Newsgroups, Web Forums, and ???

I recently attended a recent Microsoft Research talk on the subject of the Microsoft public newsgroups. This was put on by the people behind Netscan.  I must admit I’ve never liked NNTP newsgroups.  I don’t like the anonymity, posting rich content to them is a chore with most applications including Outlook Express, I don’t like the spam, and until came along, I disliked having to search them for anything.  However, according to the statistics, there are at least 11 million people in the Microsoft.public groups alone that disagree with me and have not found a better place to vent their frustrations and ask the same questions over and over again. 

Maybe I can be a “glass half empty” type of person but I can’t entirely suggest the world should just move to Web Forums either.  Sure, I can have cleaner concepts of identity, moderation, bubbling, searching, and content attribution, but on the other hand… There is no offline story, most forum sites can be slow, and there is no standard post editor (or any interface) that one can get used to, and because of their disperse nature there may be 100 different web forums dedicated to the same topics leading to rifts in the community. 

A recent ray of hope, IMO, is the mixing of RSS and web forum technology.  In an early form you can see this by subscribing to feeds (Web Forms, Announcements, etc) provided by the forums and start reading the content in your favorite aggregator.  Now I can read the content offline, but I still can’t respond, and the feeds currently only provide you with some of the first post in each thread, not the comments that follow.  Room for improvement for sure, but an interesting proof of concept.

What technologies solve your venting, questioning, and answering needs best?  How could someone do better?

Comments (9)

  1. I used to see blogs and usenet as very similar. This past month I’ve reading the msdn blog feed and I’m noticing a huge difference: Newsgroups are more useful for a question/answer type of dialog. It is a reactive medium, somebody asks, somebody else replies. Blogs, however, are more useful for a teaching/debate type of dialog, the author shows a new technique or proposes a subject for debate and people following the blog participate or ask questions (on the subject that the author started, not on semi-random subjects). It is a proactive medium. The "blog trend" at MS seems to be a "leadership" initiative, its form may look similar to Usenet but its role is closer to that of the PDC on a grand scale (reaching a larger community and all-year-round)

    You could certainly provide newsgroups over RSS or MS people could start talking about new developments on Usenet but it hasn’t happened that way. Moving Usenet to RSS seems unnecessary, the "new" technique doesn’t seem to offer significant advantages (for "support" type of groups or for binaries, that is actually what moves most of the traffic in Usenet). On the other hand, Usenet is not appropriate for a "leadership" dialog because your post will disappear quickly and you don’t have control (yes, it may be archived by google but just remember that before google it used to be dejanews and there was a "blackout" period until google decided to continue the service). For a conpany leading the industry it is much safer having a central location and better control over the survival of your postings.

    At this moment they are just different needs being served by different technologies. One is focused on the long term and the other on the quick short term, both good and useful.

  2. I tend to prefer news groups for finding stuff and forums for having discussions.

    Google Groups always seems to be the quickest and easiest way to find out things Win32 functions that are not in MSDN (even if it is just finding out that other people have had the same problems).

    Forums are nice for posting and joining in as you can get emails when someone replies to a post and you can attach images or files without annoying people. On the other hand, I have never found any forums with a good search engine that can search years of archives quickly and easily.

    Perhaps the ideal solution would be a web based solution (perhaps with NNTP and RSS feeds) but with a Google style search engine (fast, easy to use and complete).

    In many respects, I think searching probably the most important part of any forum. With so many people developing applications for Windows, most problems have been found, discussed and have work-arounds. Being able to dig them up without having to bother everyone else with the same question again makes forums a much more useful place.

    In a similar theme, the MSDN Library itself could benefit from far better searching. Compare Goolge’s results to Microsoft’s (assuming I am looking for documentation for the Win32 BeginPaint function):

    Google’s results come back a lot quicker and are a lot more relevant.

  3. josh says:

    Eusebio : I agree with your comments about the differences between blogs and newsgroups. I do, however think, that if newsgroups are really meant for Q and A scenarios then there should be some more abilities to track and store questions with good answers VS ones that just have lots of “me too” questions.

    Jonathan: I would defiantly lean towards a solution that combines the best of both worlds that you describe. You are also not the first person to throw the google gauntlet down. Indeed, I too, have leveraged google a great deal more than Microsoft searches for API references. You might, however want to give the search a try. I’ve recently seen some improvements there…

  4. Steven Smith says:

    Don’t forget one of the oldest communities, the mailing list. You’ll still find many of these active at sites like, and of course everyone has an offline client for these. The biggest negative to this format is that not all mailing lists provide searchable archives, they can be an avenue for spammers unless moderated, and they require the user to create rules in the mail program to ensure the messages are properly organized upon receipt.

  5. jledgard says:

    Thanks for the reminder!

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