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Starting a Forum? Strong Opinions on Which Platform to Choose

In case you didn’t know, discussion forums are dead and have been completely obsolete for 20 years.

Yet, they keep growing and people keep starting them.

Sure, social media and the Reddit juggernaut have taken a huge percentage of traditional forums’ mindshare, but they come with downsides.  Social media is great for sharing pics, gifs, and quips, but not so great for longer pieces, thoughtful analysis, or long-duration commentaries.  It’s one-size-fits-all, so if your community wants to highly customize the experience, they’re not a great fit.

And of course, these big empires come with draconian rules.  Even worse, there’s often little human oversight.  It’s a joke in some WWII Facebook groups that if you mention Adolf Hitler, you’ll end up banned because Meta’s algorithms are just that dumb.  I guess we live in a world where you’re supposed to discuss WWII without mention of Hitler which is strange and dystopian.

Finally some people just don’t like big tech and are uncomfortable knowing that if they post on Meta, X, Reddit, or wherever, it’s vacuumed into a giant profiling database.

Hence, traditional forums continue to thrive.  Are you considering starting one?  You’ll need a VPS to start – you could launch on shared hosting but as you grow you’ll need to move to a VPS, and then to a dedicated server once you really get going.

You’ll also need some kind of software to run on it.  Here’s some options to look at…and some perhaps to avoid.

Consider: Vanilla

Of course, we have to begin with the software that powers the greatest forum in the entire history of the human race, going back to ancient Rome: LowEndTalk.

Vanilla is orthogonal to a lot of other forums because the interface is different and it feels different than traditional forums, which all have a vBulletin-esque design.  Threads pop to the top in this metaphor, and the layout has a busy community chat feel to it.

The open source version does not have as many plugins as other forums.  It really comes down to whether you like the “percolating threads” style of Vanilla or not.  For high-traffic sites it can be fun because your board will really feel alive.  But if you want to keep your discussions neatly categorized, Vanilla may not be the best choice.  Vanilla does have categories but it’s not the forum’s strength.

Consider: XenForo

This is vBulletin++.  A lot of the vBulletin brain share left vB and moved to XenForo and today the latter is one of the leading software platforms in the world.

If you want the traditional forum experience, XF is a great choice.  There’s tons of commercial support, themes, and plugins.  There’s a small set of popular add-ons which the big forums include, such as media managers, file downloads, enhanced search, and pages/portal and these are all available with XF.

I run into XF constantly and find it a pleasant, very familiar experience.

Don’t Consider: vBulletin

This is XenForo–.  One good reason not to use it is that WebHostingTalk runs it…I kid, I kid.  (Or do I?)

After vB was acquired, most of the vB dev staff left vB in 2009 to start XenForo.  Lawsuits flew (all eventually dismissed) but long story short is that it set vB back by years and left a bad taste in many forum developers’ mouths.

I’ve never heard of a forum switching from XF to vB, but have seen quite a few go the other way.  I’ve also seen more than one comment along the lines of “I’m running vB and if I upgrade, it’ll be to XF not vB”.

Is there a compelling reason to consider vB in 2023?  No one seems to be advocating any.  And vBulletin still looks ugly to me, like a 1990s forum – see their flagship company forum for an example.

Don’t Consider: Invision Power Systems

IP Boards is a big brand and many big organizations like it.  And out of the box, it does work as promised.

But the moment you want to customize it, you find you need to be a PHP expert.  When I ran it, I got the IP Content pages/portal add-on and it was little more than “put your PHP here”.  Sure, there were tons of classes I could use to build off of…but that required reading PHP code and writing PHP code.

The strength of IPB is building the entire community experience: forum, files, media, content, etc., all beautifully wrapped together and integrated.  But it’s really more of a platform for these things.  All the major sites I’ve seen using IPB are big entities which have developers who build off of IPB.  There are sites running IPB more or less out of the box + themes, but I think IPB’s focus is on enabling developers, not providing the same turnkey experience you get with XF.

And since there are fewer plugins for IPB compared to XF, I think the average admin who wants to focus mainly on the forum rather than on writing code will be happier with XF.

Your Turn

Do you run a forum?  Do you agree/disagree with our choices?  Please share your opinions in the comments below!




  1. What about BbPress?

    October 11, 2023 @ 9:17 am | Reply
  2. This is missing all the modern systems like NodeBB, Discourse, Flarum, etc. Even if you limit it to legacy systems, what about MyBB, SMF, phpBB, etc?

    October 11, 2023 @ 11:24 am | Reply
  3. TheBestPessimist:

    Discourse. Nothing else compares.

    October 11, 2023 @ 12:34 pm | Reply
  4. Tom:

    If you want something like a forum, but more 4chan style (no registration required, anonymous posting), you could try an imageboard. Imageboards fit very well with the anti-big tech anti-censorship vibe. They are as free as you can get when you can visit and make post with no account and no personal details whatsoever. You are only judged by the content of your posts, and you have no public post history. There are two imageboard software worth mentioning imo:

    https://gitgud.io/fatchan/jschan/ (im the main author)

    jschan has good antispam, 2fa login for staff, granular permissions, multiple language support, lots of themes, etc. Lynxchan is good too but of course I have my bias 🙂. They also both support a reddit-style system where users can create their own “boards” like subreddits or subforums, and they should both run on pretty basic vps (1 core 1gb ram).

    October 12, 2023 @ 7:23 am | Reply

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