The Problem With Newsgroups

I love newsgroups; I read the Mozilla discussion forums in that form, as it keeps everything together, it’s threaded, and so on. But newsgroups are dropping out of use in favour of web-based forums. I wrote a while back expressing incredulity about this, and suggesting it was a case of “worse is better”. But recently, I did come across this, which succinctly sums up some of the undeniable problems:

I and many others never were entirely happy with the newsgroup support for Logos software. It meant having to open up and set up Outlook Express (or some other news reader) and then plowing through the multitude of posts. The size of the newsgroup postings kept getting bigger, and if you deleted any thread, it would still come back to life in the ongoing responses to it. And if you deleted a thread and then wanted to find something in a deleted thread, it meant unsubscribing and resubscribing and then having the whole mess back on your computer. Another major problem for me was that I am regularly using two different computers, and that meant having to plow through the same stuff twice.

So, I am happy to report that Logos has now started the Logos Bible Software Forums, a web-based, online discussion and support forum. The newsgroups will be allowed to continue, but they will eventually become irrelevant. (Material from the newsgroups will not be moved into the new forums.)

This is very good news, and in just a few days of being online, there is a ton of activity. …

What changes could we make to Thunderbird’s news support to mitigate some of these problems? Some suggestions:

  • When you join a new group, it does not give you “the last 500 messages” to read, but e.g. all the messages in the most recent N threads
  • Make the UI and capability for watching/ignoring threads more obvious (I only discovered it today, and I’ve been using Thunderbird for 9 years!)
  • Weave support for cross-computer syncing of which messages have been read

What else?

12 thoughts on “The Problem With Newsgroups

  1. Definitely, make the UI better, I also didn’t know about the watch/ignore thread facility. Add good searching (my search in Newsgroups is not working).

    I love reading mailing lists through GMane’s NNTP gateway…

  2. “Weave support for cross-computer syncing of which messages have been read”

    Would be nice. But (I would imagine) more basic than that, would be keeping track of which messages have been read, when they have been cross-posted (bug 43278).

    For another thing, better support for spam prevention/removal and group moderation. This isn’t entirely a client thing, but might need server/protocol changes too. These days creating a web-based forum is pretty easy. As far as I know, either creating a public newsgroup or running an effective NNTP server are both pretty difficult in comparison (rightly so in the case of public newsgroups, because whatever you create, the whole system of servers around the world has to deal with, and it can’t be easily undone).

    But (and I haven’t double-checked, so apologies to them if I’m wrong) I think the Thunderbird folks have already decided that newsgroups are a thing of the past, and want to focus their limited resources on handling communication types that more people are using. (Although if it’s just coding resources, I would imagine patches would be happily accepted for newsgroup stuff, but you would need to find someone outside of the current team to do the work.)

  3. If you are going to fall back to a web based interface anyway, why not use google groups?

    As for Thunderbird, i stopped using it, mostly for it lack of support of gmail’s tag system, and marking messages read in the webmail of gmail unread in Thunderbird. Shortly said the cooperation between gmail and thunderbird (or any other webmail) is very bad.

  4. Many every day users have expressed much malice for Google Groups. To have the entire system retreat to Google Groups would mean an immediate drop off in participation.

    There are better web based forums out there but some Mozilla members have expressed discontent for web based forums many times. Mostly because they didn’t want to maintain it.

    Personally I think that NewsGroup systems are severely outdated and needs a complete overhaul. With that in mind, I don’t think that Thunderbird will be able to completely mitigate problems that NewsGroups have traditionally had for years unless a group at Mozilla is willing to rewrite the entire standard.

    No doubt, just like e-mail it will remain the same and slowly die off because of the unwillingness to progress the technology further. Maybe Google Wave will change that, but I have zero expectations.

  5. I’m quite happy with the way things are in Thunderbird :)

    As for the “watch thread” command, I was also ignorant of its existence until today / been using Mozilla for email and news since 1998 :) /

  6. you are missing the point, Gerv. newsgroups are on life support _because_ of all these obvious usability problems. 90% of normal people would give up within 10 minutes.

    now an alternative has already caught on, there is no point trying.

  7. First, build in a proper editor. That’s traditionally the biggest single advantage of real newsreader over web-based fora. I know this means a lot of programmer time, but it’s essential for any real newsreader, or for any real mailreader for that matter. Among other things, the ability to correctly and automatically rewrap quoted material (with nesting) is absolutely critical. And if your audience includes a significant percentage of technically-inclined users (e.g., the kind of people who are active on software development fora), then things like grouping-symbol matching and syntax awareness become important as well.

    There are a lot of other things that could be done, but if the editor control is lame, there’s not much point to anything else, IMO.

  8. The comment you quote implies that deleting a thread is more discoverable than hiding it. So maybe the command to delete it should be mapped to the one to hide it ?

    The newsreader that are really popular amongst advanced users have some very sophisticated ways of flagging message, with multi-criteria rules.
    One first step would be to have a way to automatically flag messages that are answers to one of your own message.

  9. jmdesp: Very interesting idea. It is almost never the right thing to do, IMO, to delete as opposed to hide, because the only difference (in these days of big disks) is that one can be undone and the other cannot so easily.

    Automatically flagging messages in threads you were part of would be very, very cool indeed.


  10. I pretty much detest web-based forums, except for google groups’ front end, which obviates for most people the need for a news reading client.

    Why web-based news sucks:
    * can’t save off own posts or other’s posts, ergo, no locally stored history
    * search power often less than ideal
    * another UI to deal with
    * most don’t have good threading presentation
    * message navigation can be slow (in part to the above)
    * lack of control over message presentation
    * lack of customizability

    Why TB news sucks / isn’t popular:
    * not all news servers support search, eg.
    * bug fixes
    * very few people triage and advocate in the bugs – 50 some bugs have been fixed since 2007-01-01
    … plus a few good thread performance bugs derive from backend mail fixes. That’s good. But there is a long way to go (350+ bugs). Examples previously mentioned:
    * bug 179984 add junk mail support to news
    * bug 261523 Would like to sync newsgroup status across machines
    * bug 43278 Crossposts (same Message-ID) not marked as read in other groups
    * bug 498299 Make user’s own posts (and threads posted to) stand out in newsgroups
    * bug 227424 A way to quickly find messages posted by me to a newsgroup.

    That said, Thunderbird’s potential to drive the general population’s future news reading habits seems pretty minimal. But maybe some people will take this blog to heart, say “so what” to that bleak outlook, and help make or drive some good improvements!

  11. > Automatically flagging messages in threads you
    > were part of would be very, very cool indeed.

    That’s one of a thousand different very useful things you can easily do with a real scoring/filtering/sorting system. You can apply rules to replies to posts that you’ve flagged, or even whole threads. You can apply them to posts by certain people, replies to certain people, crossposts to certain groups, crossposts in general, messages whose subject lines match certain regular expressions, messages in certain languages or charsets (or NOT in certain languages, which is more useful if you can’t read very many), messages with certain kinds of attachments, messages over or under a certain size, … the list just goes on and on, and then you can do a lot of different things to messages that match these rules. You can add or subtract from the message’s score (which can cause it to be highlighted for immediate reading if it’s high, or become outright invisible if its’ low), list it in a different folder or group (see: nnkiboze), archive a copy permanently, flag the thread for watching, display the message in a different color in the message list, automatically forward a copy by email to another address, automatically send a form letter in reply, and I’m just getting started.

    But a real scoring/filtering/sorting system is even more work to write than a decent editor control, and not every users wants to learn how to use one anyway, and so all in all I think the editor control is a more fundamental requirement. If typing up a followup isn’t *significantly* more convenient than in a web browser’s textarea box, then your advantage over web-based discussion fora is going to be pretty marginal for most users.

    You know how they say, “people who don’t know Unix are doomed to reinvent it, badly”? Well, I think it’s also true of other software. Honestly, I don’t think anyone should do a lot of work on a newsreader or mailreader without having _used_ some of the better ones out there. If you haven’t used Gnus, Agent, Pegasus Mail, or Eudora, and don’t know what they’re capable of, how can you expect to produce something that’s competitive with them? The world doesn’t need any more mail/news clients designed to be only an incremental improvement over Outlook or webmail. (For the record: two tin cans and a piece of string would be an improvement over Outlook. I consider it to be one of the worst things Microsoft has ever produced.)