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October 2, 2001

Forum Software Progress Report

Today I can report that I have made some serious progress with my forum software. The most difficult aspect of the software, in my opinion, is the threading of the messages. When you have a conversation on a forum, you seldom have everyone talking to everyone else at the same time. Specific people reply to specific posts and it is important, for clarity, to show who is talking to whom.

This is an old problem that was solved very well by the CompuServe Information Manager (CIM). I have not yet seen a good solution in Web hosted forums.

The above illustration is taken from CIM version 2.4.4 which was released around 1995. The map not only shows who is responding to whom but clicking on a name takes you to the corresponding post. BUZZPOWER, the forum software used by the Gilder Technology Group (GTG) makes a brave attempt at it but the execution is far from ideal.

In fairness to Web programmers, CIM was written for the single user and it operates on a database that resides in the user's machine. The programmer could use his favorite high level programming language, probably Pascal or "C," while the Web programmer is stuck with HTML which is not even a programming language as such (HyperText Markup Language). The database engine, in my case, FileMaker Pro 4.0, does provide some relief by executing some of the tasks that would otherwise have to be done in HTML.

This is my first go at a thread map:

Yahoo's messaging has almost no threading at all. Yahoo just lists all the posts in chronological order and there is a feeble attempt to link the posts in logical order: you can link to the post that the current post is replying to and you can link to a list of replies to the current post. There is no provision to show the user which post have been read or a list of the new, unread ones.

The Motley Fool's (TMF) messaging board is a bit more sophisticated. In "threaded" mode, the posts belonging to any one topic are grouped together in chronological but not in logical order. TMF does show the user some of the new unread posts, provided they belong to new unread topics or to the last topic read.

BUZZ Power does show a proper thread map for each topic save for some bugs that show up on occasion. But the topics themselves are listed in the inverse chronological order of their first posts so that a new post to an old topic can be buried several pages back and a user can easily miss it. The CIM "Filing Cabinet" can be sorted by various concepts such as subject, author, size, date created and date modified in either ascending or descending order. By sorting on date modified in descending order, the threads with new posts come to the top. Since CIM keeps track of the last post read, it will show you which posts in a thread have been read and which ones are new. All these features provide a better experience for the user.

There is still a lot of work to be done. I need to finish the basic navigation and after that I have to start working on the user preferences. For the time being, the user registration is the only part that is working and available for public inspection at Forum Forum.

"Demand creates queues. Supply gets rid of them."

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