The Future of Discussion Forums

mburns

14

Before I joined Mozilla, I was a fan and user (in that order) of Firefox and Thunderbird and would follow the project’s progress on mailing lists where designs were discussed and future plans proposed. Even though it was all over my head at the time, it proved to be a great way to learn about Open Source software. It was a place to watch people share and solve problems together, all around a common goal.

Mozilla has used Mailman to power its several hundred mailing lists for the last decade, chronicling conversations dating back to the days of Netscape. Since we first rolled out these Discussion Forums at Mozilla, the Web has changed and our userbase has expanded by several orders of magnitude. Now, we want to make sure our Forums are as approachable and engaging for new users as they have been for our veterans in years past. The discussion that takes place on these email lists of employees, volunteers and users is a big part of what makes Mozilla Mozilla–it is what got me involved, after all–and it is what will engage the next generation of Mozillians to learn to love Firefox and the Open Web.

We want to improve Mozilla’s Discussion Forums! Your help required!

Currently, the Forums are available via traditional e-mail (Mailman), NNTP (via our friends at GigaNews) and on the web (by Google Groups by way of GigaNews). Sending a message to any one of those three channels will automatically send to the other two, seamlessly. This arrangement has worked well, but it is not without its problems. Connectivity to Google Groups has been inconsistent in the past, which breaks the ability to post to the Mozilla lists from within a Browser.

According to a recent sampling, ~20% of messages and ~30% of posters come from the Web interface provided by Google Groups, along with some number of readers. Since Mailman itself does not (currently) directly support posting messages from the web, we remain dependent on Google Groups to provide us this functionality, and are at their mercy if things stop working. The ability to post via the web has been proposed for a possible future release of Mailman v3 (which is still in Beta), but does not yet appear to have made any progress. Is that development something Mozilla or the wider community could try to solve? Alternatively, maybe Mailman isn’t the solution to our needs any longer and we should look elsewhere.

There are a number of areas that could stand to improve with a fresh Discussion Forum system beyond lowering the barrier to entry of the three existing access methods (E-mail, NNTP, Web). We would also be keenly interested in improving moderation management, discoverability of interesting topics and simple UI interactions to encourage participation. An integrated solution to our Discussion Forum system could help us do just that, but we want to make the right decision on how and what to implement, which is where you (the reader) comes in. Your feedback on how you use and wish you could use Mozilla Mailing lists will help us in making them better.

There are a number of software offerings that can provide many of the above-mentioned features in addition to the e-mailing list options we have already come to depend on. Both Open Source self-hosted programs (Sympa, GroupServer) or as a service (Jive, Gmane) are worth serious consideration. It isn’t clear what drawbacks these software packages have at Mozilla’s scale, however. What is your experience with one of these options? Most large open source communities, like Apache or Ubuntu, either use just a Web forum or just an e-mail list but do not synchronize across the two, which Mozilla believes is a required feature for community involvement.

I’m hoping that the Community’s experience can help guide our decision making on how best to move forward. I know I would really benefit from hearing the opinions of both seasoned forum users and folks who have never seen a mail group in their lives (sometimes those opinions are the most valuable). So, if you’re interested in how to make communication better at Mozilla, please share your comments below.

14 responses

  1. Mook wrote on :

    Of the things listed, I’ve only used gmane as a user (both via their framed web interface as well as nntp), and I’ve found that to be pretty good. Seems to have load problems occasionally, but I think it always resolves itself in a few minutes, so that hasn’t been a serious issue. Unfortunately, I have no administration-side experience with any of them.

    I can’t tell if the other services/software support gatewaying to nntp; I suppose I can always request gmane to carry it if they don’t… but that seems a little perverse ;) But it sounds like it’s already in your mind anyway :)

    Some of the solutions listed on the wiki are confusing. Diaspora, XMPP? Those don’t really carry the same sort of messages (in terms of detail/length), as far as I know…

    It might be useful to determine if integration with browserid/persona would be desirable in the future; if yes, using things that have more pluggable auth systems (or, at least, don’t carry as much user information in their accounts) may be desirable.

  2. David Boswell wrote on ::

    Very glad to see you driving this discussion around discussion forums. It seems like there is a huge amount of potential to improve how we’re communicating in the project and it will be great to see what comes out of this.

    David

  3. Anosrep wrote on :

    Whatever solution on the web side happens, it must either be free of registration, or a combination of no registration for unverified users and Persona for verified users, given how well Persona integrates with multiple email accounts.

  4. Jay Garcia wrote on ::

    No matter the venue there will always be the “anti” and the “for” folks. Personally and from decades of experience I firmly believe in the NNTP approach. I was co-admin to Markus Bauer for Netscape Secnews and it worked very well up until the time that it transitioned over to news.mozilla.org. As a standalone solution I think that NNTP best suits the users rather than a mailing list being integrated into the groups. Posting to a news group gets more instant results as opposed to a mailing list or even a mailing list where one has to subscribe to a group or set of groups. NNTP is universal and its functionality is built-in to most mail applications as well as standalone news apps, etc. …. Just my opinion. Good luck, I’m here to help in any way needed.

  5. Majken “Lucy” Connor wrote on :

    Pie in the sky, I think we could use a self contained instance of Facebook. Very rich in functionality and allows organizing new projects on the fly, as well as allowing pictures and videos and events and [insert your favorite feature here].

    One big issue with the current system is it doesn’t allow you to access the part of the stream you’re interested in. There are several mailing lists I would follow that I don’t if I could follow a tag. We’re also having that problem within Reps where we have different subgroups and don’t want to put “noise” on the general mailing lists.

    It’s really important that you can reply via email, whatever the solution ends up being. I currently follow SUMO Contributors Forum and it is a few extra steps out of my time if I actually want to reply to something, especially if I’m no longer logged in. Also following by either email (or RSS) is a must.

    1. mburns wrote on ::

      The Mozilla Reps are looking to test out BuddyCloud, which is a Social Newsfeed not unlike Facebook. A social network site like that would be a great addition to integrate the Mozilla community, but it is similar-but-distinct from a Forum system. I think having both would compliment each other nicely.

      https://buddycloud.org/

  6. Jesse Ruderman wrote on ::

    Can we replace IRC at the same time? :)

    I wish I could move or expand a discussion without it losing its URL and continuity. (The current mailing lists lose their continuity very easily, while IRC has no continuity to join.)

    I wish I could switch between the email and web view at will. (The current mailing lists do not allow this.)

    I wish I could ask a question of a specific person (not spamming a list) while still having the conversation public and archived. (IRC channels do the former, sorta.)

    I wish I could subscribe to a conversation without subscribing to a larger list. (You can kinda fake this with Gmail’s mute button, if you don’t filter lists to labels.)

  7. Desiree wrote on :

    I agree with Jay that the NNTP approach is best. I would hate to see what happened to Microsoft’s excellent News Groups, when they shut them down for a web forum instead, happen to Mozilla’s excellent News Groups. The last place I would go now for Microsoft help is their forums with required login, difficult to use software (if you go there on Fx or SM), and general clutter.

    I also do not think that list serves are that useful and would not want to see that as the primary avenue.

    There is already a Fx web support forum. It is cluttered like Microsoft help forums are now, difficult to use, and requires registration. I avoid it and go to Mozillazine if I want web support for Mozilla products or I use Mozilla newsgroups. I also read a bunch of Mozilla news groups for informative purposes but I don’t post in those.

    The worst thing Mozilla could do is put the newsgroups on Facebook. I block Facebook and Twitter in my Hosts file and would be angry if Mozilla tried to force me to use those awful privacy robbing sites. I already do not purchase from merchants that insist the only way to contact them is via Facebook or Twitter. As for Google Groups, I never have used that, and never will, because it would require that Google know too much about me. I have no Google account and a major reason I use Fx and SM is for extensions like Google Sharing which obscures my searches. Google Groups are like Facebook and Twitter…worthless to me. I would lament the day that privacy is lost by forcing use of Google Groups or Facebook/Twitter for information, discussion and support for Mozilla products.

  8. Justin Dolske wrote on :

    Yay. This has been a long-standing problem. I’ve made a few edits on the wiki, and if you’d like someone to bend your ear for a few minutes-to-hours, let me know. I have plenty of opinions. :-)

    1. Shyam Mani wrote on :

      Justin – You should totally share your ideas here :D So we can consider them when trying to work on an eventual possible solution :)

  9. Chris Ilias wrote on ::

    I would rather establish a list of priorities and requirements before choosing a solution.

    Also, nobody mentioned anything about developing something in-house. Sumo has two different types of forums. One for support at https://support.mozilla.org/en-US/questions, and one for community discussions at https://support.mozilla.org/en-US/forums . Maybe the code for discussion forums could be utilized to develop a solution for all of Mozilla? I have no idea how feasible that is.

  10. Gabor Szakacs wrote on :

    Personally I prefer web-hosted forums with the ability to subscribe to threads via e-mail. Lithium does a pretty good job of this, although I normally only see it used where the sponsor has relatively deep pockets, like chip manufacturers. Usenet is becoming less useful, as it requires text-only messages, when most of the world has moved on to multimedia. Occasionally a picture is worth a thousand words, and it’s nice when you can paste it in the message instead of looking around for a third-party host (usually temporary) and then link to it.
    I also don’t mind registering to post as long as I don’t need any further proof of existence than a verified e-mail address, and that e-mail is not shown publicly.

  11. Gen Kanai wrote on ::

    As someone who manages 8+ Mozilla mailing lists, I’m all too familiar with the problems of Mailman.

    I am firmly of the opinion that NNTP is not the future of discussion on the Internet. It’s a legacy technology that most others have abandoned many years ago.

    Mozilla’s future discussions should be on the web with access via email. I realize this is a controversial stance due to the percentage of people who currently access Mozilla lists via NNTP but in order to grow discussions beyond the current community (which Mozilla will need to do in support of the Firefox OS and Firefox for Android products, not to mention the Marketplace, etc.) we have to make a clean break and leave NNTP in the past.

  12. Robert O’Callahan wrote on :

    Similar issues have come up at the W3C (in which many Mozilla people participate). Their two main requirements are probably similar for Mozilla:
    a) Power users want and benefit from access to discussions via email
    b) Casual users want and benefit from access to discussions via the Web (including posting)

    If a really good solution exists (or is built), the W3C could probably use it too.