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I certainly take your point about the maze-like nature. Any suggestions, or examples of forums with a better system that manages similarly complex discussion?


Yes, but it’s nothing like the groups.  In a standard forum, TP’s groups would be forum “categories”.  All categories would be listed on a single page, with brief information regarding the number of threads/posts and the latest thread/post in that category.  Opening the category would then give something similar to TP’s groups’ “topics” page, where the actual threads are.  Like TP’s groups, categories can also be grouped under headings.

For example: http://community.wikidot.com/forum:start

Advantages:  in the “category view” (as in the link above) it is so much easier to see the “big picture” and therefore where to best post whatever it is you want to say, as well as to see all categories and to see which are most active.  (Also, the screen real estate is used much more efficiently, so that you can see more on your screen.  I always want to turn the font size down on TP — although it isn’t the fonts that are big, just all the borders and white space.)

Disadvantages: you can’t join a “category” like you can a group.  I like the TP groups, but I value the categories more.  (This is a hindsight view now that I can see that the groups are making TP like a dark dense forest!)

My suggestion would be to create a category-based forum for all public postings and I would put a sticky read-only thread at the top of each category with a link to the group home page — which, as now, would contain information and a sign-up to allow intereted members to be contacted, should any such need arise.  That said, beyond private groups, I don’t actually think that the groups themselves have very much innate value and certainly not enough to justify the loss of a traditional forum structure.

Your original idea (I deduce, correct me if I’m wrong) was for the “Hub”‘s three groups to be the main places people would post.  I have previously seen more advantage with the groups, as they allow specialisation.  However, I suspect that we have both been a little short-sighted in ignoring what are now very established tried-and-tested things — the wide-spread “standard” forum, as with the Wikidot one above.

I like PTNC, but it is limited.  What do I want beyond a listserv email group?  Well…

  • threaded posts (which, actually, GMail takes care of for me)
  • categories for the threads, instead of them all just arriving in a big deluge in my inbox (multile inboxes, effectively, to extend the email analogy)
  • the ability to use rich text and attach files (or merely upload and link to them)
  • the ability to more easily access previous threads/posts
  • a professional “register” so that I can find a little out about people and contact them directly.

(Do these match the responses you got when you were doing the research for TP?)

Does a wikidot-style forum provide all of this?  All but the last one, which is last on my list for a reason — it is the one I value least in the list.

Does TP provide all of this?  Threads — yes.  Categories — via groups.  Rich text and files — yes.  Access threads — no.  Register — kind of.

So, if I had to choose (which I do, it would seem), I would choose easy of use over the register of users.

(In fact, given this opportunity, I’d like to elaborate on the last one.  I am getting progressively more and more anti-TP, which is a shame.  The frustration of lower usability than I’d like is limiting my use, but what is actually putting me off using it longer term is that I do not know who the 2000 members of the community are.  I am highly suspicious of the large number of early users identified by only a first name and no profile and, cynically, wonder how many of the IoP’s employees were automatically registered to make the initial numbers seem higher.  I am also disappointed to see a noticeable number of members who aren’t actually directly involved in teaching physics.  If a register is to be useful, it needs to be able to be filtered on multiple fields to isolate very particular users.  This is not possible in TP which, beyond raising my suspicions and putting me off, means that, actually, TP isn’t actually doing a very good job of the last “wish” on my list.)

What is most bizarre in all of this is that I could set up my “perfect” alternative (although others may want different things!) to PTNC in about the same time as it has taken me to write this email.  I know that this is true as I have done similar three times already, for other things, using Wikidot (which is how I know about the forum, above).  It just wouldn’t be on my own server, be bespoke or have a community register — and it wouldn’t have the IoP’s name attached to it, so no-one would use it!

I guess what I’m building to say is…TP has huge potential but it’s development seems to be a little slow (which is itself understandable in terms of the complexity of what is being attempted) and this is not a good thing.  But when the complexity starts to be a hinderance instead of an asset, one has to start thinking about a cost-benefit analysis…especially when extremely straight-forward, easy, powerful, FREE, alternatives could be accomplished in, absolutely literally, a couple of hours.  As I have said in a previous thread (don’t know where!) TP has a lot of knobs and whistles that are not only unneccessary but that are limiting both usability and the pace of improvement.

Such are my thoughts, for what they are worth — but I’m not the developer, you are!  So it goes without saying that you are more than entitled to ignore them all.  🙂


PS The Wikidot forum allows posts to be edited, however, whenever.  Users seem to have adopted a convention to write “[EDIT]” inline next to their edits.  That particular forum has half a million users, in four different languages, and it seems to work for them.

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