I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit, and work and holidays came in between. A short answer is not what this topic deserves, so here are some thoughts from a home vacation in Austria
Starting with …
I would say that my first community was during my studies, where we kept organizing a bit through IRC and ICQ. This started out in 2002, and highly likely we would have needed a forum back then. I remember that we had a newsgroup server, and it was all like - “don’t reply to the thread, edit the subject and create a new topic, that breaks the mail clients”.
Basically we had sort of categories and channels for our own needs, but in the end there was the nerds&geeks and the others who didn’t participate really often. Back at that time, it was really hard to get a webspace or run a dedicated forum/discussion platform on our own. In the end, we mainly discussed things via email and it was complicated.
When I moved to Vienna in 2005, I joined a students dorm which had an internal forum. This had been phpbb2 and was modified in a way that specific forum categories were blocked from outside IP ranges. This ensured that internal discussions could be kept internal, without the need of granting specific user permissions. “Campus life” was more or less hidden from the outside, it was a split brain with public categories for “future students and their questions”. A questionable decision, and so was the community a mix of fun and insulting, no role models or responsible moderations. Looking back and taking part of that, I am not proud of it.
Later we moved to phpbb3 and then Woltlab, in the sense of integrating the discussion forum into the website and immediately have new students (who normally visit the website upfront) in a safe place to ask specific questions. When I left in late 2008, they’ve removed the forum entirely, replaced by a static website.
So far, I’ve learned that providing help to others and giving the “first hand” is a good feeling - when you get the chance to.
Learning about Monitoring
During my stay in the students dorm I used to install monitoring software, specifically Nagios. The community was split up - the English speaking users mainly went for the official mailing lists, while nagios-portal.org was a German founded community at this time.
When I joined my previous job at the University of Vienna, managing DNS for .at & .ac.at, I came into the monitoring field again (this is where my nickname sources from btw). Nagios and Oracle was my task, which needed development in March 2009. So I learned about Nagios, the dead nagios-devel mailing list and a stagnating community on nagios-users … except for nagios-portal.org where German speaking users were very much active.
Note: nagios-portal.org was later renamed to monitoring-portal.org. This was the time where the founder of Nagios used the trademark ban hammer against all community sites and forums which supported one of the many Nagios forks (Icinga, Centreon Engine, Shinken, Naemon, etc.).
I learned about Icinga, and joined their team for future development. Since then, I have been looking into ways to engage with the community. The first goal was to help with the simple problems, and also to learn about the many features a forked software version provides.
Nagios … a community?
I also took part of the Nagios community - to learn, to help and certainly to let others read my signature with Icinga. This caused problems, which weren’t spoken out loud … they just banned my employer’s domain from the nagios mailing lists, bug tracker, etc. That was the time where I just focused on the forum platform. The full story on why I think that the Nagios community failed, can be read here.
Icinga … German or English?
There was one “problem” though - Icinga gained popularity among the globe. There wasn’t only German as a language, and soon the forum became a mix of German and English. For someone searching the web and required to use “Google translate”, this was horrible. On the other hand, if you live in the German community a bit, there’s not so many who would say their English works good enough for asking a question.
With the move to Discourse in early 2018, I made the radical decision to soft-enforce English to this community. Moderators and community builders agreed in this, years of hard work in motivating people somehow pays off. Still, I am not happy with this choice as it hardens the easy “ask a question in German” where this community originates from.
I would say, the community failed in the way to early adopt English and now needs to learn it “the hard way”. On the other hand, this community is healthy enough to moderate itself. I’ve been on vacation for 2,5 weeks, not answering anything for now. Still, there’s traffic going on and I can see more than a hundred new topics being opened.
The most problematic way is the generic topic platform with “monitoring”. Modern times prove that communities are established around tools and ecosystems, like those using Discourse already in the field with Grafana, Elastic, Graylog, etc. … I can see the need for an Icinga centric community, with the idea of also discussing integrations with Prometheus or Sensu. Both of them have a category now with low to zero traffic. These metrics are alarming if you’re seeing it in the way of an all-inclusive platform.
Other than the above worries I do have, I would say that a forum platform wins over a chat platform for example. Work requires focus, and engaging in a chat disturbs that. Also, if you want to formulate a longer, well formatted answer, you’ll never get the chance to do so, take IRC or Slack as an example. Also, direct messages are free for anyone, and this is where users choose fast answers over politeness. Discourse solves this problem by granting private messages to a trusted user level, I can see these changes in the past months. My inbox isn’t flooded with questions anymore, where I would always reply with “I don’t do private support, ask public, help others”.
For Icinga, there’s a freenode channel where I had a bouncer to read history. Lately, a user on the forums demanded that I may join IRC and help him faster. When I opened up the bouncer, I could see many private messages being sent asking for Icinga support. Well, that was the last time I used that bouncer.
Instead, Discourse is fast enough for quick chats, and long enough to preserve history and solved topics. Users see where many active contributors live, and engage more often - this can be monitored in the admin dashboard of Discourse.
A different example, with mailing lists. As written previously, I learned to use them with Nagios, and always hated it that I couldn’t take part of something I googled for. I needed to subscribe to the many of them, just for discussions. Also, you’d need your mail client for it, and web archives are not that fancy. Given that I want to reply with a formatted body which includes code and expressions, you shouldn’t do that with HTML on a mailing lists. Many clients will fail, and highly likely you’ll get an off-list reply to fix your client’s body send.
I would immediately import the mailing list archive into a modern forum, and even if I don’t like the top quoted replies via email, they do look good in Discourse. I don’t know yet if I should fully stop support on mailing lists, but my focus is clear enough and users are aware of it.
As we all know, asking something on Twitter, Facebook is simple and easy and accounts also have become support platforms for mostly commercial entities. Some people expect that from Open Source projects too, and so there are many threads to be seen on Twitter for example.
This is where I am happy to have Discourse on monitoring-portal.org with the argument of well-formatted questions and even oauth login via Twitter.
In the early 2000s, forum administration was hard. The one building a platform with a dedicated software, hosting it, being the Linux admin won’t be the hero. Instead, the one answering your question is.
Nowadays, and of course with the fine long term plan of Discourse, modern environments with a discussion platform are well received and desperately needed. Especially with tablets and mobiles, you’ll need to engage and interact with your community members. Everywhere, anytime … no, you can just close the tab and take a time off during vacation. No more mail or chat clients, but a reliable platform available for everyone.
If you look into StackOverflow with the more Q&A based approach, I felt this might be good for a support forum. It turns out, I never felt welcome to SO myself … mainly because I love to analyse the problem together with user and won’t share the ready-to-use solutions. I tend to think that community members need to learn, and then can help others to learn, and so on. This is where a forum is needed.
My personal success
Many things at work run through Jabber/XMPP, Email or direct meetings. Can you imagine how satisfying discussions with solutions for customer problems are, in a relaxed atmosphere, outside of any ticket system?
We brought our internal Discourse to life in 2018, from beta in production to officially supported.
Co-workers started to evaluate Discourse for their own needs. One team is building a new knowledge base, and establishing the wiki topics. Last week, Discourse also got a marketplace category … for anything which would normally be sent via email. The feedback from co-workers was just wonderful.
The way we work together as a team and company, a family even, also is a community. Maybe the best you need on a daily basis