Is it still possible to do something new with online forums? The answer is yes, according to Patrick Clinger, founder of ProBoards — he’s launching a new version of the company’s forum-building software today.
Clinger told me that today’s launch is the company’s first big update since 2008. The company was founded in 2000, and in the beginning, he said ProBoards “actually did have the best software,” but he said that over the years it has been overtaken by other companies (one of the latest competitors is the recently announced startup Discourse).
“It’s been a little bit of a game of catch up,” Clinger said – and he argued that with ProBoards version 5 (which was already in public beta testing), the company has taken the lead again.
During a recent trip to San Francisco, Clinger gave me a demonstration of the major new features. He seemed proudest of a new “live search” feature, which brings up search results as you type. That might not seem like much more than a nice tweak, but Clinger said, “One of the biggest problems with forums right now is search” — a clunky search experience makes it tough for users to find conversations that are relevant to them.
There’s also a dashboard that allows users to track their activity across multiple forum accounts, a new theme system for administrators to customize the look of their forums, a WYSIWYG editor that makes it easier for anyone see what a post will look like before they hit publish, and notifications to track any thread that someone has participated in — users can get someone’s attention via notifications by using the same “@USERNAME” tagging that we’ve become so accustomed to on social networks.
Speaking of social networks, I asked Clinger if they’ve taken the place of forums in some ways. He said they have, but “it’s been for the better,” because most of the general conversation among friends has moved to Facebook and Twitter, allowing forums to become more focused on “very topic-based discussions.”
ProBoards has been used to create 3.5 million forums, Clinger added, and he estimated that about 1.2 million of them are still active, in the sense that they’re still getting “a pageview every now and then.”
As for today’s update, Clinger said all new forums created on ProBoards will be on version 5, and admins of existing forums can also sign-up to be placed in the upgrade queue.