Fora or Mailing Lists?

Alex asks a good question: should Internet-based software technical support and features discussion be offered via Web-based fora or mailing lists?

My answers to him were:

First:

I’m a large fan of fora, and I run a rather large phpBB install. Unless a community develops around Tasks, it’s not going to be an issue for you to run something like phpBB. Fora also allow interested power users to step up and help you do lots of tech support. People need to be needed!

Second:

Well, I’ll argue for Web fora for another reason: you want an accessible solution for your users. Tasks is Web-based—it makes sense then that the support function should be Web-based.

While I love email and I love RSS, I have tools that manage those formats well. Most folks don’t. The common tool that people will have to manage content is the Web browswer.

Alex’s personal IM comments to me before and after the second comment reflected a “right tool for the job” desire, which is unsurprising since he built the right tool for managing hierarchical tasks via the Web. He didn’t want to kludge a bunch of solutions together; he just wanted a good solution for him, and found that others wanted it as well.

I think this is a Very Good Practice™, and I certainly commend Alex for it. [That’s why I pay him for good software—he think stuff through!] But I want to expand a little on best practices.

I’ve been around the Internet for a while—in fact, I’m coming up on nine years. [Oi.] As such, I remember when the Web wasn’t so big, and it was all about Usenet and mailing lists. I’m comfortable with both—I’ve owned a copy of Agent for nigh on five years now. I still find the Web-based format simpler-to-use, if paradoxically so. Let me explain.

On Usenet and mailing lists, I found myself always wanting to read everything. Even when I began to recognize the limits of my time, I still read most everything. [Google Groups proves this … go search alt.books.tom-clancy for morrisg@uah.edu sometime.] I felt compelled to reply–frequently.

On the Web, I don’t read everything. I run a rather large community-centric forum, and while I am still a prolific poster there—10.9% of the posts are written by me, which is damn frightening—I don’t read everything.

That’s weird behavior by me, because Agent [and most other newsreaders] have killfiles and filters and ignore thread functions. I can’t really explain it from an end-user perspective …

… until I get to thinking about the nature of the Web and the nature of email/Usenet.

The Web is an open community. There are generally zero barriers to entry. Folks know Web browsers, thanks in large part to Microsoft bundling Internet Exploiter with their OS. The tool isn’t always great—IE sucks dead bunnies through a bent straw—but it works.

The email clients that most folks use suck. Outlook and its ilk are horrible about managing email. Few email programs are any good about organizing stuff. [Mulberry is, but that’s another entry.] And while Agent and its ilk absolutely kick ass, most folks haven’t ever used it.

Email is generally considered one-to-one, although it’s always a forward away from one-to-many. 😉 Usenet is many-to-many, but it’s also a closed community because of its very nature [text-based, fugly, etc.].

I have helped run Web-based support fora before, and I found that the people who used them typically aren’t serious, power users. The people on mailing lists tend to be far more serious users, and the same is so for Usenet. [Usenet’s so fugly and hackneyed that you really have to want to use it.] I think that you would generally find the following to be true:

  1. Web-based fora are for the masses.
  2. Mailing lists and their ilk are for the power users.

I welcome comments to my hypothesis and general thinking.

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