Recent and almost simultaneous hacks of at least a few communities owned by large media companies served as a push for more immediate (than previously planned) changes.
I wanted to start this thread in order to accomplish two primary objectives: to have a discussion about what next steps to take in picking a new communication platform and have an honest dialogue about what proposed changes might affect. In spite of any potential damage HostingDiscussion might take in the process (loss of traffic, loss of search engine ranking or less features), I am looking at this as a long-term investment, because members' safety and satisfaction beats any commercial benefit the site might provide in the short term.
I don't expect all to agree, but as long as most understand the direction I'd like to go, I am happy.
Since the hacks
When the news of the first hack became public, I started to educate myself on the subject. I retained the services of a security-oriented vBulletin developer to assess our risk, perform a complete security check, to apply officially released patches, as well as to stay as an advisor and a support resource while we are going through this transition (glad to report there were no signs that our forum has been infected or backdoored). At the same time I started to investigate all community-based applications on the market today.
Reasons to move away from vBulletin
Let's put it this way. If we stick with vBulletin, we have two options: either to upgrade to the latest 4.0 version available or go all the way to version 5.0. Normally people would always recommend to run the latest version of any released software (although in this case it appears that 4.0 is relatively more safe than 5.0). However, regardless of security, if there was anything consistent about vBulletin 5.0, it is the number of bugs and negative feedback voiced even by their biggest fans. Even if and when the company plugs all the holes, the latest release breaks not only the look of the community (a brand new theme will have to be designed), but some of the custom plugins we have in use. Which really begs the question: if we are forced to change all common elements of a forum, do we even have to stay with vBulletin? Considering the circumstances and the increased security risk, me thinks not.
Times have changed
Don't get me wrong, I've been a huge fan of vBulletin for many years. The thought of migrating to another software has never developed into a serious one. However, recent events have almost served as a wake up call to look around. And what a different world it is today! The social landscape is changing and with it, change the socially driven products. The more I looked around, the more fun discoveries were made. The realization that I kept on having time and time again is that just like Blackberry, Yahoo!, Kodak and Blockbuster did not innovate in time, looking at the forum software market today, I see vBulletin intensely lagging behind.
The way people interact and seek help today differs from 10-15 years ago. If someone is looking for quick help, he/she is less likely to spend time signing up for an account that then needs more time to get approved before they can even ask the question (unless they are joining with intention to be around long-term). They are more likely to search Google for similar issue(s) in hopes to find the right answer. So if there was an option to login with an existing social account (Twitter or Facebook), they'd probably go for that, if it means less work to get to the desired result. Additionally, people have less time looking for answers in the first place. As such, they'd be less motivated to scroll through pages and pages of a conversation, looking for the best answer. Wouldn't it make more sense if the stronger, more accurate answer (as voted by other members and staff) was also available at the top of the discussion, giving the author the respect and the exposure in the process? These are just some of the ideas among the many that are adopted across the web.
I am not even talking about primitive user engagement features such as various reputation systems, award badges, ability to build a personal following for your company within the community, involving each other into conversation with a simple @ call sign, having a private messaging experience in a threaded format (personally I've been dying for that one), among others.
Most of these features are not found in the old school forum software packages anymore, unless possibly through third-party add-ons or plugins (which is a battle of its own to keep them functioning right with every software update). But very few have them intuitively built in and taken advantage of. vBulletin has certainly missed many.
Once we open our mind to the possibility of life without vBulletin, suddenly few exciting options are possible.
What's out there
In the mildly modified words
of Kenny Powers, new hip social platforms are in, old school forums are out.
vBulletin, phpBB, XenForo, SimpleMachines, PunBB are all dinosaurs to me. Programs like MyBB or FluxBB are difficult to put all your trust in.
What I found interesting were applications like VanillaForums, Discourse, Flarum, NodeBB. The problem with these, however, is that some of them are still in beta (Flarum - tested it myself, very unstable) and most do not yet have a very long track record. I'd go with a wild guess by saying VanillaForums is the most established out of this group and very well received. However, I've been following it for a long time and major updates take a painful amount of time to release. Overall, I love these apps, they have killer ideas and lots of potential. But while some may be a good choice for startup communities, it feels like some of these teams don't have the financial muscle to throw large development resources behind them, while others, sadly, primarily target the enterprise.
So, how do we find an app that can do both: provide exciting innovative features and persuade a level of financial stability? I may have found the perfect middle ground. The only traditional forum-based solution that I remember for as long as I've been involved with forums and the one that I suddenly like today is IPS Community by InvisionPower.com. Suddenly, because I've never before been a fan... was always a vBulletin kind of guy. But to my big surprise, IPS Community has done an excellent job to evolve with time. Behind what can seem like a traditional forum look, there are multitude of built-in features
that I talked about above with such an appetite:
- single sign-on integration opportunity;
- better visibility of quality content and top contributors;
- choice of reputation methods and built-in award badges;
- socially-driven profiles (build a following of your own within a community);
- post editing with active member mentions, auto-embedding, drag and drop uploading and auto-saved drafts;
- threaded private messaging conversations;
- easy content discovery with a wide range of filters;
- redesigned moderation tools that seem more centralised and effective compared to what we have today.
There is definitely a learning curve, but I think it is an exciting one.
Most importantly, Invision Power Services has a long historical track record and there is security in the fact that they equally cater to enterprise, which keeps the product well maintained.
There will definitely be epic challenges in this transition, like potentially losing the search engine ranking that HostingDiscussion is enjoying today, and for how long; losing some existing custom plugins we have employed on this forum; or having to come up with a fresh new design. But with your support, I think all is possible to accomplish, one step at a time. We just need to know that most of you are up for the adventure.
To bring in the fresh and the new, to make things exciting, software that is social and engaging is next. Could this be the common-ground between traditional and radical new? What do you think if we were to make a move to the IPS Community software?
Warmest wishes to all,