To Thread Or Not To Thread

I saw an article today called Flat or Threaded? which examines the practice of “threading” a web forum. This has lead me to do some serious thinking about threading. Read on for more…

Some time ago, it became apparent to me that certain implementations of threading were way too confusing for the general population. My example was always Slashdot. If you aren’t web savvy, you can easily get lost in the site, particularly when they have all the experimental stuff on.

So when I wrote OSNews, I respected Eugenia’s original decision to go flat. But the 15 comments per page is obviously driving by one thing and one thing only – increasing page views. Believe it or not, it’s much easier on the database to present all comments at once. For OSNews version 4, if you choose flat mode, it will be all comments at once on one page, period.

I added threading for two reasons: first and foremost, we had SO MANY users asking for it. I have the emails archived to prove it. It was the #1 most requested feature (along with comment editing, which I also implemented).

The second reason, to be honest, was because *I* wanted it. You see, readers tend to view things in the order they are presented, and they often respond without quoting a comment, so you tend to get comments like “Yes” or “I agree” or “Because the…” With threading, you can easily following multiple conversations. To me, threading makes much more sense than a flat view, because often times there are several sub-discussions in any given discussion.

So, I just completed a new section of OSNews, and for this section, I was completely unfettered. So I did some things:

  • All comments are displayed in one page, period.
  • Threading is mandatory
  • However, threading can only be one level deep. In other words, you can reply to a new comment, but not to replies. To reply to a reply, you must reply to the original comment and discussion are tracked that way.

A lot of the crazy code that threading generates comes from supporting infinite replies. This will change in OSN4; not the structure of the database, just in the presentation (or lack thereof) of the reply/quote functions.

Also, for this new OSNews section, there is no registration. Any personal setting are done via cookies, nothing is kept on the server. This makes it easier to partake without deciding to pass it over because of registration. Of course, the issue here is that anyone can use any name and therefore impersonate someone else, but this is a small issue for a low traffic site. What I’m getting at is that this is a standard setting and not customizable like the views on OSNews.

So I remain mixed on threading. I understand that a flat view is generally easier to follow for the average Joe, but I simply don’t think that you should always cater to the dumbest possible user and build from there. There are those who do cater to the least technical user, there are those whose work suffers because they end up with a bland compromise, and there are those who simply man up and make the decision. Threading makes things easier to follow for *most* people with web experience, and that’s why I endorse it. Because the heaviest participation on websites is from those who are comfortable online, and therefore, will probably appreciate the threads.

One Reply to “To Thread Or Not To Thread”

  1. The problem with lack of foldable threading on OSnews is that the first 15 or so comments tend to set the tone for the remainder of the comments. Opinions on a subject tend to arrive in waves.

    Under the current system, few people are willing to start a new thread after the first page or so. Personally, I would prefer it if each article had its own miniature bulletin board for comments. I presume that would be quite a lot of work.

    Another compromise would be a OSNews forum system on which threads are given an attribute so that they are in some way ‘associated’ with a story. Occasionally, an article provokes some really interesting discussion but it just isn’t practical to carry on this discussion in the comments beyond the first couple of days.

    Just a few thoughts from user. I’ve no idea how practical any of this would be.

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