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Community Software: FLARUM

My latest insight is that you grow faster, and it’s more fun (and challenging) when you have a community!

Because of that insight, I am consciously looking at how other people are building their communities, and, being the software nerd that I am, my attention goes to online communities. 

A new player around the block is making some noise when it comes to community software. And that is Flarum.

Here is the promise:

“Forums made simple. Modern, fast, and free!”

I have spent a couple of days taking this forum for a spin and testing out this promise. The short version is that I am impressed. 

Let’s break this down in a post that will be somewhat technical. 

Forums Made Simple

Forums made simple” – I believe they fulfill this promise. The team behind Flarum chose to focus on what makes a forum a forum: the ability for users to create discussions and respond to each other. And that works beautifully well. However, to have great software, you can’t stop there. Otherwise, anyone who can follow a Larcast could roll out their forum in Laravel. The team made the forum simple and provided a scaffold and a framework so you can then make it as complicated as you need! 

Modern

Modern” – This promise is also kept. There are two sides to this “modern” feature. 

First is the end-user: do they perceive it as modern? And I would give them a “yes” just by looking at the mobile experience. I don’t want to say that it is beautiful because that is too subjective. Instead, I would say the user experience is great: it works, and it works as you would expect it to work. Of course, any old software can hire a designer and create a “modern theme/look” for their forum, but that is only one part of it.

The other part of “modern” is the internal workings of the forum. And you would need to be a developer to appreciate the beauty of Flarum truly. The internals might be something that the end-users or community managers might not care about. Still, it will be important for the person in charge of maintaining the software on the server. 

To highlight a couple of things:

  • Using `composer` to manage the upgrades and the extensions – brilliant! I have not seen this done before in a forum context, but it is such a clean way to reuse code. It is different from what WordPress is doing, where every plugin has to install its dependencies, and you end up with loads of duplicate code and potential conflict that is sometimes very hard to spot and fix. While using composer makes me happy, I am also concerned with the possible problems that may show up in the future and that we cannot possibly see right now. 
  • Making this a Single Page Application. The front end is now a JavaScript client that consumes the API that the forum exposes. This pattern opens up a ton of flexibility on how this platform can be used – including completely replacing the front end if you are brave enough. The only issue that I see is potentially some SEO problems that plague all SPAs. 

Fast

 “Fast” – another kept promise. The lighting fast page loads were the very first thing I noticed about this software. It feels so snappy! Aven the search function feels fast. The high-performance is another result of the internals, and so it’s not something that older software can pull off just by “modernizing their look and feel.”

Free

“Free” – this is technically free… with a big “BUT.” 

To install Flarum, you need to run commands in your shell. And if you have no idea what that is, that is where the “Free” problem starts!

The power and performance of Flarum come at a cost. At the time of writing, you need to be pretty nerdy to install it and feel comfortable about it. Sure, you can copy/paste the commands in the tutorial, but if you don’t understand what you are doing, any tiny problem can be a game stopper for you. So even though the forum is free to install and use, you might have to pay for an installation service (that the Flarum team might provide in the future), and you also need to buy hosting where you can use the shell and the PHP composer software. 

All of this makes me think that Flarum might be best for companies that can hire such a developer and purchase a server with the required specs. 

And speaking of companies, this leads me into another potential trap of “Free,” and that is: you don’t want to build a community using software that will not be there for you in the long run. And if nobody is paying to help the software grow and have the bugs fixed, how long will Flarum be around? For a company, this is a risk that needs to be evaluated, and it can make a managed/established solution look much better in the long run, especially because it is not free.

I see the team behind Flarum making steps towards launching a managed solution, which will provide a stream of income and invaluable feedback on making the software better. And they may also establish a service of paid support that can provide additional incentive to keep this project going. 

Until there are some clear signs that Flarum is here to say, I believe it would be risky to build your community around it if you want to play a long-term game. But if you need to launch a project quickly that requires a community around it, you should give Flarum a try! 

The Competition

Flarum reminds me a lot about Vanilla Forums, and I believe that if they play their cards right, they could become their main competitor. 

You can get all of Flarum for free (if you have tech chops to install and manage it), while Vanilla OSS is very limited compared to the cloud option.

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