Jun 082011

I realized something while attempting to digest the recent conversation about “use-whenever stats” started over on Ryan Macklin’s blog, and continued in part over on GamePlayWright. It has to do with how the comments are or aren’t nested. (If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s sometimes referred to as “threaded” comments, when you can see what messages someone is replying to.) This blog allows for comment nesting too, but only to a limited depth (I forget if it stops at replies-to-initial-comments, or at replies-to-replies — one or two nested levels deep.)

My experience with the two conversations was markedly different. Over on Ryan’s blog, because the conversation was active, and the nesting ran several levels deep (deeper than it gets here), I actually ended up intimidated by it. “Too much to take in!” Which is odd, because threading conversations like that is meant to make it easier to keep track of the various threads of thought going on. Contrast this with my experience of GamePlayWright, where there’s no threading whatsoever. There’s the post, and there’s a “flat” stream of comments below it. But I took the time with that one to read the comments and then say something at the end.

I think my reaction has to do with the many-nested-threads presentation being — in essence — unique to digital conversation. It’s a kind of metastasis, where the conversation can bifurcate and subdivide and so on until it’s this big and (for me) intimidating mass of chatter about the topic at hand.

The GPW conversation could run the same risks for some — it’s big, and it’s undifferentiated, so you can only really take two tacks with it: read it beginning to end, read only the post and respond to that, or read the post and the end of the comments and try to jump in hoping you’re not repeating yourself.  But you know what? That’s a fair bit like a real-life conversation (albeit an asynchronous one where you can start listening in to the whole thing at any time), and that I think is where I ended up feeling like I could participate there, but not over at the place where it started.

Makes me ponder the degree to which I allow nesting/threading on Deadly Fredly.

How about you? How do you react to these modes of online discussion? How do you prefer to configure it in your own space?


  22 Responses to “Curious Nesting”

  1. I suspect (and dealing with Blogger as well as reading Chuck’s Blog have also lead to me thinking about this) that lack of threading brings the conversation to a more natural stopping point. Critical mass can me achieved sooner, in part because if you wan to reply to another poster, you must speak to what they’ve said if you wish to be understood. This is harder than just hitting reply and saying “That’s stupid”.

    That’s probably bad for the part of the soul that loves to see big comment numbers after a post, but I suspect it’s probably better for discussion.

    In a perfect world, I would allow replies to replies, but limit at 2nd-level responses to twitter-size, effectively making them annotations. The thought is that they can be used for corrections and simple statements without bogging down the larger conversation.

    -Rob D.

  2. I HATE flat comment threads. I almost never read them all the way through if they get beyond 10 or 20 replies. I can’t figure out (read: it’s too much work to figure out) who is replying to whom. It’s why I’ve stuck so thoroughly to to LJ despite by abhorrence of various policies, dwindling userbase, etc. For example, I never read the comments on Wil Wheatons’ blog, I almost never make it through the comment spew on Tor.com or the blogs I read at NYTimes (FiveThirtyEight and Krugman, both of which have active and interesting discussions in the comments, I just can’t get past the format), and I never ever go back to a thread I’ve looked at once.

    IMNSHO Flat comments provide response to the author, deeply threaded comments (see LJ & Usenet through a proper reader) provide for conversation among the members of the community. Obviously there are those who disagree with me, but I really don’t understand how flat is better in any way.

    • Yeah, that’s why I like the mid-point, where folks can reply to replies here on the blog, but not go any deeper than that (2-deep). I think that gets me the right midpoint between “so goddam many threads I have no hope of digesting it” and “so flat I can’t find a place to start”.

  3. I see what you’re saying. There’s a bit where I’m also seeing that as a specific, segmented audience thing.

    * The early reader. She comes in, ideally reads the post, can scan through the few short threads to see if her comment’s been made or whatnot. Seeing what has and hasn’t been replied to might help, might not.

    * The blogger. I can say that for me seeing what top-level comments I haven’t responded to is helpful.

    * The later reader — be it days, weeks, months later. Yeah, a huge threadsplosion isn’t likely to help you out. Or maybe it will.

    As for blogs like Chuck’s or GPW, when the comment thread hits a certain level, I don’t read. I can’t visually track what’s a new idea and what’s a reply and what’s a whatsis. No organization for me means I’m done after a handful of responses.

    This post makes me think that it’d be a cool widget that could reshape a thread into a stream or something like that, if the technical & social hurdles could be solved. But again, everyone’s mileage will vary. Whatever’s ideal for me might not be for someone else.

    I’d avoid blogs that worked like Rob’s idea above, though, because it feels like a hurdle just to be a hurdle — and one that is a hurdle of people being active for the sake of people coming in late. At the same time, I loathe comments that come in long enough to be their own post. I had one comment last month that was 500 words longer than my post (and I have a post mentally brewing about how when you do that, you’re asking people to not respond — since apparently I blog about internet social media culture at times).

    What works for you or me isn’t universal, which we can take as a given. So we know what didn’t work for you on my blog. What works for you, Fred, on your home turf? My gut says that it’s a different matter when you’re the conversation initiator (and the person who gets emails about every comment).

    – Ryan

    • My take is that if someone wants to take a conversation deeper than the nesting on Deadly Fredly allows, they should probably be having that conversation with whoever they’re replying to in another space (it’s not really about the post any more at that point).

  4. I weigh in that some reasons not to read something (like too many comments) are _useful_ red flags. If the conversation is too loud, using tricks to pry open a space may not be the most productive use of attention.

    -Rob D.

    • Yeah. Godin has an interesting approach to this, where he accepts pingbacks, but not comments. In essence he’s saying, yes, please, have conversations about this — but have your own space to have them.

    • Exactly. In this triggering case, the fact that the initial conversation moved on to many different places seems like a good, healthy thing (if arguably less beneficial for Ryan’s pageviews).

    • Yep. And that may be the crux of the issue I had with taking in the conversation over on his blog. “This is more than one conversation,” I might’ve thought. “I only came here for the one.”

    • Actually, if we’re talking SEO, it’s much better when it moves off my blog. Better page rank, and page rank turns into views.

      I intentionally don’t allow pingbacks. But I’ll take posts where someone comments with a pingback manually if they’re showing what their post is adding. Still, Godin’s is an interesting approach.

      – Ryan

  5. I like the non-indented comments, (the flat ones?) because it’s simpler and easier to read for me without figuring out what was said in the timeline of the comments. I don’t really care who replied to what, since I usually feel like I’m coming to the conversation late anyways. Also, I RSS the comments of posts that I’m interested in, so sometimes when my reader (or sometimes email) spits new stuff at me when it’s nested (? still getting used to these terms), it makes even less sense to me.

    If something gets really long, I don’t think nesting or de-nesting will make it less so.

  6. It depends.

    Nested comments make it easier to track sub-areas of a discussion. That makes them invaluable for very large threads. You can point me at a sub-tree in a 800 post discussion and I won’t (necessarily) drown. This made Usenet far more usable in the 90s. On the down side, it encourages point-by-point responses and ignoring of larger context. As Fred says, it becomes a “mass of chatter.”

    Flat comments encourage more of a conversational atmosphere. You’re encouraged to reply to the thread as a whole and not individual people. For a small thread it’s clearly better. I’ve seen it work fine up to 100 or so posts. If I’m linked to, say, a flat thread with 800 posts, screw it, I don’t care how good it is, I’m out of there. Painfully long threads have driving me away from reading things when I was assured “it’s long, but worth reading to the end.”

  7. I was raised on LJ, with indefinitely-nested comments, so I’m used to reading and thinking that way. Lack of nesting bothers me a bit. But I actually prefer no nesting to limited nesting.

  8. I’m fairly active on the LJ DragonCon community. Sometimes when a topic gets pretty hot, like say security and incidents that happened at D*C last year because of the lack thereof, it can collapse like a house of cards! When I have started and/or pinned the post to get the replies in my email this isn’t necessarily a problem…until I need to go to the post to reference something and can’t find it because of the copious amounts of collapsed threads.

    One of the main problems I’ve seen for nesting/threading is that points get missed so they get repeated over and over by various people. At the same time, I can see it getting annoying not being able to reply with an opinion or thought because threading/nesting limits have been reached.

    There does come a time when enough is enough, though. If a topic/subject is that hot perhaps if the conversation goes on for a while a new post is required so that others can keep up.

  9. One of the early proposals to bring HTML more into line with traditional hypertext modes was the addition of bidirectional links. That way, you could have easily navigable content that could stretch over several different web media. But unfortunately it proved to be technically unfeasable at the time (although later cooperative document ventures such as Google Wave can implement it), and practically, it really would have been too liable to abuse. Search engines and pingback do go some measure duplicate this ability, but not far enough for true utility.

    Your preference depends upon what you want out of the blog. Is it a venue for you having a conversation with your visitors? In which case you want to limit nesting, since that encourages people to comment on other people’s comments. The upside of this is you don’t have a forum. The downside of this is that it squelches discussions that may riff on some comment that is made. Or is it a venue where you want to encourage the exploration of ideas? Do you want people to talk to each other in your blog? In which case you run the risk of diverging from the point in question as they rush off in tangents. Or is it simply a mechanism for you to tell your readership what you think, and you don’t want their input? Which is the traditional publishing approach. In which case there is a degree of detachment that may alienate people who are more used to social networking models. All personal choices, supported by different models of threading commenting.

    I think your choice is quite good. It allows you to politely reply to people and comment on the idea that they propose, with each new idea thus automatically being forced to be a top-level node immediately under the post. After all, there is nothing to say that you can only make one comment post.

    On the other hand, if you run a flat comment field blog, and you find yourself (let alone other people) consistently needing to borrow the Twitter “@somone” tags to make coherent replies to points that have been raised (or even if you consistently need to requote to provide context), then you’ve probably made an inappropriate choice and it might pay for you to reconsider your options.

    [It’s also interesting to remember, that, even with RSS feeds, the root node of your blog isn’t the posting, but rather the blog itself. So your blog post is actually the first level of threading of the ideas/products/self that you are promoting with your entire blog.]

  10. Something that came up when I checked this last night: shallow responses == Much easier to read on a phone.

  11. […] Fred Hicks writes about comment-nesting, making me wonder, how do we feel about it here? I’m pretty sure I can turn it on or off from the theme control panel. […]

  12. […] Besides being a thoughtful read on its own, it has got a great discussion happening in its (albeit unthreaded) comments […]

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