It’s ironic that I am typing this on a platform that was inspired by the very problems I aim to articulate and explore. But I had to start somewhere, so here we go:
There is a divide that is coming up in discussions all across my sphere of awareness right now, most especially as a range of relatively new applications try to develop their budding communities in the best ways possible. Obsidian, Roam, Notion, Anytype, and so many more, all with some mish-mosh of Slack or Discord, forum, or Facebook group, or even some random, proprietary discussion platform. And these multiple solutions exist because no single platform or tool solves all of the needs and desires of their respective communities. And in some respects that’s fine.
Except… knowledge often gets lost, and in these communities that can be important. And Slack is expensive, and you can’t access history of conversations more than 10,000 messages ago without paying, so institutional knowledge in e.g. the Roam Slack community goes out the window on a 2 week rolling basis! And you also get community fragmentation, partially overlapping user groups, lower efficiency, less cross-pollination as those who prefer the more real time chat approach (“synchronous”) eschew the seemingly more formal or long-form forum or other “asynchronous” approaches, etc. Here’s just one recent example of these concerns from the Roam Discourse community:
All this has mostly been taken for granted as a necessary evil. But more and more there are starting to be questions about whether it has to be this way. And indeed in the era of many old assumptions being questioned, revolutionary “no code” apps popping up almost weekly, and new ideas, or realizations of powerful old ideas (backlinks, transclusion), now available at our fingertips, it seems reasonable to ask why it has to be like this, why we have to be fragmented, why we have to trade immediacy for longevity, why we can’t have one platform that meets everyone’s needs…
So I would love to have some discussion around this. I don’t expect we can solve it, lots of people are thinking about it. But I think it’s worth talking about in a place that is not tied to any one application, and that’s here!
Now right away I should say I’m biased, I was a big part of setting up this Discourse community, I prefer the “async” approach. I can see the fun in Discord and Slack, but they quickly become unmanageable for me, notifications can get excessive, conversations get lost, threading still sucks in both Discord and Slack, and finding old, good knowledge and conversations is challenging. At least to me.
The problem for me is I don’t entirely understand why the forum experience can’t scratch the same itch as the real time Discord experience. I know and agree there is something, I’m just not 100% sure what it is. And here is one reason I ask this: Discord and Discourse both have a “user is typing” indicator. I’m pretty sure that as soon as a new user posts in both Discord and Discourse, the message shows up immediately. So that’s basically real time, and then I have to ask what literally is the difference?
Is it the existence of “topics” inside “categories”, and not using all one long chat stream (broken up into channels, of course)? Is it the post writing interface that encourages longer response and/or is somehow “higher friction”, perhaps? Or that the post composition window sometimes covers up the “someone is writing a reply” indicator? Does the “user is replying” indicator need to be bigger/more prominent? Could we solve this by just moving some elements around or reshaping them?? Or is it some other simple design issue, like the narrower, paragraph-oriented reading view perhaps moving users toward writing more in-depth responses, that are in themselves slower to write, thus inherently slowing down the conversation?
Conversely, what is it about real time that makes it feel more fun, but also (to some) chaotic? Frequency of messages is an obvious answer, but again why are they more frequent? Is it just the post writing interface encouraging or discouraging different ways of writing? And why is it so hard to organize? Is it the lack of “topics”, and so in some way the strength of a forum (topics and channels/categories) is at the same time a weakness, and the weakness of chat (no topics, everything in one stream per channel) also a strength (immediacy, everything in one stream)?
To my mind the differences between the two are actually surprisingly small in technical, functional terms. But there are differences, and I want to figure out not just what those differences as far as experience and feeling (“immediate” vs. not), but what makes them feel different, and whether a hybrid is actually possible!