Discussion software: it ain't no party

Evaluation of web-based discussion applications such as Ceilidh 2.6, WebBoard Version 4, Expressions and Powwow.

Your customers have many reasons to establish a discussion board on their Web sites. Online communities can help e-commerce sites attract frequent visitors, or involve employees on a company intranet. Discussion software helps customers manage technical support, engages customers in product-use possibilities ("Tell us how you're using our cheese!"), and increases the time the Web visitor spends at a site.

Unfortunately, most evaluations of online discussion software are performed by people who rarely use the stuff. The reviewers often are distracted by pretty interfaces and neat-sounding but rarely used features, and they lose track of such an application's purpose: to let people communicate online.

But don't fret. We've been involved--some might say "obsessed"--with nearly every type of message-based forum since the early 1980s, including BBSes, CompuServe, Ziff-Davis's Interchange, Usenet, listservs and the like. With eight years of sysop experience behind us, we know good online discussion software when we see it; unfortunately, when it comes to Web-based conferencing software, we don't see it.

All Talk?
For this article, we examined a range of inexpensive Web-based discussion applications. Our goal was to evaluate their ability to support a message-based community. Some programs also permit dynamic chatting, games or other interaction, though we ignore those features here. Among our victims were Lilikoi Software's Ceilidh 2.6, O'Reilly & Associates Inc.'s WebBoard Version 4, Eshare Technologies Inc.'s Expressions and Tribal Software Inc.'s PowWow. All of these discussion applications are designed for casual users.

These packages deliver what they promise, but they just don't promise--or do--enough. They tend to be top-heavy with pretty features that look good in a chart, but they don't encourage the camaraderie that gets a user to return to a site again and again. And it's the community's existence that ultimately makes money for your customer (and thus you), not chirpy multimedia welcome messages.

Why are we so hard on these apps? Unfortunately, pretty interfaces can present a barrier to the off-the-cuff quick responses that reflect what a conferencing participant feels. The interface has to be really easy--and extremely fast--to dash off a message, or the only people who'll bother to use the system will be "flamers." But the fast discussion boards like Ceilidh, are, alas, less powerful in their moderation tools, and the software that offers more control is punky even on an intranet.