What is wrong with PHPBB?

(Chris S.) #1

Could someone explain what is wrong with PHPBB? What is Discourse doing that VBulletin and PHPBB doesn’t do? I’m not attempting to ‘troll’ I just wonder if this is purely a demonstration of how to write maintainable code (ala Bob Martin), or how to make a forum that has the bells and whistles of HTML 5 and ECMAScript 5?

If you were the stakeholder, or product owner of a forum, what would upgrading to Discourse give you?

Scrolling is not smooth in Google Chrome because of auto link change in my address bar
(Eli the Bearded) #2

PHPBB blows in many ways. Alternatives to it are welcome. I’ve never yet seen a web forum do as good a job organizing posts, showing new posts, and managing my interest in posts as Usenet can do. But Usenet is essentially dead, and I’ve seen people suggesting that this could offer the web replacement that doesn’t suck. I’m here to find out if that is true.

(Jackdoh) #3

Here’s my problem with most forums:

A single line of post takes so much space. The Reply button unnecessarily takes a whole line by itself. There’s so much noise in post that the content struggles to get noticed. A typical page would only contain 5 single liners. This is from xda-developers.com, which is not the worst offender, and actually took the time to style their forum in a modern design, others use much uglier style.

Apart from aesthetics, what discourse does is encourage good discussion while discouraging posturing and all the other stuff unrelated to what matters, the content.
The left side of the image, in a glance the busiest part of the post. It represent the priority of community of most forums. The rank of the user, the number of posts, join date. All of these things, except the thanks meter, are related to user, his/her seniority and how much time they spent on the forum. And not necessarily how much good content the user has provided. In discourse, the content is front and center.

Posting something in the internet at its most basic is looking for attention, because you do want people to your posts, however, other forums attract the worst kind of attention seekers by providing giant signature banner, member rankings, font coloring and sizes.

As a reader, I love the message, and care much less about who wrote it.

(Jeff Atwood) #4

For one thing, there aren’t any forums of significance that are 100% open source and free to use by the world, forever, like Discourse is.

Vanilla has a crippled open source version, and I literally can’t even think of any other serious players that even try.

So if you want awesome software for free, that is likely to be around forever because it’s fully open source, and has a reasonable chance of achieving the same impact as WordPress on the web… then Discourse is your huckleberry.

(Jack James) #5

As @jackdoh said, there’s too much clutter. It’s not just the way the posts read (which I think @codinghorror did a good job of covering on his blog), it’s also trying to use it. I go onto a typical forum in 2013, after hunting around for the button to register an account and jumping through the ensuing hoops, I have to find how to make a new post. Look at this:

There isn’t actually a way to post a message here. I have to find which subforum to post it (as an aside, nearly every forum cultivates an ecosystem where people get pissed off if someone posts in the wrong forum), and post from there (as another aside, even in discourse I find myself clicking “new” at the top instead of "create topic way over on the right).

Once there, here I am at last faced with a familiar form (ignoring all the unnecessary and cryptic buttons as I have been trained to do):

But what’s this, further down:

Tags? I now have to stop and perhaps spend more time coming up with tags when I really just want to ask about why my mouse doesn’t work properly or whatever (and what are the tags even for? Are there some advanced PHPBB users who only look for posts with specific tags? Do they provide some arcane method of finding posts that wouldn’t otherwise work with the (truly terrible) search?

Then there are advanced options, which although advanced, show every single time. Do I want to post a poll? Why isn’t this just an option in the already stacked editing toolbar? Why can’t I subscribe to just posts that are relevant to what I’ve written, rather than all the tangents? Do I really want to waste my time loading a preview?

And then, once you’re able to submit (an apt term in this case), you spin the wheel of fortune as to whether it will go through. Maybe the post is too long. Maybe it’s too short. And so on. You’d think, in the wealth of information, including this stuff:

there’d be something to actually inform you about these secret rules. But there are plenty of other bizarre enforced rules. I can’t search for “Mac” because it’s too short, despite the fact that it’s completely appropriate to do so. I can’t post replies in quick sucession, even though I’ve been composing them in separate tabs. (Aside: this is one of the things that frustrates me greatly about Stackoverflow. I can’t simply edit someone’s “there” typo to make their sentence grammatically correct, I can’t change my mind about voting an answer after having put their idea into practice, and I can’t simply put “thanks” as a comment).

Then there’s this:

Yeah. I don’t know who half that stuff is for, or what the difference between a profile picture and an avatar is.

There are other problems endemic to most forums that I’d argue are as a direct result of their design. “Threadjacking” I believe is the parlance for when the original topic is taken on a tangent, with the original meaning lost. Trying to work out the context for a reply can be overwhelming, often requiring reading through many pages of posts to find pertinent information.

Let me illustrate:

A perfectly reasonable question. Let me look through the 512 replies to find out.

Apple’s forums are actually pretty good in this case, as they provide links at the start of the post to anything the original author considers “helpful”. They also provide links to show who was replying to what. Further down:

Read any significantly long forum thread and the inherent problems with the system as a whole become apparent. Really, who is going to read through 512 replies? Why aren’t they subtopics? And so on.

It’s been touched upon that PHPBB forums are ugly, but I think this needs saying more. I’ve been unable to find anyone who can take a PHPBB install and make it look appealing. That’s “appealing” as in “worthy of a website” in the 2010s. Case in point, here are how some of the sites from PHPBB’s own showcase look:

That last one is Pixelmator, who have managed to make PHPBB look at least reasonable by simply removing most of it. And even then it’s visually, a wall of text. And this from a company that makes “a popular commercial image editing software for Mac OS X users.” What hope do regular sites have?

Add "Create Topic" button at the top
(Joel Uckelman) #6

I almost don’t know where to start. The whole thing is a steaming pile, top to bottom, including the community around it.

  • It’s written in PHP, for one. I would categorize PHP as a joke language if I didn’t know for sure that it wasn’t.

  • I had to dig into the PHPBB codebase to build a mailing list bridge and to integrate PHPBB with my site’s single-sign-on. They have no documented public API, no web service for accessing any PHPBB features, and the codebase is a tangly mess.

  • PHPBB has a weird homebrew system for packaging plugins and extensions. Unless you use it, you can’t even have a thread for an extension you’re writing outside the “alpha” subforum in PHPBB’s forum.

  • This previous thing is enforced by the tinpot fascist forum admins, who also have a page-long list of other rules they insist upon. E.g., I’ve had one of these guys repeatedly remove a link in a post of mine which was there as an example of the thing being talked about in a thread.

  • If you point any of the above things out, the PHPBB devs are outright hostile about it.

PHPBB is one of the two projects where I now refuse to report bugs I find, because I don’t want to prolong its life by helping them out.

Never having to deal with PHPBB again. Priceless.

(Navarr Barnier) #7

I feel like criticizing forum software for using PHP is a bit… well, wrong.

Ignoring the faults of PHP as a language, it has the one advantage forum software needs: Global deployment.

Sure, this could all change based on how hosting providers work - but it’s cheap and easy to get a PHP host, sometimes even free.

As a mainstream programmer working on products written in the mainstream language (PHP), the unveiling of Discourse was actually a little disappointing because of this. As far as I can tell, I can’t deploy discourse in my shared hosting environment (Dreamhost). I could on my VPS, after installing some new software and such, but not on shared hosting.

In this way, Discourse becomes a tool for the professional, certainly, but it won’t cause any discourse because people simply won’t be able to throw it onto their cheap shared hosting.

My reply seems to have gotten off topic a bit, so I’ll TL;DR.

PHP is a strength solely because of its availability and ease of setup. Starting out your argument for phpBB being weak because it’s written in PHP is “ちょっと・・・”

(Ricardo_Augusto) #8

It’s not only too much clutter, it wasn’t designed to have a big number of posts and users too.

90% of PHPBB forums I attended in the past are now lost, deleted or abandoned. Few are the ones that survived.

They were abandoned because the messy interface (with help of poor themes) and because at some point it became unproductive with too much users and confused old informations.

(Rarst) #9

bbPress is very free, but probably still far from achieving “significance”. It might have been different story if Automattic went forward with offering hosted bbPress on par with their WordPress offering, however that seems to have been shelved.

(steigerwald) #10

By far the only thing that was done well, 1 click install’s from cpanel. The ease of setting up a community.

(Jack James) #11

I feel bbPress is too minimalistic in some respects, and in others it manages to be as cluttered as phpbb.

(Jeff Atwood) #12

I find that, as a general rule, shoehorning forum features into a platform that fundamentally isn’t about peer to peer communication usually does not end well. Not a dig on WordPress or bbPress, just an observation. Do One Thing, and all that.

(digibo) #13

It may sound strange, but sometimes that’s what is need for a discourse - some effort. I think that, at least some of the people that dislike PHPBB, dislike it because it’s everywhere, even places where a much simpler system would do a better job. Providing the needed simplicity isn’t easy and often people just take PHPBB and “throw it onto” their hosting.

Besides that, you are right that criticizing the software by attacking PHP is… well, wrong. If it does the job it’s intended to, I don’t care about the language/platform behind.

(Joe Hannon) #14


there aren’t any forums of significance that are 100% open source and free to use by the world, forever

I don’t get it. Are you saying phpBB isn’t free or open source? It’s GPL software… Or did you mean other than phpBB, so there are actually two huckleberries?

(nXqd) #15

I hate the hierarchy system. I don’t meant in programming but the the aspect of a user. The folder structure is long dead and it’s not suitable for the current community anymore. Since we have more kind of news, it cannot be be suited in one place anymore. The tag system is much more convenient to use and manage :slight_smile:

(Jeff Atwood) #16

Great great post, can’t like it hard enough, but I wanted to answer this aside:

  • Anyone can submit a suggested edit on any post in Stack Exchange, even as an anonymous user. Users with 2k rep can make edits that do not require approval.

  • You can change a vote for 5 minutes after casting it, you can also change a vote if the underlying post is edited.

  • The minimum post length on SE is 30 characters, so no, you can’t put “thanks” as an answer. The minimum comment length is 15 characters, so no, you can’t put “thanks” as a comment. And why would you? Upvote the post. That’s how you thank people; nobody wants to read ten thousand zero-content “thanks” and “+1” comments. See How to Say Thanks in an Answer - Stack Overflow Blog

Anyway, total pedantic digression, which I apologize for – but I wanted to clear up any misconceptions there.

(Jack James) #17

That’s true, but you can’t make an edit which is less than 6 characters, as in changing “there” to “their”.

(Jeff Atwood) #18

Actually you’re right – I didn’t realize phpBB was fully open source. I’m going to invoke poetic license and say phpBB is not a forum of significance!*

* Where I define “significance” as “not unbelievably terrifyingly awful”

(Jeff Atwood) #19

On Stack Exchange you can make 1 char edits at 2k rep. Edits that need community attention must be more substantive to be worth three people’s time. (It takes 2 approvers on each suggested edit).

(Joel Uckelman) #20

It’s not wrong to criticize PHPBB for being in PHP if being in PHP is one of the reasons it doesn’t do the job it’s intended to do. PHPBB has historically had scads of security problems, many of them associated with older versions of PHP encouraging you to do things in fundamentally broken ways. As a result, it’s been painful to maintain and keep secure over the years. If you look back through the PHPBB release notes, you can find numerous bugs caused by PHP being weird or inconsistent and the PHPBB devs being tripped up by that. Moreover, one of the things they trumpet is that PHPBB is easy to mod. Lastly, if you suddenly come to realize that the software is not doing the job it’s intended to do—i.e., you find a bug—then the language behind it suddenly becomes important, because somebody has to find and fix that bug. I’ve both written a mod and tracked down bugs in PHPBB. I found having to work in PHP to be an obstacle to that, because neither the language nor its standard library are well-designed.

So, being in PHP is most definitely a valid criticism of PHPBB, because being in PHP has contributed to the maintenance burden for me. There are projects, such as MediaWiki, which seem to have succeeded despite being in PHP—but then MediaWiki doesn’t suffer from any of the other pitfalls I pointed out: It has a real, documented API, much of which is available as a web service. It doesn’t have ridiculous requirements for publishing plugins, etc.