Against Threaded Conversations on Blogs

[fr] J'avoue une préférence marquée pour les conversations linéaires plutôt que hierarchiques (en arbre). Les conversations linéaires génèrent peut-être moins de commentaires, mais elles ont un rapport signal/bruit plus favorable, n'encourageant pas le hors-sujet. Elles sont plus faciles à suivre et me semblent plus adaptées aux blogs.

So, now that Going Solo Lausanne is behind me and I can come back to a slightly more sane pace of life (and blogging here, hopefully), I’m starting to read blogs again, a little. Don’t hold your breath too long though, contrary to popular belief, I’ve never been much of a blog-reader.

Blog commenting

One topic I’ve read about a bit, and which is of particular interest for me, is blog commenting. Aside from the fascinating topic (I’m not kidding) of blog comment ownership, which I touched upon myself more than 18 months ago, there is the age-old debate: threaded vs. non-threaded comments.

On the backdrop of my break-up with coComment (impending, in the process, fresh) and their post about commenter’s rights, I’ve taken a closer look at Disqus. It looks promising, it does some stuff I like, but also stuff I really don’t like, like the dreaded threaded comments.

So, here’s an attempt to try to explain why I think that threaded comments in a blog context are not necessarily a good thing — although popular wisdom would have that they are “better” than normal, flat, conversations.

I did a little research to see if I could find anything solid to back up my claims (if anyone knows of proper research on these issues, let me know), but I didn’t find anything really solid. So, I’ll just have to try to make this logical enough that it can be convincing.

The appeal of threaded conversations

Threaded conversations are as old as the internet itself. Usenet, e-mail discussion list archives. So, they’re nothing new, and have been around a while.

When blogs started including comments — oh yes, there were blogs way before there were comments, and the commenting script I used on this blog was for many years a popular destination — so, when blog started including comments, those comments were not threaded (in the sense that they allowed hierarchy in the comments, or branching off, or a tree-like view).

For many years, all I saw on blogs was linear conversations, as opposed to threaded, tree-like conversations. Most forum software also functions like that.

Then, of course, with some regularity, I’ve heard people asking for plugins to make the conversations on their blogs “threaded”. And I wondered. Why the attraction to hierarchical conversations?

When we have a conversation, be it with a single other person, or around a big table, it flows in one direction: the direction of time. There is before, and there is after. One might say “you said something 10 minutes ago that I’d like to answer” — and we’re quite capable of following this kind of conversation. We do it every day.

If we chat, be it on IRC or on IM, or any other kind of chatroom, we know that there are often multiple intertwined conversations going on at the same time. With a bit of practice, it doesn’t bother us too much. But the important point remains: the conversation is ordered chronologically.

So, be it offline or online, most of the conversations we have are time-ordered.

I think the appeal of threaded hierarchical conversations lies in the fact that they seem more “orderly” than one long stream of posts, ordered not necessarily by the logic of the conversation topic, but by the flow of time in which it takes place. It’s hierarchical. It’s organized. It’s neat, mathematical, logical. Algorithmic. Computer-friendly.

But is it brain-friendly?

Human-friendly conversations

Human beings do not think like computers. Though some human beings who spend lots of time programming or give excessive importance to logico-mathematical thinking might like approaching problems and the rest of life in a binary way, that is simply not how most people function. (Literary backdrop for this paragraph: A Perfect Mess.)

I think people who like threaded conversations like them because they have a higher order of organisation than non-threaded conversations. And better organised should be… better.

You won’t be surprised that I disagree with this. A good conversation online, for me, is one that can be easily followed, caught up with, and participated in. In that respect, a linear suite of comments is much easier to read or catch up with than a huge tree. When it comes to participating, the linear conversation offers only one option: add a comment at the end. In the tree, you first have to decide where in the tree you’re going to post. (Literary backdrop for this paragraph: The Paradox of Choice.)

How the format impacts the conversation

Another way to tackle this is to examine what impact hierarchical and linear comment threads have on the conversations they host.

Hierarchical – Threaded:

  • off-topic comments branch off into separate conversations
  • overall, more comments
  • lots of parallel conversations

Linear:

  • conversation stays reasonably focused
  • less comments
  • limited number of parallel conversations

I personally do not think that “more comments = better”. On a blog post, I like to see the conversation stay reasonably focused on the initial topic. For that reason, I think that linear comments are best on a blog.

More conversation is not always better

Of course, there are always parallel conversations going on. On Twitter, on FriendFeed, in IM windows I’ll never know about. As a blogger, I would like a way to point to these conversations from my post, so that a person reading could then have access easily to all the public conversations going on about what they read. Conversation fragmentation is not something we’re going to get rid of, but we can try to minimize it.

Increasingly, our problem is becoming one of signal-to-noise ratio and chatter. These are subjective notions. My signal is somebody else’s noise, and vice versa. I’m happy that there is chatter and small talk in the world and online (it’s a big part of human interaction and what relationships can be made of), also about what I write. But on my blog, I’d like to keep the chatter somewhat down, even if that means my “number of comments per post” or “conversational index” is not high. I’d rather have less conversation here, and give it a chance to be more interesting and accessible to outsiders, than huge 50+ comment threads that nobody is going to read besides the hardcore die-hard social media types.

More reading and listening

You’ll find some of the links I found on del.icio.us. If you’re into videos, the topic was raised about 6 months ago on Seesmic. Here’s what I had to say at the time:

I’ve also dug up a few quotes I found in some old discussions on MeFi. They’re in my Tumblr, but as Tumblr tumbles along, I’m reproducing them here:

If you’re trying to build community, it is clear that linear, non-threaded discussions are superior. There is a good body of research on this – it’s not new, it’s not a novel idea. For tech support stuff, hierarchical tree structures are better, in general.

Micheal Boyle (mikel)

One of the arguments for adding any feature that is designed to hide noise is that it gives it a permanent home. When Slashdot added moderation and auto-hiding to their threads, they gave the -1 NATALIE PORTMAN’S BOOBS brigade a permanent home on the site.

I checked out digg’s new setup earlier this week and 75% of all the comments were complaining about mod points. I don’t know if that’s an improvement.

Matt Haughey

This place is like a pub.

One does not have threaded conversations in a pub.

five fresh fish

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This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged Blogger musings, blogging, Citations, commenting, comments, computer, conversation, conversationalindex, discussion, disqus, hierarchy, human, linear, logic, neatness, order, threaded, tree. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Against Threaded Conversations on Blogs

  1. joaquin says:

    Hi Stephanie, I like your reasoning regarding non threaded conversations for blogs, as long as they stay focused, which is not always easy. Also read your issues with cocomment, I hope there is something we can still do for you. As a start I want you to know that we are reading and responding to your comments. If you let us know aside from removing ads how to help you we will be happy to do so.

    Thanks

  2. Stephanie says:

    Joaquin: thanks for dropping in. From a purely practical point of view, the main thing besides the ads that is keeping me “cold” for coComment is that there does not seem to be a way for me to export my data, should I decide to stop using the service. This might seem paradoxical, but I'm very hesitant to keep on using a service (with which there are issues) if I know that each time I place data in it it's going to be locked in. So that would be one reasonably small concrete step coComment could take in the direction of its users — and easy to measure, too.


    Some of the other issues are way more complex, like communication and brand image (I don't recognize myself in there anymore), but let's leave that aside for the moment.

  3. blacky says:

    I think there is another aspect to the comparison of pub conversations (and to an extent, IRC and IM) and blog comments. First of all, the former are usually realtime, i.e. it's a true dialog (multilog?) of people and whoever reads it can read it as it comes. This usually means that you have enough time to digest what you read since the other party/ies are thinking about (and typing) their ideas. There is a threshold of people (and topic complexity) where this starts to break down and it becomes increasingly difficult to follow the conversation, especially if it's a bit out of your league.


    Regarding blog comments, this has two effects. One is that some blogs tend to turn into chat rooms if they're not moderated. This has as least as much to do with the commenters/audience of the blog as with the topics it covers. Some blog owners resort to moderating or aggressive deletion of “chat comments”. The second effect is that sometimes, people think very hard and long before they post a three-sentence comment. If I read comments “after the fact”, for example a conversation that is a week old, it can be hard to follow. I'd have to pace myself when reading, which is a hard thing to do, especially if I am very interested in the topic. Mind you, this is not to say that people need to lower the quality of their comments! Still, with threaded comments, I can see if the discussion goes off on a tangent I'm not interested in and thus I can save the effort.


    You quite correctly assume that most of this holds true for technical discussions. But I think it holds true for any discussion that is complicated enough or maybe abstract enough.


    So on the whole, I prefer threaded comments, which is quite probably also due to my rather technical background. Having done quite a lot of discussion on Usenet and by Mail probably has a lot to do with it, too.

  4. Christophe says:

    Hi Steph,

    When you mention exporting your data from coComment, which data do you actually think about ? Your own comments ? The conversations you track, including all comments from those ?

    We offer the export of conversation for conversation we managed (so called outsourced conversation), but for individual users, this is a little more tricky to understand what would actually make sense.

    Re threaded conversation, yes, a long debate, with many pros and cons…… But I guess that it actually depend on the type of conversation you get on your blog. I think there is an intermediate solution between the two conversation modes: being able to reply (refer) to a specific comment in a way that it is visible when reading the comments: the way we do it on non threaded conversations (using the @), become really confusing when there are many comments.

    For outsourced conversations, we have implemented a “quote” feature, so you can quote a comment (or part of it): you can see it in action on voxday blog. I see this as a first step, but I’m sure there is more to do ;-)

  5. Stephanie says:

    HI Christophe, when I say export my data, I mean export the comments that I wrote — strictly speaking, the content that I added to the system. Just like del.icio.us allows you to export all your saved links (and comments/tags on them) into a big HTML/XML file. This does not include the tracking data or content created by other people.

  6. Stephanie says:

    blacky: one of my points here is that if you provide threaded comments, you encourage conversations to go off on tangents.

  7. blacky says:

    Steph: I'm not sure that's always the case. Or rather: I doubt it makes a large difference. Some topics obviously are more prone to discussion fragmentation. Making clear (in the blog post) what the point is helps much more. As for broad topics, I tend to make them seperate postings in a series, possibly with a conclusive/wrap-up/minutes type of post at the end. Sure, this pre-fragments the discussion, but sometimes making points individually is better than having them all in one discussion and going nowhere with it. A panel discussion is probably very similar in this regard, but it's a bit harder to moderate since everything is realtime.


    Bottom line: I think the positive aspects of threaded discussions outweigh the negative sides. But that naturally is something blog owners should decided for themselves.

  8. Nicolas Krebs says:

    If you don’t want many comments (and therefore ban threaded discussions), there is a more powerfull way: ban discussions and close comments (such in this http://www.glazman.org/weblog/dotclear/?post/2008/06/09/Football ).

    (of course your others arguments are laughtables)

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