Are forum platforms dead?

I agree with this. If you look at forums since the Ultimate Bulletin Board (UBB) standard came out in 1997 (replacing Matt Wright’s nested standard), linear conversations are rarely “many-to-many” but are largely (as their name implies) linear, unidirectional one-to-one side-conversations, or consensus-building group-talk (what we’re doing right now). The asynchronous linearity of forums doesn’t lend itself to replicating synchronous conversations, but it certainly does make it easy to preserve the content and to try and surface-up the best replies.

Once again, we agree. Communities are timeless. Forums, however, are just a situational platform. They came about as a natural web-based evolution of Usenet Newsgroups, which in turn were just “public email,” and stemmed from prototypes perfected during the dial-up BBS era’s message bases. Forums are great for capturing asynchronous text entries. But not great for collaboration, multi-person editing workflows, or even - stunningly - for legitimate discussions. Because each poster can be super-selective about who they respond to, when they respond, and can pick-and-choose contributions. So to really create “community” on forums, you need moderation. And this is where it starts to break down. And where most forum managers / admins just give up, and the forum descends into self-management or situational ad-hoc general chit-chat. And, again, today, there are far superior alternatives to both scenarios.

Forums were largely co-opted for use cases where they were never intended, because they were what was around. Facebook, Discord, and Reddit all offer superior “out of box” alternatives to anyone looking for a quick casual chat, a real-time voice-and-video-with-text synchronous experience, and a bubbling-up of best news-breaking content and replies, respectively. But all three of these social-alternatives have huge drawbacks, best discussed elsewhere.

Again, I don’t blame forum developers for this. Aside from the hobbyist market - which is all but dead now, a point that Matt rightly shares above - forums are largely treated as a “bonus” (as in Salesforce’s Community Module, which is often ‘given away’ for free to CRM customers, but offers built-in forums on-par with Lithium’s offering), because all of us who have been building communities recognize a core maxim:

It’s not the Field of Dreams. If you build it, they won’t come. You need to meet the needs of your audiences, and audiences have very specific engagement needs for which forums are, generally, very poorly situated. The exception, again, is the support case, the question-and-answer one-shot format, and the one-to-one side-conversation pot-stirring.

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I kind of have the urge to shitpost this so I shall get it out of my system

Social Media: So sad that forums are dead now.
Social Media: Sometimes I can still hear their voice.

More seriously like people have said forums used to be the only game in town so when alternatives come along it’s not suprising they’re used less.

I think their advantage in the peer to peer support area is simply that it’s so much easier to search them than say other types of social media and especially indexing video content is a non-trivial problem. So when it comes to companies looking to deflect support calls I don’t think any other medium has managed to do it better. I’d be fascinated to know what people are doing out there with support and other community mediums.

And @JoelR I know Discourse has some features directly related to holding users hands while they’re writing support questions and suggesting relevant forum threads as a user types their post. So there’s still innovation happening here.

But forums are still there quietly dealing with vast amounts of online support conversations for people like Microsoft, Apple and all manner of other companies dealing with tech. It’s partly they’re not sexy any more, they do the jobs they’re good at and they kind of fade into the background.

Btw Salesforce’s Community Module is in no way on par with Lithium/Khoros, it isn’t within a million miles of any real community platform and is worth less than what Salesforce charge for it. I have to deal with it every day so “flee, save yourselves” and all that.


I agree with you on this. In fact, that’s really the only mainstream case - and it’s a powerful and compelling one, especially for companies as we head into this recession looking to cut back on live support and switch over to distributed / asynchronous / community support - where Forums know no peer. Support Defection is an awesome case for forums.

I think of all the forum software developers, Discourse has been innovating aggressively amidst the age of social media, and I have been genuinely impressed with their platform. (I also love Invision’s holding the fort on the classic UX for communities, but I don’t necessarily consider that innovative, personally.). I know Discourse is controversial (given the founders’ spicy take on the role of community), but where game companies haven’t completely switched over to Discord they have been using Discourse to still power community conversations (such as Activision Blizzard).

I guess from my vantage point as an executive - I oversaw our Client Experience and Community Management at a couple of large and legacy software and managed services providers in my prior roles - I found Salesforce’s eagerness to just “throw in Salesforce Community for free” very interesting, and when we invited Lithium to pitch us on alternatives (we weren’t even thinking price at the time) back in 2018 (before or perhaps during the rebrand to Khoros, shortly after the Vista Equity acquisition), I didn’t see anything that stood out. Salesforce’s “killer app” was integrating all of the threads in Community right into the Contact Management and Case Management modules of the CX platform. Definitely hear you that it’s not up to par now, but if I had a Support Case system, I would want it to integrate into my Support Deflection use case (forums). So, for example, if I were using Microsoft Dynamics CRM, I would probably be looking at a Microsoft SharePoint-driven forum alternative (as terrible as they are) purely for the out-of-the-box integration with the CRM.

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I guess the question is “what is the answer” if it’s not forums for large scalable communities.

There are some communities that are just too big ( to fit anywhere else. One could argue that you could break it down into smaller communities across separate platforms but that is not a better experience for the site owner nor the community. There’s no way you could run this from YouTube, Slack, Discord or any other app based community (Circle, Tribe, etc). At this scale, I think even Discourse would struggle to make sense of it.

Sites like these get around a million topic views a day and see about 3,000 unique members (not including guests) a day.

While it’s easy to sniff at forums when thinking about smaller more intimate communities, there are a good number of this super-communities out there that forums are the only option.

Most platforms that claim to be a “modern forum” are closer to Slack than what these sites need.

I think Reddit’s ubiquity shows that forums of all shapes and sizes can and should accommodate large scalable communities. There’s no question that when large numbers of people are posting and replying to posts, only an interface that lends itself to this posting-and-replying activity can accommodate that size. And forums are clearly the only game in town for this use case. Like I said earlier, I don’t see Support Communities being able to solve their topic-specific case-deflection question-and-answer style activity anywhere else.

There are certainly many super communities that don’t need to use forums to maintain their size and scope. In fact, almost any community centered around media (live-streaming video and creative content) finds a home on Twitch, YouTube, or Instagram. But I suspect you won’t consider these valid “communities” because they are, in essence, Creator-to-Audience rather than many-to-many. (Though, as @JoelR mentions elsewhere, forums generally aren’t great at “many-to-many” interactions, either.) Consider how influencers on these platforms are able to maintain communities of hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of active followers - and over Patreon or Only Fans, almost all of these are fully monetized - and the only thing linking these users together is reactions, shares, and comments to the Creator’s content stream.

I would argue that those cases were never fit for purpose for a forum, either, but I don’t think that your definition of a large-scale site:

… are necessarily predestined for forums, considering that Influencer Communities have far higher activity levels, viewer numbers, and subscriber revenues than even giant purpose-built forums (like CruiseCritic) can muster today.

I don’t think Slack (or Discord) are suitable forum alternatives. But I also don’t think forums, themselves, are relevant to the Creator Economy, let alone typical content creator use cases (streamers, video producers, musicians, even writers and artists). In the past, forums were contorted to showcase creator content and to reorganize this content into articles or blog posts, co-opting the forum replies to create comments. The platforms that Creators are using offer superior alternatives to all of these use cases, though.

I do think that forums are essential for community-led Support Deflection and, to a lesser extent, enthusiast communities organized around a specific niche topic. But, as I have mentioned elsewhere, almost everyone I know who is interested in a niche now doesn’t search the web to find a forum-based community they can join. They just search for a question and they get a timely, relevant answer on Reddit, given the sheer numbers that Reddit hosts across all of its forums.

I think leadership of a forum-based community is more essential than ever. How you promote your community, cultivate discussions, and nurture new members to join more directly determine whether or not your forum-based community can continue to thrive and be relevant. For new entrants into this field, the use cases become smaller – less about niche interests, more about community-based deflection or discussion or a company’s products or a YouTube star’s productions. In other words, Support / Client Experience use cases. For those, there’s no question - forums remain an essential add-on.


@MattM Thanks for sharing your view on forums. I totally agree on the power of forum on better supporting multi-user discussion and its inclusive design. Regarding the content format, have you seen a transition from long-form text to image/video as well? Are most of the reasons you mentioned technical limitations or fundamental unfit for the forum model?


No, I’ve not seen a shift to video, but images have always been a large part of forum content.

I do not see video or spoken content being a large part of forums for a long time. For every person that is comfortable on camera, there are thousands that are not. Forums offer strong anonymity which would be devalued by being on camera.

Likewise, any SEO benefit is lost without strong labelling of the videos.

Zoom out. Said voice message could be automatically transcribed and offered in both formats. Then you meet the needs of all parties. Whenever you see an issue with a way of communicating, instead of looking at how things are, be open to accepting that how things might be could solve the problem (even if you can’t envision a solution in the moment).

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What do you mean? Can you share a link to more info?

It’s not always a one size fits all. For very large communities, sometimes a custom solution might be the right fit - which isn’t necessarily a chat, or a forum.

The cost of transcription is still quite expensive. You will only see this on top tier enterprise platforms and not on Discourse, Circle, etc. Transcription is still only about 90% accurate for a clear speaker with little background noise.

That’s not accurate. Here’s a small dev shop doing it, and plenty of open source AI platforms out there enabling this as well: Navi - Transcription and live translation for FaceTime | Product Hunt.

For noise, look into Krispr.

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The three pillars of communities around shared interests are anonymity (as you pointed out), language and timezone. So for anonymity, again, one needs to zoom out. You don’t need to use your face, or even your voice, in a call. You can use an avatar instead, or blur the face, or apply filters, etc. For example:

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There are always ways to remove barriers and create functionality but I still don’t see the demand for it and I still worry about diluting quality because a typed conversation is generally more concise than a spoken conversation as you lack any real editing ability.

Right, I don’t think he was suggesting that though. Think about it like this:

Anchor message [media of some kind]

  • messages about said anchor message (different types, but text to it too)

Basically, just like chat.

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This is true, and some argue that the photobucket catastrophe wherein millions of in-line photos were delisted was the primary “straw the broke the camel’s back” that ended forums as a mainstream platform. There’s a very lively conversation on Reddit about it now.

More broadly speaking, though, I think that - as @JoelR has better explained elsewhere - the fact that hobbyist admins were playing three roles - webmaster, forum admin, and community manager - and not doing any of those three exceptionally well, introduced the type of existential risk that made it easy for a well-run, large-scale platform-as-a-service provider to displace well-established mainstream forums. Facebook Groups and Reddit were only the latest in a long line of providers that had disrupted the hobbyist market before - like the venerable ezBoards or the proBoards that followed. The difference here, though, is the change in browsing habits and demographics shifted the overwhelming majority of consumer and casual populations to hyper-transactional mobile-first content (namely, images, video, and short-form text). Forums never really enabled these as a primary mainstay, at least, not in-line.

Fascinatingly, Slack first arose in developer communities in the early 2010s because it did a great job of pulling together all of the images, video, documents, etc., that were scattered about on share drives and workspaces, into a single shared storage and presentation facility. It was the synchronous counterpart to the asynchronous Basecamp that preceded it.

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Jeff Atwood is the founder and developer of Discourse. (He also created Stack Overflow, founded Stack Exchange, and is a known quantity in the open source and developer activism space.) He is controversial purely because he expressed a very passionate perspective about how communities should be managed, and you see his philosophy expressed in the design choices he made when developing Discourse (and the other platforms he founded / co-founded).

Here are just a few qualities:

  1. When he vowed to reinvent forums in 2013, he wanted to bridge the gap between synchronous and asynchronous content. This is controversial because most forum fans have a strong preference for the linearity of asynchronous communication, and generally view that synchronous conversations (like Chat) threaten the integrity of forums. For Jeff and Discourse, the two can and should be convergent.

  2. On his blog, he further explained he felt that forums had basically become “a sad trombone,” and the user interface and broader client experience hadn’t changed in decades. He argued that forums needed to be redesigned to (a) be firstly for tablets, mobile devices, and hi-res browsers; (b) be super-responsive, which is only possible with a modern tech-stack, and the LAMP stack that most software - including the current legacy leaders like Xenforo and Invision Power Board - is slow and largely not fit for purpose; and, (c) needs to have built-in automated governance and moderation systems that drive self-regulation.

  3. Also on his blog, he argues that most forum admins are incompetent. Specifically, that because most forum software is closed-source and not open source, it is inherently less secure and open to exploitation. (This is not inherently an Atwood argument, as many proponents in the OSS/FOSS movement also argue the same perspective.) But in his basic argument, he suggests that because admins don’t appreciate the importance of portability and security in their software choices (why would they? they’re just trying to set up a forum, or were when forums were alive in the hobbyist sector), they end up compromising both. So he made very specific design choices to make security and portability unavoidable and self-enforcing software choices.

There’s a lot more, and I use the term “controversial” affectionately. In my view, he is the only contributor to forums who has actually disrupted the space in a pretty big way. It is also very telling that many of his positions that he has staked on forums - from continuous-scrolling pages, to synchronous auto-loads of recent conversations - have been borrowed and influenced the product roadmap of many of the LAMP-stack providers like Invision and Xenforo. That said, he continues to rail against older technology as inherently problematic, and his perspective is that if you’re not designing for mobile first - if not mobile-only - you’re in essence dead.

Finally, and this is the most controversial thing he has stated, in his original announcement about why he wanted to create Discourse, he indicated that less conversation - not more conversation - was inherently required to arrive at a conclusion. He cited his experiences with Stack, and cited the main use case (today, especially) for forums - the Question-and-Answer or Support Discussion forum. In it, he argued:

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 .

He then treated Discourse as a “playing for the other side,” to explore what would happen if you co-opted long-form discussions and drove more civilized discourse by discouraging walls of text and driving more actionable, real-time conversations.

He is, in my view, a visionary.


Thanks for taking the time to put out this - very useful - response. I like principled product people, and to my delight, I’m on the same page with him on several ideas you paraphrased. I need to find out more about this guy and read through his thinking.

But let me give you some very contrarian product decisions I came across, for a real-time chat product for communities, just like how some of his seem unfit:

  1. No DMs between members, only Tickets between members and mods.
  2. No ability to add new lines, which limits text to one paragraph at most.
  3. No input controller for text, but a canvas for apps instead.
  4. LiveText (which is how the 1st chat app was actually conceived, not sure when we replaced that with XXX is typing - which isn’t as useful).

And many other things. Basically, I love the fact he’s been innovating and experimenting with what a forum might be - since you can see it’s something we also experiment with, for chat.

Again, thanks for sharing, very insightful. I now have some more homework to do. :slight_smile:


Discourse has always been very interesting to me.

I find a smalls sense of irony that in one of those articles he chastises forum software for not changing in 10 years, but the Discourse product of today is almost identical to the Discourse product 10 years ago. While there was a burst of innovation at the start, not much appears to have changed since. It is easy to innovate at the start with a fresh slate (and VC funding) but harder when you have a mature product, thousands of customers and millions of end users, most of whom strongly resist change.

I quite like some of the concepts but the UI has always felt unfinished to me. Its functional but not particularly stylish or slick.

In terms of running a forum on a LAMP stack, this is something I do agree with. As we (forum vendors) aim to compete with modern experiences, a basic PHP + MySQL approach is now simply not enough.

If you want to feel a sense of presence then you need synchronous processes running to poll for updates to update the UI and doing that via javascript and the same LAMP server the software is running on is expensive and slow. We are working now working with node, Redis, NoSQL, Elasticsearch and more to deliver new features for our SaaS product.

One must keep in mind that all forum products evolved from a downloadable product designed to be hosted elsewhere beyond the control of the software authors. To allow as much market penetration as possible, this meant keeping requirements very basic. As most forum vendors with roots in the early 2000s were bootstrapped with a team of 2-3 developers and serving smaller clients with $149 license sales, tossing out the product and starting again with a complex tech stack would have been commercial suicide.

As we move past that, I would expect to see more innovation in both the UI and feature set. We have several projects in development that would not be possible if we limited ourselves to a basic LAMP stack.

What are some ideas that come to mind, on how they could improve it? I think the Chat direction for Discourse is a bad strategy choice, so we can skip that.