I have used lots of different software for holding discussions: phpBB, vBulletin, Wordpress and similar blogging stuff, facebook and so on. I have found a number of common features that facilitate and make discussion more powerful and features that damp down the ability to hold discussions. For a community like Atheist Network it would be difficult to change existing software, it would be a matter of lobbying the group that produce it. Is it worth the effort? Lets discuss this a bit further (and when I say discuss I mean, "I will monologue at you" because this is a blog entry with comments).
The single most important ability in any such system is to be able to return to a discussion you a following at the point where you left off. In phpBB its simple, there is a "your posts" link that lists discussions you have posted too, and a "go to first unread" that takes you to the first entry that the system thinks you have not read. A small drawback with this is that you can't follow threads where you have not made an entry, so people are constantly putting in one line "bookmark" comments or the popcorn smiley. Here at the Atheist Network you can click a "follow" button and your in, it shows up on your discussion list.
In order to keep up with the latest posts in your followed threads here though, there are serious drawbacks. The first, and most important, is the hierarchical structure of replies. There are many discussion boards that do this, and it is nice seeing a reply right next to the post it replies to, but it kills the ability to keep up with latest input in the discussion. You can't see replies in chronological order so any "first unread" function will not know where to take you and you don't know how to move on. Once a conversion extends to a few pages you have to go back to the start and scan through the entire thread to find new entries. As the thread gets longer you stop doing this and the conversation often dies or goes way off topic.
To compensate the software sends you a billion "x replied to thread y" emails. This is burdensome on your mail box and on the web sites hosting resource. The alternative system just lets you click on your follow list and jump to discussions marked as having been posted to since your last visit.
Another awkward feature here and on youTube and facebook and blogs all around is where the latest post appears at the top and the first post is buried in the past some pages back. This is also a compensation for not having a "first unread" function, since it puts you right at the present post. Unfortunately you often read replies to posts without having read the post being replied to and have to trawl back for it. In youTube you can turn the replies around and read them chronologically but there is no "last read" function so you still have to trawl through pages to find where you were up to.
It would be useful to have a mechanism that, when looking at any list of threads you could see some or all of the latest post in that thread, and obviously there is software that does that.
Obviously there are technical burdens with the "first unread" function to do with database size and speed of lookup, since you have to keep tabs on each users relationship with many threads. I haven't encountered this as a show stopper on any sites that do it (other than for reasons of incompetence at a famous, now defunct, phpBB forum).
Another functional area, of secondary importance, is expressiveness. How well does the editor allow you to make your posts visually expressive? Some people hate them but I find smileys an important adjunct to conversational texting. They represent body language. The only missing smiley is a good one for indicating sarcasm, but I'm sure someone will design one soon.
For smileys (or emoticons as they are also known) to be useful they need to be as easy to include as the letter "z" on your keyboard. A one click panel or recognition of a character sequence. Its then helpful, but not necessary, to have them show up visually in the editor.
Finally, the ability to simply quote blocks of text from other posts, with attribution. Why is this important, after all it takes up more disk space and visual space?
One is that it compensates for the lack of a hierarchical view. You don't have to scroll back to find the post being referred to. The need for this in a chronological view could be removed if you could add a "refer to" link in a post that would somehow let you easily draw to the screen the content of the post linked to.
The other is somewhat more important for text based dialogue, the ability to break a post down into parts so that replies can be made to specific pieces of the post(s). Quite often you only want to reply to a sentence in an otherwise long post. A simple quote function lets you do that, although I have yet to see software that allows you to define how to break up a quoted post and have it laid out for you automatically in the editor. You usually have to do it for yourself.
One way to measure the effect these differences have would be to look at the number of posts per thread or blog here or at RichardDawkins.net
compared with RatSkep
So, when all is said and done, how important do you think these things are to a web community that relies on discussion to function? Its obviously not just an Atheist Nexus issue, but I want to be more involved here and find the tools prohibitive. What do you think?