A threshold question of sorts, is the distinction between ‘forums’ and ‘social media’. I feel like that question needs to be at least acknowledged before tackling the nitty gritty of ‘Different Users / Same Platform’. Partly because some people dislike social media and like forums, so they naturally resist attempts to employ what are perceived as social-media-like approaches for a forum.
The distinction is historical. Our idea of a ‘forum’ is rooted in a time when it was not possible to curate the experience of a product to individual users. In this narrative, Discourse is the latest iteration of ‘forum’ software improvements going back decades. In this narrative, social media exists in a different track. In this narrative, targeting content on your platform to users based on user preference is part of the the ‘social media’ track. In this narrative, while social media targets content to users to drive engagement which drives advertising revenue, forums give the user more independence and respect and are not concerned with the profit motive. In this narrative, forums are ‘communities’ and social media is narcissistic / solipsistic. In this narrative, forums are egalitarian and/or libertarian, while social media is driven by consumerism and celebrity. This narrative is reflected somewhat in Discourse the product and here on meta.
From a ‘product’ perspective, I think a better way of thinking about the forum / social media distinction is simply that forums are topic-centric and social media is relationship-centric. That’s it. If you just focus on this distinction and put the narratives we have about forums v social media to one side (for the purposes of the product discussion at least), it clarifies the product question of Different Users / Same Platform. It clarifies it, because it allows us to think of the curation of content employed so successfully by social media simply as a product strategy, rather than a practice intertwined with social and ideological narratives.
How does this help us? Well, I think it allows us to more squarely face the fact that the ‘Different Users / Same Platform’ problem has already been solved. Twitter, Facebook etc have a vast array of different users with different goals. They tackle this by heavily targeting content to users based on perceived user interest. Imagine if the default user homepage for Twitter or Facebook was a ‘category’ list, rather than the user’s feed. Or a list of the latest content across the entire platform.
It doesn’t follow from this that Discourse should adopt concepts like ‘following’, ‘friending’ or other social media features. Those are just proxies that social media uses for user interest.
It does follow that targeting content to users based on their individual interests is a product strategy worthy of consideration for Discourse. The proxies for ‘user interest’ on a forum are different from social media, but they still exist.
postscript. @HAWK, @mcwumbly, @erlend_sh there’s a theme in your approaches (it’s true of my instincts as well, but I’m trying to question my / our instincts). When we think about ‘Product’ for a forum we instinctively think about ‘manual’ control. Manual control / curation via moderation, manual control of the topic list by individual users (@mcwumbly’s interesting spec). This contrasts somewhat with the ‘automated’ approach of social media. This may be partly because doing ‘automation’ well is harder, but I think it’s deeper than that.