The SharperIron Forum Revamp - Some Why and What

In just a couple of weeks (hopefully), SharperIron will go offline for a day or so to install a set of facelifts and functionality improvements. This time around, a pretty major forum overhaul is also in the plan.

What does “major” mean? To some extent, that’s up to you. We’d like to hear your ideas. It’s true that big ideas will take more than two weeks to work into the redesign. But we’d like to hear big ones as well as small ones—and we can always incorporate something bigger later.

To give those ideas some direction and boundaries, let’s consider a couple of basic questions.

Why have a forum?

SI began as a forum with a blog, then became more of a blog with a forum, then a news and article site with a forum. Quite a few news and article sites (most) follow the content-plus-comments model and offer no forum at all. Nearly all blogs fit the content-plus-comments model. So why have a forum?

1. Less centrality

A blog flows entirely from the top down. Its writers determine what will post and when, then discussion occurs based on the agenda determined by the writers. Forums, on the other hand, encourage users to start their own conversations, resulting in a wider range of content, completely unscheduled content, and less dependence on the perspective of one or two individuals.

Trade-offs are involved. The blog is easy to set up and operate, and forums are more work—especially if you want to hold discussion to some quality standards or topical boundaries. On the plus side, with the decentralization of content and conversational control forums offer comes at least the potential for more community, more sharing and contributing by more individuals and groups to what the site, as a whole, is.

2. More centrality

Less centrality yet more centrality. The language here is paradoxical but not post-modern mumbo jumbo. The observations above about less centrality sound a bit like an ad for Facebook—which prompts an important question: in today’s social-media-dominated Internet culture, why have a forum? Doesn’t Facebook and it’s few surviving rivals pretty much fit the bill for all the decentralized Web interaction anyone could want?

Not really. Facebook takes decentralization (or flattening, to move the metaphor into the vertical dimension) to an extreme. It consists of many millions of tiny centers, each an individual or group. Some of the groups have ideological or missional centers but the medium seems oriented toward each individual acting as the center of his own orbit, the hub of his own network. And when everybody is central, nobody is.

Worse yet, the decentralized and flat nature of social media lend themselves to temporary centers based entirely on “the madness of crowds,” or just herd instinct.

Forums can strike a balance between the completely top-down dynamic of the blog and the completely horizontal, atomized dynamic of social media.

At SharperIron, though opinions and perspectives differ, they just about always pivot on shared convictions. That is, here, even when disagreement is most passionate, much of that fervor derives from what we agree on, namely, that Scripture is binding on all of us, sufficient for all of us and inherently relevant to all of us.

Why a revamp?

The length of time since our last revamp is almost reason enough for changes. There hasn’t been a forum restructuring since pretty much the beginning. (I really don’t remember how the forums were labeled and organized before ‘06. But I think not much has changed.)

Secondly, Internet communities are naturally transient. Local church membership is fluid and shifty enough—and that’s in a setting where people have many shared face to face, Real Life Experiences in common. Though SI has some extraordinarily loyal constituents by Web standards, all ‘net communities are somewhat shallow and mobile. From time to time, forums have to have some new life breathed into them.

Third, the quality of the forum experience is shaped by the packaging. “The medium is the message” might put things too broadly, but who can dispute that medium is part of message? When it comes to forums, the structure of topics and groupings and such can invite or discourage participation generally and influence the kind of participation as well.

What’s coming?

The jury is honestly still out on that. Two basic directions are on the table. One, radically restructure the forum so that it bears almost no resemblance to what it was before. Call this the bold, “progressive” option. The other path is to reason that since the forums have never been reworked before, a smaller adjustment is in order. Call this the conservative option.

Conservative is likely.

At the very least, here’s what’s coming:

  • New visual design
  • New, user-friendly comment text editor (We’re going WYSIWYG and HTML. Bye, bye BBcode.)
  • Streamlining of forums and forum-groupings into a smaller number of broader categories
  • Some new forums/categories
  • Miscellaneous improvements to “new posts” and “my posts,” and other forum tools
  • Forum presence on the front page

Beyond that, your suggestions would be most welcome. If you’ve always thought “SI should have a forum for…” tell us about that. If you have suggestions for current forums that should be merged, separated, renamed, or jettisoned, that sort of feedback would be welcome as well.


I have a suggestion:

Could you allow others to see who “likes” each forum comment? Sometimes I want to register my agreement with a post without actually posting. Think Facebook’s “Like” button, but not connecting to facebook at all.

i really like the site. however, i think that a good improvement would be changing the way we are able to reply to each other’s comments. currently, when i want to reply to someone else’s comment, i must create a comment with a quote of the original comment. and also my comment will automatically be placed last regardless of who i am replying to. and some people don’t include a quote of what they are replying to. thus it forces me to read through various comments, trying to sort out who is replying to what comment. it can be confusing at times, and interrupts the natural flow of arguments.

a better way to structure the commenting, would be like what this webiste has going-…

this site allows users to reply to individual comments, and places the reply underneath the original comment, showing how the discussion branches off, thus making it more visually appealing and orderly. it also allows users to ‘like’ someone’s comment. you can also arrange the comments by popularity, or by how old the comment is.

By the way, I “Liked” christian’s post. I second his idea. Don’t get used to it Christian, I rarely agree with you ;-)

Jim is such a curmudgeon :p

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

this site allows users to reply to individual comments, and places the reply underneath the original comment, showing how the discussion branches off, thus making it more visually appealing and orderly.
This is actually a worse design because it is virtually impossible to get caught up because you don’t know where to start. Twenty posts into a discussion someone could post a comment under the first one and you would never know it. Good forums and comment sections always place comments at the end so when someone returns, they know exactly what is new and they know that they haven’t missed something.

Larry, I disagree. Look at Tim Challies’ blog. His format tends to let tangential comments run their course while not getting the main comments derailed.

So how do you keep up without rereading everything? You never know if someone responded to a comment above unless you go back and reread everything above. I rarely read those comment sections at all, and even more rarely twice.

With a traditional comment thread, you know exactly where to start—right after the last comment you read. Everything above it is old; everything below it is new. There is no wondering if someone responded earlier. You don’t have to search for your comment to see if anyone responded to it.

Let’s say you see a comment that you don’t care about, and it’s been responded to several times. That comment would be indented so you know not to read all those comments. You could skip to other “main” comments and decide if those interested you.

Much has been written and discussed about “flat” vs. “threaded” threads. The trend for a while has been away from threading, though it may be making a comeback now. There are pros and cons to both approaches.

The threaded replies have the advantage of allowing separate “conversations” within a thread to sort of occupy their own space. The “flat” version has the advantage of not requiring backtracking to see if you missed something further up the thread. They also have the advantage of being much easier to style (and how deep do you take the nesting?).

In Drupal threaded/indented replies are either enabled or disabled, so if enabled, you’ve got to style for the possibility that you could have a reply to a reply to a reply to a reply to a reply etc. It gets weird.

But the main reason we opted for “flat” back in 09 was that the tool we have for moving comments and threads works far better in flat threads (under the hood, each post in a flat thread is a reply to the original post, whereas in nested threads, each comment has a stored relationship to the one it is in reply to. The result is that if you want to move it, things are greatly complicated…. but as it turns out we almost never use that tool anyway).

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

I’m a fan of the flat thread. I think it reminds people that each thread is a single conversation on a single topic. The format doesn’t prevent the thread from being hijacked or devolving into isolated mini-conversations, but it doesn’t encourage it either. Threaded threads (?) seem to sanction that kind of behavior.

I think that even a reply to a specific post ought to be a part of the whole conversation.

My Blog:

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Let’s say you see a comment that you don’t care about, and it’s been responded to several times. That comment would be indented so you know not to read all those comments. You could skip to other “main” comments and decide if those interested you.
But don’t you still have to start at the top every time and work your way down through everything you have already read to see if there is anything new? That’s my problem with it. I don’t want to go back and look for new indentions because I don’t remember the old ones. With a regular thread, you can still skip the ones that don’t interest you.

The way Scot McKnight’s blog is typically run is the best way, IMO. It is sequential, but if you are responding to someone in particular, you cite their name and the post number. So I would begin with “@Shaynus #9.” That way, if someone doesn’t know what is being referred to, they can look back if they are interested. If not, they can skip it. This has the added benefit of insuring that you can’t start at the next comment and know that nothing was added above that you need to look back for. And with comment threads that may be fifty or more, that is important.

So I recommend against it.

I agree with Larry and Charlie and I will separate from any so-called “brethren” who believe in threaded threads.

Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Here is an example of a forum with my favorite format.

This is actually an agricultural forum rather than a theological one, but my hobby/tentmaking brings me to this site quite a bit. It has the staggered reply thread but you have to click on each reply to read it and then once you read it, it turns a different color so you know it is already read. You can still click on it again to reread it, but you do not have to reread all the threads. Further if you come back, you see if someone has added something new, because their heading will be a different color.

It also allows you to select your preference of having all the posts laid out with their content or just having the titles and clicking on the headings to read each one. (I choose the latter). This saves a lot of time. On SI I might be following a post but cannot remember if there were 34 or 43 responses the last time I looked so I end up skimming until I found where I left off.

The Agtalk site also allows me to log on, click on forums, and then select “your active threads”. This allows me to see all the threads I have recently started OR responded to. If no one else has responded since I last read everything, the post title will be in red letters. If there has been a new response the title will be in blue letters so I know I have to read it catch up. Further if there is a subject I am interested in, I can search for that subject by date or if I just want to look for it once a week, I set the search to look over the past week. That way I do not have to search the whole site when I have already read old posts and and just checking if there are any recent posts on the subject of interest.

If you like the layout, I would suggest contacting the moderator on that site. Something came up a while back that makes me think he is a believer or at least someone with Biblical values.