The Death of Threaded Comments

Knight on Horseback - Don QuixoteCurrently, on Frankly Curious, comments are “threaded.” That means that people can respond to the article as a whole or they can respond to a specific comment. If they respond to a specific comment, then the new comment is positioned below, and indented from, what it is responding to. This has been a nice change from our previous blogging platform — Nucleus — where we were limited to comments that were “flat” — just one after another with no relationship to each other.

But recently, I wrote an article for my paying job about forum software and I was surprised to find that the most popular forum — phpBB — doesn’t even offer threading. That seemed odd to me. I would have thought that threading should at least be an option. But the truth is that it really has gone out of style. Even forums that have had it are getting rid of it. I remember when threaded news readers first showed up and they were cool:

  • Commenter1: This is a stupid article!
    • Commenter2: You just think that because you’re a doody-head!!
      • Commenter1: No, you’re the doody-head!!!
      • Commenter4: Don’t feed the doody-heads.
    • Commenter4: I agree. Because I am a doody-head.

It seems logical and works very well on forums were there isn’t a great deal of discussion. That’s why I’ve decided to keep it on Frankly Curious for the time being; there isn’t enough commenting for it to be a problem. When there is a lot of discussion, however, it can be very distracting and user-unfriendly. What’s more, commenters can use it to get their comments placed higher by “responding” to the first comment.

How Conversations Really Work

The biggest objection to threaded forums is not practical, however; it’s philosophical. Real conversations are not threaded. People talk one after the other. People may respond to something said long before, but it is in the context of everything that was said since. If two people want to talk about some sub-topic, they usually do it alone, while the main conversation continues on without them.

If I had Eschaton Blog, with hundreds of comments on every one word post, I might change over to a flat mode. But that will never happen here. So I think we are fine. Just the same, most long conversations tend to go on between just two people, so a flat model wouldn’t really change anything.

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