Rant on the use and misuse of Stickies and Announcements

If you have never used a web forum, you probably don’t know much about them, so here is a quick introduction. A web forum is a website or part of a website where people interested in its topic can start written discussions. Each discussion takes place in a topical forum, and each discussion is called a thread. Somebody starts a new thread, and if it is interesting enough, others will respond within the space of that new thread.

A forum is displayed as a webpage that contains a list of clickable thread titles. The list is sorted such that the thread that was most recently responded to is at the top, whereas less popular threads are further to the bottom, or even on a different page.

There is a way for thread authors to break this sort-order, by designating threads either as Sticky or as an Announcement. Even if two minutes ago you did not know yet what web forums are, you will probably already see what is wrong with Stickies and Announcements. I repeat: they are a way to break the sort-order of threads.

Sorting discussions by popularity may seem a very arbritary way to sort anything at all, and that is probably because it is. But it also happens to be the quickest way to get the average user to the discussion s/he wants to participate in, and that is a good thing.

Stickies and Announcements are also a good thing, because they let people draw attention to threads that may not get much in the shape of discussion, but that are important to a site’s visitors nevertheless. A good example is when an administrator of a web forum wants to warn its visitors of a planned site outage, or of a new rule.

Unfortunately, like all managers, forum administrators are often the ones that are the least in touch with what their flock want. What’s more, many forums allow all members to make a thread at least Stickie. The result in several forums I frequent is that for any given forum, I need to scroll through one or two pages of Stickies and Announcements. Sometimes the administrators realize that forcing all your users to scroll every time they visit a forum is a bad thing, but are too lazy to weed out the Stickies and Announcements that are past their expiration dates.

Low tech solutions such as S&As tend to provide a flexible, efficient and cheap way to avoid problems that a designed solution would not easily achieve. Yet in this case, the solution has a side effect in the shape of screen clutter for which there is no other solution than a very diligent and emphatic administrator. Since these people do not grow on trees, let me suggest a couple of other methods that may achieve the same effect as S&As:

1. Let readers set their own S&As

What is important for a reader is often best decided by that reader him/herself. Although sometimes an administrator is right to judge that, yes, this specific news must stay at the top of the forum, in my experience at least two-thirds of any collection of S&A would not be if I had any say in it. So why not give me that say?

Such a system could be expanded by having administrators suggest Stickies; these suggestions would stay up for a couple of days or a couple of logins, and then disappear if the logged-in reader had not confirmed their stickiness.

2. Let visitors vote for Stickies

Visitors are generally well-capable of both predicting that a thread will not be replied to often, and of judging that the information in it is important none-the-less. So perhaps a click on “Make this sticky” should only be counted as a vote for stickiness.

3. Allow only Stickies for a certain reason …

… and let that reason be specified.

Stickiness can be removed by administrators, and administrators often do in cases where a thread was stickied on ego alone, or where a thread does not apply to all visitors of a forum. Where administrators fail to do so, visitors are rarely too shy to point out offending threads.

Even then, S&A clutter is still with us. The problem is that reasonable people on first sight often conclude that stickiness is warranted, where some more thought could have led to the conclusion that, if the result were to force all visitors to scroll down two pages to reach the meat of the forum, stickiness for that certain thread would not be justified after all.

This system is already in working, in that a phpBB web forum that allows administrators to set a thread to Announcement, and thread authors to make their thread Sticky, already has three different kinds of stickiness (none, Sticky, Announcement), and two levels of access to this stickiness (only thread authors and administrators, only administrators).

Perhaps we need more tags than just Sticky and Announcement, because the current system does not really force an administrator to think before they click. If there were five possible reasons to make a thread sticky, enshrined in five selectable modes of stickiness, and none of them applied to a certain thread, that might just make the administrator pause to think about whether a thread should be made sticky at all.

4. Keep the current system, but let popular threads auto-unsticky

A small but not insignificant number of sticky threads I know of is also popular, in that lots of people post to it regularly. Such a thread is not really in need of stickiness, as it tends to remain at the top of the list anyhow.

In and of itself this fourth solution does not solve much; after all, the thread stays at the top regardless of its stickiness. However, it would help in making clear to administrators and authors alike what it takes to deserve stickiness.

4b. Let stickiness kick in after proven impopularity

You could turn solution 4 around; let an author or administrator designate a thread Sticky or Announcement, but let this label only get the force of law when a thread actually threatens to drop out of the top X of discussions. Like solution 4, solution 4b prevents stickiness on subjects that on popularity alone do not need to be sticky.

A conclusion

Web forums are great enablers. I myself come from a Usenet background, and the gnashing of my teeth at the inefficiencies of web forums when compared to Usenet must have been audible several continents away, but I cannot deny that under certain circumstances a web forum may be a desirable way to give voice to a community.

The problems with S&A clutter is one of plain and simple lack of usability. Web forum programmers would have found a way around this a long time ago if they had performed a number of simple usability tests with real users.

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