How can I use Forums more easily?
February 15, 2010 10:11 AM   Subscribe

Is there an easier way to participate in online Forums? Is there such a thing as BBS/Forum reader software? I'm looking for a kind of universal front-end for online Forums that will give me a unified interface for all the different web forums I participate in.
posted by oneous to Computers & Internet (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I feel your pain. I've often thought that web forums are worse than usenet in practically every way, and I've never been sure why we went from centralized repositories of information to decentralized ones.

Some forums you can read via an alternate means, like email or RSS, if they support it, although you'll usually have to go back to the site to post, unless they have some fancy reply-to-post functionality.

I don't think you'll find a unified forum reading program, because I don't think you'll find that most forums even use the same software and when they do, there are dozens of versions in service.
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:33 AM on February 15, 2010

Response by poster: @RustyBrooks -- yes, but it is well within the realm of possibility to build an app that knows how to talk to the top 10 most common forum apps and gives you a unified interface.
posted by oneous at 11:25 AM on February 15, 2010

I'm pretty sure I've seen an iPhone app that does this…ah yes, Forums interfaces with a few different common forum systems. So clearly it can be done, within limits.

The problem is that the front end and back end of many of these systems aren't separate (or if they are, they aren't 100% disentangled), and in order to work with them, you basically need to screen-scrape. Flickr, notably, has a complete separation between the flickr website and the back-end. Everything goes through the API, including flickr's own website. Which is why there's such an amazing profusion of full-featured flickr applications, toys, etc.

I don't know if any of these forums like vBulletin are using the Atom publication protocol, but it seems likely that it should get picked up gradually, and that independent tools that know Atom will be able to talk to them.
posted by adamrice at 11:44 AM on February 15, 2010

@RustyBrooks -- yes, but it is well within the realm of possibility to build an app that knows how to talk to the top 10 most common forum apps and gives you a unified interface.

This is actually quite a bit harder than you might think, due to the customizability of these applications and the wide variety of versions. It's not impossible - I worked for a company that did something much like this with hundreds of varieties of webmail services. But it required non-stop effort by 2 or 3 developers to keep up with minor changes. This is because you'd essentially need to screen-scrape the sites - the data isn't generally available in some other way. If the site offers an RSS feed sometimes you can get some amount of data through that.

It would be really fantastic if there was some unified protocol for these kinds of things, but there really isn't.
posted by RustyBrooks at 12:27 PM on February 15, 2010

Do you use Firefox? Back when I was a member of some vBulletin-style forums, I found this great Firefox add-on called Forum Additive that let you subscribe to certain threads.

You start by setting up profiles for the sites you use; once you get that configured all you have to do is double-click a thread title and it will monitor it and report back at user-defined intervals. If there's activity in a thread you started, replied to, or subscribed to (your choice), it'll throw up a customizable alert -- a sliding pop-up, status bar message, and/or alert sound. Clicking on these takes you straight to the first unread message in the thread.

If you're only tracking one or two topics, you can set the update check for every few seconds and get near-real-time reports. Or, if you're a high-volume user, you can turn down the frequency of the updates and instead consult the extension's menu, which lists all active threads sorted by updated-ness. It's a great time-saver, and is compatible with standard vBulletin, SMF, phpBB, Forum Free, punBB, and Invision forum software. (Heavy customization by the forum owners could potentially break compatibility, though. YMMV.)

My only caveat is that I haven't used it for a few years, ever since I stopped using such forums. OTOH, it hasn't been updated since May 2007, so any changes are probably minimal. The official page says it's not compatible with Firefox 3, but you can install an updated version from here (direct download link; just drop the file into Firefox's extensions window to install).
posted by Rhaomi at 4:16 PM on February 15, 2010

PS: Setting up profiles isn't strictly necessary. It works out-of-the-box, but creating profiles will allow the update checker to ignore any posts you make and manage threads from multiple forums more easily.
posted by Rhaomi at 4:19 PM on February 15, 2010

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