How to seperate the "drive by" topics from the "deeper" discussions?

I’d say community culture & norms is the most common approach here. While on BoingBoing you can rack up crazy high Like scores with a killer joke or political burn, here on Meta the more sure-fire ways of getting your content Liked (and consequently appearing in Top) is to:

  • Help someone (the more the better)
  • Fix something
  • Create something
  • etc.

…because we the staffers have been actively and publicly applauding this behaviour. The algorithms are already in place; the rest is good old fashioned community management.

One fairly low-hanging fruit we could explore here though would be to have a setting for “send me an Activity Summary even when I’m logged in”, which in effect would be more like a “cool stuff you might have missed” email. That would give the most popular topics an additional boost.


Right. There are proxies for deep / interesting already, the primary ones being “Likes”, “Views” and “Replies”. Discourse uses these proxies to highlight ‘interesting’ posts via specific topic lists - “Top” (core) and “Hot” (plugin) - and via the design of the topic list itself (separate column for likes; heat colors);

One way of thinking about this is: What other proxies for deep / interesting are there? Here are some possible candidates:

  • Reading time (this is particularly underutilized I think)
  • Writing time (interesting posts normally take a little longer to write)
  • Number of links
  • Frequency of posts quoting other posts

This data already exists in Discourse, it’s a matter of using it in an interesting way.

It is perhaps worth mentioning in this context the potential for machine learning to assist as well; if only to plug my existing (unfinished) machine learning plugin, which I would be happy to work with somebody on.

Another way of thinking about this, and this gets back to the OP, is “How do I handle different types of users, with different goals, on the same platform?”.

Say, for the sake of argument, we divide the ‘user experience’ management of Discourse into:

  • Defaults: Site settings. In particular top_menu and category page style.
  • Trust: The trust system.
  • Taxonomy: Categorization / tagging / grouping.
  • Visibility: This discovery list design and user control over notifications, emails and theme.
  • Curation: mods & staff

In addition to improving each system independently, some interesting avenues arise when you think about the connections between them, e.g.

  • Taxonomy + Trust + Visibility: e.g. A topic list that ranked based taxonomic variables of the topic and trust variables of the posters, in addition to likes. This could split the difference between hiding the ‘sandbox’ / support category and letting it pollute your homepage.
  • Trust + Defaults + Visibility: e.g. Give trusted users greater control over the Discovery UI to set their personal preferences; or
  • Defaults + Visibility: Show different default topic lists to different users based on things like how new they are or how long since their last visit. It seems that this approach is already used (I can’t find it in the current codebase though).

:+1: This is an area of general interest that I have as well:


I keep coming back to this because it is in essence what we’re planning to do here.

Most of Meta is based on a support model and the ROI is reducing support costs, however our plans to build out this #community category are focused on a very different goal – product retention. We will essentially have a CoP living within the wider ecosystem of a support community.

And perhaps that is the key. Create space for the deeper conversations to happen and nurture the kind of behaviour you want within that space. Sub communities work fine in other places – think about feedback type ecosystems where there are rules around reciprocation (i.e. you have to do x reviews before requesting your own) that don’t exist in the wider space.

Add to that @angus’s vision of a machine learning driven UX and I think it could work very successfully.


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.


Your historical narrative is interesting. I agree that those are widely held perceptions, which I think is unfortunate. I hope we are maturing to a point where we aren’t so disparaging of social media.

Ah – so here I think we’re back to the original conundrum. I believe that ‘product/support/branded/B2C’ communities are very much topic-centric but ‘CoP/B2C’ communities rely on being relationship-centric for their survival.

Both audiences might be drawn to a place because of the topic, but the former will leave and the latter will stay for the connections. So how to you combine those two behaviour models in one environment?

I don’t think this is about types of content… it’s about types of behaviour. Your model and mine are the same (I think) but you are trying to solve the ‘how do you get people into the part of the forum where the behaviour they want to experience is happening?’.

As an aside, but one that I think is important to raise –

I think it’s been a long time since this was the case. CM has matured a lot in the last 3 or 4 years to a point where we’ve realised that we very much need to be concerned with the profit motive if a community is going to have longevity. Most of the long term communities that still exist are either monetized or ROI in another way. I think it’s naive (as a user) to expect something for nothing – most often the nothing just isn’t obvious.


As for “other social media features” I’d like to also mention the ability of social media to integrate an individuals interest in a set of different topics as well as different communities about the same topic. I think there is potential here in finding ways of linking different communities together

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I agree there’s plenty that could be automated to solve this and that this is an important aspect of what large social media companies do. But there are “manual” signals as well on social media, like who you choose who to friend/follow.

Within our organization, people opt in to some subset of a couple thousand Slack channels. That’s a pattern they are used to. (I’ll choose which topics/groups/categories I want to stay on top of).

I think there are important differences in Discourse, and one of the goals we have is to encourage cross-pollination, so I don’t really want to go down a road where people have to opt in to the things they want to see. And similarly, I don’t want to force people to mute things they don’t want to see.

I’d really like to keep the Latest page as the default “firehose” for those that want to see the full activity on the forum, while providing a simple and intuitive UX for people to build one custom stream of their favorite topics that they can focus on. I’d like this to work in a way that reduces noise, rather than boosting signal, which is why I’m not super keen on recommending that they just watch or track those categories.

I don’t object to exploring automated approaches, but I think there may be lower hanging fruit that is easier to reason about which could be tackled first.

This is definitely something that has also come up in our research so far as well.


hm. You’re both more experienced in managing communities than I am, but we’re talking here about a matter of degree, rather than a categorical distinction. I’m sure it’s true that relationships still matter in a forum, however my hypothesis would be that, the connection that ‘regulars’ have with a forum (and each other) is significantly more ‘topic-centric’ than it is on social media. I’m willing to be proved wrong, but I’d need some solid evidence.

Take meta for example. I could think there were cool and interesting people here (and I do :slight_smile: ). But if suddenly meta was re-purposed as a forum to talk about our favorite cars, then I probably wouldn’t come here that often.

There’s an analogy here with ‘work friends’. Work friends are people you know because you are pursuing the same goal. You naturally get to know them better in pursuit of that goal. You feel a sense of connection with them. However, when you change jobs your relationship with your work friends may last for a bit, but it often fizzles out. Maybe that’s just me.

I guess what I’m saying is that I definitely accept that relationships become more important over time, however the center of gravity is still going to be about specific subject matter. Conversely, on social media you care more about who it is that is saying or sharing something. Yes, what they are saying is still important of course, but who they are and what you think of them as an individual plays a greater role. You exist on social media as an ‘individual’ or a ‘personality’ (reflected in the ‘integrated’ experience @tophee mentions). You exist on a forum in a more targeted, focused way.

In some ways, allowing a user to manually curate their list is harder to do than ‘automatically’ making lists more user-centric. The ‘automated’ approach here would be to edit the algos in TopicQuery to preference topics similar to those a user has previously engaged on. You wouldn’t need to change much in the UI. The ‘automated’ approach also allows you to be more responsive to how people actually end up using your list. The problem with ‘manual’ approaches is that there is often a difference between what we think we’re interested in and what we’re actually interested in.

I think I will attempt the ‘automated’ approach to topic list curation based on proxies for user interest in a plugin at some point.


I think that’s a totally fair comment and I agree with you (although there are plenty of Facebook groups which fall outside the normal ‘social media’ formula).

What I’m trying (perhaps badly) to say is that I think that different types of forum audiences are motivated by different things – and by extension, different types of communities rely on different types of behavioural norms for their survival.

Agreed. The counter-argument is that if there was another community about the same topic which was filled with people that you have a lot more in common with, you’d be more likely to visit that one.

FWIW I’m really enjoying this topic and I’m not attempting to win any points – just picking your brains. I’m interested in your thoughts.


Since the vast majority of drive bys will be trust level 0 users, perhaps you could require trust level 1 to create a thread in any category other than tech support. When people get denied based on their trust level, you can remind them that anyone can post in the tech support category.


That definitely addresses the separation/getting lost in the noise issue but it will exacerbate the ‘we’re getting lots of crap and very few interesting discussions’ issue by raising the barrier to entry.

Addressing the good conversations getting lost in the noise should indirectly help bolster more discussion. Less frustrated users leads to less attrition which leaves you with more people to have interesting discussions.

I’m not sure the separation of wheat/chaff posts and the lack of interesting discussions are problems that can be fixed together with a single solution. Getting people to talk about interesting stuff on a forum is a much bigger problem than can be solved by tweaking category structure or user permissions.


Yes I agree. I think what cuts across that somewhat though, and what I see as the important connection between the UX of forums and social media, is the psychological aspect of product development; aka captology.

When Facebook is designing their news feed they don’t start from the assumption that their users are rational agents with definite preferences. They start from the assumption that their users have certain biological structures and responses that can be stimulated and even shaped over time. The UX decisions about the news feed are essentially based on neurobiology, not on higher level concepts of ‘interesting’ or ‘deep’. I’m sure that when they are making product decisions about their ‘groups’ features, they are taking similar things into account.

The ‘dark’ slant of this is thought that tech products are being designed to be addictive in the same way that drugs or slot machines are. The academic paper underlying that comparison is here if anyone is interested. A side note here is that that paper (and similar work) is often mis-reported. If you actually read the thing, they quite clearly say (a number of times):

technology “addictions” may not present the exact same brain etiology and possibly pathogenesis that drives substance and gambling addictions.

The more neutral reading of this direction is that of course neurobiology should play a role in UX and content curation. Taking into account the neurobiological responses of your users is simply acknowledging that they are human. The idea that there is some separation between a mental rational ‘self’ and our biology is a remnant of the dualist theme in Western thought going all the way back to Plato’s Forms. The question is not whether or not it is ethical to take a neurobiological approach to UX - all approaches have neurobiological consequences whether you realize it or not - the question is what are the ethics of the neurobiological approach you are taking.

This is partly what I meant when I said we need to think of the UX of social media as a product strategy, rather than a ‘practice intertwined with social and ideological narratives’. This is the context to why I think there has to be a role for things like automated user-specific curation in the discovery topic lists, rather than relying entirely either on user choice or user curation (i.e. moderation / community management). Automated user-specific curation is much better at incorporating learnings from advances in neurobiology / psychology, e.g. that there often isn’t a one-to-one relationship between our perceived and our enacted preferences; that we invariably seek the path of least resistance (we’re naturally lazy); that our ‘interests’ are not so much ‘chosen’, as they shaped over time by our environment; etc.

It doesn’t follow from this that Discourse should adopt practices like preferencing videos and images over text (like Facebook does). It flows from it’s topic-centricity that forum content, and engagement with that content, is different from social media.

It does follow from this that UX / product thinking about content discovery and curation on a forum needs to move more toward an explicit discussion of user psychology and away from approaches based the assumption that users are atomic rational agents with definite preferences, or that engagement on different types of communities is inherently different. People are behaviorally much more similar than they think. That behavioral similarity is how Facebook manages to ‘addict’ an academic at Yale as easily as a factory worker in Dhaka.

Finally, I would reiterate that I am not saying “Let’s think about how we can get users addicted to our forums”. I am saying that the real context to this discussion about content curation and UX is our neurobiological response to stimuli. ‘Addiction’ is a description of a state on a neurobiological spectrum. A spectrum which we all exist on, 100% of the time.

@HAWK none of that is directed against you per se. As you say, I think we’re broadly on the same page.


All good. I actually used to teach a captology/persuasive technology workshop (and how it relates to community platforms). I’m 100% on board with ^^

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And if try to make a plugin that adds a new page: feed
Which can be added to select pages (categories and latest + feed)

What to show on the feed?

1. bookmark
2. all the themes from categories, tags are not muted

The idea is that would make a Central page it is like the tape in social networks. This will allow to solve a lot of problems.

I just suggest if it make sense?

What I’m not signed, I won’t see. In social networks I do not unsubscribe from the content, and subscribe. Perhaps this approach is more General users. They see only what they want?

Although there is a “rule” of 3 clicks. In fact, each click is very important. For example. Now categories can be seen if you click on the tab. It’s one click. Transferring a list of categories in a bar we remove this with a click and do everything visually convenient. For example, I don’t like what I see, I suppose not satisfied with the topics from a specific category. I should go to this category and unsubscribe, that would not see the content on the main page of the forum. This extra action. Let originally that I like I will choose myself. As is done in all social networks. It certainly has a place when there are a huge number of people who post material on the forum.


Sorry but I disagree. Following your example, docs are docs because their calling is helping other. They are there because patients exist. Building a community where there are “ship classes” is not inclusive, something like “keep out the kids!”
I understand that docs should have a place where they can discuss “high level medical topics” but keeping the people out is not the right choice. Keep in mind that one of those “random people” (if you are kind to them) can become a doc himself, or even a chief.

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The avenue I would pursue is ranking content on a user by user basis by comparing content classifications - categories, tags and authorship (i.e. who made the content) - with user-interest proxies - likes, views, reading time, replies (and others) - of the individual user. Use that ranking to create a user-specific topic list.

Maybe you know how to already, but if you don’t, the way I would do it (and the way it’s done in @joebuhlig’s Hot Topics plugin) is:

  1. Add your list to the top menu options and the filter options is easy. Just add these lines to your plugin.rb e.g.

  2. Add your list logic to TopicQuery. e.g.

    require_dependency 'topic_query'
    class ::TopicQuery
      SORTABLE_MAPPING["agenda"] = "custom_fields.event_start"
      def list_agenda
        @options[:order] = "agenda"
        topics = create_list(:agenda, ascending: "true")

I suggest you make both the content classifications and user interest proxies the subject of site settings so that different mixtures can be applied according to the initial hypothesis and experience of each forum.


Thanks, I tried to do:

The only thing that stops working on this page is sorting: Replies, Views, Activity
I think this approach can be useful.

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What we do in our community: we create topics a bit wider than the narrow scope of individual support questions, and then join the latter into the former.

Example “support” questions in the cheese home-making category:

  • My blue cheese turned out to be too hard, how do I soften it?
  • Blue cheese spoiled in my fridge. What are fridge requirements for blue cheese?
  • The ferment produced by XXX for blue cheese never worked for me, anyone tried it? What may I be doing wrong?

– all joined into a topic titled e.g. “Issues with blue cheese production”.

Then we have similar topics for soft cheese, hard cheese, cottage cheese and so on.

It has been working well so far. Just don’t make the combined topics’ scope too wide.

We also noticed that readers love such topics because they can read about many issues and read about experience of many people all in one thread – at least for cheese making it turned out to be useful to group discussions like these.

I’m not sure why it works. Maybe because when you cook something it is useful to read all the issues you can experience in one go in one place. Also, once an issue is solved (usually within <10 posts), the topic is over. If you leave it as is, the topic will get lost and never get any more activity unless it is specifically searched for).