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Stories to Listen to, Moderating Blog Comments, Teaching Blogging [en]

Stories to Listen to, Moderating Blog Comments, Teaching Blogging [en]

[fr] Deux ou trois épisodes de podcasts à écouter. Quelques réflexions sur les commentaires de blog (spam ou non?) et la difficulté d'apprendre à bloguer.

Listen to Greetings from Coney Island. I swear you won’t be disappointed. Just don’t make the same mistake I did, and be a bit distracted early on, not realising there are two parallel stories, told by two women with (to me) very similar voices. I actually reached the end of the story before realising I had missed the whole point, so I listened to it all again. It was worth it.

vue cham

Another episode of Love+Radio reminded me of a Moth story I heard quite a long time ago now. It’s about a volunteer at a suicide prevention hotline. That story made me understand something about suicide (which I am lucky not to know from the inside): it’s not about wanting to die, it’s about wanting the pain to stop. Like many Moth stories, it’s beautifully told and very moving. Well worth the small moment of your life you will spend listening to it.

I know, this blog is turning into a podcast review. But not only. See.

One of the challenges I face as editor-in-chief of Open Ears is approving comments. Not so much because we publish controversial articles that have people biting each other’s heads off in the comments (not at all, actually), but more because

  1. spambots are getting better and better at sounding human
  2. some humans are sounding more and more like spambots.

About the latter: people like me have been saying for years that a great way to get your website or blog known is to comment on other blogs. But that’s not quite the whole story. Aligning fluffy or self-promotional comments on other people’s blogs might get your “nofollowed” links out there, but isn’t really going to do what matters, which is encouraging people to actually know you and read your stuff because they’re interested. Clicks and visits only really mean anything if they come from the heart.

So what does work? Well, actually, being a valued member of the communities you are part of. At the time, during the Golden Age of Blogging, leaving meaningful comments on blogs you read and linked to was a way of being that. It’s not about the links, it’s about the place you respectfully take or are given willingly. Add value. Be helpful. Try and make friends. That’s the spirit of “leaving comments”.

Which brings me to an important piece of blogging advice I came up with while trying to teach my latest batch of students the basics of blogging (it was, to put it kindly, a mixed success): blog about stuff that’s in your head. Write about what you know. If you have to google around to factcheck this or that, find a link, or look up a detail, that’s fine. But if you find yourself doing research and reading up to gather the material for your blog post (and the post is not about your research), chances are you’re “doing it wrong”.

Blogging is this weird thing which as at the same time so easy (for “natural bloggers”) but so hard to learn or teach. I think that is because it touches upon “being” more than “doing”. It’s about daring a certain degree of authenticity that we are not encouraged to wear in our school or professional lives. And it’s definitely not how we learn to write. In a way, teaching blogging is a bit like trying to teach people to dare to be themselves in public. This makes you think of Brené Brown and vulnerability, does it not? Exactly. And that is why, I think, blogging is a powerful tool to connect people.

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Measuring a Blog's Success: Visitors and Comments Don't Cut It [en]

Measuring a Blog's Success: Visitors and Comments Don't Cut It [en]

[fr] Un blog, c'est un investissement à long terme. Six mois, un an au moins sans se poser de questions, avant d'essayer de voir si "ça marche" ou pas. Et ne mesurez pas son succès aux visiteurs et aux commentaires. Plutôt, trouvez un moyen plus qualitatif de mesurer les bénéfices que vous en retirez, en vous basant sur la raison pour laquelle vous tenez ce blog.

Interestingly, a large part of my work right now seems to revolved around blogging. I’m happy about that. I’ve been blogging for over 10 years now, and went I became self-employed mid-2006 the first “title” I used was “blogging consultant”. Because back then, it was about blogs (and maybe wikis, and maybe social software, but not “social media”).

Anyway, I digress.

What I want to point out is that if you start a blog, or your company starts a blog, it’s important to have realistic expectations about the kind of benefits you’ll reap, and when, and how to measure them.

Even in 2011, too many people imagine that if you’re doing a good job with your blog, it will translate into thousands of visits per day and dozens of comments within a few weeks.

No way.

Those blogs with thousands of visits per day and dozens of comments are edge-cases, and have probably been at it for longer than you have.

Blogs and comments are actually not a good way of measuring the success of a blog. Honestly, if your blog has a few hundred readers a day and you get a comment now and again, you’re doing fine.

To measure the success of your blog, you need to think back to the reason you’re doing it. What do you want to get out of it? Chances are that “having as many people as possible visit it” is not the reason you’re doing it.

Maybe you want to change the perception people have of you. Maybe you want to showcase certain things you’re doing. Maybe you want to attract a certain type of person — reader, writer, or contributor. Maybe it’s the “marketing budget” for your business. Maybe you want to share a passion. Maybe you want an outlet to express yourself.

There are many reasons to want a blog. And most of them are perfectly valid (one that’s not, most of the time: make money with it).

But don’t go around measuring readers and comments to judge your success just because they’re convenient numbers.

Maybe what you need to do is create a scrapbook of all the things people spontaneously say about your blog, online or off. Maybe you need to make a list of events or situations where your blog was an ice-breaker or opened doors for you.

That seems to make way more sense than counting visits and comments. I mean, if those are so important to make somebody happy, they can be gamed.

Blogging takes time. It takes time because it takes time to think, write, link, tag, categorize, illustrate, title, proof, and publish. It takes time to be creative, and if your ambition for your blog is to be more than a collection of breaking news, hot topics and catchy headlines, blogging is a creative job.

But blogging also takes time because it’s a long-term strategy. When blogging started being hot, there were these numbers flying around, telling us that the average blog on the web was 3 months old and had 3 articles (or something like that). People started blogging, and abandoned their blogs very quickly.

When starting a blog, I wouldn’t worry about if it’s working or not before at least six months or a year. People are in such a hurry nowadays. All this hype about real-time, the internet being a place of unprecedented speed, the acceleration of innovation, not to say the “overnight successes” we keep hearing about but which languished in obscurity for ages before coming to the light. And even if there are real “overnight sensations”, they are, as I said above, edge cases.

And your blog will not be an edge case.

Your blog can work fine and do its job, but it will not be an edge case.

Unless your blog is your product — and in this case you’re clearly in the media business, and not using your blog as a communication tool — it is not to be looked at as a service or product people are going to use everyday and flock to. Instead, it’s a collection of valuable, long-lasting, well-indexed information. It’s the expression of something. It colours who you are.

And that takes time — not just the time of labour, but the days and months flying by in the calendar, so that value can accumulate, and become valuable.

Let me sum up this long rambling post in a few points:

  • blogging is a long-term strategy: it will take many months or even years for you to see what benefits it’s actually bringing you
  • don’t obsess on visitors and comments; instead, focus on what is said about your blog, and the opportunities it brings, in terms of contacts, open doors, favorable dispositions (qualitative measurement rather than quantitative)

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Catching up With Backtype [en]

Catching up With Backtype [en]

[fr] BackType: pour voir les commentaires que je fais dans la blogosphère, l'impact "social" de mon blog, les derniers tweets qui le référencent, et un plugin WordPress (TweetCount) qui va remplacer TechMeme pour moi, simplement parce qu'il liste effectivement les tweets référençant l'article en question, ce que TechMeme ne fait pas.

Image representing BackType as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

A few weeks ago I read that BackType was going to discontinue the BackType Connect plugin that I had used some time back here on CTTS, which prompted me to (a bit hastily, I’ll admit) make a comment about how you’re really better off not relying on a third party for hosting your comments (which is not what BackType does, my bad).

The BackType Connect plugin took offsite reactions to your blog posts (tweets, for example) and published them as comments. I have to say I was never really really happy with the plugin: installing it made me realize that most mentions of my posts on Twitter were retweets (or spambots) and that I didn’t want to mix that kind of “reaction” with my comments. At one point the plugin really stopped working (or gave me some kind of grief) and I dropped it.

I actually liked BackType a lot when they started out, and I owe them big time for saving hundreds of my blog comments when I dropped my database early 2009. Even though I wasn’t using their plugin, I was unhappy about the announcement — and even more unhappy when I discovered that my user page had disappeared (yes, the one displaying all the comments I’d made on other blogs and this one, which replaced what I’d used coComment for).

BackType, however, did something I liked a lot, and wished TweetMeme had done: allow me to see all the latest tweets linking to Climb to the Stars. This prompted me to take a closer look at what BackType was actually still doing, and report my findings of interest back to you, dear readers.

  1. Good surprise: BackType actually does still allow me to track comments I make all over the blogosphere — but it uses my URL rather than my user account to identify me.
  2. Already mentioned: tweets linking to my blog. Including old ones.
  3. The social impact of any URL: tweets, comments and friendfeed mentions over time, complete with mugshots of “top influencers“.
  4. TweetCount plugin, which is probably going to replace the TweetMeme plugin I was using until now,  because BackType actually lists tweets linking back to a post (compare with the TweetMeme page for the same post). I’ve always found TweetMeme a bit too close to Digg and TechMeme (you know I’m no fan of the race for popularity or breaking news). TweetCount counts a few less tweets than TechMeme, and I suspect its results are cleaner.
  5. If you like displaying tweets mentioning your posts on your blog, you should also check out the BackTweets plugin.

Does BackType do anything else that seems precious to you?

Conversation fragmentation is still an issue in today’s blogosphere, but tools like BackType (and even the Facebook Like button!) are helping is stitch the different pieces together.

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Twitter Killed My Blog and Comments Killed Our Links [en]

Twitter Killed My Blog and Comments Killed Our Links [en]

I hope the provocative title grabbed your attention.

Let me say it straight out: my blog is not dead, neither are our links.

But I still have a point.

Twitter is IRC on steroids, for those of you who have already experienced the irresistable draw of a chatroom full of smart witty people, 24/7. Twitter is my very own IRC channel, where I do not have to hear those I do not care about. It’s less geeky than IRC, which means that many of my “online spaces” collide there.

It’s intoxicating. I love it. I can spend all day there.

But that’s not why I would provocatively say that it has killed my blog. Twitter is a content-sharing space, not just a super IRC channel. Found an interesting link? Five years ago, it would have morphed into a blog post, because that was pretty much the only way to share it. Nowadays, dump it in Twitter. Arrived safely at destination? Again, 5 years ago, blog post. Now, tweet.

New tools have an impact on how we use old tools. Sometimes we abandon them altogether, but most of the time, we just redefine the way we use them. This is what I was trying to explore in the first panel I ever moderated, at BlogTalk 2008 (crappy video).

So, no, Twitter did not kill my blog, but take a group of bloggers and give them Twitter accounts, and the temperature of the blogosphere changes. All the high-speed stuff moves to Twitter.

If you just look at the present, it’s no big deal. People are still connecting. That’s what all this social media/software is about, right? Connecting people. Online. But the problem with us spending all our time swimming in the real-time stream is that it’s just that, a real-time stream. Not much is left of it once it has passed.

Take this short piece about translation I wrote nearly 10 years ago. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s still there, as readable as it was when I wrote it. Had this taken place on Twitter, nothing much would be left of it. Gone with the wind, if I dare say.

Many many years ago when I first started blogging (can you tell I’m on a nostalgic streak?), blogs did not have comments. Hell, I barely even had permalinks when I started. Permalinks were the key, though: they allowed bloggers to link to each other’s writings.

And we did. Conversations would bounce from blog to blog. They weren’t chatty like on IM, IRC, or Twitter. They were blog-post-speed conversations. We would have to think (a little) before we wrote.

Even though comments are a wonderful invention and I would never want to take them back, they did ruin this, in a way. People started leaving comments all over the place and didn’t come back to their blogs to write about the conversations they were participating in. It’s one of the reasons I was so excited about coComment when it came out, or services like BackType (which also seems to have backed out of tracking comments one makes) or Disqus. (Aside: see, I’d love somebody to hire me to do some research and write a memo on the current state of the comment-tracking-sphere and all the players involved. I could totally see myself doing that.)

With comments came less of an incentive to link to each other on our blogs. With Twitter (and Facebook), less of an incentive to share certain things on our blogs, and also, less of an incentive to comment, as it became much easier to just “tweet a quickie” to the post author (therefore making our activity visible to all our followers). And with the death of Technorati tags (I’ll call it that), we bloggers are now connecting to each other on other social networks than the blogosphere.

I think it’s time to actively reclaim the blogosphere as our own, after leaving it for too long at the hands of marketing and PR.

Bloggers, it’s time to wake up! Write blog posts. Link to your fellow bloggers. Leave comments on their posts, or better, respond to them on your blogs.

We don’t have to abandon Twitter and Facebook — just remember that first and foremost, we are writers, and that “conversation” (though ’tis a wonderful thing) is not writing.

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Comment Ownership, Reloaded [en]

Comment Ownership, Reloaded [en]

Nearly four years ago, I wrote a post about comment ownership and coComment (it was initially published on their blog, and I moved it over here at some point). I don’t use coComment anymore, but a few of the points I made then are still valid.

Comment ownership is a complex problem. The commenter writes the comment, but the blog owner hosts it. So of course, the blog owner has the right to decide what he agrees to host or not. But the person who wrote the comment might also want to claim some right to his writing once it’s published.

And also the following:

There are times when one could say the “blog owner rights” and “comment writer’s rights” come into conflict. How do you manage such situations?

Here’s an example. Somebody e-mails me, out of the blue, to ask me to remove a comment of his on a post published ages ago (ironically, it’s the post published just before the one I’m quoting above!)

I went to look at the comment in question, and frankly, it’s completely innocuous. So I googled that person’s name and realised that my post appears somewhere in the middle of the first page of results. This gives me a guess as to why the person is contacting me to remove the comment.

And really, it seems pretty petty to me. And removing that comment bugs me, because I responded to it, and the person responded back, so what the person is in fact asking me to do is to remove (or dismember) a conversation in the comments of my blog, which has been sitting there for nearly four years. All that because they’re not happy that CTTS makes their comment appear somewhere on the first page of results for a Google search on their name.

Which brings me back to comment ownership. Saying the comment belongs to the commentator is simplistic. C’mon, if everybody who left a comment on CTTS these last 10 years started e-mailing me to remove them because they “taint” their ego-googling, I simply wouldn’t have time to deal with all the requests.

But saying the comment belongs to the blog owner is simplistic too.

I think we’re in a situation which mirrors (in complexity) that of photography ownership between model and photographer. With the added perk that in the case of blog comments, as soon as it is published, the comment becomes part of a conversation that the community is taking part in. Allowing people to remove published comments on a whim breaks that. (Just like bloggers don’t usually delete posts unless there is a very strong reason to do so — when published, it becomes part of something bigger than itself, that we do not own.)

So, for this situation, I guess the obvious response is to change the full name to initials or a nickname, and leave the comment.

But I see this with discussion lists, too. The other day, a pretty annoyed woman was complaining that somebody had called her out of the blue about coworking, when she was not at all interested in sharing an office space. Well, she had written a message or two on a local coworking discussion list, with all her contact details in signature.

What do you expect? And what happened to taking a deep breath and deciding “OK, I’ll do things differently in the future” when you realise you behaved a little cluelessly in the past?

I think all this concern about e-reputation is going to start becoming a real pain in the neck. Get over it, people. Open a blog and make sure you own your online identity, and you can stop worrying about the comments you made four years ago.

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Conversation in Comments vs. Conversation in Twitter [en]

Conversation in Comments vs. Conversation in Twitter [en]

[fr] Twitter n'est pas en train de tuer les conversations dans les commentaires des blogs. Le bavardage s'est déplacé dans Twitter, Friendfeed, Facebook -- mais quand certains disent que la conversation y est meilleure, ils ignorent le fait qu'il y a plusieurs sortes de conversation.

Hey, another “vs.” post! It must be because I get tired quickly of people comparing apples and oranges, and saying that we’re not going to eat apples anymore because we now have oranges.

A good year and a half ago there was some talk around the fact that the conversation had moved out of blogs and into Twitter and Friendfeed.

That’s not quite true: some of the conversation has moved from blog comments into the stream. The chatter, mainly.

Just like, when comments first started appearing on weblogs (remember those times, folks?) — well, some of the conversation that was happening from blog post to blog post moved into the comments.

But there was already conversation. Blogs without comments are still blogs.

So, what has happened? The more immediate, chat-like conversation has indeed moved out of blog comments and into Twitter, Facebook, and Friendfeed-like services. The short one-liners. But the real value-adding comments, those that make the conversation meaningful, those that actually discuss in depth what the blogger wrote, or contribute something beyond “great post” or “load of horseshit” — those are still there in our blog comments.

I see a parallel here with the distinction I make between live-tweeting and live-blogging. I’m not anti-Twitter or anti-anything: I love Twitter, and use it for more than my fair share of chatter. But the chatter of today most often has lost its appeal tomorrow, and will not take the place of deep conversation that one can catch up with even once it has gone cold.

This, by the way, is also the root of my dislike of threaded conversations on blogs.

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WordPress on my iPhone [en]

WordPress on my iPhone [en]

Wow, just checking out the new WordPress iPhone app. It now allows comment moderation management, post and page editing, as well as saving non-local drafts. I’m going to start using it regularly… Though maybe not for writing my usual unending posts for CTTS!

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Disqus Plugin Aftermath: Removing Duplicate Comments [en]

Disqus Plugin Aftermath: Removing Duplicate Comments [en]

[fr] Comment se débarrasser de 5000 commentaires à double dans sa base de données WordPress!

Now that Disqus integrates Friendfeed comments, I could be tempted to give it another try, if I hadn’t spent an hour yesterday cleaning up my database because of an earlier attempt to use Disqus on this blog. After the story, how I did it — in case you’re in the same mess and could use the help.

Back in August, I installed the Disqus plugin for WordPress. Things started off not too badly, though I was a bit concerned that the plugin seemed to have duplicated all the comments in my database. It didn’t seem to show up on the blog though, so I didn’t worry too much.

After a few months, I was a bit frustrated with Disqus and the plugin (which was clearly an older version than the Disqus plugin available now). Moderating comments through the WordPress interface seemed to work erraticly, and some spam just wouldn’t accept to stay in the spambox. I never really tried to identify the exact problems too closely, I have to admit, but things were not really working how I expected them to.

Then a few (unrelated) people told me they had completely failed to comment on my blog with the new system. At some point, I got fed up and uninstalled it. Unfortunately, the duplicate comments which had been hidden from view remained there after uninstalling the plugin, so all the old comments appeared on the blog twice. I let the problem sit for a long time before attempting to fix it — wild hope there might be a ready-made script out there I could just run& in vain.

Here’s how I tackled the problem this week-end and ended up removing the duplicate comments without too much trouble, through PhpMyAdmin (PMA for short).

  • In PMA, I made sure that duplication seemed constant — it was
  • I discovered that the duplicate comments had “DISQUS” in the user-agent field
  • I dug around until I identified the last duplicate comment (when I installed the Disqus plugin, actually; I sorted the database comments table by comment date to do that)
  • I did a search, selecting comments which were younger than the last duplicate comment date AND had “DISQUS” in the user-agent field (the date bit is important, because comments posted while the plugin were active have “DISQUS” in the user-agent field but are not duplicates)
  • Then, I deleted everything that came up in the search — about 5000 comments (it helps to tell PMA to display 3000 lines per page when doing that :-))

Hope this can help somebody, and remember: always back up your database first!

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Tumblr to Capture Comments? [en]

Tumblr to Capture Comments? [en]

[fr] J'aimerais un système permettant de publier directement sur mon Tumblr les commentaires que je laisse sur d'autres blogs, sans passer par coComment.

The other evening, I was explaining that I still used coComment to capture the comments I made on other blogs. As always, people try to suggest alternatives: [co.mments](http://co.mments.com/) or [disqus](http://disqus.com/), for example. I appreciate the suggestions, but they show me that I haven’t managed to make myself clear.

CoComment does two main things:

– **track** conversations you participate in (or want to keep an eye on) so that you are alerted when a new comment is added to the thread
– **capture** the comments you make on other blogs so that you can collect them somewhere or republish them.

I use mainly the second feature. I’m not that interested in tracking all the conversations I take part in. Every now and again I am, and co.mments does indeed do the job, in an *ad hoc* way. Disqus is quite exciting and also allows centralization of the comments I make *with the system* (if I got it right), but it has the great disadvantage of still being too “blogger-centric” instead of “commenter-centric”: sure, I can install disqus on my blog (as a blogger), but it isn’t going to help me capture or track all my comments until all the blogs I visit have done the same.

So, like at the end of a [messy break-up](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2008/04/19/more-on-cocomment-advertising/) where you’re still sleeping with your ex, I’m still using coComment for the following:

– **capture** the comments I make all over the place and republish them in [my Tumblr](http://steph.tumblr.com).

That’s it. One thing coComment does pretty well, despite all the criticism I can make to the service, is capture comments I leave in a variety of comment forms (from WordPress to FriendFeed and Typepad and Blogger and even home-made in some cases) and spit them out in an RSS feed.

Yesterday, an idea dawned on me: what I really want is for my [comments to be published in my Tumblr](http://getsatisfaction.com/tumblr/topics/using_tumblr_to_capture_comments_made_on_other_blogs). Maybe we can come up with a way to do that directly?

I use Tumblr loads, and love it. The main thing I actively use it for (I’ve embedded a few RSS feeds in it) is for quoting interesting passages off blog/articles that I read. It’s very easy:

3 Steps to Share a Quote on Tumblr

1. highlight some text on a page
2. click on the Tumblr bookmarklet
3. Tumblr automagically recognizes it as a quote, and pops up a window which you use to publish it.

The result of all this is that I have [a Tumblr](http://steph.tumblr.com/) which is full of quotes, comments (thankfully coComment seem to have [removed the nasty ads from the RSS feed I complained about](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2008/03/31/please-dont-be-rude-cocomment-i-loved-you/)), and other things (videos and screenshots, for example).

I’ve been thinking a lot (but not writing, I know) about how these new tools in my landscape, which weren’t there [8 years ago (in a few days!) when I started blogging](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2000/07/13/weblog-open/), are modifying my publishing and interaction habits. The [panel I moderated at BlogTalk in Cork](http://www.viddler.com/explore/steph/videos/42/) was about that, actually, but I think we only brushed the surface.

So, back to the point for this post: I’d like a [hack for my Tumblr bookmarklet — or maybe a separate bookmarklet](http://getsatisfaction.com/tumblr/topics/using_tumblr_to_capture_comments_made_on_other_blogs) (by Tumblr or a third party) which will publish the comment I’m submitting to my tumblelog. It would work a bit like the coComment bookmarklet: click it to activate it at some point before hitting submit — and it does its magic when you submit the comment.

If you like the idea, [head over the Get Satisfaction](http://getsatisfaction.com/tumblr/topics/using_tumblr_to_capture_comments_made_on_other_blogs) and add your 2 cents.

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Against Threaded Conversations on Blogs [en]

Against Threaded Conversations on Blogs [en]

[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](http://going-solo.net/2008/05/17/going-solo-lausanne-was-a-hit/) 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](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2008/04/19/more-on-cocomment-advertising/) (impending, in the process, fresh) and their post about [commenter’s rights](http://blog.disqus.net/2008/05/30/a-commenters-rights/), I’ve taken a closer look at [Disqus](http://disqus.com). 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](http://twitter.com/stephtara/statuses/825117034) 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](http://www.aperfectmess.com/).)

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](http://www.amazon.com/Paradox-Choice-Why-More-Less/dp/0060005696/).)

**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](http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2008/04/27/diigo-i-think-i-like-the-idea-bonus-content-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:

– [threading encourages the conversation to go all over the place](http://seesmic.com/v/n03MEC9S1U)
– [threading changes the nature of discussion](http://seesmic.com/v/aDDiGJWdw5)
– [conversations are chronological](http://seesmic.com/v/PWt1wmig5I)

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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