Why are web forums so unpopular with the blindness community?

Last week, David Tenser, Kadir Topal, and I received an e-mail from Dirk, a moderator at www.BLINDzeln.net, a mostly German-speaking community which uses mailing lists exclusively to promote exchange between their members. These mailing lists vary in topics from cooking and gardening to some pretty advanced computer science, psychology and others. Dirk asked whether it would be possible to create German-speaking mailing lists pertaining to accessibility to give those who have switched to Firefox and/or Thunderbird, or those willing to do so, a common place to go. He also said that he and other moderators thought about doing this at BLINDzeln, but didn’t do it because they wouldn’t want to create an isolated island, but encourage end-user exchange by asking Mozilla to do it on our servers instead.

In the e-mail exchange that ensued, two positions became apparent:

  • On the one hand, it was stated that blind people prefer the exchange through mailing lists highly over any other means of exchange possible on the net today, and that this is the easiest to access medium. This has a lot of merrit, since to subscribe to most e-mail lists, you don’t even need a web browser. If you know the mailing list address, you can send a subscribe request and acknowledge that by only knowing how you compose and reply to e-mails in your favorite e-mail program. Forums, on the other hand, are often secured against spam bots by CAPTCHAs, and the display is considered by many to be highly inefficient for reading. Newsgroups are somewhere in the middle, with the strict insisting on the netiquette by “usenet cops” being what drives new users away from this medium mostly.
  • On the other hand, David and Kadir advocated for Sumo and the German firefox-browser.de community forum respectively, stating that support personell and volunteers and most community members frequent Sumo and other forums highly, but hardly any mailing lists. On IRC, Kadir and I talked about this as well, and others who chimed in even used words as strong as “hate” when it came to the topic of mailing lists.

I did some research, and found quite some diversity in who uses which medium. For example, among Mozillians, mailing lists, which are mirrored to newsgroups and Google Groups, are the most frequented way of doing development planning discussions, project-specific exchange etc. With mailing lists on one hand, and an almost forum-like display at Google Groups on the other, this is a very cross-over way of offering access to the groups. But one does not see many end users here. There are support-like newsgroups, but compared to the number of users we now have, the traffic is comparably low. The MozillaZine forums enjoy very high traffic by comparison.

In other areas, I found the same picture. The more end-user, the lesser techy, the more popular web forums are. The more techy, the more things take place in mailing lists rather than forums. Granted, most mailing lists have a web-accessible archive nowadays. But even that’s controversial: In the above mentioned IRC discussion, one person I’d consider to be rather technically versed mentioned that he hates mailing lists and the typical Mailman archive format on the web because it shows only one post at a time, requiring him to click constantly to read through a thread.

Interestingly enough, in the recent screen reader survey results published by Webaim, web forums were not mentioned in either list of web sites, neither particularly accessible nor particularly inaccessible.

So, what is it that makes so many blind people go to mailing lists instead of web forums, sort of contrary to most of the main stream on the internet today? Are web forums inherently inaccessible? Or, is this one of those things that sticks around while the actual picture has changed, but the blindness community simply has failed to notice?

Provocative questions, I know. One of the things that drives blind people away, and which also drove me away from forums for a long time, is the spaghetti-ish nature in which many, especially older, forum software displays threads. It is very hard to find the beginnings of posts, making it difficult to skip over a reply that is of no interest. As blind people cannot visually skim forum topics like sighted people can, this is essential to efficiently navigate and participate in forums.

Here are some examples of forum post views that may give some clue as to where this resistance to use web forums amongst the blindness community may come from, and where it may also no longer be justified:

  • In this thread on the MozillaZine forums, each reply starts at a new item in the definition list that is used to display the topic. With the other lists inserted to encapsulate the “Reply…” and other info/action possibilities, simply jumping from list item to list item, as one would first expect, does not really get you quickly to the start of the next post within the thread.
  • This thread on the phpBB community forum shows a nice way to do things: Each reply starts at an HTML heading element, making it very easy to skip forward if one doesn’t want to read the rest of the current reply. Since both phpBB.com and MozillaZine use phpBB, this seems to be a question of theming the forum.
  • Also based on phpBB, but on an older version, is this example from the German DelphiPraxis community forums. This is what I referred to as the spaghetti view earlier that drives me and others away from forums. It’s a tabular layout, done with HTML table and descendant elements, and each post within the thread simply gets its own new row. Most screen readers do offer a way to navigate tables by row, but the keystrokes for doing so are much more cumbersome, requiring usually both hands to execute them than is good for casual reading or browsing. Table navigation is made for consciously interacting with data tables. I have seen similar table-based constructs in both VBulletin-based forums as well as the Carookee.com forum service.The German firefox-browser.de community forum uses a similar display right now, however this will probably change once they upgrade to phpBB3.
  • Looking at bbPress, the companion to the WordPress blogging software, they use a similar list-based display style as MozillaZine in terms of markup, but no intermingled lists, allowing to quickly skip ahead to the next post if the current one doesn’t interest me.
  • Lastly, the Sumo forum display shows a series of divs that are used to show the posts within a certain topic, but no special semantic markup to help navigate from one post to the next within an individual thread. It is similarly spaghetti-ish right now, with the difference being that it uses divs instead of layout tables.

Disclaimer: The topics chosen above and the comments made about the quality of the individual display styles is not meant to reflect on the quality of the forums themselves. They’ve merely been chosen for illustration purposes in the accessibility context of this blog.

As the display of the phpBB community forum post shows, there are possibilities to choose really accessible forum themes and create an attractive forum that also blind people might like to use. However, there’s also still a lot of forum software out in the wild that does not conform to any modern accessibility standards and thus offers a rather unattractive accessibility experience.

Also, one thing that I briefly mentioned are CAPTCHAs. Fortunately, with Firefox 3 and WebVisum, these are solvable for blind users. Or audio CAPTCHAs are spreading more and more, making this a barrier that is possible to deal with given the proper tools.

And now, I’d like to hear YOUR opinion on this topic! Do you prefer forums over newsgroups or mailing lists? Do you prefer to read on the web or in your e-mail client, in your RSS reader? Do you easily keep up with where you left off reading in a certain thread? What are the challenges you’ve faced dealing with forum software in the past or present?

On the other hand, if you’re a forum user and don’t like/use mailing lists, why is that? What do you find more attractive about forums that makes you not like mailing lists, or even hate them?

Welcoming your comments!


18 thoughts on “Why are web forums so unpopular with the blindness community?

  1. I’m on the technical end of the continuum of sighted users that you describe, and I hate forums 🙂 Mainly because each forum is its own walled garden, requiring me to maintain a separate login and check separately for new messages. Even if the forum sends me email when there are replies to a thread, I have to switch back to the forum interface to respond, which is annoying. (I have the same problem with Bugzilla.)

    You talk about ways to make forums more attractive for blind users; I am more interested in what the nontechnical users don’t like about mailing lists. “Hate”? Really? Why?

  2. Hi Zack, thanks for your response! I’ve updated the questions section of the post with the “other side’s” questions as well.

    Is there a difference for you interacting with newsgroups versus mailing lists? For newsgroups, you need to switch the newsgroup, or sometimes even the nntp server, for different topics. Only if you want to reply and use a client like Thunderbird, replying is instant as with mailing lists. Does the interaction model of newsgroups bother you, or is it just the same as mailing lists for you?

  3. I’m not blind and prefer mailing lists too. They are much more standardized. I can use the program of my choice to read and archive the mails, I can thread, not thread, mark read etc. in the same way for all mailing lists and don’t have to figure out yet another forum software. I don’t have to remember dozens of passwords and usernames to access all the different forums.

    I think what people like about forums is their discoverability. You often find what you’re looking for faster in forums than in the terrible web front ends of some of the mailing list programs out there. So what’s needed is probably a really good interface for searching through mailing list archives. Another point is probably that nontechnical users don’t use a real mail client anyway. They either use some abomination of a “light” version of a mail client or one of the many webmail clients. Which makes the difference between mailing lists and forums look smaller.

  4. Maybe it’s because I’m old school, but I too prefer Mailing lists, especially well established ones with high ‘etiquette’ standards (such as threaded responses). I find many forums are populated with too many “me too” responses from contributors who really have little more to offer, but feel compelled to comment anyway, so that they can be heard. It’s a signal-to-noise ratio thing: I follow many lists and have little patience wading through that kind of blather.

    As well, I agree with Arthur that the explosive growth of web-based mail clients may have an effect here – ‘mainstream’ users simply do not use a mail client the same way that us ‘geeks’ do.

    Perhaps as well it has to do with the subject matter – my subscription lists tend to be tightly focused on web accessibility and web standards issues: hardly ‘mainstream’ stuff, and as such the current threads need little preamble, as most followers are already fairly up to speed on the topic, unlike forums where most people arrive with a virtual blank look on their faces – it is a starting point, rather than a recurring instance.

    As an interesting aside, I have also noted recently that many of the mailing lists I monitor have seen a marked decrease in both volume and ‘value’ – instead I’ve noticed that those communities have moved to social network tools such as Twitter, so perhaps one of the other differences here is that forums are content aggregators, whilst lists and Twitter tweets are an ongoing conversation.

  5. Sighted user. I use newsgroups. What I dislike about mail-lists is having it dumped into mail — would think a blind user would really dislike that, so find it very surprising that a blind user would prefer a mailing list.

    I like searching web pages for more finalized / refined content, and I like searching newsgroups for up to the minute problems/solutions. This practice breaks down with Firefox and Mozilla.

    What I dislike about web forums is that they show up in web searches and are really like newsgroups, in fact most are simply feeding into and out of actual newsgroups, so are almost always duplicates of a newsgroup posting — this is not true with Firefox and Mozilla as the Mozilla and MozillaZine hosted pages/sites are more controlled. I’ve noticed that some forums allow revision rather than continuous replies which I hadn’t known about and is probably a lot more an advantage than a disadvantage if caught before someone replies.

    Blogs though not mentioned are somewhat in between, some are treated as single subject per blog so are more like webpages with categorized data, and some are more like a diary and most people wouldn’t want to see except for following specific blogs.

  6. I’ve been thinking about this recently.

    There is one fundamental and important reason why I don’t use Web fora,
    together with several other, associated reasons.

    The problem is that with a Web forum, the provider of the Web site chooses the
    user interface. With my e-mail client, I choose the user interface by deciding
    which mail user agent to run. I have also customized my e-mail environment to
    work as I want it to do, enabling me to manage my mail efficiently using my
    assistive technology of choice.

    For the same reason, I like NNTP newsgroups, and have recently started relying
    increasingly on gmane.org, which also has the advantage of an excellent
    Web-based search engine for finding archived posts. Threading, “kill files”
    and other features found in news readers (but not, typically, in forum
    software) facilitate the efficient navigation of discussion groups. I suspect
    this is even more so for a participant who is relying on a braille display or
    speech synthesis for output, as in my case.

    Both mail and NNTP news separate the protocol and the message format from the
    user interface; the protocols and formats are open and there are multiple
    implementations. With a Web forum, the provider is forcing everyone not only
    to learn a new user interface, but eliminating that element of choice and
    flexibility, thereby increasing the pain factor for users with particular
    needs or preference.

    RSS and ATOM have a similar advantage. Looking at my Debian package
    repository, I notice a choice of ATOM/RSS readers for both the console and
    graphical X environments.

    Gmane is wonderful in that it can be accessed via NNTP or the Web, and the
    mailing lists can be subscribed to as well, so everyone can satisfy her or his
    own needs and preferences.

  7. Great post Marco. Just wanted to clarify that while I shared my concerns with mailing lists for mainstream support with Dirk, I also said that if he really wants to create one, we can make that happen. My main concern is that not many people will use this (German) mailing list so it will become much of an isolated island. As you point out, mailing lists are not very popular for mainstream support since people find it simpler to just navigate a web page — a forum — compared to using an e-mail client (not everyone even has an e-mail address today).

    One great idea that came up during this e-mail exchange was to do an accessibility audit on SUMO to make sure our support platform is accessible to everyone. Marco, I really think we should move forward with these ideas! 🙂 Would you be interesting in leading such an audit?

    By the way, we are already planning on switching to the reCAPTCHA system on SUMO, which has better accessibility support (see https://bugzilla.mozilla.org/show_bug.cgi?id=487139).

  8. Hello,
    I think there are too many tastes for too many people. I am afraid it is not possible to give a definite answer to these questions.
    Heh so you may wonder why I am commenting here.
    Simply because I think I can represent a group of web forum users which is not expected.
    I am blind and I prefer web forums over email. Perhaps the problem is I have never tried news groups.
    I am participating in various discussion boards powered by phpBB2, phpBB3, invision board and vbuletin. And I think I have always managed to find a way on how to access next message. Vbuletin and invision display messages as tables, phpBB2 inserts seperators between messages, phpBB3 has headings etc. Yes these are themes but these are default themes so if the site administrator adds another theme it is very likelly possible to set it to default.
    Another pro argument for web based forums is that you are not flooded with messages and you can simply go and look for the topic you are interested in. If you subscribe to a mailing list then according to my experience has a lot of background noise and flame wars. I can mainly see this phenomenon in the blindness related communities I am afraid.
    Heh and shame on me I am not yet actively discussing at mozilla zine.

  9. Intersting post.
    We’ve got over 50000 posts on klango forums, but most of them originates from our own audio-rich interface. We’re thinking about some kind of interface to other forums, and although we’ve got some ideas, there always be an issue regarding authorization.

  10. A little update:

    A few weeks ago, I contributed a patch to the phpBB project to make content that was put in for screen readers actually visible for them. The problem was that this content was styled with “display: none;”, which of course makes it invisible to screen readers. My patch changed that to a negative offset, modeled after various types of “Skip to content” links out there. The phpBB team accepted my patch, and now, if you go to the phpBB.com forums overview, you’ll actually hear:

    256 Topics
    385 Posts
    Last post by [user name]

    instead of just

    by [user name]

    This change will be in phpBB 3.5, soon to be released, and the phpbb.com community forums apparently uses a pre-release version of this.

  11. Hi
    I’m a blind user. I have to say that I often prefer forums over mailing lists as well. But there are situations where it’s the other way around. I’ll try to give some examples.
    For support problems with the computer, I use mailing lists. That’s mainly because I tried to get useful answers in mainstream forums but as soon as I mentioned, that I can’t use a mouse I got the equivalent of blank stares. So I use mostly the mailing lists that are specifically for blind folks, because people there actually know what I’m talking about. The other reason is that it’s easier to save a mail with an useful answer, in case the problem arises again later, than to locate the answer in a thread, even if you bookmarked it.
    On the other hand, I like to read and write stories. A lot of them aren’t posted in one go, but as chapters. In this case it’s a lot easier to bookmark a story thread than to save all the mails.
    Another disadvantage of mailing lists someone already mentioned is all the stuff you get, but actually don’t want to read, but get anyway. In forums you can be selective.
    Your’re right, forums are sometimes somewhat complicated to navigate, but for me that’s rarely enough of a problem to avoid them, thanks to screen reader shortkeys.

  12. I’m glad you’re discussing this subject since it has cropped up for me several times. I prefer to skip mailing lists when I can because they clutter up my in-box and take too much time. I like the theory behind forums but find that many of them have the same weakness. My biggest stumbling block for forum use wasn’t mentioned in your post. I’ve found that many forums use nonstandard forms for posting, forms with tons of icons you need to click for formatting, in-line frames for the editors, and weird form/frame combinations where my screenreader can’t even find an edit box. The forums on http://www.paperbackswap.com are absolutely miserable to use for that reason. A forum called The Warrior Forum is even worse. It crashes JAWS whenever I try to go into the form section to post. Sometimes I can write a couple of sentences before the crash, but I can’t finish my thoughts. This is true on multiple machines with different operating systems, browsers, and versions of JAWS.

    Reading forums works ok, though I admit it is slower to do than reading email. I’m willing to put up with the slower reading and navigating, but the inability to post without help leaves me feeling left out and ineffective. Those aren’t feelings I enjoy, so I only post if my need is serious and urgent. I’m sure I miss out on meeting some awesome people over there.

    My solution to this issue is to turn to blogs and to use commenting as a substitute. Firefox and Web Visum let me use most blogs effectively, and I feel welcome. It would make my day if everyone used WordPress for blogging, but hey, you can’t win ’em all. (grin)

  13. Good morning,
    I started reading carefully this important post. Before I read one more time in order to go through the subject more thoroughly, I would like to let you know an accessible style for PhpBB that starts from what I consider the best practices in Web Accessibility, the Italian Law 4/2004 and the Wcag 2.0 Guidelines.
    It is studied for the whole community of users, including blind and short-sighted users, handless users, daltonics, young and old users, normally intellingents and non.
    The layout is very simple, some options has been cut (the redundant ones and those that require Javascript), it includes all of the function links in two menus (one is a left false-frame created with Css), the code is semantic, as considered in the post comments are tagged with headings which are strictly hyerarchized.
    Every section is marked with the appropriate semantic Html syntax (headings, paragraphs, lists: I used definition lists more than expected).

    Please have a look at

    Registration is required, unfortunately I do receive a lot of spam registrations and I don’t use captchas, please choose a nick that makes me recognize the human user, for example the number 2011.

    Download is available at http://4elementi.info/forum/styles/accessible.zip .

    Thank you very much for your kind attention, Francesco

  14. Yes, It is very shocking news from Webaim that web forums are not being considered as list of web sites. So, blind people are considering mailing lists as their alternative way. On the other hand, I also dislike the so called forum software which displays threads.

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