Friday, October 10, 2003

a unified model of community discussion data

I posted this comment to the MOD Request forum at

greetings mod-dev creatures,

I'm a heavy user (not an admin) of phpBB boards and I appreciate the work that you've all done in making this such a functional and powerful tool.

It occurs to me however that the data in a forum is analogous to the data in a weblog, with categories and comments. For example, in Moveable Type, you might have a blog entry whose data is:

Author: Aziz Poonawalla

Date: 10/1/03 6:54 AM GMT

Title: deep philosophical thoughts

Body: give Arnold a chance
no more recall! glenn, please link to my post...l8r

heading: California politics

followed by a number of comments, each with teh same fields (but different data in them, except for Category which presumably is fixed by the Parent post).

This kind of data maps directly into the phpBB data space, as far as I can determine (without having looked at the code directly myself). The phpBB "Categories" but there is a direct mapping between the blog fields above, organized under Forum/Topic instead of heading/title. Responses to the initial post are equivalent to comments.

What would really be interesting, then, would be a "blog view" alternate index to the existing data in the forum. Instead of sorting top-level posts by category and forum, they would simply be listed chronologically, but you could also filter teh view by a specific forum/heading if so desired.

Thoughts? It doesn't add functionality, per se, but it does allow forum discussions to be accessed under the blog paradigm rather than teh forum one. It might not be too drastic a step from there to generating RSS feeds just as Blogger and Moveable Type already do.

The main appeal of the idea is that it truly lives up to the ideal of separating content from presentation. Having identified the intrinsic data in blogs and forums as isomorphic, choosing a "blog" or a "forum" interface becomes another tool for modifying website design, syndication, and user interface aspects.

This idea is not new. There already is a "forum" skin for Moveable Type, but the main problem here is that a classic blog such as MT lacks the query power under the hood that phpBB or any other forum that is provided by the SQL engine. Also, forums such as phpBB have much more sophisticated user registration, private messaging, groups, and permissions functionality than blogs do. Of course all of these things are available as additional extensions to the Moveable Type environment, but I personally believe that this wider functionality is more robust when you arrive at it from phpBB as your starting point rather than MT.

We need a unified model of community discussion data - and I think phpBB is already there, whereas blogs are evolving towards it. A blog index view for phpBB would accomplish a great deal towards demonstrating that model.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Regards, Aziz Poonawalla

I should point out that my coments above are not intended to denigrate the blog in favor of the forum - but I think that there's much effort at reinventing the wheel, and right now forums such as phpBB have a much richer feature set (aside from RSS) than blogs, as a general rule. Where blogs are superior is in the data entry interface (I think Blogger Pro remains the most elegant), and in syndication. But forums have the edge in accessing archives, searching, and controlling user access/permissions.

If we could achieve some kind of synergy between these two seemingly separate models of community discussion, it could stimulate a new explosion of innovation. Only two years ago, who could have imagined that blogs would have played such a powerful role in politics? But they certainly have, as the Dean campaign has demonstrated. If you could combine the blog with the forum, and switch effortlessly between the two as the need required, who knows what future applications might result?

I'm not a coder at this skill level - but I think there are plenty of people, both in the BB world and the blog world, who are. I'll see if I can get some of the notables to comment.

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