Friday, May 22, 2009

Eclipse: Talkin' To Users, Redux

This is a follow-up to Wayne's post about the Eclipse newsgroups. As I commented there, I understand that the barrier to entry into the newsgroups is higher than it should be, I really do get that. But, personally, I find web-based forums like phpBB to mostly suck. There are some things about them that I do wish we had on the Eclipse newsgroups, like:
  • the ability to earn and give reputation points for good answers
  • the ability to easily find threads that a given user has contributed to
  • the ability to search across multiple groups easily.
It is true that, other than the points system, most of the other features of web-based forums can be done with newsgroups if you have a good client. But with so many people using web-based email these days, isn't it too much to ask them to install a separate piece of software just to participate in the newsgroups? I think so, much as I prefer newsgroups myself.
I've been trying to put my finger on why, exactly, I prefer newsgroups and I think it all boils down to flexibility. Because they are based on NNTP, an Internet standard, there are many clients that are capable of participating. That gives the user total control over his reading/posting experience. Contrast that with most phpBB-style forums, where the most control you usually have is the color scheme and whether or not you want a "flat" view or a threaded one.
The other big win, for me, that newsgroups have is the tight integration with my email; because I use Thunderbird all day to read multiple email accounts and RSS feeds, newsgroups fit right in like just another account. So, for me, it's flexibility and integration that win out.

In the comments to Wayne's post, someone mentioned FUDforum and it's newsgroups bridge. To me, this sounds like the best-of-both-worlds solution. It even has email list integration, so potentially we could offer total flexibility in how users participate: NNTP, web, or email, take your pick. To me that is an ideal solution.

So, are there any other options available? Either competitors to FUDforum that can bridge between web and NNTP, or some completely different technology? Remember, what I consider important is flexibility, giving choice and control of the client to the user, and integration with software I'm already using every day.

4 comments:

AlBlue said...

I personally hate newsgroups. They generally don't work from inside firewalled or corporate zones that disallow direct IP connectivity; there's precious few good clients for the Mac; and the whole point of NNTP was to allow newsgroups to be hosted by different servers (and yet you can only find the eclipse ones on the Eclipse news servers on the whole).

On the other hand, there's a generation now who are growing up only knowing the browser as the entry point to the world; and mail clients are more ubiquitous than news clients are. Even your cited thunderbird is a mail client as well. That too has threaded views, the ability to kill (delete) entire threads - and more common mail applications let you define rules for different keyword triggers to apply your own organisation (labels, delete, whatever). In fact, given that your view of newsgroup-and-mail fits in seamlessly in your mail application, how different would it be if you just had mail instead of newsgroup-and-mail?

All this aside - the key problem is having different technologies for different purposes (mail is for dev; newsgroup is for users). The web portal for the Eclipse newsgroups combines the suckiness from both into one glorious hole.

However, StackOverflow demos how you can reward points (and indeed, EclipseZone forums before them) and gain some kind of kudos for interactions. An NNTP server, by default, is just bit-bouncing, so there's never going to be any value add there.

Ben Vitale said...

The main reason I dislike the newsgroups is syncing "read" state for a particular thread. I use Thunderbird at work and at home. I don't know of a good way to sync their states?

I think a web board would be great.. for all the reasons Oisin and Dave posted on the other entry.

Alex said...

For the more casual readers, RSS feeds are available for the newsgroups and they seem to be compatible with Google Reader.

Karsten Silz said...

I think Eclipse should get in touch with the Stackoverflow team at http://stackoverflow.com/ and see if you can get a "Stackoverflow for Eclipse" set up.