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Why Discourse Sucks

As some of you may already know, I’ve said countless pieces of criticism against a forum software known as Discourse and some of you may have even noticed some little pieces of that on my new forums.
Today, I’m here with a blog post to explain the flaws and negatives of the software which would show you it’s drawbacks.

What is Discourse? An open source project by Jeff Atwood (and co.) funded by venture capital which he goes on about on his blog about how the current forum software are so backwards and primitive along with on the About Us page where he uses an ancient forum software (vBulletin 3) as an example of the modern forum software.

We’re going to dive into the first aspect of it which is the main selling feature which Jeff is trying to pitch to the free forum market which is.. Trust Levels. In short, users who joined get the lowest trust level with more features being unlocked as they go up the chain with the higher ones even granting moderative abilities.

This might sound fair enough until, you realise that the administrator is not the one granting moderative abilities but rather, some automated software which gauges someone’s activity and contributions then, grants whatever it thinks is suitable which is a huge problem as traditionally.. Administrators only grant such abilities to people who they can trust rather than, who the system thinks is a good person to bestow such abilities upon..

Another problem with trust is how flagging contributes to it which is when someone reports a post then, they will gain trust with enough people flagging a post resulting in the post being taken down however, the trust will be revoked from all of the flaggers and they will even be dealt a trust penalty when the flagged user appeals to a moderator (and wins) which makes it much less likely for people to come forward to flag posts as they will see the risk in them being penalised due to it.

It also raises a situation where they may be borderline cases where a moderator might not rule either way as one option results in the flagged user getting some trust revoked from them and the other case results in the flagger/s getting some trust revoked from them which can cause problems in them making decisions in such situations.

The next issue are the browser requirements, to quote their site..

Internet Explorer 10+
Google Chrome 24+
Firefox 14+
Safari 5+

We do officially support Internet Explorer 9, but some functionality will be unavoidably broken.

These are pretty bleeding edge browser releases, the majority of users are unlikely to even be using such bleeding edge browsers and having it as a requirement is even crazier especially, since a blank page with some text on it telling you to upgrade is not a particularly great message to be greeted with while people in the workplace might not be able to upgrade their browsers like it requests.

Another aspect which damages in comparison with the entire forum market from the paid to the free are these server requirements..

The server side of Discourse is written in Ruby on Rails with a Postgres database, and Redis server cache. You can deploy Discourse on a virtualized cloud server (Amazon EC2, Rackspace, Azure) or on cloud hosting (Heroku, Engine Yard, Appfog, etc) wherever Ruby on Rails is supported. The minimum version requirements are:

Postgres 9.1
Redis 2.6
Ruby 1.9.3

We also recommend a minimum 1 Gb RAM to host Discourse, though it may work with slightly less.

Keep in mind that many of the forum software support MySQL and PHP. Ruby is a rarer one to find on shared hosting, postgre pushes it further while Redis.. I have never seen shared hosting which supports Redis which pushes this into VPS territory. That’s not even including the last sentence which says that it needs 1GB RAM although, it MIGHT work with less while signs on the forums show that it may even need as much as 2GB for it to work with good performance.

That’s an insanely large requirement for a single installation of a forum software, compared to this, the footprints of the other forum software are negligible including software like vB and IPB which are traditionally seen by the free community as large and bloated.

The next problem with the software is the endless scrolling feature which is a bit of a novelty where it automatically loads posts as you scroll down to try to do away with needing multiple pages to go through the various posts in a discussion however, this creates a new problem as I’ve seen when trying out the software (can’t really criticise it well without trying it out for once) where if I say.. Leave a part of the discussion to read later due to being busy or going to bed or some other task then, reopening the browser (which automatically loads up the tabs from my last session).. I end up having to scroll all the way down to where I left off which can take a LONG time on large discussions while with conventional software it’ll be on the page which I left it on which is much easier to find the place I left off on.

There appear to be giant back and forth arguments on the Discourse forums involving whether ‘ago’ should be in the relative timestamps where Jeff is strongly opposed to it (E.g. 5 hours instead of 5 hours ago showing up in the software) and everyone else being opposed to it where he continually asks for evidence to show that people actually want it and him continually raising the bar of what evidence is accepted when they do provide evidence of it.
While Jeff certainly has the authority to decide which direction which the software goes in, he shouldn’t make the community dance in circles by asking them for consensus and then, continually raising the bar. His better off just outright rejecting the idea instead.

The next issues which there is with the whole model which the individual forums have (or as Discourse calls them.. Categories) where rather than using a hierarchical model where you can nest forums inside of forums and so forth.. They go with more of a tag based model instead kinda like WordPress where you throw a post into whatever categories which you want although, Discourse isn’t quite like that either as you can only do one category for each discussion which lacks the positives of both tag and hierarchical models and the biggest problem with this is that there’s a category page where each category appears on.

Doesn’t sound like a problem? Well, the fact that there’s no concept of hierarchical structures means that on the typical big forum where there are countless forums, you’d be scrolling down for an awful long time to find what you might want and so, you’d have to resort to using the search feature more which isn’t a great solution either as you might be missing out on alot of content which you may actually be interested in reading due to not knowing that it exists.

Another model which conflicts with many conventions within other forum software is the general fact that groups don’t really do anything (asides from a basic switch on forums whether someone in that group can view it, as far as my research tells me) which means that they are purely to organise members as opposed to the capabilities given in other software where you can assign custom permissions and so forth which is handled in Discourse by trust levels instead (along with all of the problems which comes with it).

As for full moderator and administrator status, these are per user flags rather than flags or permissions which can set on groups like on the other forum software which means that you have to manage these high level staff individually rather than, organisation them in a more powerful way and there’s no way to restrict which permissions which users with these flags get unlike with the other forum software.

While there are several items which I may cover in a future blog post, one of the last items which I will cover here is hiding features from users with low trust levels.. This isn’t dangerous features like deleting posts and so forth but rather, more simply ones like private messages. You’d think that their reasoning for this is something like trying to keep the number of spambots down and so forth but instead, the reason that they give for this is.. To prevent users from being overwhelmed by the large number of features.

Seriously? Users getting overwhelmed? So, they are penalising all new users (regardless of whether they’ve been on a forum before or are brand new to the whole concept) since they think that the users may ger overwhelmed by all of the features? Come on, all you need is some FAQs or tooltips, if you want to make features more friendly to understand which cures the root of the problem better and doesn’t punish the members who know what they are doing.

Before I forget, I’ll cover their silly little global name system which is exactly as it sounds. Discourse has this system where you can reserve a username by registering on their Meta Forums which is simply put.. The Central Discourse Hub as they are trying to turn it into which is their official forums which is a huge negative for existing large forums as it would mean that members can easily switch to their competitors and it has the potential problem with people assuming that user x on one forum is the same user as user y on another forum due to them using the same name which can be problematic as some forums may have the reservation system disabled as opposed to them uniformly having it turned on.

I’ve seen messages on the MyBB Community Forums where one member even thought that it was a credible competitor which leads to my opinion on the matter.. This? A competitor? Really? Are you joking? What’s this going to compete with? Vanilla? Don’t make me laugh, there are so many problems with this software that there’s no hope in hell of me actually using it to run one of my own sites.

If you liked this article then, feel free to link back to this page, to share it with your friends or to discuss it on my forums.

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