Why we're not a forum
The first thing to realize is that Stack Exchange brands itself as a Q&A site. This is the very top of the content when you go to http://stackexchange.com. It calls out that this is something different than forums, that there are right answers.
When one goes to the tour page, note the wording of the text there:
This site is all about getting answers. It's not a discussion forum. There's no chit-chat. Just questions... and answers.
Going further into the help center, one finds What topics can I ask about here? which links to three other pages that goes into more about what isn't allowed on the site:
On the nature of discussions
The nature of a discussion is back and forth. Lines of communication. Look at sites that are intended for discussion and you will find threads and nested comments and a system that isn't designed around getting answers but rather to make connections with people.
Stack Exchange is different. As stated in the tour and time and time again in other documents, this is a Q&A site. As such it has intentionally made having these discussions difficult. Things such as limited sizes of comments, limited markdown in comments, the automatic move comment to chat feature.
Discussions make it harder to find the answer - you have to wade through all the other stuff.
As an aside, there is nothing worse than trying to go from reading a post, to reading the comments to going back to the post to see the reply, and back to the comments to see the next reply and back to the post... Don't do that. Remove the 'Edit:' and 'Update:' from your edit, make the entire thing a cohesive whole and leave a comment saying that the post has been updated to take this into account - people can read the revision history if they want to see what changed.</rant>
There are sites that do discussions very well... or, as well as discussions can be done. Jeff Atwood even went off to make another site model designed precisely for discussions (http://www.discourse.org)... and it's not a Q&A site.
It's not to say that one can't try to mix Q&A and discussions. But it's very hard to do both right. It's hard enough to do one of them right. Stack Exchange chose to get Q&A right.
Where else can discussions be had?
If you do want to have a discussion there are some options:
- Visit chat. The Whiteboard chat room is one such place within the Stack Exchange network where discussions are allowed (and encouraged).
- Ask somewhere else. There are numerous other sites out there that are designed for discussions. Reddit, Hacker News, Slashdot, Quora to name a few. These are sites that are specifically designed with discussions in mind - the voting system on them, the moderation, the community formed around them - all about discussions.
So why is it a big deal?
The problem with discussions is that discussions can easily overwhelm the rest of the site. Unlike objective questions that have answers (and if asked again can be directed to the previous one asked that will answer this one too), discussions of the same topic are infinite in their variety based on the participants.
Stack Exchange is based on the premise that good questions and answers attract and retain the experts that answer them and that people come to find answers. The quality that Stack Exchange provides is unique within the Internet so far (quite a few clones, but none as compelling).
Furthermore, discussions tend to drive away experts. Not always, but it's the trend. This has been seen many times since the days of Usenet news... experts really don't want to spend their time arguing with someone who doesn't understand the topic at hand when they want to just answer a question... and if they do, there are ways to have that discussion via other channels.
This is not to say that there are experts who do enjoy discussions... and that Stack Exchange isn't exactly working for them. This is unfortunate, but it does not mean that discussions need to be allowed or that Stack Exchange needs to change.
Related reading and links from above: