Ask HN: Why did phpBB forums go out of fashion?

55 points by c7b 16 days ago

I remember some such forums that were really popular and that provided a lot of value for some sub-communities. Nowadays, those needs seem to be mostly filled by Discord servers, Facebook groups and other walled-garden products. HN being a notable exception, but that seems to be running on its own stack.

My question is: is this just a matter of something going out of fashion (perhaps driven by monetization interests), or are there technical/UX/safety reasons why you'd recommend a different solution for a new community project in 2022?

pengaru 16 days ago

Combination of reddit swallowing everyone and every php webapp being a dumpster fire of vulnerabilities making them a constant source of maintenance headaches.

source: I ran & hosted, a niche but active motorcycle forum, for over a decade. Sunsetted the site for lack of user growth combined with becoming sick of operating php trash.

  • agent008t 16 days ago

    Also, at some point Google started penalizing them a lot in search results, hurting discoverability. Without new blood, existing ones mostly withered away.

  • seydor 15 days ago

    PHP was hardly the problem. Spam and security became a lot harder for everyone and everything. There are no equivalents of phpBB in Javascript or Go that did better. Only big centralized services can afford to tackle those problems

  • c7b 16 days ago

    Interesting - others have commented that the notorious security issues seem to have been addressed in modern PHP versions, you seem to disagree?

    • pengaru 16 days ago

      > Interesting - others have commented that the notorious security issues seem to have been addressed in modern PHP versions, you seem to disagree?

      It's been many years since I shut down the forum so I can't speak to the current state of things.

      At the time there were two major problems:

      1. the php runtime was constantly in need of updating because of yet another vulnerability either due to bugs in a forum-required feature like gd (graphics package iirc) or another stupid php default resulting in exploitable bugs (remember register_globals anyone?)

      2. the forum software was poorly written by the kind of people who wrote php web software back then, not well maintained by upstream, and I didn't have any time or interest in becoming a php forum software maintainer myself.

      There's only so many obvious semi-successful attempts to hack my shared server via any combination of the above before I lose interest in hosting a small web forum for free.

      If I were to host a web forum today I'd want it to be mostly static content and not a constant invocation of some php or php-like interpreter involved in every operation.

wodenokoto 16 days ago

As a user, I switched to reddit. With subreddit it was so easy to move to a new forum and you'd get a single feed with new posts from all forums you were on. Signup barely qualified as sign up.

It's ranking algorithm was better than "newest activity", the collapsible trees made branching discussion tolerable, and the aging of posts kept those 2000 page long top posts with hundreds of branching discussions displayed linearly from happening.

  • amazonavocado 14 days ago

    There are still a few message boards that I frequently go to, not as many as before, but they have their active community. Having their own Discord channel also helps boost activity.

    In particular in a hobby like PC building, using a message board for build logs makes sense given the format. And probably other "log/project tracking" sorts of coverage. Like Reddit, you get a free captive audience that requires less effort than blogging about it, but unlike Reddit you can post build updates to bring your topic back to the top without making multiple threads.

thorin 16 days ago

I used to run a php board in the late 90s I think. It needed to be constantly watched and updated otherwise it was spammed and hacked horribly. I didn't really have the skills and time to keep on top of it. Having a reddit group would be way easier, but reddit is kind of annoying now. There is zero technical knowledge and minimal time to set up a Facebook group and almost all not for profit groups seem to use Facebook for this now in the UK at least. This is actually quite a good feature of Facebook IMHO.

I do know a few sites that run custom bulletin boards for my hobbies, but that requires a developer to be available much of the time to ensure uptime. 2 examples are: - which is originally based off phpbb I think - which I think is completely custom

  • mpalfrey 16 days ago

    Got to agree. I've hosted instances of PhpBB over the years. It was a good product (this would have been around 2000/2001).

    I still go on certain forums (e.g. but the niche groups are all on Facebook these days.

ackatz 16 days ago

I think the content on newer platforms (TikTok, Reddit, Twitter whatever) is presented in a more mentally stimulating way, so people just tend to gravitate towards those things. And yes, ads too probably.

That being said, any time forums come up in discussion there is so much nostalgia there. Messing around with forums software like vBulletin and stuff as a kid taught me a lot about the internet, ftp, php, hosting things, graphics design, etc.

I wonder if older people feel the same way about BBS?

  • logicalmonster 16 days ago

    > think the content on newer platforms (TikTok, Reddit, Twitter whatever) is presented in a more mentally stimulating way,

    I know what you mean, but I'd describe that as more "visually stimulating" rather than mentally stimulating.

    • lost_tourist 16 days ago

      Seeing as how vision is our primary way of interacting with the world, including our mental perception and attention, I don't see how you can argue against it contributing to mental stimulation?

  • iceburgcrm 16 days ago

    Yes with both of those. Running a BBS was extremely personal. Someone would call your house and use your computer. You could watch them using the site and every site had a chat with the SysOp button so many visits became conversations. Unbeatable.

    Forums were great to run and get many people at once on the same forum at the same felt exciting.

    Getting people to visit your site is still exciting

asddubs 16 days ago

I think in addition to already mentioned reasons, part of it was also that various forum software were generally late to the party in regards to responsive layouts and working well on mobile. even these days phpbb isn't great (though at least it does have a responsive layout by default)

  • citrin_ru 16 days ago

    Reddit nags me to install their app every time I open a link on Android/iOS, while recent versions of phone looks fine even on my small phone.

    • citrin_ru 16 days ago

      ^ I meant recent version of phpBB looks fine on a phone (so they adopted responsive design too)

      • asddubs 16 days ago

        yeah, although I don't think it's the greatest responsive design. page numbers are still quite small, for example. it's better than nothing, though.

  • marginalia_nu 16 days ago

    To be fair Reddit wasn't mobile friendly before the redesign, and after it is so slow on mobile it takes 30 seconds to respond to an input.

    • Gigachad 15 days ago

      They had which worked

eyesee 16 days ago

Spam was a losing battle. I stopped running a bulletin board around the same time I stopped hosting a mail server.

justsomehnguy 16 days ago

People blame Reddit, but it's not Reddit alone and this is extremely evident if you could see it for the demographics where nor Reddit nor English-based sites are the norm.

The main problem is the network effect (which Reddit did right) and what at 2010-2012 there was a massive change in the demographics of the new users on the Net: more and more people started to interact with it through the phones only. phpBB-like forums never had usable UI for the phones (though they are still a magnitude lighter and usable than modern Reddit, lol) and had one main problem: discoverability.

To Average Joe (who thinks Internet is that 'F' picture on the phone) the process of discovery (Internet search) and registration (e-mail based, captcha ridden) is way too much.

Add all other shortcoming listed in the other comments (notably the need to spend money, time and brain power on just maintaining the forum itself) and it's pretty evident why most of the forums died.

NB I still frequent one forum, site OP moved it to XenForo from phpBB years ago and did numerous modifications and integrations both for the old and new versions, which isn't available on Reddit at all.

Another forum is still running ikonboard, but it's userbase is... I'd say "not Discord/Reddit-compatible", which is also partly answers to your question: it is viable for some small (on Internet scale of things) community to thrive on a 'classic' forum software... but only if Discord/Reddit doesn't provide way less friction and/or discoverability.

veddox 16 days ago

From my own impression and what other people here are saying, it seems to boil down to ease-of-use:

1) high admin costs of forums due to security issues and spam,

2) usability issues from clunky interfaces and separate accounts for each forum.

On Reddit/FB/etc., the admins don't have to take care of security, and users only need one login to access any community on the site. So yes, the demise of the forums is in some ways quite regrettable, but nonetheless understandable.

yuppie_scum 16 days ago

Because of Reddit.

  • fnordian_slip 16 days ago

    I agree. While I still sometimes come back for some specialised forums, reddit has taken over most of my time that was spent in forums, just because it's so convenient to have all these small subreddits in one app.

    I still have more than fifty forum accounts in my keepass but I can't even remember when I've last been to, for example, even though it's still superior to /r/flashlights.

    In a way it's sad, because I've seen some forums suddenly die, and the knowledge of more than a decade just vanished overnight. Vast repositories of DIY and repair information on old petroleum lanterns just gone, while the people who have experience with them are slowly dieing out. But I guess I'm part of the problem, since all I do on these forums is lurking nowadays.

  • autotune 16 days ago

    I miss the days when discourse was not dictated by upvotes/downvotes, but rather, whoever generated the most outrage with a flame war (/s).

    • lakomen 16 days ago

      Nowadays you get banned for posting anything remotely controversial

      • autotune 16 days ago

        If you are brave enough to look at YT comments the practice is alive and well if you look down enough, where you see someone complaining about the video actor being Jewish and somehow the comment isn't banned.

      • lost_tourist 16 days ago

        It's probably better that way to be honest. Flamefests were always hot garbage

  • bombcar 16 days ago

    This is it. Running a forum was expensive and annoying and Reddit would do it for free. They’re mostly dead now, though some survive run by grognards.

lakomen 16 days ago

I was a phpbb2 free forums provider back in 2006. Had a million visitors per month. But spam was a big problem and monetizing barely paid the server cost, which cost 120 eur per month. 1 server had about 2500 instances and load was always >1.0 . All my time went into maintaining the site. After a while I had the option either continue to waste my time with this or just close it down. I opted to close it and sell backups of the database for 25€ each. I got some hate, to which I responded with hate myself, ungrateful bunch! Some communities however managed to get started on my platform and migrated to hosting their own. I remember one community in particular, which was a goose farmer community from Finland. I helped them migrate to their own host and the member made a thank you thread, which was so heart warming :). And then there was a writers community from Poland. All in all it was very interesting to see all the different kinds of nieches and interests people were into. There was a FKK aka nudist forum, and I would get adsense warnings on a regular basis. So I exempt them from adsense ads but put some adultfriendfinder ads there.

Anyhow I've been writing a modern, real-time multi forum system for the last 4 years on and off, but idk if it's ever going to be ready. Forum software may not look it, but it actually quite complicated.

Forums went away and got replaced by the horrible reddit, which Google pushes in their results. Every damn exotic search has a reddit result in the top 3 results.

Facebook added to that, forums were the main info banks, then Facebook came and not only mostly destroyed forums but also classic, colorful websites. I hate to talk like that but what once was a wild, arguably pretty and free internet, Facebook turned into a white-blue dystopia. A walled garden where censorship was and is the norm, where you're identified and tracked, where you habe zero choice about the look of your profile/wall. Is it even called a wall anymore?

And what's worse Instagram is replacing Facebook. Communication by images only. How dumb is that?

Yes we need text culture back. But nowadays if I would be super smart and have the resources, I'd probably build a speech recognizing feature, where you can just record paragraphs because people don't like typing. With the option to also post that recorded passages of speech and read that text aloud. Which brings me to Adsense has this new experimental feature, reading content out aloud and monetizing that. 1+1=2?

That would actually make forums have a comeback. Because now you actually CAN monetize single posts.

P.s. those ~2500 instances were hosted on a single core amd64 with 2GB of RAM and RAID1 only.

nerdix 15 days ago

Lack of global discoverability. On Reddit, if you have an interest and you search for some keyword related to that interest then you will likely find a sub related to it.

On transitional forums, you'd have to use Google. And your ability to find a community would be directly impacted by the owners skill at SEO unless you're constructing rather advanced queries.

There was also a poor UX compared to social media. Site owner doesn't pay the monthly hosting fee from their web host? Site is down. Can't really admin a MySQL DB? Site is frequently down when it grows past some point. Shitty web host? Site is slow (or down). Reddit solves this by being centrally managed.

mritun 16 days ago

Spam. The problems with an arms race is that you generally can’t have many winners.

seydor 15 days ago

Eternally Septembered. The threads got so big that it didnt look good anymore and the non-hierarchical comments became too messy. There is so much information that people switch to "recent-only" platforms like facbook reddit twitter etc.

There was not a lot of effort to make a middle ground -- but it is not clear what UX would be right for that. The UX is largely dictated by the scale of the community, e.g. FB treats all comments as dispensable, reddit keeps topics open for 30 days, stackoverflow cares about ranking etc. Also the predominance of mobile and app stores means that those forums became undiscoverable. Everything in the past 15 years have been tailored to make the big fish bigger.

pers0n 16 days ago

Hosting costs, spam, upgrades, plugins, maintenance, customization, it’s a lot of work.

rasz 16 days ago

vogons runs on phpbb :)

eevblog, probably biggest english speaking electronics community runs on SMF

lost_tourist 16 days ago

reddit is easier, and a lot of the people running them got older and got families, and younger people drifted towards all the various social media sites.

John23832 16 days ago

Php is notoriously insecure.

It also doesn’t scale well for the size of modern web communities.

People also changed the way that they want to interact, from text based BB’s to more media rich, action based social networks.

  • ale42 16 days ago

    PHP is not inherently insecure—but some deprecated and now removed or disabled-by-default features were in the past. It all depends on the way apps are developed on it. You can create web apps with security vulnerabilities in any language/framework you use, whether it's PHP, Python, node.js or anything else.

    Regarding scaling, node.js is probably faster because of the JIT compiler, but this doesn't mean that scaling is not possible. Wikipedia is PHP, Wordpress is PHP, and Facebook is also PHP (with HHVM).

  • KronisLV 16 days ago

    > It also doesn’t scale well for the size of modern web communities.

    I guess this would be more of an architecture question, rather than one of the runtime itself.

    There are many sites out there that scale decently that are running on slow or sometimes slower runtimes than PHP, like Python (the Django framework comes to mind) or Ruby (the Ruby on Rails framework comes to mind). For example, consider the following: (disclaimer: sometimes benchmarks contain pretty optimized code, but here I'm selecting for the more idiomatic and boring ones; I don't want to show the benchmarks that show PHP ahead of everything, because native plugins are used there)

    Someone mentioned Wikipedia and WordPress being PHP, I'll also mention Instagram and Spotify using Python and GitHub and GitLab using Ruby. If your app is architected well, then performance of any of these runtimes (or others) can be good enough, though of course one can also talk about some of the benefits of needing less resources to do more (e.g. with Go, Java or .NET, or even Rust).

    Though admittedly, PHP is also popular in shared hosting, which might give it a bad reputation due to the architectures typically employed there (single server with single instance) and security has indeed been a topic in the public eye, especially because PHP was easy to get started with, which lead to a lot of projects by devs that weren't skilled.

  • KhalPanda 16 days ago

    That’s a reputation PHP has been struggling to shake for a long time now, but it isn’t the case as of the more modern versions.

    • Gigachad 15 days ago

      Nextcloud being slow as a dog hasn’t helped my opinion. Most fast php sites seem to achieve speed mostly by aggressive caching to serve static content outside of php or having a setup that supports adding infinite servers to scale up.

  • prvit 16 days ago

    > It also doesn’t scale well for the size of modern web communities.

    What do you mean? Old forum codebases can generally easily support tens of millions of users, what “community” is bigger?