Is the forum vs. chat dichotomy intrinsic, or a problem that just hasn't been solved yet?

This recent topic on what forums are “good for” (and a lot of similar, prior discussion in other spaces about the benefits of chat vs. forums) has me thinking again about whether this divide is intrinsic to these two modes of interacting. As modern chat platforms get more and more sophisticated with formatting (often markdown), emoji, reactions, profile links, etc., and forum platforms get sleeker designs, more responsive and quick interaction, etc., are these lines being blurred? What, exactly, fundamentally defines each mode?

Now Discourse is adding a real time chat plugin, based on the same core functionality as its forum “mode”, and able to interoperate with it (e.g. copy chat messages to a Topic for further discussion or archiving). So now real time chat and theoretically slower-paced forum discussion could happen in the same tool. What is the dividing line, and is it in some sense artificial? Could you in theory keep the forum functionality the same, and just make it possible to reply more quickly, effectively making a “chat”? And if so, could you simply provide different “views” of the same content, where “chat” is super stripped-down, Discord-like, with a focus on the content, and “forum” just expands all the optional info and tools? Or is there something else that truly, consistently defines a real difference?

Speaking of Discourse Chat, is anyone else excited by the prospect of at least good integration between these two modes? Do you actively prefer your chat to be separate (e.g. in Discord) - and if so, why - or is it just that way because no one has solved the integration problem well enough yet? If the latter, will you consider using Discourse with its integrated chat plugin as a future, more capable platform for community?

If you haven’t already done so and you use or are interested in using Discourse, I highly encourage you to test out the chat plugin! It’s pretty cool, and works really well already. Being able to move chat messages out of that more ephemeral space feels really powerful and conceptually helps me reduce the feeling of content loss in chat…

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That looks and sounds amazing. To be honest, that sounds like absolutely ideal platform for a community - plus, it’s open-source, which is just the cherry on top. I’m definitely going to advocate for this when I next have the opportunity to push for a new community platform.

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There is a risk that you create a ‘brain drain’ situation by having chat along side the forum.

I think this model will work when you have a strong and very active community management team monitoring chat and pulling out the best content and putting it into a topic.

The other issue is that for quiet forums, the chat will be a very lonely place. I’ve seen ‘chat boxes’ on forums for years and most have a few ‘hello’ type comments from a few days prior.

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Bringing chat into Discourse feels like a smart way to keep everything into one spot.

On the go? Multitasking? Have a quick question? Want to say hi? Jump into the chat.

Want to start a thoughtful conversation? Have a question that can’t be easily answered via brief messages? Spin up a forum thread.

You’re still in the same “place”, so less context switching than, say, hopping from a Discord channel to a Medium article.

It also feels like a response to what Circle is doing, which in turn feels like a response to the sort of environment consolidation that Notion spearheaded with docs.

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It can work if it’s explained what the purpose is. People tend to try the path of least resistance so it will increase the moderation burden ensuring that valuable content is moved to a place of permanence.

We’ve had chat box plugins for a decade on forums and most of them are graveyards.

I’m not against live chat of course, you just need to evaluate how best to use it based on your community. Given a forums strength is permanence, you risk weakening that.

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Thanks for highlighting this, I had no idea about it.

I would totally be up for using this plugin, I don’t think I can on the hosted version of Discourse?

Also, whilst I’d be up for moving away from Discord, I still partly love it for their audio rooms. I don’t really them enough atm, but it’s definitely a big pull for me.

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This is an interesting perspective. However it seems to focus on the potential negative impact that chat might have as an addition to an existing non-chat (forum) community. Is that what you were thinking of?

I say that because the scenario I more typically encounter is something like this: a forum may or may not exist, but there is definitely already a chat, usually Discord. Why? Because Discord is free and easy to setup, and Discourse (and even most other forum software) is not. In the more mature communities there is both a strong Discourse (or other forum) and an active Discord (or other chat).

So that’s the perspective I’m coming from, having seen at least 10s of these sort of “divided” communities, where chat and forum are both strong, but are difficult to interoperate and collaborate between. In this scenario I think adding chat into the core of Discourse is a potentially huge win, especially if you can get people to migrate off of Discord in the long-term.

Quite honestly I’m not sure I’d introduce chat into a community that didn’t already have it, unless there was a really strong demand for it (in most cases I find if that’s true, it has already been met due to the low friction of creating a Discourse server), and unless as you say moderator resources were in place to address it. That said again I think the Discourse integrated chat approach at least gives you more tools and a better chance of keeping things running smoothly by having a much tighter integration and the ability to easily move things out of chat into more permanent/long-form spaces. This is really just something that does not exist at all right now, and I think it is potentially a big deal.

True, but a key difference here is that you (and the author of chat messages as well) can very easily move things into the forums. With proper messaging and documentation I think it would be empowering.

Good question. If it’s officially hosted (by CDCK) I don’t think so, at least not until the plugin is out of “pre-alpha”. But it wouldn’t hurt to ask, especially given the footprint you have in the overall community building space and that tinkering with different ways of enabling community is pretty much your brand. :grin:

Yeah, that’s an important point. And it’s interesting because my assumption is that Discourse has no interest in adding that in. At the same time, though, it seems like a bit of an arbitrary boundary. Discourse is ostensibly about “Civilized discussion”, with a particular interpretation of what “discussion” means, which is finally broadening with the inclusion of chat to encompass both “asynchronous”, long-form forum “discussion” and real time, “synchronous” chat “discussion”. Is audio “discussion”? Almost certainly it can be. Does CDCK want to try to do audio? Probably not. :smile: But maybe with a plugin. I know there is a Jitis and Big Blue Button integration of some kind, though very simple. It’s definitely not the same level of integration and polish as Discord… Interesting to think about though.

I encourage you all to sign-up to Discourse Meta and join the chat test group so you can play with the plugin in its current state. More feedback is needed to make it the best it can be!

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I think the challenge that community builders need to be up for is deciding how to use a chat space. It’s easy to just enable it and hope that it is used well, however I feel we need to design activities for it and to also feel like it doesn’t always have to be in use for it to be successful. Less use can be better, so that people don’t feel overwhelmed.

Hosting a weekly AMA, support group, meetup, etc, could be a great use for a chat space. Good ideas from it can then be captured to explore in a more detailed fashion on the actual forum.

Yes, I’ve done that and will think and explore it in the coming days. :innocent:

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FWIW, I’m enjoying this forum and community, even though I’m not in the Discord server. I’m finding that the more communities I connect with, the more I prefer async forums like this one. I also find Discord to be an exceptionally rough UX from an onboarding perspective and joining any new Discord is like massive cognitive overload for me.

Having chat integrated into the forum here would be super interesting to try out (I’ll give that Discourse Meta a try to see what it feels like), but I do find that I prefer the async interaction over the live experience for something like this.

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Yes, you’re absolutely right and this is a critical point!

I see this kind of thing being done in existing chat spaces, especially Discord, and at the risk of being repetitive, the exciting potential I see with the Discourse chat plugin is having this in the same space as the forum so any exceptional content can be captured and maintained long-term. I am really curious to see if the energy and momentum of immediate chat interactions can transition comfortably, naturally, beneficially into ongoing, slower discussion and more structured information maintenance.

Me too! But it also feels like I miss out on some great conversations and especially interaction with great community members by not being as active in some chat spaces. I’m hopeful that having built-in chat will bring in people who may otherwise be scattered, and with the help of mods and those users themselves, surface even more good content that might otherwise have disappeared quickly in a separate chat space.

If you think through some of the consequences of this integration, I think some other interesting things turn up, too. For example there may be people in an existing chat space like Discord who are very active, get a lot of Likes/reacts, lots of replies, etc. In Discourse you can easily find these people, even as a regular user, by checking out the User list and playing with the sorting:

https://village.rosie.land/u?order=likes_received

As well as looking at the Badge rankings, etc.

https://village.rosie.land/badges

I imagine the Chat system will also contribute to stats views like that in some way, maybe with chat-specific badges, etc. So if folks migrate from a separate chat space to Discourse, you suddenly get the potential for a whole lot of useful information on their interactions that you didn’t have before. That might give you a good reason to jump into a chat to check out what e.g. some particularly active user has said, they might jump into an existing forum topic and mention a conversation that arose in chat that they can link to, or a mod could even move some of those chat messages into the related topic, etc.

So overall my hope is that rather than losing anything good that Discourse/forum interaction already has, this will instead just add beneficial interaction, energy, cohesiveness, etc.

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When I communicate on the forum, I don’t feel the same connection as on the chat, even though the chat message can be answered the other day.

The chat is like you’ve prepared a tea with the pie and shout to your friend in another room to join you. The forum is like you are enjoying the pie on your own and leaving a stick card on the fridge for the friend who is coming later at night saying, “the pie is inside, taste it and message me your feedback.”

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You have an interesting experience and feelings around these two “modes”, which I think may be somewhat common. If you are interested in sharing more, I would be curious to hear your opinion on what specific aspects of the interface and interaction system makes chat feel more “immediate” (my interpretation of your description). What is it that makes it feel like a “sit down with a friend” rather than a more disconnected experience?

To give an example of what I mean and why this interests me, Discourse (this forum system) has a “user is typing” indicator for forum topics, just like chat systems do. So there is a form of “presence” there. But it sounds like this on its own is not enough to make it feel “immediate”. So I am curious if you can point to other things that bring this feeling for you. Or perhaps it is simply the “expectations” and assumptions around chat vs. forum?

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@Oshyan, it’s more about the following:
accessibility - chats have user-friendly mobile apps;
a notification system - you receive an instant notification;
and a general chat experience - it’s like a bias gained through my life experience that chat feels more alive, and you may expect a faster reply than for forum.

In my experience forum is a place where you can leave a message and forget about it, return the next day, go through the thread and continue the dialogue. In chat, you can tag an exact person, they receive a notification writing “Yurii tagged you,” and if you have a good connection with a person, they will try to answer you immediately.

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Good feedback. The first two - mobile apps and notifications - could be (and in some cases already are) solved for forums. But that would not in itself change the 3rd. As you say, it’s simply a bias. :wink: You can @ people in a forum already and get notified (like this one! @YuriiLazaruk , though you would already be notified here because I am replying to your message). The “immediacy” of the notifications depends on the first two points you made which, in the case of Discourse, are imperfectly and “unevenly” solved (on iOS there is a Discourse app for example, or you can install a PWA version on Android).

In any case I think personal preference and past experience are likely a big factor. But as forums and chat get closer together in terms of absolute features, I am more and more interested in what - if anything - still differentiates them. We have perhaps come a step closer to understanding that here, but it is still not entirely clear. If a forum has an app and notifications and the ability to @ someone to get their attention, why is it still not a chat? :thinking:

Here’s my current perspective:

  • Chat organization is broad and generally avoids more specific/narrow “topics” in favor of “categories” and/or “tags”
  • Chat reading UI is extremely simple and tightly spaced, emphasizing the “closeness” of messages
    • Information aside from the text of the chat message is minimized, put behind menus or buttons you need to open, etc.
    • UI elements are often shown on-hover rather than persistently
    • Contrast this with e.g. the forums here, where there is a lot of “white space”, the time that you posted is shown, many controls are persistent, etc.
  • Chat messaging UI/UX focuses on immediacy and simplicity
    • Formatting options are minimal, no formatting toolbar, markdown or select+popup controls only
    • No “topic” or “tags” or other ways to “augment” or provide additional context to your message
    • “Enter” sends the message by default rather than creating a new line, thus biasing toward shorter messages sent more easily and frequently

Given all that, I can actually envision a system that could smoothly shift between the two modes. I think it would be basically like Threaded forums, but more modern and dynamic. And changing the UI between “compact/simple” and “spaced+more options” seems totally do-able. Whether that’s desirable or not I am uncertain, but it seems quite interesting to me. I’m half inclined to sketch up a prototype actually…

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Or it could be a chat with the ability to transform discussion into forum threads. But since an answer has to be at least 100 characters, I had to add this sentence :sweat_smile:

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Late reply, but that’s exactly what Discourse Chat will be able to do. Or… is that the point you were making? :smile:

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Maybe it isn’t forum vs chat.

Maybe it’s forum vs anything else that has people’s attention spans:

  • social media
  • content
  • videos
  • etc
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Maybe, but isn’t “chat” (Discord, WhatsApp, Telegram) one of the things that has people’s attention?

Perhaps equally important, do the reasons people use chat or a forum compete directly with the reasons they use “social media” (broad term, many interpretations and diverse examples) or video? In some respects yes, support topics are a great example where I think YouTube videos have taken over a lot from support forums and other support channels.

This starts to get back to that core question for each of these “mediums” of what is the “job to be done”, what is the user/member “hiring” the medium (social media, forum, video platform, etc.) to do for them? The two main categories that come to my mind are: help, and social interaction (community for its own sake, so to speak). The need for “help” is often met in other spaces these days. And arguably chat/realtime is better for at least certain aspects of “social interaction”.

So perhaps what forums are best at (helping, long-form, considered discussion) is being handled by other media, and meanwhile they’re less good at immediate social cohesion, feeling “seen”, getting “connection”. They work well at that for some people, absolutely (I’m one of them), and in some communities, but I think the floor for feeling “connected” is higher in chat (i.e. chat starts with an intrinsically greater feeling of connection to others just in a purely social sense, not in a safety/friendship sense), and the ceiling may well be higher too (though not necessarily).

What forums are best at is no longer as needed or desirable… perhaps… Are forum platforms dead?

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There’s more to it than meets the eye. In general, when a product tries to jump from one box to another or meet the same goals with the same product, it ends bad for the current set of users: https://twitter.com/andupotorac/status/1552831918139473920/photo/1.

Think of chat communities more like a group of friends that meet in the central square for beers. And of forums like friends exchanging letters. Totally different means of communication and goals.

And with each form of communication come opportunities for better products. So one company focusing on chat will bring more product innovation than one focusing on both. See Guilded as an example, of someone competing with Discord head to head.

I think chat platforms should, instead, focus on solving the noise issue in chat. The reason it exists is this: https://twitter.com/andupotorac/status/1552608692222283776. So how do you solve congestion in a chat environment? There are many experiments one can make, but the answer is definitely not forums. It defeats the purpose of real-time communication.

Now, on to forums. The purpose of forums is to organize conversation for long-term consumption, which isn’t the case for chat (real-time events take priority). So forums have the option to improve on that use-case, instead of trying to be a giraffe-elephant.

I think Circle and Discourse will drive users confused, just like the 6 chat apps Google put out, instead of one. Adding chat to forums, won’t make Discord users switch. And adding forums to chat, won’t make Discourse users switch to Discord either.

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To add more based on some research I did, here are some use-cases to solve for:

  1. Plenty of users use Discord as a Wiki, besides chatting with others. So they’re sending messages to themselves to store content and information (solution: a wiki app)
  2. Plenty of users have a hard time searching for something or asking questions that have already been answered. (solution: why even ask the question when you can help them before they formulate and send it)
  3. Plenty of chats use a channel like an announcement channel, making it hard to keep up to date with, and not easy to comment / ask questions about (solution: use a feed instead).

And dozens of other problem-solution situations that come about when you look at what people do. Did you know there are millions of people voting for features across different chat applications, that companies haven’t yet looked at, sometimes for more than 4 years? I think, strongly, companies should focus on what people complain about.

Here’s an interesting question: is Twitter a chat, or a forum? :slight_smile:

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