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I recently had someone ask me why I haven’t written (in a long time, anyway) about my recommendations for community software. It’s a good, fair question and I wanted to answer it.

The title of this article might sound a bit callous. I care about community managers and professionals, not software. So when I say I don’t care what software you use, what I really mean is that I am not passionate about your choice, like a person might be passionate about a political party and only vote for candidates in that party.

That’s just not how I operate. No matter what software you choose, I’m not going to be all over you about it. I still want to help. That’s the extended title of this article: “I Don’t Care What Community Software You Use… I Still Want to Help If I Can.”

About Community Software

I’m concerned this may be taken as some sort of indictment of the community software vendors. It’s not. Actually, it’s in praise of them and the fact that they have created a diversified field of reasonable options to choose from.

While there are “bad” options out there, I am sure, none of the popular options are “bad.” No matter what anyone tells you, no matter how polarizing the words they choose. Successful communities run on them, not in spite of them. They deserve credit.

The popular ones have bubbled to the top because of their developers, yes, but also because of the community that surrounds them. That goes hand in hand. What I always want in community software is an ecosystem of add-ons that exists independently, creating value for customers beyond what the developers can. The options that have that are not “bad” options. They may not be the best in one person’s opinion, but they are not bad.

I Want to Reach as Many People as Possible

I do find some software options more interesting than others, but I want to help as many people as possible. Unfortunately, throughout my years in this space, I have found that people can get rather involved in their chosen software choice and develop a really deep love of it and, conversely, a hatred of other options. Even when I ran the world’s largest phpBB resource, I regularly worked to ensure that this mentality didn’t creep into my community.

I enjoy focusing on strategies that apply to as many people as possible. I try to avoid situations where someone would dismiss my writing because I inferred it as being tied to any particular platform. People do that. I still want to help those people. A lot of my articles are shared my software vendors. But if I mentioned one of their competitors, it is unlikely they’d mention it. As a consequence, it reaches less people.

When it comes to the software vendors themselves, I love this space and I want to have a good professional relationship with all reasonable people in it. It’s not always possible. People can act really strange about competitors. If I start mentioning X, the developers of Y start to dislike me.

I don’t fear that. I’ll write whatever I want to write. If I feel like writing about a particular software option, I will. I’ve touched on specific software before in my writing and I will again. I regularly write things that people disagree with or say things people don’t like. So I’m used to it. But I’m just not passionate about software. I’m passionate about people and how they connect through community on the web.

When I Mentioned Software in My Book

I am very proud of my first book, Managing Online Forums. The contents of it have stood the test of time and I feel good about pretty much everything in it (outdated links aside). But there is one exception.

Briefly in the book, I discuss software and for a little over a page (out of 300+), I mention specific software options. I decided to mention a paid option (vBulletin) and a free option (phpBB), as those were my preferred paid and free options, at that time. I tried to praise both equally. In reading it now, even though I was a phpBB user, I think I praised vBulletin a little more.

Looking back, I’m not sure I would have included that passage.

Mentioning specific software options is a good way to date your book (and writing). Thankfully, here, both of these projects are still actively maintained and successfully used. But even if the strategy itself is sound and completely timely, if I included a mention of <insert your favorite defunct software>, some would dismiss the strategy.

Furthermore, I have read reviews where the reviewer said, negatively, that my book was too tied to vBulletin or phpBB, even though I pretty much never mention them again and the book is completely software independent. Mentally, they were unable to disassociate the book from the software, simply because I mentioned it on one page.

A Funny Story

The third reason offers a funny little anecdote. When the book was released, I reached out to many of the organizations I had mentioned in it. I sent a simple message, letting them know that I had mentioned their company. My hope was that they’d like it and, perhaps, buy a copy or help promote it. I knew phpBB wouldn’t care, but I contacted vBulletin to let them know that I had mentioned them in my book. Here is the meat of the response I received from someone in business development at vBulletin:

“It is always good to hear about instances where vBulletin is mentioned and I take it that it is mentioned in good faith, although curiously, I note that PHPBB is preferred for your forums. Thank you for letting us know and it would be helpful to see and or review the content and context including vBulletin.”

Emphasis mine. Did you catch that? They didn’t take the time to use the Amazon Search Inside feature to search for their company name and see how I mentioned them (or buy the book and check it out). But they did have time to look at my own websites, see I personally used phpBB and, due to that, question whether or not my mention was in “good faith.” Ha. Wow.

This can be contrasted to others who I notified. Some didn’t respond. Some just said thank you. Representatives at GoDaddy and CafePress were not only grateful, but said they had purchased a copy. No one responded quite like vBulletin who, oddly enough, is more closely tied to the space I wrote about than any of them.

It’s nothing against vBulletin specifically. I’m sure I’m not making any friends using them as an example here. It’s just a good example of how platform vendors can change how they feel about you when they find you engaging with other platforms.

I Try to Unite, Rather Than Divide

I want to engage with all that I can. I think in the forum software space right now, too many are preoccupied with taking credit for “saving forums.” Even so, I love to see new options and current options pushing ahead, especially when they do it in a non-assuming way. Variety is good and I’m glad everyone exists.

When I say “I don’t care,” I don’t mean it in a cruel sense. I just mean that I care more about helping people regardless of the software they choose. Software has some impact on your success, but how you manage your community still has far more. That’s what I’m focused on.