Looking to start an online discussion forum? What is the best free forum software though? There are a lot of software and script options out there that are free and open source (FOSS) but these are the 4 that I would recommend to a friend. Since all my readers are my friends, these list should help you, my reader friend.
Out of the box MyBB, My Bulletin Board, has many great features. This includes calendars and events, user promotions, mass email newsletter, moderation tools, reputation management, and more. It also allows users to easily correspond via private messages. There are also a healthy amount of plugins to help you extend the functionality of your MyBB forum.
While MyBB is my first choice for free forum software there are some drawbacks. The developers will claim it is “easy to use” but I’m going to tell you from experience it is not. The disadvantage to MyBB is that it has a somewhat steep learning curve. I personally do not find the administration interface and backend intuitive. If you decide to use MyBB you will have to spend time reading the documentation and figuring out how to do a lot of things.
Luckily what makes MyBB the most ideal choice is what makes forums great, the community around it. If you have questions or issues about MyBB you’ll get them answered in the support forums in one day or a few hours most of the time. You will find people are helpful and eager to answer questions to help out fellow MyBB administrators having trouble and needing advice.
If you want to see what you can do with MyBB go visit HaraJuJu, a community for Japanese fashion. While the site has an extreme amount of customization it is still built on MyBB. It is absolutely mind blowing how good HaraJuJu looks and it is one of the best designed forums I’ve ever seen.
MyBB is quite stable, has been around for a long time, is actively developed, and should be a top consideration if you are looking at free forum software.
Probably the oldest and best known free and open source software out there is PhpBB, php Bulletin Board, which seems like it’s been around forever. That’s mainly because it has been and likely if you’ve joined any forums, at least one of them was running on PhpBB.
PhpBB is powerful and has nice features but it is somewhat tricky to learn to use. Ideally you should have someone help you setup the forum and help maintain and upgrade it when needed. PhpBB upgrades from what I’ve read can be tricky especially when there is a lot of customization with plugins and modifications. If you are completely new to building a website, I don’t think PhpBB is ideal. If you love coding in php, then you’ll probably no issues.
Other issues regarding PhpBB is that spammers delight in hitting forums running on PhpBB. Attempting to deter forum spam is quite hard but doable if you are diligent. MyBB suffers from some of the same problems but I hear with PhpBB it is worse. I’ve also read there are some security issues with PhpBB but I’m really not sure what they are as I’ve never run a phpBB forum.
The advantage to PhpBB is that it’s been around forever and it is easy to find people that know the ins-and-outs of this forum software. There are also tons of modifications and hacks that people have built over the years for this forum software. In addition phpBB can handle incredibly large communities like the Ars Technica boards. If you check out Gaia that is another extremely large forum community and its probably one of the better designed phpBB forums out there.
Overall I’m not a fan of phpBB because of it’s complexity but lots of sites use it.
Simple Machines (SMF for short) is a another good choice on this list of best free forum software. What’s good about SMF is that the administration panel is easier to use out of all the forum software on this list. It’s intuitive and those new to the platform shouldn’t have any issues with it.
Even though SMF is nice for beginners it doesn’t seem to be as actively developed as phpBB and MyBB. While installing plugins is easy and they are some great free ones available, I just don’t see a lot of the plugins as actively maintained by developers. Some Simple Machines modifications are kind of tricky or the plugins I wanted to use were too outdated. So when I considered building a SMF board, I searched for a forum web designer to build out this with the features I wanted. Too build this SMF forum with all the features I wanted the quotes I was getting back were so high due to the customization and modification work it would have made more sense to buy an IPBoard or XenForo license honestly.
You could probably live with having some issues with SMF since the backend is better than phpBB or MyBB but help with in the SMF community can be sparse. If more developers maintained plugins, they were easier to implement and there was more active support, I’d prefer to use SMF.
The largest scale SMF board I’ve seen is run by the Czech security software company, Avast, for technical support. It’s not well designed but it works flawlessly and handles lots of posts and users well.
Want a forum that is lightweight? Does not have a lot of added bloated code? Is extremely light on server resources? FluxBB, Flux Bulletin Board, is your most ideal option.
Designed to have unfeatures FluxBB is good for those that need a forum without having to worry about something not working. Obviously the more cool features the more likely something will go wrong. (Any web developer will tell you this.) Still there are many FluxBB modifications if you want. Just the idea here is that are not included in general installs and you add features you want yourself.
FluxBB is not nearly as popular as the MyBB, phpBB, or SMF. There is still a strong dedicated FluxBB community though.
FluxBB won’t win design awards but if you just need something simple this will work. Keep in mind standard FluxBB forums look much better than a lot of the other lightweight options out there. The best FluxBB forum I’ve seen goes to TextPattern, an open source content management system (like WordPress), by a far mile.
Choosing Forum Software
One of the issues I’ve seen with choosing forum software is that is it hard to know what you like, or don’t, about any of the above mentioned forum software options until you have built an active and engaged community. Only after you have used the software for awhile do you truly know if it fits your needs. For anyone that has tried to start a discussion forum from scratch you know it is not easy to build a critical mass and that’s why most people don’t do boards. Also I showcased what the best examples of what you can with MyBB, phpBB, Simple Machines, and FluxBB. Those examples took a lot of work and take a lot of upkeep.
If you go with one of these and you are not happy, you can always switch between forum software. Luckily all the forum software I’ve talked about in this article is written in PHP and uses a MySQL database. Since all these forum software uses the same underlying technology switching is easier between SMF, MyBB, phpBB, and FluxBB if needed. Still dealing with moves can cause headaches and issues depending on the size of the forum and complexity of add-ons. Somebody might have experience dealing with thees problems.
The “best free forum software” is a misnomer as it depends on your goals and what you need out of a discussion forum. Also keep in mind that fans of these forum software still have issues and complaints with them too. The guy who runs HaraJuJu believes that MyBB is in desperate need of a “humanization project” meaning it needs to built for regular people. I totally agree with this.
Like I said above I prefer MyBB even though it’s not entirely intuitive as it at least I feel I can ask questions and get them answered when needed. Others have different preferences for different reasons. A lot of these scripts can be installed via 1-click auto installer by the way. It depends on what web hosting company you use but this allows you to easily give them ‘test run’ to see what you like.
Don’t let anyone tell you that forums are dead because they are not. (These are the same people that say email marketing is dead, which is also not true.) Forums can be better than social media if done properly and they can earn revenue which is always good. Hopefully whatever you choose it will allow you to culminate in having the best forum possible.
If you feel I’ve missed mentioning a feature or want to add your opinion about what you feel the best free forum software is, please leave a comment below. What do you like or don’t like in the open source community? Can you explain why?