On Tuesday, John James Jacoby announced that bbPress 2.6 was available to the public after a six-year wait in a post titled bbPress 2.6 — Better Great Than Never. The announcement landed with a whimper as it was overshadowed by the release of WordPress 5.3 on the same day.
bbPress is an official WordPress project for powering forums. It was initially launched on December 28, 2004, by Matt Mullenweg as a standalone project. During the first iteration’s heyday, it was popular within the WordPress community as a simple forum solution. In 2011, bbPress 2.0 relaunched as a WordPress plugin with Jacoby as the lead developer.
The bbPress team is primarily comprised of four part-time contributors with nearly no volunteers available for user testing. Stephen Edgar, Brandon Allen, and Sergey Biryukov were the primary developers other than Jacoby behind version 2.6.
“Jennifer M. Dodd deserves a mention for her contributions to 2.6 early on; she’s largely moved on but is wonderful,” said Jacoby. “Behind the scenes in the meta and forums teams are Samuel ‘Otto’ Wood, Dion Hulse, Mika Epstein, Marius Jensen, and countless others who provide feedback and feature requests upstream based on how WordPress.org uses bbPress.”
Contributors resolved 420 open tickets with 1,737 code commits over the multi-year span it took for version 2.6 to drop. The new version ships with hundreds of bug fixes and improvements. Its features include per-forum moderation, new platforms to import forum content from, and an Engagements API.
The new Engagements API connects user IDs to the various types of content in bbPress, such as forums, topics, replies, and topic tags. This works as a sort of relationship system between users and any content they interact with on the forums. In previous versions of bbPress, all of this data was saved in the user metadata table.
Per-forum moderation is a key feature for forums, but it has been one of the missing elements in bbPress. The new feature takes advantage of the Engagements API to connect user IDs to forum IDs. In turn, this allows site owners to create moderators for individual forums. This feature works in contrast to the existing “moderator” role in bbPress, which provides users global moderation powers.
Why the 6-Year Wait?
You could be forgiven for wondering if bbPress was all but dead. The last minor release happened in 2017 when the team dropped version 2.5.14. The same year, bbPress 2.6 was headed toward a third beta and even had a few release candidates.
“There was not very much feedback on the 2.6 beta or RC, and I had just transitioned into my role at Sandhills Development,” said Jacoby. “I decided it was better to concentrate on doing a good job where I could make a direct impact on people’s lives, rather than have no idea if I was doing a good job at all with bbPress.”
Jacoby did not want to release a potentially buggy version 2.6 and take on the support burden at the time. Doing so would have interfered with his responsibilities at his new job. “Younger me would have tried to do both, and failed at both,” said Jacoby.
Why such a long wait between releases? Most likely, it was for the same reason the Twitter announcement got fewer than a couple of dozen likes and even fewer retweets. There is not much community engagement with the project. On the flip side, the bbPress team has not been active on social media or the project’s official blog in the past two years.
Despite the lack of community engagement, bbPress is currently installed on over 300,000 sites. It runs the forums at WordPress.org, WordPress.com, CSS-Tricks, and other large communities. However, there is not much help sent back to the bbPress project from most places.
“On WordPress.org, bbPress is just one piece of a very complex puzzle, and everything is mostly in maintenance mode all the time,” said Jacoby. “The forums team focuses on the needs of the forums and the meta team helps maintain the code itself, but WordPress has made it easier and more rewarding to contribute to; so contributors graduate up to WordPress core and rarely look back.”
The idea behind switching bbPress 2.x to a WordPress plugin from its standalone roots was that it would be simpler for the larger WordPress community to pitch in. Jacoby said that contributions have improved since the pre-plugin era, but it has not helped enough. “There’s more attention and accolades with WordPress and Gutenberg than there are with the bb’s or GlotPress,” he said.
One of bbPress’ biggest problems is the lack of resources. There is no commercial element to the plugin and no major companies are funding anyone to work on the project full time.
“For an open-source project to be sustainable long-term, it needs to have an economy behind it,” said Jacoby. “Without an economy, what’s the real goal? Market share? Building better forum software? Those are not enough by itself when people need to make a living, and when less work with WooCommerce can help you earn a better living.”
The Future of Forums
Six years between major releases is a lifetime in technological years, plenty enough time for another company to claim the WordPress forum market share. However, bbPress managed to keep its crown as the most-used WordPress forum plugin during the wait. It does beg the question of whether companies or developers see a future for forums.
With so many alternative options for user engagement, are forums a dying breed of software?
“If forums are dying, it’s a slow death, according to the numbers anyway,” said Jacoby. “Chat apps like Slack and Discord (or Twitch and YouTube) are where people do forum-type stuff these days. Moderating your own community takes dedication and work, and if you’re going to do work, why not build an audience someplace else instead?”
Jacoby has hope for the future, however. “I can imagine a bunch of reasons why forums seem unattractive,” he said, “but to me they are still what everyone circles back around to, just like having their own blogs!”