Can we solve the real time chat (i.e. "synchronous") vs. forum ("asynchronous") divide?

It’s ironic that I am typing this on a platform that was inspired by the very problems I aim to articulate and explore. But I had to start somewhere, so here we go:

There is a divide that is coming up in discussions all across my sphere of awareness right now, most especially as a range of relatively new applications try to develop their budding communities in the best ways possible. Obsidian, Roam, Notion, Anytype, and so many more, all with some mish-mosh of Slack or Discord, forum, or Facebook group, or even some random, proprietary discussion platform. And these multiple solutions exist because no single platform or tool solves all of the needs and desires of their respective communities. And in some respects that’s fine.

Except… knowledge often gets lost, and in these communities that can be important. And Slack is expensive, and you can’t access history of conversations more than 10,000 messages ago without paying, so institutional knowledge in e.g. the Roam Slack community goes out the window on a 2 week rolling basis! :scream: And you also get community fragmentation, partially overlapping user groups, lower efficiency, less cross-pollination as those who prefer the more real time chat approach (“synchronous”) eschew the seemingly more formal or long-form forum or other “asynchronous” approaches, etc. Here’s just one recent example of these concerns from the Roam Discourse community:

All this has mostly been taken for granted as a necessary evil. But more and more there are starting to be questions about whether it has to be this way. And indeed in the era of many old assumptions being questioned, revolutionary “no code” apps popping up almost weekly, and new ideas, or realizations of powerful old ideas (backlinks, transclusion), now available at our fingertips, it seems reasonable to ask why it has to be like this, why we have to be fragmented, why we have to trade immediacy for longevity, why we can’t have one platform that meets everyone’s needs…

So I would love to have some discussion around this. I don’t expect we can solve it, lots of people are thinking about it. But I think it’s worth talking about in a place that is not tied to any one application, and that’s here!

Now right away I should say I’m biased, I was a big part of setting up this Discourse community, I prefer the “async” approach. :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: I can see the fun in Discord and Slack, but they quickly become unmanageable for me, notifications can get excessive, conversations get lost, threading still sucks in both Discord and Slack, and finding old, good knowledge and conversations is challenging. At least to me.

The problem for me is I don’t entirely understand why the forum experience can’t scratch the same itch as the real time Discord experience. I know and agree there is something, I’m just not 100% sure what it is. And here is one reason I ask this: Discord and Discourse both have a “user is typing” indicator. I’m pretty sure that as soon as a new user posts in both Discord and Discourse, the message shows up immediately. So that’s basically real time, and then I have to ask what literally is the difference?

Is it the existence of “topics” inside “categories”, and not using all one long chat stream (broken up into channels, of course)? Is it the post writing interface that encourages longer response and/or is somehow “higher friction”, perhaps? Or that the post composition window sometimes covers up the “someone is writing a reply” indicator? Does the “user is replying” indicator need to be bigger/more prominent? Could we solve this by just moving some elements around or reshaping them?? Or is it some other simple design issue, like the narrower, paragraph-oriented reading view perhaps moving users toward writing more in-depth responses, that are in themselves slower to write, thus inherently slowing down the conversation?

Conversely, what is it about real time that makes it feel more fun, but also (to some) chaotic? Frequency of messages is an obvious answer, but again why are they more frequent? Is it just the post writing interface encouraging or discouraging different ways of writing? And why is it so hard to organize? Is it the lack of “topics”, and so in some way the strength of a forum (topics and channels/categories) is at the same time a weakness, and the weakness of chat (no topics, everything in one stream per channel) also a strength (immediacy, everything in one stream)?

To my mind the differences between the two are actually surprisingly small in technical, functional terms. But there are differences, and I want to figure out not just what those differences as far as experience and feeling (“immediate” vs. not), but what makes them feel different, and whether a hybrid is actually possible! :star_struck:


Yes this is the core difference and the UI is built around this . Every click , every interaction matters . I am on my mobile now so I will just reply to this quick . Will get back with more detail soon .
One small example to differentiate chat apps from forums :

  • in a real time chat app , the UI is designed in a way that you don’t have to do anything apart from typing and clicking enter . It’s as real time as possible . No need to use the mouse to click on reply and then draft a message and then format it and send it .
  • in the discourse forum it takes Atleast a few clicks to get to the typing part and then to post it .
  • also I think by default , the backend is designed in a way that messages in chat apps take almost zero time to display , there is obviously more time delay in forums - if not an entire refresh being needed

I would say it’s all in the design ,

  • Forums were designed deliberately to slow down the user . To let them think more , read more , observe more before they put their thoughts down .
  • chats were designed to be as fast as possible , cutting down every ms of friction between messages and displaying them

Adding more differences :

  1. Handling high requests to the server per second would be optimised in a real time chat app , whereas on a forum you don’t expect that kind of a architecture in place , just because you dont expect thousands of users to be posting per second . On a forum , a good queue handler would be enough , I think .
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Email is not going away, Outlook works just fine, but Teams is somehow better? I guess one would not expect to find video conferencing in Outlook?

I saw an e-mail system (client?) the other day, that made e-mail look like chat. I did not know what to make of it. I still don’t. The concept was that you could chat with anyone who had an e-mail account, and they would not know the difference.

I’ve subscribed to many Yahoo (now on its last breaths) and Google Groups. Each group is for a specific niche topic. I liked them because I could participate via e-mail. Any new message showed up in my e-mail inbox, where I sorted it into a dedicated folder. I could just reply to any message to have my input into the discussion chain. I did not need to go visit each forum each time that I wanted to check on activity.

Even before Yahoo was declared to be end of life, some people, in some of the discussion groups were harvesting the conversations and making them available outside of the web based environment. As has been said, 14 days is not very long to keep tribal history around.

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More about the divide (i am using this thread as a journal of sorts to document my understanding of the topic, hoping that i can make sense from it all in the future) :

  • Although every community might begin as a " nice place to hangout and learn/discover something worthwhile , while we are at it " , eventually they grow large enough that , they all end up gathering / foraging information/ knowledge from the forest that the internet is. So it must be worthwhile , to think ahead and prevent too much noise from happening , beforehand , that it becomes more difficult to sort the valuable information from all of that .

  • The main problems that i can understand / foresee with any community are :
    1. The dumping of shitposts that no one really derives value from - which could be reduced by adopting a forum , but doesn’t necessarily mitigate it.
    2. Adopting a forum only approach , while making it easier to organise and maintain valuable threads , is harder to foster a feeling of brotherhood(forgive the gender bias, it’s the lack of vocabulary) owing to the asynchronous mode of communication .
    3. The more logical solution might be then to adopt both mediums of conversation for a community , and develop practices that will help moderate/regulate the amount of shitposting to more appropriate medium / channels while preserving the quality of discussion / information available on the appropriate medium . The main problem / difficulty here would be that moderation / regulation is a sour experience that might end up being counterintuitive to a growing community that is still trying to get a hold over it’s own value .
    4. All this brings me to a point , where i end up blaming the lack of tools for all this fiasco . If there existed a tool , that let users be happy in their own natural habitats (sync or async) and yet achieved :

    1. Filtration of unnecessary discussions / information - thus preventing information overload, FOMO, overloaded notifications etc .
    2. Discoverability / searchability of previous conversations - to help reference the knowledge gained or to re-engage the content with other participants
    3. Ability to transfer valuable information from one medium to another , as and when required , with the least amount of friction as possible .

That would be the dream ! :slight_smile:

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@Karthikk I’m trying to imagine how all those spaces get in front of all that punctuation ; although , there are a few errors ! :face_with_monocle::cowboy_hat_face: :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

No, seriously, I disagree with the forum-only approach being harder to foster a feeling of brotherhood/fellowship/society/affiliation/etc; particularly forums like Discourse where the AI motivates and the notifications keep you engaged. If you’ve got a Community Manager (which Roam probably needs soon), they could engage all the various channel communities—Twitter, Reddit, Slack, Circle, Facebook—to be active on the forum and, above all, engage with the most active users of the forum.

I also believe the editing tools are better on forums and allow best for both long- and short-form communication.

Hope that helps.

Yikes, i should probably work on changing my typing behaviour there :stuck_out_tongue: @Oshyan did point it out to me earlier :smiley:, i guess old habits do die hard !

While i agree that the editing tools and the message composer in forums are far more superior than their IM counterparts, i am not sure if i it helps with ultra-short (single sentences) form communication that we have all become accustomed to, for casual chatter.

It’s primarily because of the design choices I feel :

  • In a chat platform like slack and discord, the cursor is designed to be automatically placed inside the message composer, no matter what channel you are in and there’s ZERO friction to typing what your thinking. It doesn’t prompt you to think it through before you type and a lot of people seem to prefer this kind of a casual engagement, even to discuss professional matters, i am afraid. All you have to do is, click on a notification, read it, type it, and hit enter.

  • Now walk with me through the steps that one has to take before sending a short message on a forum. You first need to click on reply, you are presented with a big composer with an array of formatting tools that you can think and choose from, it makes you slow down, think, draft, make corrections, check what you have typed (via preview window) and then to either click on reply again or probably CMD+Enter. Everything is designed in a way to slow you down and it also encourages you to think it through before you send a message. I am not saying it’s impossible to have short form communication on a forum that’s designed for asynchronous communication, i just feel it might not be the best way to get it done.

My argument :

  • I am arguing that either one of the two platforms are right for a community, my take is that, no community should be forced to choose between the two, if the members have a need for both.
  • Both synchronous and asynchronous communication mediums exist to solve different purposes that many communities can’t afford to choose between the two, without ending up in a split vote.
  • Apart from serving different purposes, it also caters to different types of people, for whom it’s a matter of what feels more natural and is comfortable to them, to communicate with the other members.
  • The more i think and talk about this topic, the more i realise and observe that there are fair points of arguments for both sides and hence i feel there should be a way to have both these forms of discussions at the disposal of the community and people should be able to choose the service and swap between them, with ease, based on their current needs and moods.

The problem i sense here :

  • Well, one could argue that if having both modes of communication will satisfy the needs of everyone in the community, then why not have a discord and a discourse platform for the same community. That sounds like it could cater to all needs and moods.
  • The problem is that these platforms are not seamlessly integrated with one another, they are very distinct in everything, design, UI, UX, access, etc. The data/information flow is abrupted, one has to keep tabs to remember where a certain discussion took place and if for some reason, one wants to continue the discussion in another platform than the original, it’s quite cumbersome, unless you are very organised and have all the links of chats saved and archived, like our beloved @ilmeschinocalunniato here :wink:

Solution :

To soon to be able to frame one. That’s why we need more information from other users as well .

I’ve enjoyed Yahoo and Google discussion groups that enabled monitoring and participating via e-mail. At one time, I even enjoyed UseNet newsgroups.

I’ve recently found a few forums, that I have in my bookmarks bar, in my browser, and try to follow the new contributions on at least a daily basis.

I have signed up for a bunch of slack/discord/gitter/etc, groups, but unless I happen to be sitting at the computer doing something else, even then, I’m doing something else, I seem to see mostly, xxx joined, and bot messages urging me to join in the discussion or connect my phone to better participate in the discussion. If I see what seems like it might be a substantive discussion, I have to scroll way back to get the drift and understand the current interactions. I guess this style is not really for me. Maybe this is more comfortable for Gen ___ er’s who live life from messages to their phone?

I’m also finding that there is interesting stuff in YouTube comment streams and GitHub project descriptions, not to mention things like blogs, Hacker Noon, Redditt, etc.

I feel like I’d like a system to monitor and summarize things for me. I guess that’s really my feeling for all these forms of interaction. Maybe, that’s what I wish to create, a system to monitor and automate the consolidation process.

I’m pretty sure our computers are powerful, and plentiful enough, to handle the task. It may take some creative programming, or utilization of technologies which I have not yet explored, or that may not have been invented yet, to get the job done.

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Oh, that’s a big no for me :smiley: That’s one rollercoaster ride that i don’t wish to jump in :smiley: Most of the time i find them flaming with too much negativity,

There’s research going on in this space. You may wanna check this tweet out.

Thanks for the pointer to the tweet. A lot of stuff seemed to not work (links, etc.). I did find one GitHub repo to bookmark. I did bookmark the link. I think it deserves more research and study than I have time at the moment.

If you run across more such information, please let me know.

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