What is forum software?
To us, forum software is a group of people interested in a common topic who are willing to type paragraphs to each other on a web page.
Yes, there is Twitter for very short form, there is web chat and IRC for real time with limited persistence, there is Tumblr for micro-blogging, and there are blogs for, well, blogging. But we believe forums are a fundamental building block of web community.
Here's a screenshot of a forum as it existed in the year 2000, alongside a screenshot of the same forum as it exists today.
Is there any other form of communication on the web that looks nearly identical, 13 years later?
The state of forums has been unchanged for so long that forums are considered unworkable and undesirable; few sites want forums any more because the software is so poor. The idea of free, unfettered online forums that anyone can “fork” and install is actually under threat. The dystopian future of company towns for all human discussion is all too real, because forum software is its own worst enemy at this point.
Most people, if pressured, can name at least one blog platform. But can they name even one single forum platform? Forums have had no champion that we know of. Even the better forum software is almost exclusively 100% for-pay closed source (although a rare few offer crippled open source versions), and all based on ancient, legacy PHP/MySQL code bases.
The freedom to easily one-click install and run a decent forum software for a topic you love is an essential part of the wild, chaotic, vibrant “let your freak flag fly” formula of the Internet that we've always known and loved.
Forums may not be sexy, but they are a fundamental building block of all online community, and they reliably produce useful search artifacts even today. It is a testament to the power of these communities that they are thriving despite the primitive state of forum software.
Today's forums are smart people trapped in bad software.
We solved our Q&A problem in Stack Exchange by essentially suppressing free-form discussion. But many communities want and need discussion, despite its pitfalls.
We decided to do something about it.
Reboot forum software for the next decade, getting us out of the 1999 design rut we're stuck in.
Use the principles of open source software and “let's make the fabric of the web better for everyone” ideals. Like WordPress, we plan to be the best possible host and service provider for our own software, and grow into a whole ecosystem.
Leverage a modern, up and coming open source technology stack, one that will be vibrant and alive in a decade.
Inspired by the reputation/badge/governance ideas and concepts behind Stack Exchange, but broadening far beyond Q&A to seed the entire web.
We'd like to raise the standard of discussion on the web through better forum software. The word “discourse” kept coming up when we discussed the problem, and it captures the essence of what we want to do.
n. Written or spoken communication or debate
v. To speak or write authoritatively about a topic
Today's forum software has a default FAQ that tells you how to make bold text, but absolutely nothing about how to moderate your forum, deal with trolls, appoint moderators, or even how to get people to visit your forum in the first place. The hard-earned sociological lessons of these 10+ year old forum communities are not being baked into their forum software at all.
Right now when you install a brand new forum, what you get is a virtual tin shack in a wasteland. It's up to you to build up civilization from scratch every single time. Of course most fail miserably, which actively makes the web worse, turning into spam filled ghost towns.
But with better forum software:
100% free and fully open source.
All the sociological and technical lessons of 10+ year old forum communities baked into the design of the software.
Sane, safe out of the box defaults, but a million dials and knobs to tweak.
A built-in immune system from trolls, spammers and bad actors.
A comprehensive forum culture support hub at discourse.org.
We could build something closer to a Civilized Discourse Construction Kit, freely available to everyone in the world.
Wouldn't that be nice?
— Jeff Atwood and the Discourse team