Effectively using Discourse together with group chat

Most modern groups today are using some kind of chat application. The usual suspects are Slack, HipChat, Discord, Mattermost, Rocket Chat, Riot, and Gitter, to name a few.

While chat is immediate and primarily synchronous, communication in the Cim Boards is gradual and asynchronous. We’ve seen far too many community managers treat these two modes of communication as competitors. Quite on the contrary, chat and forum communities can complement one another beautifully, and we aim to show exactly how by breaking it down into three different levels of understanding.

  1. Ephemeral vs Permanent
    What is the difference between a chat and a forum community
  2. Strengths and Weaknesses
    When to use which tool
  3. Complementary Workflows
    How to use both tools together most effectively

Ephemeral vs Permanent

The discussion that takes place in a chatroom is best described as ephemeral, meaning:

Something which lasts for a short period of time.

While a chat platform might keep a searchable record of all your conversations, the highly unstructured nature of chat makes it unsuitable as long-term storage of knowledge.

In direct contrast to the inherently ephemeral nature of chat, forum discussions are permanent:

Without end, eternal. Nothing in this world is truly permanent.
Lasting for an indefinitely long time. The countries are now locked in a permanent state of conflict.

One mode of discussion is not better than the other. They both have unique benefits that go hand in hand with best-practice use cases.

Strengths and weaknesses

Chat is an essential communication tool, but when used excessively it can have a negative influence on community health. Whereas with forum communities, perhaps the most common misstep is to start one before your project has the necessary momentum, and you end up with a ghost town.

At Cimmarian we like to think of chat and forum as your extended collective “short term” and “long term” memory, respectively.

Group chat is great for…

Minimum viable communities

Get two people in a chat room together and you’ve got yourself the beginnings of a healthy community. As long as there’s some chatter on a regular basis, the room will come off as lively and inviting to other prospective participants. This is a great onboarding strategy in the early days of a community, but there is a hard limit on how far it can scale. Doing things that don’t scale can be a winning strategy for startups and burgeoning communities alike; the key is knowing when you’ve outgrown your initial growth strategy.

Real-time resolutions

“What is everyone playing today?”
“I need fresh eyes on this problem I am having”
“welp, I think I just broke something”

Urgent notifications

Servers are on fire!
An urgent email was just received!

Socializing

While social chatter is a rare occurrence on a forum, this is the norm in chat, and it happens in every room, not just a designated #off-topic channel. Give it a little time and you won’t be able to avoid it: it’s about to get personal . There’s something about being present together in the same slice of time, the here and now , that lends itself to Getting Real. Getting personal on a forum feels more like broadcasting, made even weirder by metrics (Likes, Replies, View) that can unintentionally imply that Bob’s piece of personal news didn’t “perform” as well as someone else’s. Chat imposes much less scrutiny on your shared content.

You’ll find this list to be nearly identical with that of Jason Fried’s excellent writeup on group chat on behalf of Basecamp https://m.signalvnoise.com/is-group-chat-making-you-sweat/ . While eerily similar, we really did come upon these findings independently! The proof happens to be permanently recorded on meta.discourse.org and in many other communities where we discussed this.

Forum discussion is great for…

All-inclusive dialogue

The asynchronous nature of a forum community effectively lowers the bar about as far down as it can go. You’ll get a much greater diversity of input if you solicit feedback from anyone who’s available sometime in the next 24, 72 or 168 hours as opposed to right now .
Another little discussed benefit of “slow” asynchronous conversations (fun fact: very few things in life, especially in business, are actually URGENT) is that it encourages walking away from the discussion for a while, which is scientifically proven to improve critical thinking.

Communities of scale

similar to what version control did for code and wikis did for encyclopedias, community platforms like Discourse have long since solved the “too many chefs” problem for discussion at scale. Hundreds or even thousands of people can discuss an equal amount of topics simultaneously on Discourse because (1) discussions are broken up into logical topic blobs and (2) long-form input is strongly encouraged over rapid-fire back-and-forth debating.

Knowledge storage & distribution

The permanence of a Discourse topic makes it an excellent storage of knowledge. Some will argue that forum posts become outdated, but we’ve found that when a particular solution stops working then users will promptly resume the topic discussion until it arrives at a satisfactory solution once more.
This is further helped by

  • Search-friendly content
  • Discoverable content, helped by Categories, Titles, Participants, Top rankings and strictly linear discussions with minimal digressions and noise.
  • Extra exposure for content with many Likes
  • Marking solutions as the official answer
  • Collaborative editing with full revision history

Civilized discussion

Most current group chats have very limited moderation controls. And while they may eventually catch up, the experience will always be sub-par simply because it’s real-time. If you hold someone’s comment for moderation in chat, that’s incredibly frustrating because you’re expecting live discussion. On a forum, on the other hand, the expectation is that you’ll get a reply within a few hours or even days after posting, so if your post gets flagged? No biggie, you can wait.

Ultimately each medium has its own pros and cons. Its creation is for Cimmarians enjoyment!

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