as the scrappy rebel alliance, I began to wonder – what would it feel like to change sides? What if I became a champion of random, arbitrary discussion, of the very kind that I'd spent four years designing against and constantly lecturing users on the evil of?
I already built an X-Wing; could I build a better Tie Fighter?
If you're wondering what all those sly references to Tie Fighters were about in my previous blog posts and tweets, now you know. All hail the Emperor, and by the way, what's your favorite programming food?
Today we announce the launch of Discourse, a next-generation, 100% open source discussion platform built for the next decade of the Internet.
The goal of the company we formed, Civilized Discourse Construction Kit, Inc., is exactly that – to raise the standard of civilized discourse on the Internet through seeding it with better discussion software:
- 100% open source and free to the world, now and forever.
- Feels great to use. It's fun.
- Designed for hi-resolution tablets and advanced web browsers.
- Built in moderation and governance systems that let discussion communities protect themselves from trolls, spammers, and bad actors – even without official moderators.
Our amazingly talented team has been working on Discourse for almost a year now, and although like any open source software it's never entirely done, we believe it is already a generation ahead of any other forum software we've used.
I greatly admire what WordPress did for the web; to say that we want to be the WordPress of forums is not a stretch at all. We're also serious about this eventually being a viable open-source business, in the mold of WordPress. And we're not the only people who believe in the mission: I'm proud to announce that we have initial venture capital funding from First Round, Greylock, and SV Angel. We're embarking on a five year mission to improve the fabric of the Internet, and we're just getting started. Let a million discussions bloom!
So now, when someone says to me …
You're so right! We need a place for community around our thing. What software should we use?
I can reply without hesitation.
And hopefully, so can you.
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