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Every time I see hype about Mastodon and the fediverse I miss the phpBB days. There was something special about the interlocking network of forums that didn't need to "federate" in any formal capacity. We just joined communities we liked and formed overlapping networks like normal people do and always have done. No one at the time felt any need to try to accommodate the whole world in one venue.

As someone who never understood the appeal of Twitter or Facebook, the new wave of FOSS social apps feels very alien to me.

As a fellow internet old timer, I agree that social media never really hooked me. I still spend vastly more time reading and posting on the SomethingAwful forums, which have been going for more than 20 years at this point, than I do Twitter. Maybe it's just "old man yells at cloud" and me refusing to change with the times, but I just strongly prefer the dynamics of forums.

Forums are also great for niche interests and communities. I used to be super into homebrewing beer (til kids happened), and there's a site called HomebrewTalk that was THE place to go to geek out on the hobby. People would share recipes, tips, photos of cool equipment they'd bought or built, industry news, etc. It's not something you can really replicate on Facebook or Twitter. I'm sure there is a homebrewing Twitter community, but by the nature of the app it's going to be much more what you're doing in the moment commentary than long form writeups preserved for all time. Both formats have their place.

I spent so many years on SA and Homebrewtalk and they were both such rich communities. Discord is nice and all (and seems to be where things are going) but there's something overwhelming about chat that was really cozy about forums.

(everything2 was incredible back when it was active and I really wish there was something like that again too)

Problem with discord is that it is still just a chat, with forums a newbie has a lot of threads to go through, lots of specific content to consume.

Discord is attempting to have something more like forums[1], but as am not a heavy Discord user I haven't tried it myself.

I used to run a phpBB forum and there was something about being an admin of a forum where people you didn't know in real life came to talk. The fact that Discord distorts the term 'server' to mean 'a channel managed by us' irks me.

1 - https://discord.com/blog/forum-channels-space-for-organized-...

I've gleaned that they use 'server' as something more like a 'workspace' in Slack: a set of channels and people. Odd, either way.

Square pegs into round holes. Discord's thread UI is identical to Slack's, and they're both useless for any discussions larger than ~50 messages or ~5 people.

Yup agreed - and also forums are particularly suitable to the introverted lurkers among us ^_^

Algorithmic feed + moderators. This is what makes FB, twitter such horrible places for building a real community. Each thread in a FB group is valued but it's ability to create more traffic and more ads and not because of it's true value to the community. The result is that what comes in your feed is usually the feeds that generate extreme reactions from different sides. On forums if it's up you know it's a real discussion and people have add true value to it otherwise the moderators would have intervened. If something was asked and answered it saves as a reference for next time. In social media there is no such thing. The algorithms wants you to recreate the same threads again and again just to make sure more traffic will be generated. It's no coincidence that search is not useful in FB groups.

I wonder if anyone has experimented with algorithms optimized for sustainable long-term community building. What would that even look like?

Don’t know about algorithms, but HN does a good job of being a forum. I think it’s a combination of sensible guidelines, restricted community moderation (votes and flags) and very good manual moderation.

HN is decent for discussion about news but is not great for any longer-running discussions - probably intentionally.

I never thought much about it before, but I guess forums should optimize the useful life of a given thread to loosely match the useful life of whatever is being discussed. For example, golfmk7.com is for a set of cars with model years of 2015-2021 (in the US; 2012-2021 globally) so the critical mass of discussions will probably taper off in the next 5-10 years.

I don't know the typical lifecycle of homebrew equipment, but a similar bell curve distribution should apply.

Very different timeline from discussing news and/or random gossip where nobody will care about that particular conversation a week later.

Same - there is just something about the forums style experience (and especially SA) that appeals to me more than other forms of social media.

I can see the appeal in the discussion, but I certainly don't miss the forum UI. There's too much clutter to accomodate post metadata, avatars, titles, and mostly obnoxious signatures. Pagination and the lack of hierarchical comments to create sub-threads made it difficult to navigate and find interesting discussions.

Personally I think hierarchical comments are the worst part of reddit/HN. They try to force a structure where there is none, and make it more difficult to navigate a discussion.

1. With hierarchical comments, you can't respond to multiple people. If you want to make an observation about the way a thread is heading, or point out a mistake multiple posters are making, you have to either (a) respond to the comment that seems most appropriate to call out (b) respond to the highest voted comment to make your post more visible or (c) make a seperate subthread to make your point (but risk your comment being ignored). With chronological comments you don't have to choose, you can do all 3 at the same point and your comment is just as visible as every other comment. Believe me, there are lots of scenerios where you wish you could respond to multiple comments.

2. With hierarchical comments it's difficult remember the context of a discussion. You always have the mental overhead of remembering what all the previous posts were talking about or risk having to scroll all the way up (personally I just use Ublock Origin's element zapper functionality to hide the comments I'm done reading to get back to the parent). On the other hand with chronological comments you always know all the comments a comment is responding to, and if your forum software supports backlinks you also know all the comments responding to a comment. 4chan has the best UX for this, you can click on any post link or backlink to open a post and then go through all of the posts that post was responding to or all of the posts responding to that post, and so on. No other forum I've used comes close IMO.

3. With hierarchical comments if you're halfway done through reading a thread and want to refresh the page you have to scroll all the way to the top and go through every comment to see if you've missed any newer comment (but I bet no one actually does this and just gives up). With chronological comments newer comments always appear at the bottom so you don't miss any part of the discussion.

You're right about the clutter but you can disable all of those, with avatars and signatures disabled the average comment takes up the same space as an HN comment.

I don't disagree with your points (well 1 and 3 anyway) but you can't just ignore the major advantage of threaded discussions: that you can branch off into different directions without derailing the thread as a whole. For example this entire subthread is about forums in general and now about hierarchical vs. linear discussion - if you actually wanted to talk about phpBB (the subject of this thread) then with a linear view you'd have to sift through and enless supply of unrelated comments. Here you can just collapse subtrees that go in an uninteresting direction.

I also don't think your problems with threaded discussion are unsolvable. I've not seen any forum implement this but I don't see why you couldn't allow someone to reply to multiple comments at once. For display you'd show the reply under the topmost parent and then only a link (or pre-collapsed comment) under the other ones.

For updates, Reddit solves this by highlighting new comments since your last visits (or other previous visits you can select from), which works really well - except that they limit the feature to paying users and subreddit moderators. HN doesn't have that feature presumably because HN doesn't want long-running discussions.

For (2) Reddit (or RES anyway) also has a solution: hovering over the [parent] link shows the parent post.

The clutter vs. minimalism is an entirely separate issue. While I wouln't advocate for giant signatures, I think some customization (avatar, titles, etc.) can be important for community building.

I have spent many years in many forums, both hierarchical and flat, and while I might agree with you on points 1 and 3, I find point 2 to be just the opposite. In my experience, flat forums devolve into a jumble of overlapping threads which are extremely difficult to follow. Or in CS terms, whereas a hierarchical forum is a simple tree, a flat forum turns into a DAG.

I think GitHub Discussions* strikes a nice balance between hierarchical and chronological comments.

The main comments are chronological, but you can also inline reply to a main comment. So the hierarchy is restricted to one level deep. I think this design flows more naturally, you avoid deep branching, and you avoid quoting a comment that was 3 pages back.

* https://github.com/godotengine/godot-proposals/discussions

> There's too much clutter to accomodate post metadata, avatars, titles, and mostly obnoxious signatures.

The good thing about web forums is they allowed you to disable those things at the user level. Social media is top-down by design. Want to get rid of Twitter's useless 'For You' default tab? You can't, because the company has decided that that's something they want you to use, regardless of your preference.

SomethingAwful has bar none the best tech related forums and discourse.

Oh, the memories! I feel you. There were so many good forums. Mostly lost to time.

If anyone wants to see a classic 2000's-era forum, here's a bespoke one that I built back in 2005:





Or older:


All the cool kids were building hyper customized forums. I was so proud of myself to have written something that wasn't phpBB/Invision/vBulletin. I wanted "clean" URLs, avatar randomization and interactive signatures. So many other weird features. I didn't have a mind for "product" and just built whatever came to mind. I think a lot of us were, and that's why that era of the web was so weird and special.

I built this back before I started college. This was my hobby that consumed me, taking over from video games. I had no idea that what I was learning at the time would become a lucrative career or bring me any money at all. It was just fun. Showing off amongst friends. Building a community of like-minded people to talk with.

Hacking RM2K and Zelda Classic, bouncing around AIM/IRC, moving from IGN/EzBoard to hosted forums, exploring what others were building... It was a different time. MySpace, Xanga, and Facebook ultimately put a stop to it. People used to build so many weird and wonderful ways to talk to one another, but it wasn't scalable.

I know my view is tainted by rose colored glasses, but I do miss it.

I'm so tempted to build forums into my newest website, FakeYou.com. I know it would probably distract me from building actual product features that matter. With all the kids that are are using Discord, it wouldn't make any sense. But I always gravitate to forums. They're special.

Haha I can definitely relate to the obsession with clean URLs.

My programming career started with adding extensions to phpbb forums. I didn't know what I was doing, I was just following the install instructions that had me replacing code here and there.

Same! Modifying phpBB, oscommerce and Wordpress installs is how my career began!

Trying to moderate and keep spam off forums really us what keeps me from wanting to deal with them these days.

I remember DSMeet. Good times. Then the switch to Friendcodes.com & Oneclick Wi-Fi

One definining characteristic of internet media is where they rank on the "transience" spectrum.

The most extreme end probably being some old school chat apps and IRC on one side, and encylopedic wiki's (not the only kind) on the other. And while both forums and Usenet were closely rooted in current conversation, they had a more long-standing meaning, too. Where you could follow whole discussions even years later and where the writing style recognized this, often having single posts that more closely resemble articles.

Twitter and Mastodon seem a lot more ephemeral. As do sites like this or reddit, after all, they're concerned with "news".

StackOverflow seems closer to the forums of olden time out of most of the contemporary outlets.

So apart from the UI, you might miss that different conversational character resulting out of this.

As a final note, I do miss Wikis like the original one, where you had a lot of long-standing information, but with a conversational bent.

The thread on HN the other day about wanting to revive old threads made me realize how transient posts are.

The difference is basically that comments in threads are not linear by time and threads are not sorted by most recent comment.

Free app idea.

Call me crazy but aren’t you describing a forum?


It’s not about what’s written, it’s about engagement and advertising. The more ephemeral the better! Then that fomo kicks in and engagement is through the roof. That is, until some rich guy buys it and runs it into the ground.

I remember at the time eye-rolling a friend who intensely believed that circa 2002-2006 was a second golden age of the internet.

He was right!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times!

As someone who never understood the appeal of Twitter or Facebook, the new wave of FOSS social apps feels very alien to me.

Forums felt like writing emails in the open.

Twitter felt like texting in the open.

Not sure what the next thing will be! I say this as someone with 1k+ posts on multiple forums (essentially archived at this point).

> Forums felt like writing emails in the open.

Actually, most of my favorite forums were only accessible if you registered, which in several cases required an invite. So it was less like writing letters in the open and much more like getting together with my bowling buddies or whatever. Just a group of friends who you hang out with from time to time.

Interesting! I usually see forums with hidden sections for long-time members, whether that was by registration time, post count, or manual addition. TIGForums has a fun forum section you can actually see with 0 posts (registered) and then again at a much higher post count. It vanishes as soon you do you first post.

I more meant "email" for content length, at least with my personal experience--forum posts were more like longer letter/email lengths, and Twitter felt more like texting with shorter notes (huge twitter threads aside).

It depends on the forum. I used to chat on a fully public forum with a few friends (whom I never met outside the forum) back in the 2000s. A couple hundred posts a night was typical, each post on par with or even shorter than a typical tweet. We never moved to an IM for some reason.

I love forums, still use them regularly and prefer them to social networks for many communication needs (specialized communities, focused questions, sharing semi-private things semi-anonymously, or sharing posts that take some work and I'd like to be preserved, for example). But I do understand the appeal of social networks like Twitter.

Twitter has millions of users and you have a direct connection to each of them. You can look for something and instantly view conversations about that topic and participate in them. An event happens and you can see what people are saying about it, in real time. Forums don't give you any of that.

The problem with Mastodon is that it doesn't quite get there. Federation (or at least, the way Mastodon implements it) has a lot of friction, and search is very limited. I really wanted to like it but I find it to be the worse of both worlds: neither the universality and immediacy of Twitter, nor the more intimate and archival nature of forums.

On the other hand, administrating even a moderately sized forum (or a mailing list) was a shitshow in itself. You'd deal with constant attempts of people trying to 0wn your server, to DDoS it, or to spam - and phpBB being a constant exploit source didn't help either. And then on top of that you'd have to deal with people attempting to use your server for illicit stuff - CSAM, warez, porn, you name it someone tried to abuse your system to spread it. And on top of that you'd have normal moderation duties: trolls, hate speech, flame wars.

And if you'd get really unlucky, the pigs or MAFIAA would come sending nasty C&D letters, subpoenas or a court-issued search order for some shit some of your users did.

So many communities switched over to Reddit simply because Reddit would take care of anything but "normal" moderation duties.

I remember the moment I switched from phpbb to vbulletin...the licensed nature of the latter did cut down on the constant exploits.

I do think that Mastodon does accomplish this somewhat, honestly! Like each instance has its own vibe, and the sort of cross-instance virality is way less than "everyone in the same bucket" stuff.

I feel like reddit's success is somewhat similar. You don't have to futz around with a bunch of accounts, but you're still working within different worlds, so to speak.

Granted, this is less than, say, Discord's "each server you can have a different profile" thing, which I think is kind of the ideal here, but I feel like being able to deal with the technical issues lets communities exist!

PhpBB kind of has this, with all the plugins, a sort of uniform interface... it's not the worst thing in the world to have a solid base for running communities. We definitely don't need everyone to be _in_ that same community.

> I do think that Mastodon does accomplish this somewhat, honestly! Like each instance has its own vibe, and the sort of cross-instance virality is way less than "everyone in the same bucket" stuff.

It's still based on a model that is fundamentally different than the way that people socialize in the real world.

You could do it differently, but the way it's designed you're supposed to have a single Mastodon account and pick an instance that hosts it. Instances decide whether to federate with other instances or not. The focus of the design is on content and creators, not on relationships.

The old phpBB model was much closer to the way that social networks actually work in the real world. A friend might introduce you to a forum about writing, so you create an account and start hanging out with their friends there and discussing writing. You get to know someone else in that group and you find out that you're both into programming and they're involved in another forum that focuses on that. You join them over there with a new account.

It's all just friend groups. You might be in many different friend groups or just a few. You may be the only one who is in both groups, or there might be several people who overlap. With some friends you avoid discussing politics, while with others you're comfortable discussing it in depth. Some friend groups form around a game, others around a shared interest. You show different facets of yourself to the different groups, and this is codified in the structure of the apps.

This model is not well supported by Mastodon because it set out to solve a very different problem. They approached federation with the question "how do we avoid leaving our content in thrall to a corporation?" I want to approach it with the question "how do we get back to the informal friend groups that we used to have?"

the way it's designed you're supposed to have a single Mastodon account and pick an instance that hosts it. Instances decide whether to federate with other instances or not.

That sounds quite a lot like the old usenet model actually. You got an account on one usenet server and it was up to the server admin to decide which usenet groups they wanted to partake in and which other usenet servers it wanted to pull/push posts from/to. Other usenet servers could also decide to cut off certain servers if they misbehaved.

> You could do it differently, but the way it's designed you're supposed to have a single Mastodon account and pick an instance that hosts it. Instances decide whether to federate with other instances or not.

Why wouldn't you just have a different Mastodon account on every instance where you want a presence?

There's nothing stopping you but, at the risk of going around in circles, why would you bother? Is there an improved experience from doing so?

The fediverse will easily integrate more organized and persistent forms of online interaction such as the forum format you miss. All it takes is for the platform to develop an activitypub plugin to allow different instances (different forums) to exchange feeds.

Mastodon is simply the frontrunner and most mature and battle tested implementation, it does not represent the only form of the fediverse, only its 'twitter' mirror. Eg Both wordpress and discourse are said to develop plugins and something like bookwyrm (a goodreads alternative) points out how other designs implement the protocol.

But it is true that activitypub only goes so far. We should be thinking how two decades of trials and errors (mostly errors) motivate the next steps in social protocols.

phpBB forums were great for grouping discussions by topics. HackerNews still has this vibe; and maybe reddit as well. But media like twitter or mastodon instead connect you to a person, who may have multiple opinions on various subjects, often repeating or reinforcing each other day by day. This is also a valuable model; and I don't think it can be adequately translated to the phpBB one.

I think it's a mistake to equate all services that are built on top of ActivityPub to "social media" based on what Mastodon offers. There's nothing stopping a forum like service appearing that offers federation.

ActivityPub *should* (though nobody currently does, as far as I know) solve the problem of requiring a new identity for each service that you want to interact with. Ideally in a federated network you only need an account on one server and then have fun with everyone else.

I'm only speaking for myself but I feel account management fatigue having to juggle multiple ones for each social network/forum/etc. I want to interact with.

I guess I'm the opposite: I view each community I interact with as distinct, and I don't particularly want to combine them into one account.

It's like real life: I might really enjoy hanging out with my in-laws and also love my D&D group, but I don't want to introduce them to each other and I show each of them slightly different facets of my personality. I don't mind having multiple accounts if that's what it takes to keep the interactions in separate boxes.

That's perfectly fine, most of the services will allow you to create individual accounts also. :)

There is a version of Lemmy (a fediverse clone of Reddit) with the phpBB interface: https://github.com/LemmyNet/lemmyBB

Thank you for capturing my thoughts, exactly.

It's like the answer has been in front of us the whole time, but we're distracted by needless complexity.

It's the technologist's curse.

We assume that all problems have a technological solution and that any suitable technological solution will be adopted. It follows that any unsolved problem needs new tech, since if the old tech were sufficient we wouldn't have the problem.

Yeah it’s funny because decentralized networks like Mastodon are addressing this need to be decentralized because otherwise you have these conglomerate social networks with too much power. If communities didn’t feel the need to all be on one platform like Twitter, Reddit, etc then something like Mastadon seems overkill. So really this seems like a problem of our doing

Haha oh god, I miss the days when you will tell someone "I'm userxyz on xyzforums.com", and if they are admin account they promote you to staff to help them moderate the community.

It seems that by formalizing / integrating things at the technical layer we lost something.

I do miss those days, I still feel different when I interact with these old websites.

AIUI the Fediverse is just a machine-readable protocol for BBS-like or social-like interactions. So it would seem quite possible for PhpBB to interoperate with it, e.g. have users on a PhpBB board formally reference a Fediverse post such that their replies can be seen by Fediverse clients, and vice versa. It decouples social connections from the admin/moderating policies of a single board, much like email or Usenet news.

I do not understand what do you mean by "interlocking" and "overlapping" networks. The word "federate" you use very near to these words make me believe that you are talking about some technical feature - but I do not know that.

What kind of "interlocking" and "overlapping" are you writing about here?

I'm talking about interpersonal relationships, not tech. The phpBB model allowed for communities to be informally related by virtue of having overlapping members, without any need to have any technical feature that formalized those relationships.

In real life I can be a part of a bowling club and a church, and I don't need the club to know anything about the church. They're distinct entities related only by the fact that I am part of each of them.

This confusion is kind of what I'm getting at: modern "social media" and "social networks" have coopted the vocabulary of real human relationships to the point where people assume these words have technical meanings.

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