The Sad State of Web Forums – and some Alternatives

The software industry in general is a very fast moving business, but even in this sector there are niches that allow species to survive that should, by normal means, have been dead a very long time ago. One such species is the web forum.

Soviet-era Housing

Web forums are anachronistic in almost every sense: most are ugly contraptions filled largely with junk (signatures, avatars, etc.). They make it hard to find the actual information that may or may not be buried in a thread. The whole concept that people just write stuff without any ordering forces is antiquated. Who has the time to sift through page after page of “me toos” and similar useless data. Jeff Atwood, creator of the wonderful Q&A site Stackoverflow, adequately describes traditional forums as horrible Soviet-era concrete block housing. I could not agree more.

This article would be finished right here if not a big problem presents itself: software companies need a reliable feedback mechanism. Traditionally, web forums have been used for this task. Obviously, when I founded my company last year I wanted something better. But what? Alternatives are scarce.

The big advantage of web forums is that they are inexpensive. The software is either free or costs a low one-time amount, yet it supports communities of hundreds of thousands. The resulting cost per user and also the cost per moderator are extremely low.

Alternatives

More modern systems exist. The best-known is probably UserVoice. It is a combined feedback and helpdesk system, good-looking and easy to use. Only when you look at the prices do you realize why not everybody is using it: at $ 125 per month per moderator for the only really useable plan many organizations turn away quickly. Although several companies are trying to imitate UserVoice’s concept none of them had the notion that there might be people who want a self-hosted solution instead of a SaaS product. Because the big downside of SaaS is this: if you stop to pay our bills, your data is gone. That does not happen on your own server.

Lacking alternatives, I settled for one of the more modern web forums last year. Vanilla comes in self-hosted free and in hosted paid variants. I chose to self-host, installed Vanilla on my server – and realized over time that the so-called free version is nothing more than a way of luring people to the hosted product. Updates were rare and late, overall stability low. When the system stopped accepting new user registrations something had to change.

Owning Your Own House

Searching for modern forum software yielded an interesting result: in the time since I initially set up my forum some people understood that a modern self-hosted feedback system is potentially a huge market and went ahead and created UseResponse. After taking a very good look at their system I purchased it only yesterday and replaced my existing forum with it. From my own experience I can say that the support is excellent and the software overall feels well-made. The product is relatively young (currently at version 2.0.2), but I expect it to grow and improve nicely in the future.

The only downside to upgrading my feedback platform is that I could not migrate existing users and content. Everybody who registered with the old forum I kindly ask to register again. Thankfully, the process is much more streamlined now than it was before.

Thank you, UseResponse, for making the web a better place, one installation at a time:

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