Circle.so vs Discourse

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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I suppose, I just don’t see massive instagram levels of circle.so adoption – some people prefer red, others prefer blue. There’s choice on the internet for a reason, otherwise everyone is stuck with the Facebook “company town” future, which is rather dystopian.

We’ve been doing this for 7 years, and over that time some of the the feedback feels rather… familiar. No one product can fit every single person’s needs, and that’s a good thing. If you want a truck, choose a truck. If you want a car, choose a car.

(Also the Teams product looks a lot like your screenshot, and that’s Yet Another Reskin, so I’m not certain you’ve tried that yet?)

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@codinghorror

but can I use discourse teams in a public facing format as a community vs. internal use?

That’s what I want to do.

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You can, if you get the right customizations and plugins!

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Yeah, I figured your response would be something like this. Clearly Discourse is successful and you are happy with the user base you have. This is a reasonable position to take, and you’re right to do so as long as those numbers stay strong. But of course you also need to anticipate and potentially address threats to your business.

What is today simply another niche, a car to Discourse’s truck, may tomorrow be the dominant player or approach. Who would have guessed the massive popularity of the SUV among people who almost never actually need to do anything “utility” with it? You wouldn’t want to be a car manufacturer without an SUV design ready to go in that market. Circle.so is not a strong threat yet, but it does represent an arguably untapped market.

If I look at the Discourse About page, I find a lot of material backing up the importance of paying attention to what’s happening with Circle and other platforms too.

Discourse is a from-scratch reboot, an attempt to reimagine what a modern Internet discussion forum should be today , in a world of ubiquitous smartphones, tablets, Facebook, and Twitter.

This, I think, should be an ongoing process. And indeed it has been, Discourse has evolved quite a lot from its beginnings, and to succeed in the future it will probably need to change much more as well. So the discussion around Circle is really just raising the question of whether its burgeoning success points to anything that Discourse could benefit from. Considering and adapting to new ways of doing things seems to be a core part of Discourse’s stated mission.

Simple. Modern. Fun.

Discourse pares all the complexity away and puts just the essential stuff on screen – the conversations you care most about, based on your participation.

This one is particularly interesting. I wonder how many users of Discourse (outside of Meta, as everyone here is likely beyond the level of a basic user) would describe it as “simple” or especially “fun” vs. Circle or other options. And if indeed it is seen as less simple or fun than other competing systems, shouldn’t that be of some concern, given these are some of the core stated aims of Discourse?

I’ll stop belaboring the point, your position is clear, and I understand it. I don’t claim to know better than you and the rest of the Discourse team. I’m just here to add my one voice to the overall consideration around how to make Discourse better, more accessible, and more fun. :wink:

I haven’t, but it doesn’t seem aimed at the kind of broad, public-facing communities I’m building. I’m also unclear from the website how well it actually addresses the design and accessibility concerns I’m raising re: Circle. But I do appreciate it as an example of diversification for Discourse, and I hope there is a little more of that in the future.

Thanks again for the dialog.

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Well, it’s open source, so you’re free to customize it as you see fit, and a ton can be done with basic HTML and CSS … if cloning Circle is an important goal for you, feel free to make it so! What’s stopping you?

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You left out a critical step.

Step 1A, learn basic html and css.
Step 1B, pay someone.
Step 2, make it so.

:slight_smile:

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Actually, no. You can’t. Discourse for Teams is private, log-in only. But you can take Discourse and set it up as you see fit for your team. Many communities use Discourse this way. @debryc is a great example of this with https://hub.youthpowercoalition.org/.

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I want to stop replying to this topic, I really do. Yet I keep feeling like my point is either being missed, or intentionally mischaracterized. :confused:

No, I do not want to “clone” Circle. If that’s the impression you or anyone got from everything I’ve said, I don’t know what else to say except that I’ve done my best to be as clear as possible: I want Discourse to learn from what Circle does well and for Discourse to become a better experience for more people as a result. That’s it. That does not seem like a controversial goal to me.

As to doing that work myself, yes of course it’s technically possible. Unfortunately I lack the necessary skills and knowledge (as apparently does @P2W). The turnkey options for Discourse hosting actually make it remarkably easy to start up a forum, even to the point of reasonable customization with existing themes, components, and plugins. A non-expert can do a lot, and that’s great! But there is an ironic gap where arguably those who have less expertise are also those more likely to have an audience who might be attracted to the “friendliness” of Circle, and so the need for customization may in fact be higher for those who are least well equipped to make it happen. That’s not necessarily your problem, of course, but it is a somewhat unfortunate corollary.

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It’s more desired formatting. I am sure I could hire a developer to give me the teams asthetic.

I am aware I can’t use the boxed solution for my application.

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Oshyan, I just read through this topic again and you have provided some great suggestions. Thank you! I in particular like the idea of simplifying the composer, as @codinghorror notes I have been talking about recently. I think we can get very far in making the composer easier to use without having to give up markdown.

I can see you want to help make Discourse better, and you’re welcome to contribute! I’d like to suggest that you start small and make concrete suggestions (with mockups) for some new feature or some other improvement, or join topics where people are already working together on something you care about. You will find many people have already been talking quite a bit about many of the things you touched on above.

Generally speaking, many of the differences you are describing between Discourse and other platforms are entirely intentional. We’re trying to get people to focus on the discussions and on making contributions that people want to read and participate in today and refer back to in the future.

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