Rethinking Discussion Boards

For a couple of years now, people have been thinking about the semantic web; a web where information is neatly ordered and beautifully structured. This would allow search engines to truly look for information and come up with better results. It's a little how the web originally started. When we still used <h1> tags, and tags like <strong> and <em> instead of <b>, <i> and <font>. These tags mean something. They are about semantics, not presentation. Anyway, the problem is that if you want to do the semantic web right, there's a lot of work involved. The problem is getting people to do all this additional work and do it truthfully. For example, usually, words in the title or heading on a page tell the reader what the text underneath is about. So, if you were a search engine, finding a word in a title would make it more important than just in the plain paragraph text. However, people would abuse this, so a search engine can't use this information.

Something that people have started experimenting with on several places are tags. There's blogging software that allows you to "tag" your posts with some keywords. Other services like del.icio.us, allow you to publish interesting links you've encountered and to tag them. Tags are all just a word long, so it's really easy to add them. If I look at del.icio.us now, the most popular tags are web, software, programming, design, blog and tools. Other websites like flickr, use tags to tag pictures. This gives very interesting insight in what people are posting pictures about. If you go watch flickr's tag page you can see the most popular ones (the bigger, the more pictures posted).

Yesterday, by accident, I found two other sites that use tags: 43things.com and 43places.com. On these websites you can tell people what your goals in life are and find people who share them, 43places.com is about places where you want to go and people who have been there (who can share their experiences). All goals and places can be tagged, and using these tags similar goals and places can be found. When I saw 43things.com, I started asking myself: how could tags help forums?

I'm always interested in different approaches to currently well-established concepts, such as forums. Is it worthwhile trying to use tags in forums? I'm not sure, but here's one possible approach. My idea is the following: drop the concept of boards. Just have one big namespace, if you will, for all your topics. If somebody starts a new topic, he or she can tag it (or not). The tags will replace the boards. In the case of programming related forums one could for example ask the question how to do a particular kind of for-loop in PHP and could tag it with 'php' and 'loop'. Tags could either be free-form or predefined, I'm not sure what would work best, but I'd probably be in favour of free-form tag names. On the forum front page the latest topics would be listed, but also a list of tags and the number of (new) topics that are tagged with them. This could be done in the nice visual way like flickr does here -- it would give an instant view in what people are talking about now.

How do you know the topic starter will tag the topic right? You don't. That's why I think it would be best to allow any member to add tags to any topic, or even to remove them (but maybe removing them is something for a moderator to do?).

Why would you want to do this? What are the advantages? I think the advantages are the following:

  • No longer the ever-lasting "Did I post this topic in the right forum?" question. Every topic fits anywhere, a topic can be about PHP and dish washers at the same time, no need to choose between the PHP and dish washer board.
  • Users could subscribe (on the forum itself or through RSS/Atom?) to certain tags or combinations of them. For example, if I'm especially interested in using PHP on the client-side, I could subscribe to all topics which are tagged with 'php' and 'client'.
  • It provides a mechanism to show "similar topics" for each topic. Imagine that after a posting a reply to a certain topic you get to see a screen saying "since you knew the answer to this question, you might also be interested in these topics", which would list similarly tagged topics.

And what about tag names? One could tag a topic either 'scripting' or 'programming', which basically mean the same. How would someone only subscribed to 'programming' find the 'scripting' topics? Well, I could imagine applying some interesting statistics here, dealing with similar tags or people quite often tagging something both 'scripting' and 'programming' from which one could deduce that they may be very similar. One could create very interesting graphs from how tags are used and may relate to each other. Sites like 43things.com already show "related tags", so it is definitely doable. I can imagine even showing a list of popular tag combinations, which would be like naturally evolved boards.

The beauty of tags is that they are simple. It's not a lot of work to tag a topic, and by tagging a topic it can become a lot more useful. It could turn forums in more of a knowledge base, something that many people have been waiting for a long time.

Again, nobody will know if this concept will work or not until somebody tries it. So, if there's somebody out there who wants to create not yet another bulletin board like all others (YaBBLAO), you may want to give this concept a shot. It's at the very least a lot more challenging than the traditional model.