@OogieM and @applejosh - the navigation issues and other things you find confusing are great things to point out. One nice thing about Discourse is that it’s easier to tweak than the old forums were. I’ll talk to some folks about this. I can’t promise that we’ll be able to fix everything instantly, but we are paying attention and we do care.
About thread sorting - it’s a combination of several factors: recent activity is one of them. The forum also pays attention to which posts are being “liked” by the community, which embedded links are being clicked on, and some other things. Rather than just sorting threads by time, it tries to elevate the most important or engaging topics.
Discourse also pays attention to which topics you personally spend time reading and tries to show you similar threads it thinks are of most interest to you. Over time, the forum will figure out which stuff you don’t care about and won’t bother you with them. The old forums had nothing like that capability.
User icons - I’ll check and see if the visibility is configurable, as well. They aren’t just there for decoration, though. They also serve a social engineering purpose. For the first week we were trying Discourse out, I was mystified as to why such an attractive forum had chosen such unattractive (to my eye, at least) default user avatars. Then I figured it out, and I was really impressed.
Posts with faces on them are less likely to encourage the sort of unthinkingly rude behavior that forums have historically been afflicted with. Put a human face on a post, and suddenly, you’re not responding to a forum; you’re responding to a person. People behave differently under those circumstances, and it improves the conversation.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the default avatars are relatively unattractive by design - to encourage the folks that care enough to stick around in the community to replace them with something better. It’s really clever.
There were also additional factors that were probably completely invisible from the outside. For instance, we were really unhappy with the amount of time - from multiple people - keeping the old forums going consumed.
They were so trivially easy to spam that we’d spend hours every week scraping it off. Eventually we managed to reduce that: we let folks set up accounts automatically, but required them to email us before they could post. That stopped the spam problem cold, but it still meant spending multiple hours authorizing new accounts and explaining why it was that way.
We could spend those hours in much better ways. We could be posting, helping community members, working on the website, or doing any of a million things that would be of more benefit to you. Switching systems gave us all that time back, and that’s just one example of how it’s done so.
We were so dissatisfied with the old forums in so many ways that the question we were asking internally wasn’t “should we switch to Discourse or stick with the old forum?” The question was “should we switch to Discourse or should we shut down the forums entirely?”
Anyways - I hope that information makes the change a little more understandable, and in retrospect, I probably should have posted some of this on the old forums and had this conversation over there. To be honest, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome, but it would have made the transition more understandable. I’m sorry that didn’t occur to me.