I hate web fora.
I do not think I can adequately express the loathing that I have for web fora as a communication medium. Whenever somebody proposes that I must take part in a discussion on a web forum, I want to pull out the foulest curse words in my vocabulary. Which, thank goodness, look something like this.
For years, I have managed for the most part to avoid using web fora for interactive communication. For example, I have tenuously avoided the MozillaZine forums. But recently, some (well-intentioned) mozillafolk have proposed to move the Mozilla corporation internal discussions from a mailing list to a web forum. I hate the very idea. Perhaps I have been tainted by years of badly-implemented fora, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I would like to identify, as precisely as possible, what about web fora engenders such vengeful feeling in my soul and what tools would be necessary to change my mind.
How I Work
- My mail client (Thunderbird) notifies me of pretty much anything that needs my attention:
- List mail
- Direct mail
- “Page changed” from MDC. Although, if I might rant about this, it doesn’t show me what changed; if multiple things change, it only notifies me once. This is only a couple notches above useless. Forcing me to load a page in my browser to see what changed is a timewaster, especially since the vast majority of changes are interlang-link bot changes that I can safely ignore. I tried keeping track of the changes through an RSS feed, but that requires a login.
- RSS feeds
- I save and mark threads of discussion for later dealing-with and quick searching. I typically leave messages as “marked unread” that need to be dealt with imminently. I also have a series of tags to mark mail as “ready for checkin”, “important”, etc.
- Not that Thunderbird is perfect:
- Thunderbird’s RSS support is still primitive. I would really like new posts to show up in my Inbox, but that doesn’t work (or at least I haven’t figured out how to make it work).
- Thunderbird’s threading features leave lots to be desired. I typically want to tag an entire conversation, not an individual message in the conversation. I would like to manually sort messages into folders, and have the entire conversation (including followups that I haven’t received yet) appear in those same folders.
How Web Fora Don’t Work (for me)
- Web fora (or online archives of emailing lists) are great for reading old conversations, as well as searching conversations.
- But for a conversation that I care about, web fora alone don’t meet the bill. I want to reliably and quickly keep track of conversations:
- The first post of any new topic
- Any post that somebody cc’es me on. Not necessarily an email cc, but that’s what I currently prefer. What I need is the ability for somebody to notify me that a conversation I was previously ignoring or skimming needs my attention.
- All the posts for any thread that I have posted to
- Note that reliably means that I need to be aware of these even after having been on vacation for two weeks with my feed reeder disconnected from the internet. Thus RSS feeds that only present the last N posts or the last week are insufficiently reliable.
- Web fora are terrible at keeping track of conversations
- Without email/RSS gateways, I cannot store the conversations on my local machine. This makes it very hard to skim conversations, and introduces massive inefficiency.
- Web fora do not have a standard posting interface. There are some Firefox extensions that make this tolerable by allowing users to resize textboxes, but that’s barely comfort to me.
- I cannot send carbon-copies or forwards of posts to other “media” such as email without computer gymnastics.
- Because, finally and most importantly, I don’t want to keep track of conversations in my browser. My browser was not built for that purpose. The purpose-built interface of a mail client is much better at storing and replying to conversations. (Whether it uses POP/IMAP/RSS/NNTP as the network protocol is mostly irrelevant to me, as long as it meets the reliability standard above).
The most obvious solution, to my mind, is to provide a web-forum interface for standard mailing lists. Mailing lists are great! They do exactly what I want, all the time. There are many well-tested solutions out there that provide a web interface for a mailing list. I will happily use the web interface to search and read old conversations.
An alternative possibility involves improving both the web forum and the client tools. If the web forum provides an Atom feed with the conversation threaded using the Atom threading extensions (I don’t know much software that uses Atom threading extensions yet, including the tbird RSS reader). Then, you would have to solve the reliability problem, probably by teaching the client to ask for historical information back to a specific last-read date. Finally, in order to allow posting/replying from the client, you’d have to implement the Atom Publishing Protocol, or maybe a reply-by-email gateway.
Since I’m still feeling angst-y, let me vent about using web browsers for everything. Just because I work for a company that makes one of the world’s most popular web browsers and I use web browsers constantly doesn’t mean I want to use my browser for everything. In fact, I would prefer to use my web browser less. Why am I writing my weblog in a little textbox in WordPress? Because it’s the best solution I’ve found, not because I wouldn’t desperately prefer to be writing my blog post in Thunderbird and push it to my blog (using Atom Publishing Protocol or whatever). I read all my watcher bugmail in gmail not because I want to, but because it has better searching capabilities than Thunderbird and doesn’t barf at 4GB of mail.
I want to use my web browser to… browse the web. For a whole class of “internet” activities, browser != better.