Now I've got Chat 💬 what do I do with Personal Messages?

I love Discourse Chat - it is thoroughly polished and gives a brilliant experience for ephemeral communications within an online forum in ways we could only dream of last year.

However, I’m stuck with a bit of a problem. After a few years of nudging folk to use personal messages (PMs) as a never-very-satisfactory alternative to chat, what do I do with them?

Group comms are also usually fine as a chat channel. And as you need a category to anchor that anyway, there is an obvious place for persistent / complex content.

One:one communications are mostly ephemeral anyway, so chat is perfect for the majority of this. However, we are left with a missing piece:

a place for content which is private, shared with a few others (changing), and persistent.

This is a particular problem for me as an admin / community manager as it is really helpful to refer back to previous conversations and build on them. While I can (and do) have my own private category, this is no good for ongoing communications as everyone else is locked out of them.

What is the best way to manage this problem?

Option A - just add chat to the mix

I’m not thrilled with this due to the inevitable confusion my users will have over which to use when. This will require a lot of carefully thought out ‘just in time’ stuff / education.

I’m pretty sure that most users will simply ignore the chat and keep sending me PMs for a long time. Others will just not communicate as it is ‘too difficult’.

It will be better for me personally as I’ll have a nice home for my private community management stuff.

Option B - turn PMs off either partially or completely

This has the strong allure of simplicity. My users love simple!

However, system things (badge grantings etc) still come through as PMs. That will confuse the punters, and make it a bit tricky to fully remove a lot of the message related stuff (inbox, etc).

Option C - recast personal PMs as ‘Private Topics’

We all know that they are just topics. But the message language goes quite deep, as well as into the functionality. I can go to town changing the text on buttons and the like, but it isn’t going to be pretty.

See this also:

Thoughts / Suggestions

What have others done to manage this? I’d love any advice from those who have added chat into their established communities.

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Group PMs? They don’t need a category, right?

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I don’t want to make a group/category for every single interaction!!!

And the whole point is how to eliminate (or at least massively de-ephasise) Messages.

Or is having messages, chat, and topics okay? I suspect not as I know my users and they do not like complexity one bit.

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Ever since I started my forum, we’ve had a topic Random Thoughts that’s open to all TLs. That has been used as chat by nearly everyone. Anything and everything is talked about. If a brief exchange relates to an already existing topic those posts usually get moved to that relevant topic, but not until the exchange is finished.

Some of my users have also used PMs (or DMs) for communicating between themselves things they don’t want in the Random Thoughts which is seen by everyone (even though this is a private forum).

On another forum, we have a group PM going each month with mostly Leaders and a couple of Regular members. That has been working great for us for over a year, especially if one uploads an image or photo, or links that get Oneboxed.

I’m not really sure how Chat would fit in in either of these two forums. Most of the users in the 2nd forum despise Twitter and have stated so several times. In addition to this, Chat would definitely NOT be an option for all users as it is a public help forum with a Help/Support category anyway. New visitors start new help topics.

Keeping with this topic title, you would have to think about what PMs have that Chat doesn’t - longevity, searchable, etcetera. And what Chat has that PMs don’t. Would giving up PMs really be good for your forum or not? Actually, you could keep PMs but push the Chat as the way to interact - until something needs to be taken to a PM… as long as PMs were still available. Thinking about our group PM on another forum, there is nothing preventing two or more from starting another PM to make discuss something brought up in the group PM or even to quickly talk about something completely irrelevant. In these cases there really is much difference between PMs and Chat. :man_shrugging:

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I don’t think that’s what Jay was suggesting. I think he means why don’t people create a group PM for those discussions and then add or remove people as necessary. That is what we do in our internal instance. We use PMs for ongoing non-ephemeral private discussions (like weekly meeting agendas and minutes) or for discussions that we want to keep around, and use chat in tandem for ephemeral discussion.

Chat was never intended to replace PMs. The use case is very different in most instances.

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This seems to be the option that I like the most but as you said, individually tweaking the language as an admin may be a lot of work.

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I believe there still exists a place in a community for both Chat and Private Messages.

In some communities there exists a need for private and encrypted messaging between parties, and PMs coupled with Discourse encrypt would be our way here. In extreme cases where there may be a need to discuss about another privileged user, encrypted PMs are your way to go.

Encrypted chat is currently not supported and probably won’t be anytime soon (though it is on our radar).

Option C above also reflects what PMs are programmatically – they are private topics. The support for search in PMs are also top notch (as with regular topics, just add in:messages), and is currently not available for chat.

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I confess that I interpreted it to mean a PM sent to a Group, rather than ad-hoc PMs to multiple individuals. That certainly works for that use-case.

The challenge for our less technical users is that Messages and Chat are very similar semantically, and the important functional differences are unclear to them.

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I would say PMs are for paragraphs. DMs are for short lines of high fidelity communication.

This very reply fits better in a PM than a DM. The litmus test is

  1. This includes multiple paragraphs
  2. This is async-first type of communication.
  3. It has a proper “topic”

How are tricks Nathan?
(good for a DM)

I want to discuss … bottles.

Bottles are better cause

  1. they are big
  2. they are made of glass

Let’s discuss
(good for a PM)

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Brilliant Topic for discussion. Thank you @nathankershaw

I would NOT like to see PMs go.

PMs you want to keep or PMs to arbitrary sets of users (or both) are still great use cases as is longform private discussion.

I think we need to emphasise and reinforce with users that chat is lost after x days, PMs are not.

I’m not sure how we remind users of that and prompt them to make better decisions on the fly but there you go.

How about we rename PM’s Private Topics?

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General community vernacular is PMs though so I worry that this would make things confusing for people migrating from other platforms.

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But they aren’t really private (unless you have that encryption plugin), so some people take issue with “private” and like “personal” better (because it’s a personal conversation between the people connected to it plus any admin who decides to look).

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By default the expiration of messages to chat channels is 90 days, whereas direct messages are kept forever. The distinction tripped me up early on too.

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I think the “direct message” (chat) vs. “personal message” (non chat) is confusing. Several times already, I’ve also been chatting with someone in a direct message and one of us may say “let’s start a topic about this” when we really mean “let’s start a personal message (topic)”. In those scenarios, we’re using “topic” as shorthand for “something more async” but we still intend to keep it among us.

It’d be nice to arrive at less ambiguous language, but there are challenges in doing so. As Hawk pointed out, some terms have precedence form general community vernacular and are used across platforms. And we have our own legacy to confront as well - changing terminology for a feature that has been used for years is tough. So… perhaps we’ll do that at some point, but for now, let’s assume we have the terms we have.


Putting that bit aside for now, I think it really depends on the community when thinking about whether PMs or DMs (or both) are a better fit.

It’s pretty satisfying to see them all work well together though.

I’ve even had chats 1:1 that we’ve then captured as a transcript in a summary in PM between the two of us for later followup - and vice versa, we have a PM for longer threads that we refer to by link in a direct message chat to hash out some details.

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I’ve often felt confused by PMs and DMs as acronyms in general, as, if I remember correctly, Facebook used PMs and Instagram and Twitter had DMs, even though they all had a very similar chat interface.

So when I think of PMs on Discourse, they don’t actually seem like PMs to me, as topics seem more like emails to me than chat messages.

So regarding conflicting with established norms in digital communication overall, I think the major players even conflict on PMs and DMs. In conflicting with established forum norms, didn’t Discourse make a decision to have “topics” instead of the normal “threads”? So there seems to be some precedence to rename.

Personally, I like naming them on their length and openness: topics vs chat, public vs personal (or private). Just seems like a simpler 2x2 matrix to explain to people: public topics, personal/private topics, public chats, personal/private chats.

Also, it may show that personal/private topics are more related and easily convertible into public topics than a chat would be. Plus, as chats have become anchored to catogories and not specific topics, chats seem more broad than a specific topic with subject would be.

I often see topics akin to emails and chats akin to IMs/SMS/texts/chatrooms. Im curious how this resonates with you.

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I like the 2x2 matrix conceptually. I think the naming part is still hard. The name “public channels” and “public topics” bumps into some friction when one considers channels and topics in private categories only accessible to certain groups…

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Absolutely. I think we should stop using PM and DM terminology as if they’re different things, and definitely shouldn’t codify the terms anyway in the UI, it’s an uphill battle for meaning we won’t win. The words behind the acronyms (private message and direct message) don’t differentiate a “type” in any meaningful way.

Wikipedia equates the two to mean the same thing, Merriam-Webster defines a DM as a private message… this just creates baggage for us to explain away.

Personal Chat and Personal Message seem like the clearest options to me. In documentation we might call them that, and colloquially it’s easier to say “send me a [chat] [PM]” and know the difference between the two.


The distinction between the two types of functionality is rather thin from my perspective, and probably non-existent for most users. Encryption is important for some sites, but how many? probably fewer than 10% of Discourse sites use it, right? Search is a factor for more sites, but I’d be surprised if we didn’t have it within the next year. There’s not much to stop me from writing paragraphs in chat (and I frequently do!) and nothing stops people from sending me chats asynchronously.

Reddit is one platform that I can think of that has the two concepts co-exist in a similar way, and AFAIK they’re gradually moving to all-chat for DMs. And people ask the same question there (their admin didn’t have a great reason for it either): https://www.reddit.com/r/help/comments/pali45/whats_the_difference_between_chat_and_message_in/

Anyway, we have reasons now… but they’re going to go away. When they do I think we should strongly consider what merging the two concepts might look like. It will make things much clearer for users in the end.

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Sorry if I’m derailing things slightly, but will the term “Personal Message” gain prominence in the UI?

It’d been my understanding that the UI shied away from this term due to how accessible Messages between users are for those logged into staff accounts. Is that wrong or outdated?

edit: Time for bed! :sleeping:

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I think you’re referring to private messages. That’s the term we go out of our way to avoid.

Users should have no expectation of privacy for a multitude of reasons.

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Oh, brain fart on my part - you are, of course, correct.

Thanks and sorry. :slight_smile:

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