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I've been in multiple debates on what a forum is and if a Q&A site like this one is a forum, so I'm trying to get a real world definition.

The below various actual definitions of "forum" apparently aren't enough to convince some people. (Highlighting added by me for relevant sections.)

  • the marketplace or public square of an ancient Roman city, the center of judicial and business affairs and a place of assembly for the people.
  • a court or tribunal: the forum of public opinion.
  • an assembly, meeting place, television program, etc., for the discussion of questions of public interest.
  • Also called online forum, internet forum, web forum . message board.
  • the Forum, the forum in the ancient city of Rome.

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/forum

A forum is an online discussion board where people can ask questions, share their experiences, and discuss topics of mutual interest.

https://help.hcltechsw.com/connections/v55/user/forums/c_forums_welcome.html

A discussion board (known also by various other names such as discussion group, discussion forum, message board, and online forum) is a general term for any online "bulletin board" where you can leave and expect to see responses to messages you have left. Or you can just read the board. The first discussion boards were available on bulletin board systems. On the Internet, USENET provides thousands of discussion boards; these can now sometimes be viewed from a Web browser.

Many websites offer discussion boards so that users can share and discuss information and opinions. Special software is available that provides discussion board capability for a website.

https://www.techtarget.com/whatis/definition/discussion-board-discussion-group-message-board-online-forum

An Internet forum, or message board, is an online discussion site where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages.[1] They differ from chat rooms in that messages are often longer than one line of text, and are at least temporarily archived.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_forum

Stack Exchange itself is listed as a forum on other sites.

Even Robert's Rules of Order has rules specific to Q&A forums. "The Question and Answer forum is place to ask specific questions, or suggest answers to questions posted by others,..."

I've had people say that because a Q&A isn't a discussion, it's not a forum. Some of the same people say Meta is considered a forum, yet it's a Q&A site. I'd agree that a static Q&A list of pre-determines questions and answers isn't a forum, but a site that allows users to ask their own question and get answers from others is a discussion of their problem and how to address it. The very definition of discussion includes asking and answering questions.

1: consideration of a question in open and usually informal debate
// a heated political discussion
2: a formal treatment of a topic in speech or writing
//A discussion on the topic is included in the first chapter.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/discussion

Looking at a thesaurus, there's a variety of words that work here: investigation, conversation, dialog, consultation, discourse, analysis, exchange, and probably more.

https://thesaurus.yourdictionary.com/discussion

There's also the legal definition of what a forum is:

The use of public forums generally cannot be restricted based on the content of the speech expressed by the user. Use can be restricted based on content, however, if the restriction passes a strict scrutiny test for a traditional and designated forum or the reasonableness test for a limited forum. Also, public forums can be restricted as to the time, place and manner of speech. In the 1972 case Grayned v. City of Rockford, the Supreme Court found that "The nature of a place, the pattern of its normal activities, dictate the kinds of regulations of time, place, and manner that are reasonable." In determining what is reasonable, the Court stated that "[the] crucial question is whether the manner of expression is basically incompatible with the normal activity of a particular place at a particular time."

I get that people think of social media as a forum, but that's only one kind of forum. One definition above says "usually informal", so it specifically doesn't rule out a formal or targeted discussion.

So back to the original question: Do Q&A sites fit the definition of a forum?

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  • You ask whether Q&A fits into the definition of a forum and provide supporting evidence to back up your claim. But you forgot to add the dictionary definition: Definition of Q and A a period of time or an occasion when someone answers questions that are asked by a reporter, by the people in an audience, etc.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 29 at 10:42
  • Very often in dictionary definitions tend to merge, and the words used to define meaning often converge. I see none that compare Q&A to a forum. Why is that?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 29 at 10:49
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    The moderator who moved this question to the meta-site seems to have interpreted it as a criticism of the way the Stack Exchange is run. This may have been the motivation for the question, but taken at face value this is a straightforward question about the meaning of an English word, which should have stayed where it was originally posted, and answered, without much ado, by explaining the difference between the broad dictionary definitions of forum and the meaning it has in specialised contexts.
    – jsw29
    Jul 29 at 16:08

5 Answers 5

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You're missing the point.

On the internet, referring to online communities, "forum" and "discussion forum" are typically used interchangeably, to refer to bulletin-board style software in which users create posts about a topic that are then discussed in threads. See, e.g., this entry in the Jargon File.

Outside of the topic of online communities, the word "forum" has many meanings, including many things that are quite unlike a discussion forum or bulletin board. It can even refer to general concepts like a "public forum", which describes something that is not a community of people at all, but rather a place for or means of conveying speech (as in the legal case you cite).

When people say that "Stack Exchange is not a forum," what they are really saying is that "Stack Exchange is not a discussion forum." Which it's not: it's a question-and-answer site.

Context is important. Words do not mean the same thing in all contexts.

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    The people who say "SE is not a forum" to me literally mean that it's not a forum in any aspect at all. They refuse to admit that there's any kind of discussion at all or that SE/SO meets any kind of definition remotely related to "discussion" or "forum". They have a very hardline stance on that topic. It's like they think "because the originator intended" it to not be a forum, it's not a forum. Well, if the original intent was to not make a forum, they shouldn't have made a forum in the form of a user created Q&A site, since that's what the world sees it as. Original intent doesn't mean much. Jul 28 at 14:58
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    You can interpret this any way you like. And so can the rest of us. I agree there is not enough discussion here; but that's my own preferences, not a law of nature. Jul 28 at 16:12
  • BTW, your Jargon File link is more than a bit out of date, with it specifically referencing dial-up. According to that, anything accessed through cable or DSL internet isn't a forum. And it says "users submit postings for all to read and discussion ensues", which is exactly the format of a Question with a discussion in the form of comments and Answers. So your answer disproves itself. Jul 28 at 16:57
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    You are misinterpreting their words by ignoring the context. It's a "term of art," a word that has a specific meaning in a certain context. You are trying to force the dictionary definition of the word onto every usage of it, and that's not really how language works. If you go into a court and argue that someone was acting with actual malice because they were acting with a desire to cause pain, injury, or distress to another, you're not going to win, because that's not what that means in that context.
    – Ryan M
    Jul 28 at 17:17
  • @RyanM, in your example, "actual malice" has a legal definition which is meant to supersede the common usage. That's a far different situation and not a similar "difference of context" as we see here. Simply there being a difference between IRL and "online" isn't a distinction English makes, and that difference isn't comparable to a difference in legal vs common definitions. I've been online since the mid 90's, so I understand a wide variety of nuance there. SE wanted to be a different form of forum than social media and bulletin boards, but that doesn't mean it isn't still a forum. Jul 28 at 19:27
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    @computercarguy repeat this to yourself over and over "You are trying to force the dictionary definition of the word onto every usage of it, and that's not really how language works"
    – Mitch
    Jul 28 at 20:35
  • @Mitch, except that is how language works. There are rare times when a word changes definition because of common usage changes naturally, but SE is trying to forcefully change it because it doesn't suit their meaning. Those are two very different situations. And language has become a lot less fluid because of dictionaries being the deciding factor in differences of opinion of word usages. It's sort of like me calling you Dale because I just want to. Are you going to "force the dictionary definition" of your name on me? Probably, because I'd be using the wrong word to speak with you. Jul 28 at 20:49
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No!

SE Q&A sites are explicitly Not Forums, as explained by this MSE answer:

Are Stack Exchange sites forums?

Stack Overflow is not a discussion forum. Most forums are largely discussion-based and tend to follow less strict rules about what posts can be like.

On Stack Overflow (and Stack Exchange in general), we require every new thread to be started with a question and every response to that question to be an attempt at answering it.

For example, on a typical forum you might ask how to run a game in windowed mode. You will get several responses, some of which will be nothing but "oh, I love that game!" or "I haven't played that in a while, wow." You'll be lucky if you get a relevant response. By contrast, on Stack Exchange you'd get practical responses that are 100% relevant to your question.

As well as this more detailed answer:

Stack Overflow (Stack Exchange, in the more general sense) is not a forum.

In a dictionary sense, a "forum" is a place where ideas and views can be exchanged. But in a larger Internet context, a "forum" is traditionally regarded as a place where issues (questions) are discussed in a threaded manner. A topic of discussion is posed where people can respond, and responses are allowed to evoke further sub-conversations… which generate still further discussion — ad infinitum until all possible facets have been discussed, or the participants lose interest.

In contrast, Stack Exchange encourages specific questions that have specific, canonical answers. A question is asked and respondents weigh in with a carefully thought-out response which is then vetted through voting and wiki-editing (improving on the answer).

The key difference is that each answer posted has to stand on its own. Stack Exchange neither supports nor encourages a "forum-style" of open, free-for-all discussion (many-to-many conversations). This is by design.

The advantage is that users can vote on the best answers which then float to the top. You don't have to worry about breaking the conversation thread, and answers are not buried deep down in the larger context of an entire, vast "conversation."

We prefer this Q&A format over the "forum"-style conversations typically found on the Internet. People who say "this is not a forum" are simply urging users to avoid the patterns that cause traditional forums to fail.

Stack Exchange is built on the premise that forums don't scale. All those open conversations mean that those forums only tend to get noisier and noisier. What inevitably happens is that long-time users get tired of the new users asking the same old questions. New users can't find useful information and feel ostracized. And most find that, the more they talk, the less value they get from the experience. In short, you stop learning.

The chat room/forum problem by Robert Scoble

Internet discussion forums get in the way of getting answers. Our Q&A sites here were founded specifically to not be forums, all because of how terrible forums and discussion "threads" are at providing answers.

Abuses to the contrary notwithstanding, we are not a "message board" or a "discussion forum".

SEE ALSO

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  • That's not based on the English language definitions of what a forum, in general, is. It's based on the opinion that SE sites aren't discussion forums, which is only one specific type of forum, as I stated in my question. Also, I asked about Q&A sites in general, not just specific to SE. Also, if you look at a lower ranked answer on the same page, it says that SE is a forum. meta.stackexchange.com/a/92122/671964 I also addressed that having a specific topic doesn't eliminate something from being a forum. Jul 27 at 22:35
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    Also, since this isn't a question specific to SE/SO and about the general English definition of Q&A sites, can you please move this back to the main site? Jul 27 at 22:44
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    @computercarguy Because attempting to use ELU to try to get a Word-of-God Fiat that you're right about your argument on MSO isn't cool, I don't think we need to lend support to that combative behavior on our main site. Or anywhere.
    – tchrist Mod
    Jul 27 at 23:25
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    You are basically proving that the "SE/SO isn't a forum" is a circular argument based on extremely biased opinions and not on facts. “The truth does not mind being questioned. A lie does not like being challenged” Jul 27 at 23:38
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    @computercarguy It is as simple as this: we tell people that Stack Overflow/Exchange is not a forum, because "forum" has a well-known meaning online, where it implies discussion forum. New users are constantly misunderstanding the SO/SE model, and therefore having a bad experience, because they assume it's like a traditional online discussion forum. It's not. So we try to tell them clearly, and up-front, that it is not one of those. The fact that you can prove that it is a common place for ppl to come together, and that makes it technically a forum, well, that's true, but not useful in any way
    – Cody Gray
    Jul 28 at 1:25
  • @CodyGray, it is useful to understand that this is a forum, so there's less misunderstanding the intent. It's a lot easier to understand "technical and professional forum" than "this forum isn't a forum to prevent 'chit chat' except when a discussion is on topic". There are lots of other professional Q&A forums that restrict topics, chit chat, etc., and still call themselves forums. They don't seem to have any problems. Why is SE so intent on changing the definition of a word that works for so many other businesses? Jul 28 at 19:32
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    Because we are trying to clarify that we are not like any of those other businesses. I don't know of a single other site that works like this, save, perhaps, for the ones that specifically clone SO/SE. Furthermore, for someone attempting to make such a pedantic argument, I really don't know how you could have missed that it is not "SE" (the company) who is intent on doing anything. You make this claim repeatedly in your comments. The company is never the one claiming that this is not a forum. It's other users, who are trying to tell you your assumptions about how it works are wrong. @com
    – Cody Gray
    Jul 28 at 21:05
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    @CodyGray, SE the company is saying that SE the site isn't a forum "This site is all about getting answers. It's not a discussion forum. There's no chit-chat." stackoverflow.com/tour People do repeatedly say how SE was founded to not be a forum, as ColleenV says at the end of Greybeard's answer. I'm pretty sure that the Q&A forum for Microsoft is older that SE (for example) and isn't a clone. It tries to something pretty similar with letting people ask and answer questions in a professional manner. There's plenty of other examples of professional Q&A forums which aren't clones. Jul 28 at 22:18
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First, let us get rid of the error:

There's also the legal definition of what a forum is:

No, there is not. Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104 (1972) an anti-picketing ordinance was ruled overbroad but an anti-noise ordinance upheld. The word “forum” does not appear in the judgement.

You may be thinking of Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck No. 17-1702, 587 U.S. (2019) as far as types of forums are concerned.

Your question starts with

I've been in multiple debates on what a forum is and if a Q&A site like this one is a forum, so I'm trying to get a real world definition.

And ends with

So back to the original question: Do Q&A sites fit the definition of a forum?

“Forum” is really a hypernym: it covers a lot of styles. It can be likened to “tree”: we all recognise a tree when we see one, but we can argue where the line between “tree” and “not tree” or "a bush" lies.

Do Q&A sites fit the definition of a forum?

Yes, why not? There is rarely a full answer or universal agreement on an answer, so what develops becomes a discussion.

The OED gives:

Forum:

Computing. A facility on a computer network (now usually the internet) for users to share information or opinions; spec. a discussion group which is accessible online (as through a mailing list, a bulletin board system, a newsgroup, or a website), especially one dedicated to a particular topic. In early use, not always distinguished from the general sense of ‘a place of public discussion’.

1971 E. Harslem & J. F. Heafner Request for Comments (Network Working Group) (Electronic text) No. 131. 3 We have been proponents of the collective NWG [= Network Working Group] as a forum to raise issues and as a general information transfer mechanism of what sites are doing and thinking.

1984 InfoWorld (Nexis) 18 June 34 A forum or special-interest group (SIG) is a subset of a national network and functions much like a BBS.

1997 Daily Tel. (Electronic ed.) 1 Nov. In this forum, you can follow or join in conversations as they happen.

In short, the definition remains pleasingly nebulous and allows the word to be used for any internet site that allows the sharing of information, opinions, digital media, and/or ideas, etc, between multiple participants.

I would say that, given the above, Q&A sites are forums, if their essence is an exchange of ideas between multiple posters. Thus if I had a site upon which you could ask a question but only I would answer, and would not enter into discussions about my answer, then that would not be a forum.

It is usual for a poster to give context. Asking for a precise definition of “forum” is unusual. Could you please state why you need a precise definition? To what use are you going to put it?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – NVZ Mod
    Jul 29 at 17:40
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This seems to be a question about the meaning of the words Q&A, forum, discussion forum and also a philosophical question about stipulative vs descriptive definitions but I suspect it is really a question about what SE sites are vs should be vs what it is claimed it is/should be.

Forum (a common area for people to interact) and discussion (a back and forth conversation) have descriptive definitions in mainstream dictionaries where 'descriptive' means that the word has been analyzed in many instances and the definition is just a description of how it is used in various contexts. Since it is descriptive, the only force guiding its usage is just how common behavior is, there's not right or wrong, just 'this is what people do'. (there is no descriptive definition in a dictionary for 'Q&A'). Forum and discussion are very close, and Q&A (like a FAQ or Ask Me Anything) is fairly different.

In the UI/UX design literature, there are stipulative definitions for Q&A, forum, and discussion (or discussion forum). 'Stipulative' means that a definition is given de jure, which means that in an accepted context, the word means exactly what the given definition says. In other words, a definition is stipulated means that the whatever the existing definition you have in your head you should forget it entirely and use the stated definition, purely for the sake of discussion. Scientific language is often stipulative, mathematics very much so. Legal language is often very stipulative. Stipulative definitions are usually derived from analyzing what people have said, but then writing down a specific definition and if there is any difference between the written definition and how people use it, then the written version takes precedence.

In software design, specifically UX/UI, Q&A, forum, and discussion have been given specific stipulated definitions. The three are distinct, none are the others. -Of course- they are similar, but no pairs are identical.

'Q&A' is usually not considered a discussion because usually the format of Q&A is not a long sequence of back and forth, each response elucidating and qualifying the previous ones, but instead is just one question followed by one response and that's it (of course some UX for Q&A allows for comment chains which act like conversations).

Now to 'is/should be' and claims.

SE is -supposed to be- just Q&A without discussion (the designers claim this and mods try to enforce it) , but sometimes the comment chains and meta can -be- discussion-like. If there is some discrepancy (ie there is too much discussion) the general behavior of mods is to discourage such discussion, often with the abbreviated suggestion 'SE is not a forum', which is shorthand for 'stop trying to use the UI in a discussion manner'.

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    I actually kinda wish the mods were more lenient and allowed more discussion-like behavior. Sometimes the wording of a question would benefit from explanation and working out what the question -should be-. I mean half of being able to answer is having the right kind of question, and if you knew how to ask the question right, you'd probably already have the answer.
    – Mitch
    Jul 29 at 21:54
  • You'll notice that I used a mainstream dictionary (which surprisingly, is not a legal document) to give a definition of 'stipulative'. So sue me.
    – Mitch
    Jul 29 at 21:54
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Yes, Q&A sites are forums.

Discussions are a consideration of a question, which often, but not always, includes at least one answer.

Forums are a meeting place for the discussion of questions of public interest.

Q&A sites are a place where discussions happen to ask and answer question.

The definitions of forum and discussion don't care if the topics are targeted or open, or if they are informal or professional.

Edit: As requested, here are a couple definitions of Q&A, as well as Q&A site, and a few other relevant definitions.

a period of time or an occasion when someone answers questions that are asked by a reporter, by the people in an audience, etc.
There will be a brief Q and A following the speech.
—often used before another noun
a Q and A session

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Q%20and%20A

Discussion is a noun.

Here's a list of Q&A sites, which include Quora, Reddit, and other sites that are considered forums.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_Q%26A_sites

The explanation of what Q&A software used to run a Q&A site is includes the word discuss, which is the base of discussion.

Q&A software is online software that attempts to answer questions asked by users (Q&A stands for "question and answer"). Q&A software is frequently integrated by large and specialist corporations and tends to be implemented as a community that allows users in similar fields to discuss questions and provide answers to common and specialist questions.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q%26A_software

This page includes a link to commonly used forum sites. This is a list of software available for download, which doesn't include proprietary software.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_Internet_forum_software

Another definition of discussion includes definitions that fit very well with what a Q&A site is and does:

The act of discussing; talk or writing in which the pros and cons or various aspects of a subject are considered.
A formal discourse on a topic; an exposition.
Consideration of a subject by a group; an earnest conversation.
Discussion is defined as talking or writing about something, especially in order to solve a problem or resolve a question.
Conversation or debate concerning a particular topic.

https://www.yourdictionary.com/discussion

Yet another definition of discussion is explicitly to take a look at things by

Discussion comes from the Latin for "examination by taking things apart," and when you're having a discussion with someone on a complicated topic, it's like you're taking it apart and trying to understand it.

  • noun an extended communication (often interactive) dealing with some particular topic
    “the book contains an excellent discussion of modal logic”
  • noun an exchange of views on some topic
    “we had a good discussion”

https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/discussion

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    This answer should also include the dictionary definition of Q&A. It doesn't and is therefore misleading.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 29 at 10:55
  • Synonyms for Q&A include: interrogation, investigation, probing, delving, exploration, study, fact-checking etc. The terms "dialogue", "discussion", "debate" or "forum” are absent.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 29 at 11:01
  • Was this question provoked because comments are deleted. Often the justification for said deletion is "XYZ is not a forum. Comments are ephemeral and can and will be deleted at a moment's notice." We (the users) don't make up the rules, Stack Exchange does and has its own culture, its own standards, its own policies. Do you think by arguing that SE is a forum, even if ten users were to upvote your answer tonight, moderators would stop deleting comments?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 29 at 18:10
  • Let's say a sizeable proportion of users agree that all the Q&A communities are equivalent to a forum. What then? Do you think SE staff and moderators alike will tolerate trails of comments on the main page? Do you think authors will be glad to see their posts attract 40-60 comments at a time? Some users get stressed when there are only three comments! Maybe people prefer it this way. Have you considered that?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 29 at 18:13
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    @Mari-LouA, no, I don't expect anyone to stop deleting comments or anything, I simply want people to recognize that the meaning of words are real. When did honesty and consistency stop being valuable to society? When did allowing companies to change the definitions of words to meet their desires become a thing? SE basically demands that all answers have backing, either in the form of factual references or in the form of working code. I have factual references that say Q&A sites are forums and that should be enough. It's the baseless opinions that are having causing it to be an argument. Jul 29 at 18:17
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    Why would you use a definition of Q&A that is "a period of time or an occasion" when talking about a web site if you care so much about the precise meaning of words? Why do you think random usage on the Internet is somehow credible when you link it to support your opinion, but not when it is used on this Internet site? You are being disingenuous.
    – ColleenV
    Jul 29 at 19:01
  • @ColleenV, "a period of time or occasion" can easily mean "after a question is asked". And often on SE, that period of time can be pretty short before it's closed, often for good reason. And no, that's not a random usage, it's geared more towards a Q&A session after a speech, but it still applies to online Q&As. Some Q&A sites close questions after a period of inactivity. Jul 29 at 19:12

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