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Reflections on Online Communities


For a response to Joel's post about building online communities and some new insights about them by me.

Every commentary, including the correction of typos is welcome.
Shlomi Fish Send private email
Saturday, November 12, 2005
I have given a few thoughts to Web forum features, and you touch upon some of them:

1. I agree with Joel on no-branching approach. Makes stuff much cleaner and simpler.

2. Promotion of topics: Well, the best approach would be an algorythm that would decide which topics are most interesting, based on the number of posts and how recent they are, if the topic include any posts by the current user etc. Such an algorythm would be quite useful, I think.

3. Confirmation: Both you and Joel have a point here -- I was thinking of an ability to edit the post as long as it is still the latest post... But perhaps a confirmation step might be simpler.

4. Markup: I had an idea that Markdown ( ) would be the perfect for forums, as it is both simple and familiar to most e-mail and Usenet users. The exception are URLs, which should be parsed automatically, but a lot more flexibly than current JoS software does.
Berislav Lopac Send private email
Saturday, November 12, 2005
Thanks for raising this issue, Shlomi.

I disagree with most of Joel points, but never found the time to talk about it.

But since I can't persuade Joel, I thought of ways to overcome the limitation imposed on his forum.

Some of the issues related to how the page is displayed can be solved by a GreaseMonkey user script, such as:
* the location of the "Reply" and "Start a New Topic" buttons
* the order of items in the discussion list
* the display of the last post or the entire discussion when replying (useful for quoting, but also for referring to points raised in the discussion)
* and even the preview issue (although not fully supported, as it won't show it exactly as the server would process it).

More then I miss the e-mail update issue, I miss not having an RSS feed for a discussion in the forum.
This can be solved by another server, which, on request, checks the forum's site and transform it into an RSS feed format. This however is problematic, as it add more load on the forum server.

I also like to have branches in forums, but I can't find a way to overcome it without using some AI that understands who respond to whom in the discussion...

splintor Send private email
Sunday, November 13, 2005
The #1 thing I'd like to see in this forum is the ability to turned on fixed-width fonts for certain sections/posts. Attempts at ASCII diagrams, tables, etc. are mangled by the change in font.

IMHO it also is a feature that would benefit the main purpose of this forum - product support.
MarkTAW Send private email
Sunday, November 13, 2005
All that would take would be to not html strip <pre /> tags, which would be pretty safe as the styling would be the same as for URLs so that the text wouldn't wrap.

It's somewhat ironical that comments about the forum and bayesian filters fall foul of the filter.  But then it isn't irony but the man behind the curtain and one of the rules is no talking at the back about the man behind the curtain.
Simon Lucy Send private email
Sunday, November 13, 2005
Ha so true, Joel is wrong on all his essay. We think much like this when essay come out last year but we should keep writing about this until he admit he is wrong.

"I also like to have branches in forums, but I can't find a way to overcome it without using some AI that understands who respond to whom in the discussion"

This is simple matter. Maybe I write script for you does this later.
Dmitri Shoskovitch
Sunday, November 13, 2005

I enjoyed reading your essay.  I think you are a good writer and this is a topic that many people feel especially passionate about, so your topic is a good choice also.

Here's how I would change your article slightly so that more people can get the most out of it.

1. Start with a thesis.  Rather than just making comments about Joel's article, start with your own thesis and use arguments to back it up (examples are always good).  For instance your thesis could be "Joel's own online forum attempt proves his own logic is flawed."  But I think an even more interesting thing to say would be to talk about social communities in general, and not address your article specifically at Joel's article... doing that limits your audience and forces the reader to go read another article before even reading your own.  Cite other articles (Clay Shirky's for example) which support your arguments, or list historical examples or stories which will engage the reader.

2. Don't use so many quotes.  Your article has a lot of interesting ideas and should stand on its own.  While you did a good job of attributing your source, the excessive quoting is redudant to read for someone who has already read Joel's article.  It also probably violates his excessive quoting clause here:
If you keep your article as a rebuttal to Joel's then it would be nicer to sum up each topic as you quote on it.  For example:
"Spolsky cites the example of IRC chat channels to show how small details of the software can have tremendous impact on it's social usages.  Some IRC networks do not allow you to own a channel or a nickname, as Spolsky notes, but others have already solved this problem.  You can now register a nickname because the evolution of the software decided this is necessary.  The original IRC creators..." etc. 

3. Make your end summary more explicit.  Say exactly the things you agree with Spolsky about and exactly the ones you don't.  Then make sure that the ones you don't agree with have supporting arguments in your article.

With a coherent thesis starting your article, less quoting of the original article, and a good summary bringing all your points together, I think you will have a very readable article.

Good Luck!
Michael H. Pryor Send private email
Sunday, November 13, 2005
MarkTAW: fixed-width fonts for messages can be easily achieved using a few lines of JavaScript. Technically it's DHTML, but all you have to do is switch the class of a containing div back and forth.

I did a similar thing in my homesite, where I hide the sections navigation menu.

One can easily write a Greasemonkey script to accomplish that for the JoS forums, and for every other individual forum.
Shlomi Fish Send private email
Thursday, November 17, 2005
Michael H. Pryor: I'm glad you liked my article. Now as a response:

1. I don't really have a thesis about making forums. Well, if you add the vectors of Joel's essay and mine then I will, but still my essay was intended only as a response to it. I guess I can rewrite it as a full article, where I present my full thesis.

I don't think the JoS forums system is all bad. Some things in it may need to be improved, but as a general rule, it is enjoyable.

As for the quotes: I specifically markd the quoted sections as blockquote, and can easily add other text or markup. I sometimes needed to quote two or three paragraphs, but I specifically marked them as so, and didn't attribute them to myself. As far as I know, quoting small parts of text in a critique of it is acceptable, and falls under fair use rights. Refer here for more information:

But perhaps you are right.

And an explicit of the summary would be a good idea.

"Back to formula..."

Shlomi Fish Send private email
Thursday, November 17, 2005

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