Circle.so vs Discourse

Can you share more details about your critique of Circle?

I haven’t tried Circle myself, but I’ve seen the marketing and had considered it as a future platform for my community.

Thanks!

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haven’t used circle but I will say that discourse really calls for some technical aptitude for successful implementation. it’s not particularly great as an out of the box solution. that said, the community is great and discourse is damn good once you dial it in.

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Just my opinion. Circle.so is open source? For example, I need maximum control. Own servers, script, own base. Everything must be controlled.

And the question is about reworking the script. Let’s say I want to do something new. Change the kernel. Is it possible there?

Plus, for example, I know examples when adequate communities located somewhere, not under control, are simply closed. Example, Facebook. It’s a good social network, but what will I do if they decide to just shut down my community. Why? And it doesn’t really matter. Politics, not getting enough sleep, bad mood, personal dislike when I wrote a couple of nasty things about Facebook, whatever.

That is why I need (I can only speak for myself) control. So Circle.so is open source?

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Can’t even find an open demo without registering so I will pass on reviewing, but the videos/screenshots look like a copy of Facebook’s layout.

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In the case of Discourse, self-hosting is far from the only option though, right?

Does Circle offer a self-hosting option? If not that’s one extra potential benefit of going the Discourse route, no?

If it does is it any less technical to navigate?

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I don’t see any self-hosting options for Circle.so, nor anything that even suggests it is open source. Everything on their website is geared toward buying one of their 3 paid plans.

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Discourse is the King in community software forest.

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I did a free trial of Circle. I do think it’s interesting and has a lot of potential, but it feels very immature and sort of like an Uncanny Valley version of Facebook. For the time being, it seems to lack basic features like the ability to delete or mute personal messages.

There’s very little customization/flexibility, at least compared to Discourse, which makes me think it would probably appeal to someone whose priority is to get a community “up and running” as quickly and painlessly as possible but would be suffocating to those of us who like to tinker. Also yeah, no self-hosted option.

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the community is nuts. I’ve tinkered with so many forum options and this community is remarkably helpful. With the rare exception being the occasional know-it-all who thinks my questions are dumb.

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This is my community I might not be able to do this as I want. If no discourse. Website building has become a work of art. When we use discourse.

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Great looking site! Now if I only understood Thai. :smiley:

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Is a tweetstorm rude? I am thinking of creating one to compare and contrast discourse vs circe.so.

My qualifications:

  • I used circle.so intensively for five weeks.
  • I converted a yahoo group into a Discourse community (it was very difficult)

Going from Discourse to Circle.So was a profoundly frustrating experience.

The CEO of Circle.so was one of the founders of Teachable. There are lot of creators being funneled into circle by teachable. The strategy is create a course and then create a circle community around it. I have take a few course that have gone this route.

I don’t have an axe to grind with the circle.so developers, but for a product just out of beta I think the product has a long way to go before it ready for prime time. It is missing many core features I’ve grown to expect in a “modern discussion platform.” I think the advertising and testimonials are way over-hyping the product.

I have a list of at least 20 reasons why I think a creator or community builder should pause before choosing circle.so.

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Regardless of the exact form, I would appreciate it if you could share some in depth details! :+1:

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Well, here goes:

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Circle is pushing so hard in the online learning space. Before joining another course I’m going to ask, “what is your discussion platform?” I would love for more you to take to twitter or engage me on twitter about the value of Discourse. We need a free and open web!

I find their advertising over-the-top. I don’t have a vendetta against the Circle, but their platform is so under developed. From a user perspective, I don’t see the value proposition.

Have you used Circle?
  • Yes
  • No

0 voters

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I just recently signed up to a membership community mostly to try Circle, and I have some thoughts on this. I hope this (admittedly lengthy) post is useful to you and/or the Discourse team because I do think there are things that could be learned from Circle and which could potentially improve Discourse and its broader adoption.

Context (About Me)

In evaluating and understanding someone’s opinion and experience, I think it can be important to know where they are coming from. So for a brief bit of context, I have been a Discourse fan for many years, but only recently (~1 month ago) implemented my first forum in it, using Communiteq (formerly DiscourseHosting) (which made it very easy). I have previously setup and administrated mainly Simple Machines Forums (years ago and since then just maintaining, I have no great love for SMF :wink: ), and I have experience with many others (including vBulletin, phpBB, IPB, Flarum, etc.).

More broadly, I’ve been in IT for 20 years, I started using computers when I was a young child (dad was a computer programmer). And ever since then I have been a general tool enthusiast, often testing new desktop and SaaS apps that I become aware of even if I don’t have immediate need or use for them. I just like new tech and ideas.

However, though I began on DOS many years ago, I have more and more avoided the command line since then, and as it has become (arguably) less necessary to (my) daily needs. Nowadays I’ll admit I can get a bit overwhelmed with highly technical setup/install or configuration processes, or text-only tools. For instance I’m used to markdown by now, but I still wish Discourse had a WYSIWYG editor. :wink: And this is also why I used a managed host for Discourse rather than Digital Ocean.

So hopefully that gives you an idea of where I’m coming from. I’m very technically literate, but also very much appreciate ease of use, simplicity, good design, and yes even aesthetics. :grin: You could say I’m half-way between the Discourse tech crowd and the Facebook crowd, perhaps…

Circle.so

For the most part I love Discourse, and it comes out fairly well in the comparison with Circle in most respects. It is certainly far more configurable, extensible, flexible, and does many things better. But there are a couple of things in Circle worth talking/thinking about and potentially learning from.

First, the cons of Circle, briefly. In general I agree with many of those you pointed out: lack of a drafts system, lack of real quoting features (you have to manually copy/paste), the short snippet+“read more” reading behavior (awful), etc, etc. I would say it’s more concerning still that your comments from 2018 point out these things and they seemingly haven’t improved it since then. It also lacks some of the Discourse niceties like One-boxing.

Now, for the pros, and a quick caveat: some or all of this may be possible to recreate in Discourse with a combination of themes and plugins. I am not an expert in any of that (yet), but I do use a number of Discourse forums on an almost daily basis (in addition to the one I help run), and I have yet to see one that really comes close to addressing the below advantages in Circle…

Design/Aesthetic

The biggest thing that I actually like about Circle is not really a functional aspect at all: it’s the design. I haven’t fully articulated in my mind exactly what I like about it, and there are definitely aspects I don’t like too, but overall I can see how people find it more “friendly” looking and “easier” (seeming) than Discourse. And, as I said, that goes for pretty much every Discourse forum I’ve ever used, regardless of theme.

Yes, it is Facebook-like in some respects. But I quite dislike Facebook Groups, and find Circle.so to be a notable improvement on them somehow. Unfortunately I can’t explain exactly what is an improvement, at least not entirely, but I do want to stress that it really does feel different and, to me, more “inviting”, more “accessible” somehow.

As far as specific design aspects that I like, the main things I can point out as positives are the categories/channels along the left side, and the user list along the right. It makes it look somehow “friendlier” (for lack of a better/alternative word to this already over-used term), and seems easier to navigate - I feel less “confined” when I’m in a topic. And while I like the Discourse approach to threading to some degree, Circle does have nested threading which I do think is simply more intuitive for some people. See example here:

Finally, the “write a comment” text field at the bottom is an interesting difference that makes it seem to invite comment more readily and with a less “heavy” feeling for engagement to me. When you click into that text area it opens a full editor, just like Discourse, so it’s actually no different, i.e. it’s not a chat-like system. And posts within it tend to be every bit as in-depth and fully formatted as in Discourse, if not more so (at least in the 1 community I am evaluating it with). Yet the way it is designed makes it feel easier to engage with, to me.

Now as I said, I know you can do a lot with themes, and I’m sure some of this could be done easily in Discourse. But I think it’s worth the team considering either an official theme and/or configuration option(s) that default to a less sharp and technical look (I wish I had better words to describe it). Because in a functional way Circle is actually quite similar to Discourse (i.e. we’re not talking about trying to make Discourse into something it’s not), and Discourse is ahead of Circle in many respects, while not actually being that much more complicated. But Discourse simply feels less accessible to me (and many others) somehow, and I’m a Discourse admin!

There are many threads across Meta here that talk about user feedback like this (mostly third-hand from Admins trying to compete against FB groups), and mostly in the ones I’ve read the conclusion tends to be “if they want Facebook, let them have Facebook” (i.e. “Discourse is not meant for them”) or “ease of access is king”. However I do think there is another set of users which could easily love Discourse, and with Facebook login the access would not be a huge issue - these people simply get easily tripped up on the design and potential (apparent) complexity.

So what I’m hoping to encourage here is consideration that there may be ways of reaching a broader audience of people interested in high quality asynchronous discussion, which could (and arguably should) happen in Discourse, but is not because of something that may be relatively easily addressed. Simply tuning Discourse to appeal aesthetically to a different type of user may be possible (at least as an option).

Other Circle Pluses

  • Default Category: you can assign a category for people to be dropped into when they visit the forums, e.g. Introductions.
  • User-creation of “Channels”: regular users can create channels, basically sub-categories, and they get listed on the left side like others. Believe it or not I don’t see this being abused so far, and it’s a cool way to involve the community.
  • WYSIWG editor: I know the arguments against this, and I still like it, and certainly it is appealing to less technical audiences, so I do consider it a pro, despite the drawbacks.
  • Cleaner, more easily interpreted profile views: this is probably small and again can possibly be adjusted, but I do find the default profile views in Discourse to be quite cluttered with info most viewers probably don’t care much about. I can provide a screenshot of the Circle.so profile page for comparison if desired.

Wrapping Up

Ultimately Circle.so is a fairly limited, closed platform in comparison to Discourse. It offers little functional advantage, and numerous disadvantages. And yet they have a growing user base, and I think it’s worth asking whether Discourse could (and should) have a piece of that market. They are not fundamentally different types of platforms, they are aiming to do pretty similar things in fairly similar ways, but Discourse appeals less to their core market right now.

Discourse is a better system overall, I have no doubt of that. And I chose to use Discourse to start my own community in good part for that reason. But… I also wish Discourse were able to (optionally) be a bit more aesthetically accessible, and without admins having to experiment or adjust a lot of things to make it so. Some kind of “easy mode” or even (shudder) “Facebook emulation” could actually go a long way toward bringing even more people onto the platform, for the benefit of everyone.

I know the Discourse team is very thoughtful about their product and its current approach is very intentional. But I also know they have occasionally changed their minds to some degree on fairly major things over the years. So I hope this is just one more nudge for them to consider the possible need for improving the design further, at least for certain contexts/audiences. And, critically, these are audiences that would absolutely want to use Discourse if the design and UX appealed to them; these are not people who fundamentally don’t want a Discourse-like system or experience. Bring them into the fold!

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Thanks for the deep analysis. I agree. There is a lot to learn from Circle. I’ve had to create a lot of tutorials for my discourse users. I have never hear anyone ask how to use Circle.

I think circle looks good at first blush. I also vertical channels and groups. However, I find it really difficult to write posts, especially if embedding links and videos. The auto clipping of posts that requires users to hit “see more” is a huge problem.

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I paid for a Circle to test the product, asked for a refund after 10 hours. Right now, generally all customization is paid and there aren’t nearly the community resources found here. It’s focus, from my perspective, is educators and “monetization” gurus in whatever niche. It’s a familiar format and offers simple paid content integration.

The product will be very good as they continue to develop. Right now, it lacks a lot of features, community support and even generally formatting is a pain at time. I enjoy the editor and the basic packaged aesthetic but it has a ways to go.

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Sure, for example a “simple mode” where you hide the editor preview by default is something that @tobiaseigen has requested. We could also hide the toolbar buttons completely so the editor becomes a very simple input box with absolutely no possibility for confusion, like so:

Before

After

And it’s also possible to hide elements on the homepage as needed, if view counts aren’t important those could be suppressed, as well as activity date, and the number of avatars could be limited to one.

Before

After

This has come up in the past many times – and the answer is usually “turn things off via CSS”. We’ve also progressively simplified the UI over time, as you can see here wayy back in 2015.

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Hey Jeff, thanks for the reply!

These are definitely ideas for “simplifying”. However I feel like they may fail to fully consider and address the needs of the case (or user group) I’m speaking about.

This in particular is where I feel like my intention is being missed and what differentiates Circle.so and others is not yet being clearly articulated or even identified. For example here is the Circle topic list:

Note that almost every element you’re talking about is there. So I personally don’t think the answer is just to hide things. The design, placement, etc. is perhaps part of what makes Circle look “friendlier”, but I’m honestly not sure, I’m not a UI/UX expert. I only know how it feels to me, and how I hear other people describe it vs. Discourse. :confused:

And I also guess it may not look better in any way to you. Obviously Discourse is the way it is for a reason and it appeals to plenty of people as it is. It could, however, appeal to many more people IMO. If it would take fundamental architectural changes to broaden its appeal, then I’m certainly not in favor of it either. But my sense is that’s not necessarily the case, and that Discourse doesn’t have to feel “techie”, at least not all the time. There is nothing about its fundamental mode of interaction which makes it so.

This is a totally valid response, of course, and it is in keeping with my sense of the Discourse approach, i.e. “you can do a lot, but you have to figure it out, there are lots of resources, find your answers”. And perhaps that is part of the problem - how “the Discourse approach” feels to a certain class of admins. Because what you’re suggesting requires a certain level of CSS and theme knowledge/understanding that not every admin has. I’m someone who struggles with CSS and yet have successfully setup and run multiple communities over the years on several different platforms (most recently Discourse), and I don’t think I’m alone. There seems to be a disconnect, especially with how easy “turnkey” Discourse hosting solutions make it to start and administrate. Perhaps this need could be met with an official theme or theme component?

Basically what I’m suggesting is that there seems (to me) to be this relatively large group of user/admin/community types that are not choosing Discourse, not because of any technical issue, lack of feature, etc., nor due to a difference in how they want the core of interaction on the platform to happen (as I’ve said Circle.so is very similar to Discourse once you get beyond aesthetics a few specific UI choices). My best guess and understanding as to why they don’t choose Discourse is it seems “too techie” or complex or not “friendly” enough, either for admins, or (especially) for users, or both.

So I believe there may be a worthwhile business opportunity here for CDCK as a company to address this large (and IMO growing) user group with a largely-existing product. In other words my assertion is you might have access to a significantly greater market than you do now without having to change the core product much, if at all, simply by seriously considering what platforms like Circle.so, Facebook, and others might be doing right (or right for that certain set of potential users) and seeing how much of it you can emulate in Discourse without compromising its fundamental model, approach, etc. My feeling is it would not take deep structural changes to make this work, but I could well be wrong. Perhaps you have already done such consideration and determined it’s not worthwhile.

As a long-time Discourse user and novice Discourse admin what I can say with clarity is that these kinds of concerns do not seem to have been well met and addressed in the community thus-far. Responses that focus on a few minor tweaks, or that leave the user/admin sifting through forum threads, themes, and extensions to find what they need, are IMHO missing the opportunity here.

Last but certainly not least, I say all this with great respect and appreciation for how awesome Discourse already is! I’m not planning to stop using it by any means, I just see some people reluctant to be involved in my community, and I want to do anything I can to help bridge that gap.

Agreed, and this is exactly why I think there is an opportunity here for Discourse if it can better meet the needs of people who are choosing Circle! Just need to identify what those needs are, why Discourse is not (yet) meeting them, and how much adjustment would be needed to do so.

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