6 months review: Building a community from scratch with Discourse

I’d like to share my experience with Discourse on our community project. It started out in May 2020, a few people coming together to build a free and open hospitality exchange platform that aims to substitute the currently dominant commercial provider. There’s a range of projects trying to bring free hospitality exchange back into a community-driven platform (ever since the top-dog went commercial in 2012). What stood out to me with this project was that the founding group did not emphasize individual exchange as the core idea, but gave equal importance to the community around it. Accordingly they started a community forum as one of the first steps. They chose Discourse as the platform and both their approach as the appeal of Discourse in general brought me into the project as an active volunteer.

I hope this is helpful to others starting out with a community, though it might be rather specific. I also have some questions I’d like to share and hope to get feedback on.

Overview

We sticked with a very vanilla look on the forum that’s just focused on conversation:

couchers-latest

We started out with 5 categories and have about a dozen by now. I’d certainly recommend starting with very few and branching out while you go, that’s perfectly supported on Discourse!

Here’s the stats after half a year. I’d say traffic is modest, but it’s also high quality. We are actually working on the app, there’s nothing tangible to drive engagement, so people that join are extraordinarily driven to see this become reality. We have about 50 active users, we also have the same number of volunteers working on the project, but these are not entirely overlapping:

couchers-statistics

What worked really well

Community-centered moderation

If you are familiar with hospitality exchange you might know that using the platforms for hook-ups and dating is a big problem and puts many women off from becoming more engaged. One of our central goals is establishing a culture where this is not regarded trivial, but seriously harmful behavior. We want to reflect this on the forum already and have standards when it comes to talking about women’s issues that might be unthought of for some users. We nevertheless managed to drop direct moderator intervention (apart from editing and re-categorizing content) early on and just worked with flags. So moderators only flag like any other user. In fact, the change from directly intervening is only that it takes two moderators to flag a post to hide it.

The more custom tool we introduced to support this is a dedicated category for posts that were hidden because of flags:

couchers-inappropriate

We called this Inappropriate. Permissions are set so only moderators can create (that is: move) new topics, but all users can reply. I also installed the Suppress Category from Latest plugin to have this content a bit out of view, while keeping it accessible for further discussion. We name topics just with a timestamp.

We had some lively debates there for some time, but recently none. I feel it really helped us to argue about which standards we want to see enforced on the forum. And come together as a community that supports these standards.

I could see this approach extended in the future by entirely leaving the editing of the forum to a dedicated Editors group (with Regulars trust level) and limiting moderators to reviewing flags.

Could we somehow enforce this limitation on moderators, effectively making them Reviewers?

Curating content for new users

That’s a fairly small adaption. We started out with a New-Members category to put together some information, but then switched to a Welcome tag:

couchers-welcome

That’s much more flexible and feels like a nice welcoming gesture and service to new users.

Re-writing Guidelines

Discourse comes with a default FAQ/Guidelines section. It took us some time to adjust this, but I recommend re-writing this early on and spelling out what is expected behavior on your forum. For this you can also rename all default links to just Guidelines (search for “FAQ” and “Guidelines” in /admin/customize/site_texts) This helped us be more straightforward in cases of disputes.

couchers-guidelines

What didn’t work out so well

Actually, just one thing, but I fear it turns out to be a big pain now. We started out with login required, entirely disallowing anonymous access to the site. The decision was probably driven only by insecurity about how the forum will turn out and not by thinking this through well. Now we feel pretty confident and would like to have more reach with the forum. But I don’t think we can just move user generated content from being behind a login to being openly accessible without breaching privacy rights (or just concerns) of existing users.

What I did so far is introduce some new public categories and designed a dedicated landing page for anonymous users. We could move more conversation from existing categories to public step-by-step. But I’m lacking a heureka idea how to get out of this in an elegant way.

Thanks for sharing any ideas on how to best move a forum from login-only to public.

And thanks for reading! :hugs:

9 Likes

This seems to be a common mistake. People often either overestimate how valuable their content is (forum owner: “anyone who wants to see my forum should pay/register for it!”) or underestimate the perceived value (user: “Uh, I’m not signing up for anything if I cant’ see it to know that I want to bother”).

I’m pretty sure that your content is not worth as much as you think it is and your content will be valuable ONLY if it shows up in search engines.

9 Likes

while I agree with your sentiment @pfaffman I still think its a trade off. There might be a case for having a smaller community that has a more private feel to it. It will definitely affect the way people communicate. For sure less people will participate, but the kind of people that will participate and the way they participate will be different. While the archetype of a forum owner that you describe might seem obnoxious and undesirable the archetype of the user that you keep away this way might also be better kept away under some circumstances. I think it might even lead to a better community if the people that have no stake in it are kept outside.

5 Likes

Sure. There are communities that must be private for a zillion reasons. I’m talking about the typical “I’m offering a class/life coaching/support of some sort” site. Most often, you’re better off letting people see what’s happening on your site to make them want to be a part of it.

(And I’m not saying that they’re obnoxious, just have a different understanding of what’s valuable about their community than I do.)

Even if you’re offering some proprietary Secret Sauce, allowing everyone to see what people are saying about it is great advertising for it. Got a weightlifting program? You’re probably better off letting anyone see what people are saying/asking about yours–or maybe even participating in the community–the more people in your Discourse community, the more people that will want to be in your paying-for-your-thing community.

5 Likes

Yes, that’s the central issue for me here. I think Jay’s comments are very helpful for many situations! But I also believe the central aspect for our volunteer project at this stage will not come into clear view along the lines of valuable content.

The closed forum really helped setting the tone while trying to come together as a community that was for the most part negotiating the culture and values we want to see established as defining the project. Much like in an incubator. But we are moving out of this stage, there is much more certainty already about which attitudes will be backed and supported collectively.

So I actually don’t think it was wrong to start out like this and believe it can be the right thing in other situations. It just doesn’t fall into a lasting distinction, but rather an organic growth. What we were lacking is a better overview or idea of the path ahead.

So my questions at this point really are: How do we best move this community out of the ‘incubator’? And how could we have prepared this step better at the outset?

4 Likes