Chat or forum for a small online community? And which software?
May 13, 2019 3:23 AM   Subscribe

I am starting an online community for people who work from home in my community. The intention is to have something that people can hop into and out of easily throughout the day as they want some social interaction. I am undecided as to whether chat or a forum is the best option, as are the potential users I've talked to. I'm also looking for software recommendations. More inside.

I am fairly technical, so I'm open to something self-hosted. I do not believe my audience will be all technical, so something like Mastodon or Friendica is likely out. I'm willing to bear a small monthly cost for something I figure will top out at about 100 people. I can self-host (like on Lightsail or Digital Ocean), but am also willing to use a "pay us to maintain your instance" service.

Some things I'm considering:
- Discourse
- Matrix/Riot
- Slack ('cos it's easy)
- Going old school with PHPBB or maybe Buddypress

I want to stay away from Facebook and WhatsApp, even though those seem to be really popular in my town (all the mums on the PTFA have their own group, for example).

What would you use? Chat or forum? Any software recommendations?
posted by sincarne to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
One option might be

It's WordPress with a custom theme.
All front-end posting, commenting, updates live if you leave the page open.

There's a demo from the link above.

You could have one for work related matters, one for off-topic etc.
You can host it, or use

(Disclosure: I work for Automattic (who run and we use P2's all over the place for work. Lots of them.)
posted by markx2 at 3:44 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]

I can only give you my experience: I set up a listserv for my neighborhood back around 1993 - I think hosted it for free. I tried a BBS system for awhile, but the threshold of entry was too high - no-one used it. But even the non-technical people could handle sending out an email.

Over the years I had to move the listserv from host to host - it’s currently on yahoo as a yahoo group. It’s not a bad setup: free, and they archive everything so you can (slowly) search for older content.

This worked remarkably well until 2016, when a lot of people went to Facebook, and that’s been “King” ever since. *shrug* go figure.

I used Slack at my last job - I didn’t think it worked well in an enterprise environment, but for a smaller group (that wasn’t perpetually schisming into sub-groups), it’s probably just fine - as long as you can get everyone over whatever initial threshold of entry exists.

For what it’s worth, the people in my neighborhood have not cared much for NextDoor. I saw Nest was pushing some kind of (peer to peer) system, but I’ve been hearing stories about problems with Nest and Google and I don’t have much confidence in them.
posted by doctor tough love at 3:57 AM on May 13

I think if you're more interested in synchronous conversation--chatting directly with someone when you're looking for someone to talk to--rather than topical, asynchronous conversation--where the content is key and being online at the same time is not relevant--I'd go with Slack. It is super easy and a great chat option.

And since it's easy, if people end up not being online together, or if important topics are getting lost in the chatter, you haven't wasted any energy and can switch to a new format without any lost effort.
posted by gideonfrog at 4:08 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]

The best answer is a platform that they use already. The second best answer is a platform that is like one that they use already.

If some people use Slack, then it's an obvious choice. If they use Facebook and WhatsApp, then you probably want something that's pretty similar to one of those.
posted by plonkee at 4:30 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]

I tend to agree with the Slack recommendation, but with a few caveats. I assume you'll be using the free Slack version in which case it has some limits, probably the most significant to you would be the 10,000 message limit. You can continue to use Slack after hitting that limit, but those messages are basically no longer visible or searchable. Once you hit that kind of volume, it may be because the thing has become a big success and it may be hard to resist upgrading which will hit your wallet kind of hard:

And it gets really expensive really fast starting at $8/user/month but your >10,000K messages magically become available again.

The other problem with Slack is that its search is terrible. Although Slack likes to bill itself as a 'replacement for email' it really isn't. I work for an enterprise organization and as such we have hundreds of Slack rooms and thousands of Slack users. We routinely move conversations to email because we know in about 2 weeks Slack will become so cluttered with crap that we will not be able to find the conversation we had. Another solution to that problem is to create specific rooms for projects which tend to have less clutter within, but you end up with the opposite problem in that you now have a clutter of rooms.

The plus sides to Slack are

1. it is incredibly simple to invite people. If they can click a link, they can join your Slack.
2. its basic chat and file sharing features are the same as anyone else's. Anyone that currently uses some kind of chat platform won't find it too hard to get going. The advanced stuff is quirky, but that's not a barrier to entry.
posted by jay2dadub at 5:33 AM on May 13

markx2, thank you! I've been looking for that; I couldn't remember what the name of that was. I installed that for a coworker space I was in. It was great.

plonkee, you're absolutely right, but I'm really trying to resist FB. If that's where people end up, I'll hold my nose and jump in :)

jay2dadub, Slack's limitation for the free version doesn't concern me. I don't feel like this needs to be archived.
posted by sincarne at 5:41 AM on May 13

Discord is like slack but better, IMO. Also free.
posted by spatula at 9:07 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]

Came here to recommend Discord or Slack. They are competitors, but discord seems more popular in my opinion. It sure is easy!
posted by bbqturtle at 9:20 AM on May 13

Discord and/or Slack, for what you seem to want the software for, both seem like good options.
posted by xingcat at 10:23 AM on May 13

I like the idea of Discord, but I'm afraid non-technical people might be put off by the emphasis on gaming on their homepage.
posted by sincarne at 12:01 PM on May 13

I think part of the decision is what you want the thing for... I run a phpbb forum for our neighbourhood - it’s phpbb because the forum started over 15 years ago - and although it’s ugly and clunky, the ability to search for topics from years ago is really useful. I think few people on that site would benefit from a real-time chat version. The slower tempo, and longer posts is more useful and interesting for us I think.

But if you want more of a “who’s around now, can anyone help right now?” kind of thing, then a more real-time thing is obviously better.

Fwiw I had the same reaction as you to Discord when looking around for “what would I use if starting our site now?” I’ve heard about it a lot but it looks way too game-y for normal people.
posted by fabius at 3:10 PM on May 13

I created a Google distribution list which worked fine, if an email "listserv" type functionality is all you need.
posted by nkknkk at 5:46 PM on May 13

From a user perspective, I like Discourse a lot better if the channel is going to be dead a lot of the time.
posted by ctmf at 9:06 PM on May 13

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