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Re: The BuddyPress UI Design and conceptual approach to Social Networking



OK, monster essay ahoy. This is a big part of why I think ‘forums’ are an important component of the overall experience, no matter what we call them.

Here’s the meat from a couple of comments I made before on this subject, here on this very forum:

I think web community, more perhaps for people who are not so much of the disposable, in-the-moment, ritalin-riddled, post-it-and-forget it generation, needs to have feet solidly planted in not only the ongoing ephemeral stream of conversation, but also in a more long-term, permanent ’space’ of shared history, shared interactions that are performed in public and can be gone back to, interactions that more than any set of xprofile fields or avatars build a mutual understanding between users based on personality and past discussion. Build, in other words, community.

and here’s another:

Different users use sites in different ways, of course, and the Activity stream is certainly one user story that shouldn’t be ignored. But, as I’ve said so many times before over the past almost-a-year, forums, in one sense or another, have a sense of permanency for users, a ‘virtual place’ they can return to, and I believe should be the anchor of a site like this and many others, where the ongoing stream of activity and making-friends for superfans and power users is less important than information being discoverable and discussion interactions being aggregated rather than just fading away. I am growing more disenchanted with the apparent lack of attention being paid to what I believe for many is essential for a successful community site — a featureful forum setup that is the steady beating heart of the swirl of activity.

Yes, I know the bbPress option is suboptimal as a solution, but it’s what we have to work with, and it can’t be ignored or passed off to, because we’re not running bbPress, we’re running an interface free, bbPress-plugin-incompatible fork of it, in essence if not reality, and I really do believe that more attention needs to be paid to the limitations of it as a component of BP and ways to make it work for community-building and user satisfaction.

Anyway, back to Activity. On true social network sites (whatever that means, exactly), it makes some sense that things are ephemeral, that interactions disappear beneath the fold, because, hey, it’s all about interacting with people, socially.

But the focus of this site (and most sites I might consider building with BP) is not just making friends and having a grand old social time. It’s sharing information, asking questions, discussing solutions, offering and asking for assistance, and it’s important that the interface those interactions be structured discoverable for people who are going to have the same questions in future as BP adoption grows, and the toolset for creating them be rich, both from the administration and user-facing perspectives.

How many times do we see the same questions being asked, basic or otherwise? To answer my own question, a lot. That’s just human nature in part, certainly, but it’s also, I think, because the tools we have for using these forums are vestigial, and people just don’t have the information they need at their fingertips. User confusion and frustration will kill a community faster than goatse images. We’re all so used to using this app that I think we lose sight of just how daunting it is for new users. The site I’m building for an existing community on a different platform has taught me that, very quickly.

Some sites, some userbases NEED structure for conversation. This site we’re on right now is an example, as I outlined above.

Now the irony here is I was able to go back and find those comments (having to use Google because the BP site search didn’t work, I note) because they were made as parts of conversations in a permanent, permalinked — forum-style — framework.

Consider a possible taxonomy of user activity and interactions on websites (a huge project, of course — I’m just trying for a sketch here).

At the bottom the very bottom would be simple records of activity.

Next higher would be Facebook-y pokes and friend-button mashings and things like that — non-verbal pings, basically, but deliberate.

Next up would be status broadcasts — Tweets, or personal activity updates here. Verbal, but basically free-floating.

Next would be comments on other people’s activity or posts or pictures or whatever. Comments ‘on’ something, in other words — focused activity, verbal, but let’s call it transitive, in the sense that there is an ‘object’ being commented on.

Next would be discussions, like the one we’re having here. Threaded or unthreaded, paginated or not, they are multi-person, ongoing interactions about a subject or subjects. This is the kind of interaction we think of as occurring in forums structures, mostly, although that term is used to describe a wide range of structure.

Now I want you to notice that there’s a leap in cognition, in interaction, in format, and in permanency in that last step. It’s a step up to actual discussion rather than commenting ‘on’ things, it’s a step up to engaging with multiple people, it’s a step up to threads (and possibly threaded conversation, but that’s a implementation detail) and pages, and most importantly, it’s a permanent interaction for the first time as we climb the ladder of the hierarchy.

A ‘forum’ discussion is something people will return to, to add to, or just to re-read, to get information from, to learn more about the people involved or the subject being discussed. It is part of the fabric of community because it is permanent. It is the bedrock of virtual permanency, to coin a phrase.

‘Social’ networking, people seem to forget, is about people. And it’s through the history of interactions in structured discussions that we learn about other people in a web community and decide if we want to be ‘social’ with them or not. This structured, searchable, historical record of activity and interaction is utterly essential for building real community. That’s forums.

Just to finish off the taxonomy, I’d say the top of the ladder would be blog posts, at least if they are ‘written’ things intended to be read by others and then possibly responded to. Notice that they are, in a way, the flipside, functionally, of the reply-to activity, being the mover rather than the response.

Now this is getting ridiculously long, but I don’t believe in ignoring honest questions even from people who insult me, so let me just wrap it up (and there’s more to say, but I have things to do) with this:

Where else other than a forum would I be able to write a longform comment about a complicated subject, as part of an ongoing discussion? We don’t have to call it a forum if we don’t want, but this STRUCTURE, this type of format, is the only one available to us, even at a conceptual level. It’s not something we can omit across the board. I suggested earlier, and I stand by my suggestion, that it’s ridiculous to suggest such a thing.

The forum style of community member interaction is an integral part of the hierarchy of ways that users will interact online, a way that they expect to be able to interact, and a way that is entirely reasonable for them to expect. It is not only useful for some functions (such as user-to-user support here at, or sharing information (ie code and tips and stuff in the case of that many if not all sites will be providing, it is the organic way that ongoing web community builds a foundation, that users come to know one another, and as such is the essential key for true ‘social networking’ among people who do not already know one another.

I reckon.

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