Brainstorming Results of Online Discussion Solutions

As promised… My first thoughts on some solutions to the problems I mentioned yesterday.


I chatted today with one of the guys behind some of the central Microsoft community efforts such as the MS public newsgroup site.  We talked about how it was easy it was for people to just create a Microsoft.public newsgroup and keep the newsgroups as a central location for people to find information about any Microsoft product.


But time marches on and now people care about online reputations, trustworthiness, moderation, and the accessibility of http communications.  Now teams at Microsoft have started creating what are currently very non-connected communities such as, Gotdotnet, The Spoke,, channel9 etc.  (I’ve only scratched the surface of the developer community space.)  As a user I end up with a different reputation @ each location, there is not good way to search all of these related communities at one time, I don’t have a good way to find them all in the first place, and questions are no longer duplicated @ one site multiple times, but at all these sites multiple times over.


Check out  If I want to talk about my iPod, GarageRock, and the Safari web browser I have a consistent experience and reputation.  I’m not suggesting that they have nailed it, but they are kicking our butts.


I’ll preface my solutions on consistency by reminding people that I am simply one person involved in this effort and any of these solutions are going to require a great deal of internal support from different groups.  Either that or I can hope Steve Ballmer reads my blog and “encourages” the internal support.  J


Solving for consistency

Consistency Solution #1

Push one standard interface across Microsoft.  Since its community powered the experience might as well be the forums.   For those people stuck on NNTP we add an NNTP<-> forums bridge and each current product would have its “unmoderated group” and its “moderated” groups.  We could also expose NNTP and RSS feeds for the moderated groups (for people that enjoy their client choices and google groups) and down the road create some standard that allows people to log into their local clients and post into the moderated forums.  Slowly people would migrate to the moderated groups because they enjoy the environment better.  Oh, and while we are at it, expose listserve support for these forums. J


Consistency Solution #2

Create a central data store that supports basic features and reputations for all Microsoft owned community sites.  Leave it up to each site to decide what front end and additional features they want on top of the web services exposed by this store.  Include unmoderated newsgroups in the store and enable the different sites to choose whether or not to support them. 


Consistency Solution #3

All MS communities RSS everything in a standard way.  They must register their feeds inside a standard central directory of feeds that come from Microsoft.  Each site maintains their own datastore and UI. They only share reputation and a required central log-in between them.  The page with the central directory exposes an “MS Feedster” search scoped at these registered communities.  This solutions could also be implemented as a bunch of P2P web services that communicate between each site. 


Consistency Solution #4

There is no consistency problem to solve.  Things are great the way they are. 


The NNTP Problem

As I discussed before, the public newsgroups are not going away any time soon.  Sure, we could just tell people if they want to be involved in discussions @ Microsoft they have to jump over the cliff and go our way or the high way but I’d prefer a smoother transition where people decide over time that there are good reasons to give up the newsgroups because a better solution exists.  It’s my belief that web forums are the way of the future.  The only missing link is a standard protocol for web boards to expose themselves to each other and to a cached offline client.  What looks promising today is some combination of RSS support with eventing notification and a standard commenting API for replied with pluggable log-in support.  


Transition Plan #1

The user finds the MS VB Community forums through a web interface.  They have a choice between “Moderated” and “Unmoderated” forum groups to post in.  Through the web interface posting in either will require them to log in, but in the Unmoderated forums there is no concept of reputation or moderation.  Through the UI push the user to post in the Moderated forums if their searches turned up nothing. 


Transition Plan #2

Allow the VB user to read both the moderated (web forums) and unmoderated communities, but allow them only to post to the moderated community and give them instructions for using the unmoderated (newsgroup) community on another site or using their NNTP client.


Transition Plan #3

Push users off the cliff but work to develop public protocols for web-forum communication and create an offline client that allows people to read and post into the solution.  It might be painful in the short term for users stuck on newsgroups, but they will still exist, they just won’t be the preferred community. 


Transition Plan #4

Cross post the moderated content into the public newsgroups that exist today.  Either don’t accept responses to the posts from NNTP or show them optionally in the web forum interface below the web forum responses.  Don’t accept new threads started in the public newsgroups in the web forum interface. 

Comments (7)

  1. ASP.NET Forums 2.0 has NNTP functionality. Great way to transition people away from Oultook Express if they don;t want to use it.

  2. jledgard says:

    Yup, I think the ASP.NEt forums would make a great piece of the solution.

  3. Daniel O'Connell says:

    As a note, I am aware you don’t intend on implementing this as it stands(or ever). While I agree with the goal, I have a few problems with your thoughts here.

    I have to say, I really do not think a web forum, as they exist today, is really capable of waht you are proposing. They are, blatently, slow, bulky things. Even when exposed as a web service I can’t find much faith in the response times of such a system. Every .NET forum I’ve been to loads slowly. I am not really sure any single site can really provide the gaurenteed bandwidth for the masses to access at the rate communites are accessed. One of the major benifits of NNTP is that it is considerably less pressure on the bandwidth. Not only is alot of it offloaded to other repeater points, there isn’t all the bulk of feature-flooded RSS or html involved.

    Outside of that, I like transition plan 3 pretty well and think the other three options are effectivly suicide. I know I wouldn’t bother with any of them. Usage of NNTP isn’t a nessecity, but an *efficent* protocol with feature parity is. Web forums just aren’t good enough for the traffic such a centralized service would have to deal with. For anyone who is really interested in reading and responding, as opposed to those looking for answers(I get the feeling you were considering askers over responders when you thought about this), there are a few things that have to be satisfied:

    1) the forum has to be very fast, I dont want to wait 5 seconds for a message to download and render every time I request a message, I do, after all, have alot to read. Someone who is simply looking for an answer isn’t going to have that kind of trouble, they only intend on opening maybe a half dozen messages, not the hundred plus I am.

    2) messages should be small, not only does this increase speed(less to download), messages should be cached as you suggest. Using overly feature ladden RSS or other bulky messaging systems may not work in this case. The protocol should also, IMHO, be more ganular than most RSS is today.

    Also this means that a non-html form of all messages must exist. While for some people, html and smilie faces and all that are a larf, I don’t want formatting or other stuff in my way. I just want to read the message, resond if I can, and move on. Period.

    3) an offline client *must* exist, and it must be there from day 1. Using a web interface to really read and reply requires far to much use of the mouse and a much less inuitive interface than a desktop application can provide. In OE I can sit at OE and press ctrl-U to skip to the next unread message and Ctrl-T to mark entire conversations as read to navigate my messages, and ctrl-g to respond to one. Having to click on a link is considerably slower than that. Ideally, this app would actually be an extension to outlook or outlook express(OE preferably, outlooks interface is only marginal at dealing with conversations), after all it would be a MS spearhead. Also, having the new moderation-capable client also capable of handling NNTP, RSS(as in standard blogs as blogs, not forums) and email, etc would mean less applications to achieve what is needed. The main problem with centralizing these right now is UI. The UI of Outlook isn’t very good for NNTP or RSS, IMHO, although it works quite well for email.

    My only other thought is about moderation. Moderating a group isn’t easy, even on relativly small groups like some of devmentors mailing lists, the moderation turnaround time can be bad. You are proposing merging several groups that recieve several hundred posts a day into one moderated system. Someone has to be there to moderate these groups rapidly. A 4 or 5 hour lag time between post and appearance has a few specific issues. One is that, in busy communities, you end up with many posts with the same response(even on NNTP, within the sync time, which is minutes at most, you’ll see several responses come in at the same time for simple questions). The other is that lag time really disrupts near-realtime discussions. At times I post seven or eight times to a given thread in an hour, if I have to wait for a moderator to approve it, that progress drops significantly, potentially spanning the converstion out for days.

    That is, of course, assuming you mean pre-post moderation. If you mean moderation in that moderators are capable of deleting a post and activly searching for posts to delete, my main problem is in determining who defines whats appropriate on a community site, the site owner(Microsoft, admin, whomever) or the community itself? This applies to pre-post moderation as well, but it is pretty clear, IMHO, that it would be the responsibility of the site owner.

    Anyway, just some thoughts and issues I’d have as a user with the above suggestions.

  4. AT says:

    Hi Josh.

    Can you document current and past Microsoft community efforts/offerings before creating new one ?

    Can you list all the sites/support/phone numbers/newgroups Microsoft currently has and their weak and strong sides ?

    There is currenly a lot of them.

    IMHO, First step to create something new is to document and understand current situation.

    Take care – different products using different support chanells.

    BTW, This listing will have a big and fast ROI. Even in case nothing new will be created – users will be educated how to search for answers now.