Forums have always been a major part of building a community, and really that will never go away. But majority of the forum solutions were built when the internet was just getting used to broadband, Google was still an unknown, Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school and the idea of surfing the web on your phone was a joke.
Technologies we take for granted such as AJAX, Ruby on Rails, Python, the various JS frameworks weren't even in use. Today we are left with legacy platforms built on the foundations of old code bases and built for a pre-mobile/tablet internet. While some of them have made proactive choices to make their experience better with modern technologies, they are showing their age and complexity to maintain and update.
We are starting to see the first releases of various groups who are attempting to make forums from the ground up using technology that we see on the most modern websites. These groups are also attempting to make forums a more social platform, taking into design considerations we see from Facebook, Twitter among others.
One of the most popular frameworks currently is node.js, which is being used by everyone including Microsoft, Uber, LinkedIn, PayPal, and countless others to build a streamlined experience. And that is where NodeBB comes into play.
An experience built to be as usable on every platform, and designed to be elegant visually and powerful in terms of end users. NodeBB provides a quick experience from viewing to posting. One of the more common features you see in these new forums is instant updates, which NodeBB does. No more submitting your post, waiting for the database recieve your post and then update. Quick! That is the best thing to say about NodeBB.
Twitter and Facebook has made the @mention an expected behavior when talking with people on the internet and NodeBB provides just that. All members can be mentioned in a post, which ties right into their messaging system. Private messages are great, but having a social feed provides a much stronger experience. Getting a notification when my thread has been updated, or my post has been quoted gives me reason to look into it and not hunt for it.
On the negative side NodeBB is early. It might not be the best solution for a large scale community, but if this is the start, it is looking very bright. NodeBB has a very passionate community building new plugins at a stagering rate. NodeBB is totally worth checking out, if not within their community or start your own instance via a Bitnami deployment or spawn off your own server running it on DigitalOcean.
Probably the best name for forum software, Discourse is also trying to change the way users communicate on the web. Built using Ruby on Rails, Redis, and Postgres, Discourse does everything it can to break old behaviors and build upon the new ones.
Taking some tips from the highly sucessful Stack Overflow in terms of reputation/badge/governance, Discourse brings that to your normal community and takes discussion into new directions. One of the first things you notice with Discourse is that there isn't any pagination. No more 25 posts per page, and finding your last comment on page 14. It is just a continous scroll of comments. This is a huge adjustment from how we view content on forums today, but after a bit, it is very natural especially on a tablet. One of the neat things about this is the topic progress, which fills green as you progress through the thread. These small attention to details are making Discourse an exciting platform.
Much like NodeBB, Discourse also has a notification system that alerts the user when quoted and mentioned in a thread. While this might sound annoying, this is important to keep users motivated and participating in your community. I can't count how many times I look back at old threads to see if I have been quoted. The software should just tell me that.
Discourse has a number of cool features, but probably one of the most exciting features is real time updates. Depending on your community, threads and update quick and while you craft your perfect reply, someone has already stolen your thunder or the converstation has gone in a different direction. In Discourse posts show up in real time, no page reload needed. This is possible because you can reply when you are reading. Current platforms have a Quick Post option, typically at the bottom of the page. While handy, it is just a field added to the bottom. Discourse takes it one step further and displays a full featured editor on-top of what you are reading.
Discourse is not at 1.0 yet, but that shouldn't scare people off from looking at it seriously for their community. Both BoingBoing and How-To-Geek have been using Discourse. You are talking hundred of thousands of views and posts. Even with all the great core features, making your own tweaks is always important and one issue with Discourse is they don't plan to expose their plugin framework until version 1.0. Even with the minor issues, Discourse is paving the way for the future of discussion on the web.
As you can see there are some really exciting options out there, and I didn't even go over Vanilla, XenForo, and others. It is an exciting time to be building a community and take advantage of how people experience the web today, either it be on their computer, phone, tablet, or television.