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.
We sticked with a very vanilla look on the forum that’s just focused on conversation:
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:
What worked really well
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:
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:
That’s much more flexible and feels like a nice welcoming gesture and service to new users.
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.
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!