What is discussion software?

To us, discussion 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 discussion software is 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.

Straight Dope forums in 2000 Straight Dope forums in 2012

Is there any other form of communication on the web that looks nearly identical, 13 years later?

The Problem

The state of discussion software 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 run themselves is under threat. The dystopian future of company towns for all human discussion is all too real, because forum software has become its own worst enemy.

Most people, if pressured, can name at least one blog platform. But can they name even one single discussion platform? Forums have no champion. Even the better forum software is almost exclusively 100% for-pay closed source (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 discussion community 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.

standing out in a crowd

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 discussion communities that they are thriving despite the primitive state of forum software.

Today's discussion communities are smart people trapped in bad forum software.

Our Solution

We solved our Q&A problem in Stack Exchange by suppressing free-form discussion. But many communities want and need the social glue of 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 an entire 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 in conversations about the problem, and it captures the essence of what we want to do.

dis·course /ˈdisˌkôrs/

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 govern your forum, deal with trolls, appoint moderators, or even how to get people to visit your forum in the first place. 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.

Civilization for DOS

Most fail miserably, turning into spam filled ghost towns, which makes the web worse.

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