The Art of Programming

To Thread or Not To Thread Comments

15. January 2009 03:24 by Scott in   //  Tags: , ,   //   Comments (6)

With building a Social Site you always have to weigh the needs to have interaction with the site.  The current standard for any interaction is the comments section of the sites. The comment section is the talk back, the conversation to the site.  It is what allows for user participation and what most people would declare what Web 2.0 really is.  It allows the comment section to enable user interaction.  In building a site that would be used as a somewhat social site, you have to ask your self do you want to see a conversation another one sided page that has no interaction.  Would you rather get user feedback or just be one sided in everything you write or have to say.  You can't get feedback to see if they enjoy what your posting. You won't get a conversation going which inevitably makes the user want to come back to the site. The fact is, we need comments in the internet, we need conversation.

So in building a site, you have to worry about if you want it to be web 2.0 or web 1.0.  Comments in general are becoming standard on any site out there.  It is on all major social sites and it allows for more interaction between the users.  I don't see any problems with comments.  But I would like to start calling it something different.  A Conversation.  I call it a conversation today because more and more people are commenting.  More and more people are clicking that button to get a notification on what people say.  When you comment you save a part of your self on that site.

The Point

Comments are good, but threaded comments are better.  We are trying to build an online world.  We are trying to create a conversation that any person of any race of any creed and color can voice their ideas on.  Comments allow for anonymous participation in the world of tomorrow.  Free Speech.  Governments ban it and people are killed over what they say, but on the internet, you have all the free speech you want.  To create a conversation, you have to allow talk backs, you have to allow the user to reply to any other user.  You have to make sure a conversation can be had with any other user on the Web 2.0 site.  So in developing my site, I chose to use threaded comments as the default. Flat Comments can be chosen if they want to see flat comments.  Some people just can't handle threaded comments.  But if you think about it, Flat comments can also be threaded.

Just think of when someone posts:

@John,
Your Wrong!

@Tim,
I don't care what you have to say, threaded is better.

A conversation is happening right here if you like it or not. Threaded comments are at least for now the way of the future.  Someone else will invent a better way to have a conversation over a website, but for now threaded is my default and it should be yours too! Help carry on the conversation of the world and thread your comments.

Ask the Readers: What do you think, should threaded comments be a default?

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Comments (6) -

Almost Anon
Almost Anon
1/15/2009 10:27:02 AM #

Joel Spolsky disagrees with you:

www.joelonsoftware.com/.../...mmunitieswithSo.html

A few choice quotes:

"On Usenet, threads last for months and months and go off onto so many tangents that you never know where they've been."

"On Slashdot, every thread has hundreds of replies, many of which are identical, so the conversation there feels insipid and stupid."

"Branching makes discussions get off track, and reading a thread that is branched is discombobulating and unnatural. "

Gabe da Silveira
Gabe da Silveira
1/15/2009 11:15:24 AM #

I tackled this recently for my startup and came to a pretty opinionated conclusion.

First, I had a nagging dislike for the kinds of threaded comments that you often see in large corporate portal-type blogs, but I couldn't place my finger on what the problem was.  In my twenty years of Internet use I've over time tended to prefer single thread conversations (that allow quoting).

The conclusion I ended up coming to is that threaded comments are not a conversation.  One thread may be a conversation, but if you can keep branching out more threads, then the entire tree, while definitely a unit of some sort, is NOT a conversation.  Like Joel says it is unnatural, this is not how conversations work in real life.  That said, in some places threading is totally necessary.  What are those places?

Well, basically, if there are too many comments for it to be a real conversation then threads allow meaningful discourse to continue where in real life some mediation such as a town hall format would be necessary.  Unlike what the middle quote above seems to be implying (I think), Slashdot has it perfectly right, and has one of the best comment systems to manage high volume blog/social news style comments.  So the key really is volume.  If you have a ton of comments flooding in they need to be organized, and to do that you have to trade some continuity, and the side effect is that it's harder to read and creates weird incentives like off-topic postings to the first thread so comments show up higher.

However for the vast majority of sites and forums which don't have the volume and comment spikes that major blogs have, I think a non-threaded quote-based structure is better.  Done right, this allows posts to have comments, and for there to exist internal threads of conversation, but there isn't the forced decomposition that occurs with interface-based threads.  At any time someone can come along and quote various posts and tie discussion back together again, which is a much more satisfying way for conversations to develop, especially if you want them to continue over the long term.  

Scott
Scott
1/15/2009 11:16:24 AM #

I can see what Joel writes.  Its extremely informative, but what about you.  The guys over at reddit.com tend to think they are better.  And Reddit is vastly more popular than slashdot...

Gabe da Silveira
Gabe da Silveira
1/15/2009 1:09:28 PM #

Which of us are you responding too?  And where does your assertion that Reddit is vastly more popular than Slashdot come from?  And who are "the guys over at reddit"?

From what I can tell they have comparable traffic numbers, but Slashdot gets many more comments per post (which is of key importance to my thesis).  Also, I challenge anyone to make a case that the quality of comments that float to the top of Reddit are better than what you get browsing at +5 on Slashdot.

Another thing is that Reddit like Digg before it, is losing the quality of submissions and commentary as it grows.  Today Digg is barely edging out YouTube in terms of comment quality.  These sites have not managed to solve the problem of an exploding audience.  Meanwhile Slashdot has been around forever and was the only game in town for trolls.  They have a system that has weathered more difficulties and proven itself over a decade.  Although I have basically lost hope for Digg, I think Reddit may be able to salvage itself, but it hasn't yet developed a long-term scalable identity.  If success is page views and quantity of banal one-liners and bad puns then social news sites have the model right.  However I'm more interested in substantive discussion that takes place online, and that is mostly confined to smaller niche communities, blogs, and maybe twitter.  Slashdot for all its flaws has managed to put more order in a 1000-comment, single-day discussion than anyone else.  Maybe Reddit will surpass them, but they haven't yet.

Wayne
Wayne
5/4/2009 3:02:17 PM #

meh.  BE 1.5 finally has threaded comments, and I'm changing my theme to accommodate them, because honestly, I prefer to reply to individuals, and not a single comment where I address everyone.  Personal preference.

Btw...I'm going to be updating this theme for threaded comments too.  Are you interested in it?

Scott
Scott
5/5/2009 7:12:33 AM #

@Wayne, If I had threaded comments for this theme it would be very nice.  Wouldn't have to reply to the entire thread.  Let me know when you get it done.  Ill take it.

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