Rewriting CC - New forums

We are in the process of upgrading our forum software to an open source off-the-shelf solution called Discourse. Let me tell you a little about it.

Jón Bjarni Bjarnason
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As we have discussed in previous blogs CC is undergoing a radical transformation under the hood. Already the blogs, knowledge base and outside pages such as signup and login have been moved over to a new stack while the rest of the site is on the old software.

Our forums are next on the list of renovations having remained essentially unchanged since 2003 (yes, that is not a typo!). However, building forum software from scratch is a massive undertaking and since our forums aren't really that special in the feature set we must have we've been looking at integrating existing solutions rather than build our own. Our old forum software is around 8000 lines of code and represents roughly 10% of the code base. Being able to get rid of all that tech debt at once is a great boon.

The Discourse open source software is extremely good and fits very well with the rest of the software stack. This is a well established solution that is in heavy use throughout the world. For example, the Nanowrimo forums run on Discourse.

The way things are laid out in Discourse and some functionality is quite different from our old forums and it might not be immediately obvious how some things work. Take a look at the following video to familiarize yourself with Discourse: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cHPjwMaqws

This will take a little bit of getting used to (at least it did for me) but once you are familiar with the way Discourse does things I think you'll find that it's much more natural than our old system. To navigate to the main CC site from the new forums site you can use any of the dropdown menus to go straight to the correct section or the 'home' icon to go to the front page. On the main CC site we have added a new icon in the notification tray which shows you updates from the new forums. In the next few days the old forum notification button will go away. In the Forums dropdown you now have a new "New Forums" link.

Already the comment section of blogs has been moved over to the new server and soon we will move the rest of the content (at least the last few months' worth). Once the forum threads are moved over the old forums will be placed in read-only mode for a while and then discontinued completely at some point.

We have our new forums currently running at forums.critiquecircle.com and you can take a look and see what you think. Feel free to use the comments on this blog to discuss the move and point out issues.

Since these forums will be operated as a separate website we will not be able to integrate it as fully with our existing site as the old forums. For example, when you open up the new forums page you will notice that the page header is different from the normal site and you don't have direct access to your user information from CC but rather there is another profile on the forums site for each user. The search feature on the forums site will only search content on the forums but not things like knowledge base and stories. There are other things of this nature that we need to be mindful of and this is a consequence of the forums being a separate off-the-shelf package that we cannot easily customize for our purposes.

Despite some shortcomings and the fact that the forums will not be as tightly integrated I belive this is definitely the right choice moving forward. For one thing it saves me literally months of work of building new forums from scratch and for another, there is a whole team of dedicated open source developers constantly making improvements to the software which will directly benefit us.

The first iteration of the forums is pretty basic with very light integrations from the CC side but in the coming weeks I will build some more such as better forum notifications on the main CC site, replacing hot discussions on the front page with the new forums (or removing it), integrating badges such as premium member and star critter and whatever else we can think of.

Later on we're thinking whether it would make sense to replace our internal messaging system with the private message feature in discourse change our news feed to use discourse threads. We'll see how it goes.

That's it for now. Let me know in the comments section what you think.

- Nonni

19+ Comments

Tonin

I must admit, I’m sad to see the old system go. I understand the reasons for it, though, and am glad the site is moving forward.

The hot discussions on the front page is something I would really like to see preserved if at all possible. I tend to leave CC open all day, and refresh occasionally to check for new activity. That would be much less convenient if the forums need to be in a separate tab.

I’d also love a theme that’s a bit closer to the old color scheme. The default is very, very white, and the dark theme is very, very dark. Something with a pale gray or blue background would be much more comfortable to me. Bonus points if the actual message boxes are lighter than the background, and separate from one another (the new forum’s messages run together a bit visually)

Best of luck working though all the changes!

Aug-20 at 02:04

Flicka

I really don’t like the new system. It may be easier for you to have it like this, but the layout is confusing, whereas the old layout was so simple to use. And not being able to hover over a person’s icon and see their ‘experience level’ is a great loss. We can’t click to go to their page if they sound interesting and we fancy reading their work. I know I’ve done that a fair number of times when someone has been appealing for people to read their work. That is now lost.
I don’t understand the need to fiddle with something that works well.
The old system was so clearly laid out, and this version seems to be all over the place.
And as for badges? What are we? Primary school children who need a star every time we do good work? That is a big no no for me.
I don’t think I shall be using the forum much again (I used to browse it while I ate my breakfast and a few times during the day to see if anything interesting was going on). That browse has been lost as it’s not laid out in a browser friendly fashion any longer.
I feel very disappointed in the forum, and then I read that you’ll possibly be doing the same with messaging. How can this be a good thing? You say the forum is a separate website now - I don’t want messaging to be. Horrible
Please don’t mess with messaging and interfere with all the friendships we’ve all made on here.
Please put it back the way it was.
Flicka

Aug-22 at 07:23

Redredrose

I agree entirely with Flicka. I do NOT like this new system for all the same reasons Flicka discussed. On top of that, why can I now see (and be seen) by people I have deliberately blocked? My reasons for blocking them were serious. Under those circumstances, it is doubtful I’ll spend much time in the forums.

Like Flicka, I will browse the forums looking for potential people I might want to read (and critique). Now? I won’t be able to do that anymore.

I also don’t like the annoying neon badge and its implication that I’m in Kindergarten.

Aug-22 at 18:12

Seanuyb

Not a fan of this new layout as well. Looks fine on mobile, but on a desktop or laptop, it feels overdesigned, filled with extraneous information taking up a lot of the screen that most of us won’t care about (maybe make this information smaller and leave it somewhere it doesn’t stand out so much).

Not to mention, the font size on default feels small. I’m a visually-impaired person (I have weak optic nerves, my condition can’t be corrected by eye glasses) so I have a hard time reading this forum on 100% view. I imagine our older members who may also be near-sighted (or have other eye issues) may have difficulty reading this on desk/laptop.
Even worse, on 150% view, the extraneous information becomes even bigger and more intrusive. And at 175%, the extraneous info is gone, but the screen has zoomed in too much (really personal complaints on my part. Essentially, whatever I do, it is not a pleasant experience).

Overall, I don’t see the benefit to showing the dates of the posts on the right, having a light grey background (looks grey to me), and having information (created, last reply, replies, etc.) be so in-your-face.

Okay, rant over. I’ll likely still use forums, but less so. Will probably just read it on mobile.

Aug-23 at 05:28

Redredrose

Also agree with Seanuyb. The font is too small. I’m also visually-impaired, and the gray background, small font, make it impossible to read.

Aug-23 at 19:04

Dougp

A few negative comments, but I hope the team running CC won’t get too flustered by them. I looked at the new forum. Looks fine. A forum is a forum. Just because the old forum had one or two features that are no longer there doesn’t mean it should be scrapped!

For those complaining, do you buy a new car based on your old car’s automatic antenna retraction feature? Probably not. Software is hard (I know, I was in the business), and decisions are made to focus limited resources into producing the greatest value for the least effort. The CC team’s decision to buy an existing forum package will probably save countless hours of reporting bugs, duplicating issues, debugging, code changes, updates, etc. People, if you knew the amount of effort that is happening behind the scenes right now, you might be a little more generous in your critiques.

Nice work CC team - you’re doing well.

Aug-24 at 01:52

Lmdewit

Redredrose, have you tried to make the fonts bigger? Under Preferences - Interface there is a choice for text size. It can make the font larger or even “largest”.
Hope this helps.

Aug-24 at 03:28

Lmdewit

Seanuyb, same as Redredrose… have you tried playing with the font size, or is it the page zoom that you’ve been playing with? Just to understand a bit more.

Aug-24 at 03:30

Swat

I’d like to echo this sentiment. Programming is hard. Programming when it relates to an established community is even more difficult. Releasing a new style, with so many changes, is never, ever without its little oopsies, and it’s clear that Nonni and the rest of the team care deeply about making the forums as accessible as they can for members using this new style and system.

Having had the chance to explore both mobile and desktop style, I’m really excited about returning to the forums with gusto. I love the idea of being able to contribute on the go, which I couldn’t do before on my phone.

Cheers and thanks to everyone who has put time and effort into this change.

Aug-24 at 03:51

Seanuyb

Where is the Preferences - Interface? Apologies. I’m a bit of a dinosaur (and being visually impaired doesn’t help).

Thanks for the suggestion.

Aug-24 at 05:22

Seanuyb

Okay, found it. It’s Google settings>appearance>font size on mine.

Definitely better than just zooming in so great recommendation. Helps make it bearable, but still not a comfortable experience for me compared to the old version (Also, not as easy as just zooming in. To be fair, it’s largely a problem of my eyes). On mobile though, this new version is much better and is great for viewing (not so much for typing long comments/replies. Keyboards are better for those).

No hate for the people programming this (I have only respect for them). But I think it’s very reasonable that the people who use the forums say their opinion on the matter. My honest opinion is that it is an uncomfortable experience even when I mess around with my Settings. If it turns out that’s just me, so be it. I’ll respect CC’s decision.

Aug-24 at 05:51

Redredrose

Thanks for the suggestion.

Aug-24 at 08:42

Lmdewit

Good, glad you and Redredrose found this. I should have been more specific!

Aug-24 at 13:43

Bgood

I miss the hot topics on the first page, too. Please bring it back. The rest I’ll get used to, just like everyone else. Thanks for keeping our site up-to-date and a good safe place for us to practice our writing skills. Much appreciated…

Aug-24 at 16:59

Lmdewit

Hi. The hot topics are there! I actually noticed with Chrome that I couldn’t see them but I didn’t have an issue with other browsers (though I’m not 100% sure if it’s a browser thing… I haven’t really played with that).

Aug-24 at 17:12

Tommigirl

I find the new forums confusing. Open-source software is all I use, so that’s not the problem. What I’m here for is to write & critique, not to study new programs. Simple & straightforward like the old system is what I want.
Another issue I have is about security, both personal and that of my stories. The Facebook & Twitter feeds concern me. Why do we need to link with the outside? Of late, there’s increased activity by newbies looking at my profile. I’ve pulled my photo and will also make changes to the information displayed because I do not want anyone stalking me. With all the new people joining, there may be some that don’t understand the word copyright. If any of my stories appear on Facebook, I will be quite angry.
Until now, I have always felt safe on this website. Most of the writers conducted themselves with aplumb. Now, I don’t have that same sense of security.

Sep-07 at 18:54

Bluewave

So you’re saying that most of us are straight up :blush:

Kidding aside, I agree with you 100%. We’ve been told that the new forum design will help bring in some “new blood” to CC. You neatly outline the pitfalls of this approach.

Besides…this is a writing site. Wouldn’t it be better if CC attracted new members with better story-posting, critiquing, and novel features? Take a look at Reedsy and see how they do it. They also have a fully functional spellcheck (something we used to have on CC).

Want to generate buzz for writers? Interview slush-pile readers. Have an editor critique one CC story a month. Have a Q and A with a publisher. These are the things writers would appreciate more than a new forum many of us don’t like.

Sep-07 at 19:58

Rxd01

Let’s not forget that the new forums are part of a larger project to update and modernise CC’s design (and presumably features).

Sep-07 at 20:14

Bluewave

I’m fully aware. It’s just that it’s backwards. People joined CC to submit stories, exchange critiques, and generally improve their craft. The design ethos of the writing side should influence how the forums work - not the other way around.

Right now I can view an entire genre in the story queue at once. I can see who wrote what, word counts and crit counts without scrolling. I can enter the story and immediately see who critiqued the work and if they like it. I can page back to older stories or page forward to ones yet to appear.

Discourse doesn’t appear to support any of the functionality I just mentioned (tabular view, user-name likes, pagination). If the “other side” is modeled after Discourse, it will be far less functional than what we have now.

Sep-07 at 20:38
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