Currently there are 2½ viable desktop operating systems (OS) for personal computers:

  1. MacOS which is tied to Apple hardware.
  2. Windows which works on nearly every PC, including some Macs.
  3. Linux which also works on most hardware, but hasn't gained much market share.

For years I used Windows on a PC I build from parts I bought at Fry's. The first thing I'd install was the functional equivalent of a Linux distribution for Windows.1 At Stack Overflow I discovered Macs make good developer machines. If you open a terminal window you'll find the OS is built on a Linux-like kernel. Virtually every server I've worked with, including this very blog, run on Linux. I use Linux every day, but always through a Mac or Windows OS.

Why don't I use Linux for my regular OS? Well, it suffers that fate of "programmer design". Here's the process:

  1. A programmer creates an interface that works.
  2. Better not to mess with a good thing.

That's not entirely fair. Sometimes programmers degrade to newer (and worse) design paradigms.2

In actual fairness, programmers usually concern themselves with interfaces between systems. Beginning with nothing more than switches3 programmers devised software that, well, makes our digital existence possible. Programmers can afford to use terrible interfaces because we can write scripts. It's only when people interact with software that the system breaks down. Making a great OS requires untold hours of work to do things like watch actual users fail to understand your design. Apple and Microsoft can afford this, but open-source projects don't have those resources. Linux is great for programmers managing software systems but not so great for human interactions.

Some bit of a San Francisco cable car.

When it comes to forum software there are many more options. Wikipedia's list isn't close to complete and if you expand to all sorts of community software, the list is nearly endless. How do you chose?

Of the 17 forum software systems listed on Wikipedia, 5 are no longer actively developed, so you can eliminate those. There's also a feature grid, so you can eliminate software that's missing something critical to your business such as single sign-on (SSO). The trouble with a feature matrix, though, is you can never tell how good the feature is. Does SSO require twiddling a few settings and it works? Or is it more of a "sacrifice a goat at midnight" sorta deal?

Free trials can be a good solution for most software purchasers, but how does that work with community software? In my experience you start seeing the error of your ways months after people started using the platform and you've already spent your budget for the year. Talk about lock-in!

So there's an unfortunate dynamic where community software platforms fill in as much of the feature matrix as they can, set up beautiful demo sites and don't quite get around to polishing the admin tools. Not that these tools don't work. They just . . . aren't as useful as they could/should be. Meanwhile the people who run the community don't want to admit they screwed up picking the software and become Stockholm syndrome advocates.

When I joined College Confidential, it was hosted on Vanilla Forums. I'm pretty sure they considered us problem customers. We had a custom theme and every time Vanilla had a new release, our site broke. To be completely clear, this was 99% our fault. So we decided to move to self-hosting in order to test new updates and fix any problems before they went to our production system. Vanilla Forum software is open source, so it seemed relatively doable. Only we depended on a few plugins that weren't open source, including SSO. We asked Vanilla if we could license their SSO plugin and they refused. That feature is core to their business, so it's understandable. But that's when we first seriously considered switching to Discourse.4

This isn't to say we didn't have problems before that. Besides the broken theme (again, our fault) Vanilla had an unhelpful ignore feature and moderators had to use their person calendars to simulate a temporary ban. So many of the features Vanilla advertises are shallow. The technically do the job. But they don't make it easy.

Discourse understands communities

I've been reading a lot of reviews comparing Discourse to other forum software. Inevitably the reviewer will mention the Trust Level system. A typical example:

Discourse aims to meet the needs of modern communities with features like a trust system that grants tiered access to users based on their ongoing community contributions. This feature helps brands regulate the behavior of new and existing users and reduces spammers from negatively affecting their online community.

Sure. Sounds useful, I suppose. It's just this blurb papers over the nuance of Trust Levels. In order to earn basic rights such as sending private messages (PMs) or post links on their profiles, new users must spend a few minutes reading posts on the site. That does a lot to prevent spam because spending ten minutes on a site just isn't worth the effort for people who don't care about the community.

But Discourse didn't stop there. When a new user joins, fills out their profile and doesn't read anything on the site, the system automatically flags the user for moderator attention. With a push of a button, a moderator can delete the account and block their IP address. While handling flags on College Confidential, I never saw a false positive from this automation. The people who design Discourse understand how spammers behave and set up defense in depth to stymie them.

Discourse could have used a number-of-posts threshold to identify new users and checked off that feature box. What separates adequate from excellent community software is the degree to which it guides community members to good decisions. Joining a site and posting before reading is a sure sign you aren't interested in being a part of the community. So if you want to send a PM, you need to spend a bit of time understanding the community first.

By the way, Vanilla has a similar-seeming system called Ranks.5 While we were on Vanilla frequent question from new users was "How do I get to send private message?" With Discourse, people who want to send PMs get the privilege just by doing normal things on the site such as reading. Discourse eliminated that one bit of friction for our community and most people won't notice it's missing.

Discourse isn't perfect, of course. Vanilla did a better job organizing hundreds of categories, for instance. Unlike what I experienced using Vanilla, the company that develops Discourse continuously improves the product. I have every reason to believe the software will keep getting better since the company uses Discourse themselves. To steal a line from Warren Buffet, they eat their own cooking.

It's a real plus that Discourse has an active community who happily assist people who run into difficulties using Discourse. Most questions get answered within a few hours. It's also a good place to find people who can provide more extensive advice for a fee. To plug my own services, I've been monitoring the marketplace category on Meta Discourse to look for leads. I might not be able to help you myself, but there are other experts hanging around who can.

  1. When I use Windows these days, I install Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL), which allows me to install an actual Linux distribution.

  2. Without straying too far from the topic, I'm considering trying out helloSystem.

  3. Ones and zeros, not the hybrid gaming console.

  4. Even before I was hired I asked if College Confidential might switch to Discourse and the answer was "not a chance". At that point I was mostly reacting the custom theme, which was just unworkable. I saw Discourse as a nicer looking product. Not all Vanilla forums have poorly designed themes, so switching wasn't obviously the right option at that point.

  5. Relegating the snide remark about how this name was choicen because the feature stinks to a footnote.