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Building the How-To Geek Community: The Discourse Project

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We are switching to Discourse, the new discussion platform that is built for the modern age. But it’s more than just a forum switch. Join us for a look back at discussion on How-To Geek.

TL;DR – we are immediately migrating all article comments, and our forum, over to Discourse. You can get there by typing discuss.howtogeek.com into your browser, or just clicking the link.

The Ups and Downs of Community on How-To Geek

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This site was started all the way back in 2006, with hopes and dreams of building an amazing community around the site. Sure, there were only a few hundred of you actually reading the articles at that point, but I was excited to kick things off on the right foot. The software doesn’t matter, I argued, as I installed some random forum and added it to my site navigation. The only thing that matters is getting people involved, right? With the forum ready to go, I waited for the first post. And waited.

The day finally came when my first forum post showed up.

Spam. Crap!

After a few months, where I managed to get exactly one real post from somebody who never came back, I decided it was time to throw in the towel. You need a big site to build a forum, I argued. Makes sense.

Fast forward to 2007, the site has grown from a few hundred readers to 36,000 RSS subscribers. Surely the time has come for the forum to start. After testing every forum package, I settle on the weakest link, bbPress, as my forum software, because it is made by the same people as WordPress, but mostly because it is really easy to make it look like it fits into the rest of the site.

And then, the forum grew and grew, and exploded into a huge community!

Wrong.

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For months, I both seeded the forum with fake threads, and answered them with fake accounts, just to make the drive-by forum users feel like something was happening and want to participate. What I didn’t realize is that by seeding the forum largely with tech support threads instead of real conversation between real people, all I was building was… a tech support forum. People would sign up, ask a question, and every so often one of them would come back and read the answer.

Fast forward to 2008.

We have a number of regular forum members that really enjoy answering tech support questions. Justin Dunn (jd2066) is the one I will forever remember – his amazing attention to detail was such a huge help for any question. He would research every help question and come up with the right answer or die trying. Lighthouse, whs, raphoenix, and a slew of others answered questions all day and all night.

And of course, I can’t forget my wonderful friend Scott, who I put in charge of the forum. For years, he settled arguments between the members and moderators, decided who was worthy to be the spam watchers, and never failed to give me advice on coffee, Europe, and finding the right woman. On a related note, Scott is somebody I trust.

We had 20-30 people signing up every day, and creating new threads asking for computer help… largely for questions that had been asked before, over and over. We always hoped that we were helping people, but who could really tell, because most of them never came back to even let us know. Every so often, we’d gain a new regular member, around the same time we lost another regular. Growth was stagnant for years, the topics uninteresting.

I grew bored with my own forum and stopped reading it. That’s never a good sign.

The Core Problem: Two Discussion Areas

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Over on the main site we started publishing interesting articles on a regular basis, where we taught you how technology works, explained the best ways to accomplish this or that on your computer, tablet, smartphone. We even ran a series of Ask the Readers posts to try and engage the community…

To leave comments on the articles, not post in the forum.

And over the years, we started building up a base of very smart, helpful, and interesting commenters. People that posted comments on nearly every article. Some of them, like Hatryst, we even converted into occasional part-time writers.  When we went looking for new writers, we just put up a post, and our regular daily readers answered the call with hundreds of applications. In fact, that’s how we have found some of our best writers over the years.

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We now had two discussion areas. One that has interesting discussion, albeit spread across 10,000 articles and impossible to carry on a real conversation with. And one that has a dozen daily posts from people who will never come back to even read the answer.

It was time for a change. We needed to have all discussion in one place.

In December 2012, Jeff Atwood contacted me to let me know about Discourse, his revolutionary new forum product, and I eagerly accepted his offer to test out the forum and give some feedback. This was the forum I was looking for.

Discourse is the Forum We Deserve

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Discourse is quite unlike any other forum product. Sure, it may look similar, with the list of topics, and that big Create Topic button, but don’t let it fool you: under the hood, it is written entirely in Javascript and built for the modern era. In fact, it will only work in a modern browser.

It also solves many of the problems with traditional forums:

  • You can login with anything: Who wants to make an account for every forum? Just sign in with Google, Facebook, Twitter, or Yahoo. Of course, you can still make a traditional account if you choose.
  • Conversations aren’t broken up into multiple pages: Topics are on a single page, with continuous scrolling.
  • You’ll get notifications when you are mentioned, or when somebody replies to you. You can even @mention somebody in a post to pull them into the conversation.
  • Reply while you read: The new Reply and New Topic composers are docked to the screen, so you can even browse around the forum while writing your reply.
  • Paste to share images, links, videos – you don’t have to go through a bunch of hoops to embed a YouTube video – just paste in the link and it will automatically embed. You can drag and drop to upload a picture. You can even Ctrl + V with a screenshot in some browsers.
  • Remembers your place: If you read 50 posts out of a 100-topic-long thread, Discourse will remember your place and the next time you open that topic, it will start you where you left off.

There are an incredible number of other features, and many more planned. It is truly the forum of tomorrow.

The Plan

Starting right now, we will be setting our old forum to read-only. When you read an article and scroll down to the bottom, you’ll see a new box at the bottom that says “Continue the discussion”, with a link to a pre-created topic on the forum for that article.

The best replies on an article thread will bubble up and display directly on the article page for all the world to see. Your interesting, thoughtful, and witty comment will quite possibly be the one that tens of thousands of people are reading.

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We are putting all of our eggs in the Discourse basket, going all-in. It’s the bottom of the ninth. There’s no turning back. Insert some other catch-phrase here. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we are completely, 100% committed to making this work, and building the community around the site that we’ve always wanted to build – one single community for every geek.

This is the forum for geeks to talk about stuff that geeks like… usually technology, but other topics are fine as well. Want to talk about whether a certification will help your career? Go for it. What to complain about the science behind the Walking Dead? Go for it. Just don’t go too far off the reservation… keep it geeky.

As always, all your tech-related questions and thoughts are welcome and encouraged.

So click the link below, sign in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or make an account. And let us know what you think.

Lowell Heddings, better known online as the How-To Geek, spends all his free time bringing you fresh geekery on a daily basis. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 04/2/13

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