This is probably the most complicated "forums" style website I have ever seen. It's incredibly disorganized. Think Atheist is another atheist Ning website, and while it is also frustrating to navigate, it is steps ahead of this one. I blame this mostly on Ning. Honestly, phpBB forums would be better than Ning.
One non-Ning issue that I constantly run into is that people post discussions in groups instead of on the main site. This means every person who wants to reply has to join the group. This also means the discussion will not show up on the main discussions page, forcing us to manually check the "My Groups" tab to see if there are any updates to our groups and then to manually check each updated group to see what happened. And even then, as far as I can tell, often nothing actually happened. (Maybe it indicates "activity" when someone joins?) Anyway, I see absolutely no reason to post discussions in groups, unless the subject matter is not allowed in the main forums. It just decreases the chances and frequency of a discussion being replied to and divides content and the community unnecessarily (of which "blogs" vs "discussions" already does a bang-up job). There have been several occasions where I wanted to reply to a discussion but realized the author posted it on a group page. Sorry, I'm not going to contribute to this mess by joining your group.
The front page is cluttered beyond reason. I don't even know why I go there anymore. I have actually AdBlocked a lot of crap that just took up room. When I visit AN now, I link to the "Forum" section and have it switched to "Discussions" view because the default "Categories" view is absolutely useless.
I spend a great deal of time reading the bottom right corner of the screen, "Latest Activity," because I often find it more convenient than checking 3, 4, even 5 separate pages and still not seeing all of the updates. So why is something so important just a tiny box in the corner? Think Atheist has definitely done some things right that AN could learn from.
Also, Think Atheist seems to have an updated text editor script, because the problem of the cursor randomly jumping to the beginning was fixed a while ago, same with the problem of quote mode getting stuck on.
Well, that's my critique. AN has a pretty decent community, but I would really like to see in the future the merging of sites like AN and Think Atheist onto a non-Ning platform that is more conducive to discussions.
I disagree with your complaint that
people post discussions in groups instead of on the main site. This means every person who wants to reply has to join the group.
It's unworkable to have all discussions in one giant grab bag. What's wrong with joining a group? It's not like they charge you dues or something. Granted that many groups have infrequent activity, but they're still there when you want to share something on that topic.
In a way there's a dilemma for a social network as small and specialized as ours. If we had all discussions mushed together on the main page, the site would seem more active, like lots of conversations happening. But it would be cross talk, and most of the topics wouldn't interest you. By sorting our discussions into interest groups, every group becomes quite small, for example atheists who like motorcycles, trading relevance for the impression one has walked into an empty room. If you just want to talk motorcycles, other sites have more participants.
But AN isn't just a specialized niche, it's a superior troll free social network! I love it because I'm not verbally attacked. It's civilized here. I need that far more than thousands of members in my group.
One complaint I have is that the list "my discussions" only includes main site discussions. Sometimes I want to refer back to a discussion I started months ago in a group, and there is no easy way to retrieve it.
I don't know if your theory holds true. Personally, I am most interested in discussions people are posting in groups and am rarely bothered to even read the discussions that people post on the main forum. Also, I don't think this place is active enough to truly need to divide it up, although I do see your point. The main forum is divided into categories, but checking through each category of interest for new posts is another level of frustrating on top of everything else that would probably make me explode.
I've set up a few phpBB sites. It's very simple with clear instructions, as much "plug-and-play" as it can get without having a button that says "Install phpBB" on the hosting control panel, which some hosts actually do have. I'm not saying Ning isn't easier; it may very well be, just probably not by much.