Hot take after a year or so of trying to build a developer community. If you can pick only one, use forum software rather than synchronous chat software for community building around a developer platform.
While there are tradeoffs in terms of convenience and closeness, for most developer communities a public, managed forum is better than a private, unsearchable Slack.
There are a few key differences between forum software (which includes packages like nodebb, forem, discourse, and others) and chat software (like Slack, Facebook groups, or Discord).
First, though, it’s important to know what you are trying to accomplish. If you are trying to get immediate feedback from a small set of users, then synchronous solutions are better. You can be super responsive, your users will feel loved, and you’ll get feedback quickly. However, synchronous solutions go beyond chat and include phone and video calls. The general goal of validating user feedback at an early stage is beyond the scope of this post.
But as you scale with a chat solution, major problems for the longevity and value of the community emerge.
Problem #1: the memory hole
This occurs when there’s a great answer to a common question, but it isn’t available or is hard to find. This matters more for community Slacks than other synchronous solutions, since Slack limits free plans to 10,000 messages.
It still exists for solutions such as discord because older messages scroll up. Search isn’t great. As a participant it feels easier to just re-ask the question. If the community is vibrant and willing to help newcomers, such questions get answered. If not, they languish or are ignored, frustrating the new participants. Not good.
You can work around the memory hole as a community member by extracting and reifying interesting chat posts. I have done this by generalizing and publishing the messages as blog posts, to a newsletter, or even to a google sheet. But this is additional work that may not be done regularly, or at all.
Side note: for some communities, discussing current events or just chatting with friends, this is actually a feature, not a bug. Who needs to remember who said what six months ago when conversing with friends.
But for developer communities, friendly chat is important, but so is sharing knowledge; the memory hole actively thwarts the latter.
Forums, on the other hand, are optimized for reading. nodebb even suggests related posts as you begin a topic, actively directing people to older posts that may solve their issue without them ever posting.
And if published on the internet, forums are searched via Google.
Problem #2: Google can’t see inside chats
Google is the primary user interface for knowledge gathering among developers.
I hope this statement isn’t controversial. It is based on personal experience and observation, but there’s also some research.
I have seen many many developers use Google as soon as they are confronted by a problem. Youtube, books, going to a specific site and using that search: these all are far less used alternatives when a developer has a question.
Google has made it so easy to find so much good information that most developers have been trained when they face a problem to open a new tab, type in the search term and trust the first page of results.
Chat systems don’t work well with this common workflow, because all the content is hidden.
This means when you use a chat for a developer community, you don’t get compounding benefits when someone, either a team member or a community member, answers a question well or has an insightful comment that would be worth reading. Very few folks ever benefit in the future.
With chat, people who aren’t present at message posting or soon thereafter never learn from that knowledge.
Problem #3: synchronous communication is synchronous
When you are in a chat system, the information is ephemeral. This means that valuable comments can be lost if there is a flurry of other messages.
People can feel ignored even though the reality is that they just posted at an inopportune moment. This feeling can be intimidating; I’ve definitely felt miffed as a question or comment I posted was ignored or unseen and other people’s questions were answered. “Was it me? My topic? Are other people more welcome here than I am?”
People who like to answer questions may feel the need to do so quickly. This may interfere with time for deep work. The Pavlovian response is real; I’ve felt it myself. It feels “better” to write a response to help someone than it does to write a document that will help many, because the former is so concrete and immediate.
When you pick a chat solution, you are optimizing for this kind of response.
Problem #4: less capable moderation tools
Forums have been around a long time. It’s a well understood problem space. There’s a rich set of functionality in most of them for handling the more frustrating aspects of online community management (see also “A Group is its own worst enemy”).
Chat applications have uneven support for this aspect of community management; I have heard Discord is pretty good, but Slack is not.
Remember that when you are running a community, you will inevitably attract trolls and spammers. Make sure you have the tools to protect the community from abuse.
In addition, make sure you have the time/energy. The community may be able to police itself when it gets to a certain size, but initially and for a long while, with a chat solution you may need to be ready to jump in and moderate.
Forums still require attention, don’t get me wrong, but the tooling and the separation of topics means they aren’t quite as vulnerable. They are a higher value target, because of Google, however.
Problem #5: you’re missing out on long tail content
This issue is related to problem #2, but slightly different. When you are building developer tools, there is a wide surface area of support needed. Questions from developers help define that space. When they go to a chat, someone needs to capture the questions and make them public to help future developers. You can capture this knowledge in formal docs.
When using a forum, the answers are made available to the long tail of searchers without any effort at all. A company I worked for got about 5-6% of their traffic from their forum pages.
That traffic was essentially free because the time to answer the questions was required with either solution. (This assumes the question would have been asked in either a chat or a forum.)
Problem #6: questions can be flippant
When I am talking in person to someone and they ask a question, I don’t expect them to have done a ton of research or thinking about it. It’s a conversation, after all.
The same attitude occurs during real time chat.
For technical questions, this can be frustrating because you want to help immediately (see problem #3) and yet you don’t have all the information you need. In async discussions, because they are async, more context is typically provided by the questioner.
This makes it easier for people who want to help to do so.
Why do people use Slack/Discord/etc?
Wow, so many problems with chat and all these reasons are why forum software is better.
So why do so many folks building developer communities choose solutions like Slack or Discord?
There are two motivations that I can see.
One from the company perspective and one from that of the developer.
From the company side: it helps build community between members.
I don’t know about you, but I am much more likely to pitch in and help when I have had a conversation with someone than if some rando drops by with a question and leaves.
A Slack can begin to feel like a real community, where you know people. It doesn’t feel as transactional when I see a question in a Slack when I’ve seen the questioner post other messages or share a bit about themselves. This type of interaction can happen in a forum, but seems more common in a Slack. This type of interaction makes the community more sticky and people more likely to help. A minor benefit is that chat can be hosted elsewhere for free so the startup cost and friction is low.
From the developer’s side: when I run into an issue or problem, I want an answer as soon as frickin’ possible. It’s blocking me, otherwise I wouldn’t have asked it.
Sure, I can context switch, but that has its own costs. So there’s tremendous value from a knowledge seeker’s side to pick a synchronous method of asking questions.
If you had a burning question to ask, which would you prefer? Hopping on the phone or sending a physical email. That’s the allure of the chat platforms.
I will say that some forum software has built chat in, but that isn’t going to get you an answer immediately.
What’s right for you?
Well, what do you want to emphasize? Long term aggregation of knowledge and a culture of completeness, or community and a culture of immediacy.
As alluded to initially, you can of course use both tools at different times in your community’s evolution. I think the longer you build, the more you’ll move to a forum or other public knowledge sharing solution.
Here’s a tweet survey that I ran a month ago asking how developers wanted to get tech help. (Something else turned out to mostly be “well written documentation”, from the thread responses.)
As a developer seeking tech help for a platform or software package, which do you prefer?
— Dan Moore (@mooreds) April 11, 2021