Why community forums like this one are still relevant

Retro

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This article from Invision Power Services, the makers of the Invision Community forum software, makes for a pretty good argument for why forums like this one (and especially ones powered by their software...) will endure under the continuing onslaught of social media like Facebook and Instagram, funnily enough both owned by megacorp Meta.

I've put this post in the Your Hobbies and Interests section, because creating and running this forum is one of my hobbies and I agree with a lot of what the article says, having experienced these things myself. However, which software is best to run said forum is a matter of technical merit, opinion and choice.

 

Tiffany

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I thought I had replied to this... I actually read this article, not too long after you posted it. Yes, I agree. There's nothing that's better than a close-knit boutique vibe of a website that has nice people that gather together in friendship! :)
 

Tiffany

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Definitely, so many unique resources come from the best webmasters that project their vision with personal passion in their website creations.
 

Arantor

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I have much to say on this subject - you’ll have seen enough of it from TAZ already but there‘s some specific nuances I want to touch on here that don’t get thought about much in the TAZ-sphere. Unfortunately gotta work first…
 

Tiffany

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Looking forward to what you have to share, Arantor!
 

Arantor

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So Invision's article there is on point - if you're a business looking to grow a community alongside your business. And for *businesses* that can be very much a smart move. When your business is about a product or fleet of products, particularly digital products, building a community of fans who can advocate on your behalf through their channels is very much cheap advertising, whilst being a wonderful morale boost for all concerned.

The problem with that is that this only works for certain types/sectors - this isn't going to fly for, say, restaurants or something where locality matters because the reach you can get on Facebook for a locality blows what a forum can (usually) do out of the water.

What that article sort of skirts around is what a community is. It talks about what a community has - content, particularly if discoverable and authoritative - but it doesn't talk about what a community *is*. And that irks me.

It's all about the people. Content is why they come. Connections are why they stay. This isn't helped by the fact that places like TAZ and to an even more finely honed degree like XF.com, InvisionCommunity.com (the forum vendors' own communities) are inherently weird communities. Specifically: people do not generally go to xenforo.com to socialise; they go there to ask a question, or to learn something. Any community building that happens on the side is mostly accidental, if fortuitous.

But more than that, the only thing holding those communities together is the niche they're in. In IPS's case, they're preaching the word of having a community for your business but I'm not really sure I'd call it a community yet. It doesn't feel like a community - it feels too corporate, people turn up, ask their question and go. To a point that's what you *want* in such a venue. You don't really want folks hanging around drinking the endless refills, so to speak, you want them to move on so the next customers can come in.

But it underscores the point being made: niche communities are where the heart of the forum scene is. Where like minded people get together and hang out. They'll come for the content and stay for the community, at least in all the best places.

The reason I differentiate this from the kind of groupthink at TAZ is that - and don't get me wrong, the TAZ folks are generally quite lovely unless they're pointscoring over how evil IPS is this week - but the reasonable majority of people at TAZ are not *really* hobbyists. They're aspirationally more than that, whether they're hobbyists that are monetising or people who've gone pro and forums are a substantial part of their income.

It's why I'm watching the market very closely at the moment - IPS, with the best will in the world is going to fulfil that prophecy of not being a hobbyist platform any more, and XF if it isn't careful could find itself going the same way. But this leaves a huge gap in the market for a platform to come in that can successfully bridge the gap from the old guard free platforms (the phpBBs, the MyBBs, the SMFs), with the kinds of functionality that XF or IPS bring to the table with even remotely approaching the level of polish.

What we need, really, is a hobbyist's forum platform. One we can call ours that serves our needs and grows with us. XF was that, if at the premium end, but I fear it is slowly edging out of that grasp - $160 is quite a tall ask for a surprising number of people.

More work to be done, I feel.
 

Retro

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Crikey Arantor, that's given me some food for thought. 🤔

Firstly, the official Invision and XF forums cannot be put into the same category as enthusiast sites like this one, because they're using the product to sell and support the product. At XF, I've heard the staff refer to it as a business forum, which sounds right for that site, hence behaviours will be significantly different and the sense of community will have a different feel since the members are mostly customers and admins at that, not enthusiasts like on here. That quick in and out with a query that you describe is about right for those product forums. On the other hand, here we'll spout off about anything. 😄

Whether Invision and XF both go corporate with cloud only products and corporate pricing remains to be seen and of course, I hope very much that this doesn't happen. Unfortunately, Invision is already part way there with its huge $850 price tag for the full product and the staff themselves said that they may drop the self hosted version at some point if that's what it takes to keep the business afloat, but that it's not on the cards yet. Not very reassuring, but I felt it was honest and understandable, at least to a degree.

I agree that the pile-on isn't pretty, eg the way it happens for IC. Sometimes these things are justified, depending on what it's about. Perhaps not with IC, but wanna take a pop a Putin? Be my guest - and bring all your mates too for the biggest pile-on ever!

Regarding those pile-ons, the Forum Rules are strongly anti-bullying, so if I see someone getting bullied in that manner, I'll have something to say about it and the behaviour will stop sharpish, I promise you. I've been on the end of it at other forums and it's annoying as hell, I tell you. Other people, perhaps with mental issues, might go into a depressive funk over it and we can't have that here.

I don't know if you run a forum, or are looking to start, but I think all three main commercial products are contenders at the moment, XF, IC and even vBulletin - it seems to have come on some since I tested it over a year ago, with the latest updates including official support for PHP 8.1 that even XF doesn't have yet (it mostly works ok though, just not certified and the odd errors reported by some members). Research and test vB carefully though for customer service and robustness before buying.

In my opinion, a successful community can be built with most forum software, regardless of capabilities, because as you put it well: "they'll come for the content and stay for the community" and that can be achieved with almost anything that allows comments. However, quality, well designed software with useful features will help to maximise that success as it will make the forum experience so much better. In this respect, while XF could improve and the pacce of development has fallen sharply, it's still pretty good as it is.
 

Arantor

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Oh, I completely agree that the support/sales sites for the forum platforms aren't like niche communities, the problem is that half the time they think they are. And it’s not impossible for a sub-community to form inside such places - SMF certainly has a motley crew of regulars with their familiar banter that congregates around in between support/development/whatever but this is still not the same as a “real” niche community.

I don’t see IPS dropping the hobbyist sector out of “preservation”, but I see a time when it’s certainly possible they’ll stop doing it because it’s simply cost-prohibitive. Right now a single cloud customer earns them considerably more revenue per headcount than the average self-hosted customer, even at the bottom tier, even if we assume that the self-hoster renews immediately fir their second six months, and takes out the entire suite, neither of which is guaranteed.

I’ve personally never been a fan of dog piles, and I try to be a moderate voice in the fray, looking for balance and fair representation for all sides. Certainly thats been my stance in the various XF vs IPS drama pile-ons I’ve been party to.

I have run many forums over the years - it wasn’t for nothing that I was on the SMF dev team, and am doing my own little thing over in my own corner of the world. It’s been an interesting journey the last 15 years or so.

The one other headache is that niche communities can get by with tools that aren’t great (see the continued survival of the free forum packages when provably more polished tools exist) but it is a harder sell for people. The expectations of what should be possible have been established now and there‘s expectations about what the user journey should look like - and people do get put off by bad user experience.

Its not quite as tribal as it was maybe a decade ago where you had people being very vocal about “I’d never join a site using x” as though this was a common and normalised behaviour. But it’s not gone entirely - I have a pet project underway to dismantle some of that bias in my own niche. But more on that later.
 

Retro

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You were an SMF developer?! Wow, what's developing a forum like? I'd also like to hear more about your pet project and remember, you can plug it here on NZ if you like.

btw, I've enabled your account for article posting as you can clearly write well and is a good way to plug your interests. :)
 

Tiffany

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I dropped in this morning and read both of your posts (Arantor and Retro). So amazing, spot on and thoughtful. I can't really add anything to an already perfect and meaningful discussion!! Thank you both for sharing! :)
 

Arantor

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Yup, I wrote maybe 100 mods for SMF over the time I actively contributed, and I was a core developer for a while, but I found I didn't agree with the way they were running the operation. There is a level of 'democracy' that I find counterproductive to getting development done.

Developing a forum is an interesting journey - it's why when I post on TAZ I *really* try to take a more nuanced take on the commentary between the community in general and some of the luminaries such as Matt M and Chris D, because I see it from the other side of the fence - even if I don't have a monetary interest riding on it.

It's not really any different to building any other software - from a technical standpoint, it's fetching things from a database, formatting them a certain way and accepting input from the user to add to it. Create/Read/Update/Delete - CRUD - it's nothing special in that regard to anything else I've built in the last 20 years in PHP.

What I will say is that I find a very interesting streak in people. You give them a thing, that does x, y and z. It fascinates me how it feels like more enthusiastically than in other arenas, the focus is suddenly on 'well, now it does x, y and z but why not a or b?'

I see the same situation for example with XF's development pace - every release, doesn't matter what the features are, there's a round of disappointment for it not having other features yet. I don't know what it is but forums seem to produce *that* behaviour more than in other fields, and it's not even related to whether people pay for development or not.

What I do enjoy about the forum world though is that there is a real sense that you're doing some good in the world. Like, my day job is other applications - mostly e-commerce related these days - and while it's cool and all to see what you build continuing to power literal businesses making money, there's something about working on communities that cannot be found elsewhere.

Humanity as a whole are a social species. We thrive in groups, sharing, growing together. It's no surprise that so many cultures have a strong emphasis on storytelling and sharing experiences. So it's no surprise to me that as a collective we're always trying to figure out the best way to actually do that.

One of the big things over the years I see is the continued 'why we can't be more like Reddit'. The Slashdot/Reddit style of tree nesting rather than flat topics as you see in the other platforms (or Discourse's attempt at a hybrid). For some types of communication and sharing, that is the right model, for others it's really not. I'm intrigued that hybrid models have been tried over the years and how it's ended up basically going back to the flat-only or threaded-only camps. Even Discourse is really flat with some additional UI to feign threading.

I suppose that's really the big thing - the mantle of forum developer is 'how do we help people talk/communicate/share better'. There's a lot that the forum world can learn from outside it - I still don't get why forums *insist* on making adding media more complicated than it is on Facebook. Yes, you're opening up avenues that are more complicated - you can't add an image to a post and put the image in the post body on Facebook, like you can with the forums, but I posit this is not necessarily the default use case and that we could make everyone's life a little simpler.

I'm also surprised at how reactions turned out. I mean, I remember when it was a pretty new idea back when basically only Facepunch was doing it, years before even Facebook, let alone XF or IPS, and I remember having this debate with the SMF devs in 2013 on the subject. I wanted to go all in on reactions, figuring it would actually stand the test of time and (as it happened, correctly) anticipating what everyone else would do, but I was talked out of it and into only adding likes.

That's probably the biggest question of all: the one of 'essential functionality' vs 'bloat'. Everyone has an opinion on this, and most opinions are valid - if not necessarily subjectively right. But it's one of the bugbears I've found myself fighting with where everyone seems to want everything to be built in but also optional. Like, no, it really doesn't work that way. People make all kinds of assumptions about what that takes - 'it's just a tickbox' is still my favourite withering putdown on the subject - but it's not ever just a tickbox. There's always so much more behind it.

But there is no finer joy than looking at a community and going 'you know what would really help you communicate better' and making it happen.
 

Retro

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This requires a proper thought out reply Arantor, so I'll reply to you tomorrow when I'm fresher. :) It's late at night now.
 

Tiffany

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Yup, I wrote maybe 100 mods for SMF over the time I actively contributed, and I was a core developer for a while, but I found I didn't agree with the way they were running the operation. There is a level of 'democracy' that I find counterproductive to getting development done.

Developing a forum is an interesting journey - it's why when I post on TAZ I *really* try to take a more nuanced take on the commentary between the community in general and some of the luminaries such as Matt M and Chris D, because I see it from the other side of the fence - even if I don't have a monetary interest riding on it.

It's not really any different to building any other software - from a technical standpoint, it's fetching things from a database, formatting them a certain way and accepting input from the user to add to it. Create/Read/Update/Delete - CRUD - it's nothing special in that regard to anything else I've built in the last 20 years in PHP.

What I will say is that I find a very interesting streak in people. You give them a thing, that does x, y and z. It fascinates me how it feels like more enthusiastically than in other arenas, the focus is suddenly on 'well, now it does x, y and z but why not a or b?'

I see the same situation for example with XF's development pace - every release, doesn't matter what the features are, there's a round of disappointment for it not having other features yet. I don't know what it is but forums seem to produce *that* behaviour more than in other fields, and it's not even related to whether people pay for development or not.

What I do enjoy about the forum world though is that there is a real sense that you're doing some good in the world. Like, my day job is other applications - mostly e-commerce related these days - and while it's cool and all to see what you build continuing to power literal businesses making money, there's something about working on communities that cannot be found elsewhere.

Humanity as a whole are a social species. We thrive in groups, sharing, growing together. It's no surprise that so many cultures have a strong emphasis on storytelling and sharing experiences. So it's no surprise to me that as a collective we're always trying to figure out the best way to actually do that.

One of the big things over the years I see is the continued 'why we can't be more like Reddit'. The Slashdot/Reddit style of tree nesting rather than flat topics as you see in the other platforms (or Discourse's attempt at a hybrid). For some types of communication and sharing, that is the right model, for others it's really not. I'm intrigued that hybrid models have been tried over the years and how it's ended up basically going back to the flat-only or threaded-only camps. Even Discourse is really flat with some additional UI to feign threading.

I suppose that's really the big thing - the mantle of forum developer is 'how do we help people talk/communicate/share better'. There's a lot that the forum world can learn from outside it - I still don't get why forums *insist* on making adding media more complicated than it is on Facebook. Yes, you're opening up avenues that are more complicated - you can't add an image to a post and put the image in the post body on Facebook, like you can with the forums, but I posit this is not necessarily the default use case and that we could make everyone's life a little simpler.

I'm also surprised at how reactions turned out. I mean, I remember when it was a pretty new idea back when basically only Facepunch was doing it, years before even Facebook, let alone XF or IPS, and I remember having this debate with the SMF devs in 2013 on the subject. I wanted to go all in on reactions, figuring it would actually stand the test of time and (as it happened, correctly) anticipating what everyone else would do, but I was talked out of it and into only adding likes.

That's probably the biggest question of all: the one of 'essential functionality' vs 'bloat'. Everyone has an opinion on this, and most opinions are valid - if not necessarily subjectively right. But it's one of the bugbears I've found myself fighting with where everyone seems to want everything to be built in but also optional. Like, no, it really doesn't work that way. People make all kinds of assumptions about what that takes - 'it's just a tickbox' is still my favourite withering putdown on the subject - but it's not ever just a tickbox. There's always so much more behind it.

But there is no finer joy than looking at a community and going 'you know what would really help you communicate better' and making it happen.
Arantor, after reading your post, I'm inspired! :)
 

Tiffany

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This requires a proper thought out reply Arantor, so I'll reply to you tomorrow when I'm fresher. :) It's late at night now.
Agreed, me too....just kind of speechless in a good way and going to go off and smile that I'm in such a nice NZ group of amazing people!!
 

Retro

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Yup, I wrote maybe 100 mods for SMF...
Right, I've now had a chance to read your post properly to do it justice. :)

I think it's great that we have a forum developer in our midst. Are you able to elaborate on what you didn't like about SMF development, or is that confidential? While I've learned several programming languages (I loved the low level stuff best, like ARM, 6502 and Z80) and dabbled with it as a hobby a very long time ago, I've never worked in a collaborative environment.

It's interesting to see that the modern computers we have today actually work in the exact same way, binary computation, as the old 8-bits of the 70s and 80s, just enormously expanded.

My programming experience is from about 30 years ago, but when I look at code now, it's exactly the same thing, just a different language and computer capabilities is all, the principle are exactly the same, so I can still follow it more or less, even without specific training in that language.

Even the quantum computers that exist today are not all that different. They're still binary, but with the twist of superposition that makes them so much more powerful.

Of course, computers could actually be made to work in any number base, but binary is best for robustness, ie being able to read and write the value accurately, without excessive error checking / mitigation. Check out this article I wrote where I touched on this:


What I do enjoy about the forum world though is that there is a real sense that you're doing some good in the world.
That's great to hear and I hope the little corner of the internet that is NerdZone, can make a difference.


One of the big things over the years I see is the continued 'why we can't be more like Reddit'. The Slashdot/Reddit style of tree nesting rather than flat topics as you see in the other platforms (or Discourse's attempt at a hybrid). For some types of communication and sharing, that is the right model, for others it's really not. I'm intrigued that hybrid models have been tried over the years and how it's ended up basically going back to the flat-only or threaded-only camps. Even Discourse is really flat with some additional UI to feign threading.
Agreed, this style of forum shouldn't be sullied with infuences from the likes of Reddit and Facebook.

I would never want to be like Reddit. Nested comments, zero formatting and forum features and little sense of community are not for me.
 

Retro

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@Arantor btw we were talking about retro computers the other day. Have you recognised what my avatar is? It's that of the original Acorn Archimedes logo from 1987. :) I actually lifted that from the Acorn A3000's operating system and saved it to a DOS formatted disc at the time, which allowed me to import into a PC eventually. This is the actual graphics file, not a recreation and I'm so pleased I've got it.
 

Arantor

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Last point first, I did recognise the Archimedes logo even if my only use were at school back in the day - it's a pretty distinctive logo in a way that the Amiga didn't have at first (the stylised 'AMIGA' in an italicised serif font was never ideal, though the bouncing red/white ball seemed to eventually get adopted)


OK, so biggest thing I hated about SMF development... the mindset. There's been peaks and troughs over the years, stances softened and hardened, back and forth. The highlights, though, ultimately come down to:

1. A rigid adherence to the notion of democracy; the people 'doing the support' have equal voice to the people 'implementing the features'. This has been weaponised in the past; I've had support team members tell me 'you're just a dev, what do you know [about running a community]?' - because apparently I didn't run forums at.. the time? (Narrator: In fact, he did. More successful ones than held by the people making the argument, in fact.) This is also not helpful when you realise that the people with that mindset also had a 'the devs should just build what the users want', but the users provably don't know what they want. (This is a rewording of the Ford quote about faster horses.)

2. A lack of vision - no-one can define what the product should be, and for much of 2.1's seemingly never ending development, no-one knew 'what it should be'. Or, therefore, when it was done. And since there is no clear vision going forward, it'll continue to be whatever the least worst combination disagreeable to as few people as possible (aka design by committee).

3. Too much effort spent on things that really don't matter and solving the problem at the wrong level.

4. A continued desire to try to make all of the people as happy as possible all of the time, rather than picking a subset to really focus on. See also design by committee.

5. A staunch refusal to consider that the past was not always the best; challenging existing features comes with 'this is how it's always been' baggage, even when better alternatives are presented.


Now, they're getting better. Slowly. But the 'lack of vision' problem doesn't just affect SMF - it affects MyBB and phpBB too if you look at their release schedules, they're working on 'the next big version' but they're in a weird development limbo because all of these platforms share a certain innate belief that 'they're basically done'. They're not sure where to evolve the platforms next and if you suggest the logical evolutions (content management, presentation management), you get that sharp intake of breath that comes with the inevitable 'but that's moving away from what a forum should be'.

Well, yeah. That's the point. The forum is dead, long live the forum. More importantly, there are absolutely lessons to be learned from our friends and our enemies in the world. Reddit and Facebook are winning - no-one seems to stop to ask why. Or what these platforms can teach us.

They teach us that we can do better on the UX front; it should be as easy to just get an image into a post as it is on Facebook. Yes, you should have the power tools available to you to do more with it than FB would allow, but the bottom rung of simply getting content into the platform shouldn't be as hard as it is. (I don't think either IPS or XF have nailed this yet but they're leagues beyond where other platforms are)

These platforms teach us the power of surfacing content that you might be interested in - something forums are historically not great at. Newer entries (Vanilla, perhaps, but definitely Flarum) show us that it's possible to help people get their content into the platform with less friction than the typical forum might have, but at a price that sometimes reorganisation and categorisation might have to come after the fact rather than expecting it to be done up front.

These platforms also teach us that the conventional forums have user journeys and interactions that, in context, made sense at the time but that could be handled better now. Users shouldn't be able to get lost finding their own content, when it's been moved around.

But talking about a lot of this just elicits blank stares and that knee-jerk of 'not my platform'. What's there is now routinely deemed good enough, so why bother improving it - and then wondering why people who have higher standards (because they've been taught to have higher standards) aren't engaging.
 

Tiffany

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@Arantor You have an extraordinary grasp on both the overall development and social aspects needed to create and develop an amazing platform. :)

@Retro NZ is doing good for the world! :)
 

Arantor

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@Arantor You have an extraordinary grasp on both the overall development and social aspects needed to create and develop an amazing platform. :)

@Retro NZ is doing good for the world! :)
Thank you :) though honestly, all I've just tried to do is look at what works, what clearly isn't working and trying to get from A to B. But so many more people are talking when perhaps a little more listening is in order...
 

Tiffany

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People do talk too much. ;) You can learn so much more by listening.

I've looked at Vanilla, both versions (free; not free). Flarum; free and open source?? I hadn't looked at Flarum before.
 

Arantor

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What drew my attention to Flarum for that particular topic is the way topics are tagged. You define primary tags on topics (roughly analogous to boards) but you can also define 1 or more secondary tags which sort of functions a bit like the topic prefixes in XenForo but it feels more a global categorisation by way of subfiltering a category.

For example, on their own community, they have the Meta primary tag (board), and an optional second-tier tag to go with that is Blog, so there are topics like the community guidelines topic tagged Meta, and there are the more recent news posts that are tagged Meta|Blog.

Since you're given a generic interface to write without having to descend into a category (other platfroms may offer similar functionality), you're able to get writing and worry about tagging (most of the time) after the fact.

But Flarum has two downsides to it - it's super barebones in its functionality and it's harder to get running on shared hosting than most of the other choices.


I have local installs of XF, IPS, Flarum, MyBB, vB, Woltlab, Sngine and some other stuff - and no doubt I'll add to my little collection.
 

Tiffany

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@Arantor So Flarum is less fuss for the member because members just go to post, no defined category? Meta words still have some mystery to me, but it sounds like Flarum took some of that mystery out of the equation?

Thank you for sharing those details!!:)
 

Arantor

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Well, 'Meta' is fashionable as a board name for 'where we go to discuss the community itself'. What might be a rules board or a new features board or whatever else you might discuss when the overall topic is the site itself.

As for Flarum, let me add a couple of screenshots, it might help.

So, here's me on the front page - you can see the list of most recent topics in the background, and I've hit the 'start a discussion' button.

1654121182845.png

Already I'm into making a post without having to enter a specific board. Now, it's actually possible to set up posting to Flarum without any categories at all - you can see that 'My Topic' doesn't have a tag next to it, it's not... technically... in a board as we would think of it.

Now, General and General2 are 'primary tags', these are what we would think of as boards in the classical sense - a grouping of topics.

From here I can select 'Choose tags' and get this popup:

1654121293800.png

I can pick between General and General2 as a primary tag, and I can pick Secondary1 or Secondary2.

I can set up in the admin area if I want, that a topic has to have a primary tag - but it's not *required*. Similarly I can set up that a topic has - or doesn't have - any number of secondary tags, if I want. I can even set up rules that normal users have to follow but that I as admin can bypass if it makes sense to do so.

1654121468874.png

Boards in the classical sense don't apply here, you can set up two tiers of navigation and let topics group and flow between them as your community sees fit.
 
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