Online Discussions Are A Train Wreck

Group communication is the backbone of the web. Forums, social networks, and email all enable people to congregate online and discuss.

It’s meant to mimic the physical world. You meet with a group of people and begin talking about a topic. The great thing about the internet is that conversations can happen asynchronously.

Everyone doesn’t have to be online and discussing at the same time. We can log on whenever we choose, scroll down through the discussion, and respond.

The only problem is this design doesn’t really work well.

Online discussions began before the rise of the Web in the 1990s. Usenet is an early example. With it, a user could post public messages to a server. The messages would then be downloaded by others so they could read and respond. The responses were posted as well enabling the group to download and view them. Each message and all the replies to it were collectively known as a thread.

Email uses a similar concept, though it is more private. When two people are emailing back and forth, their previous replies can be attached as a thread. This forms a linear chain of communication that can be scrolled through to the initial email message.

Threaded emails are useful, but they can also get confusing. It’s especially true when more than two people are talking. If a third person jumps into a conversation and responds to an earlier message, it can spawn a tangent thread intermingled with the original. Add even more people and you can expect the discussion to meander further. All of this makes the conversation increasingly difficult to follow.

Forums and social networks handle large-scale discussions better. Posts and their responses are displayed on a page in chronological order. This keeps the entire conversation and its tangent threads centralized and ordered.

However, this format is still susceptible to tangents. Because users see the oldest comments first, they sometimes respond before they reach the most recent replies. Often this leads to duplicate comments and information.

In addition, stepping into a large discussion can be daunting. It’s not always clear which responses are the most relevant or how they relate to the initial post. To sort through this, one must either skim everything quickly and hope for the best or read through the entire discussion piece by piece.

Websites have deployed specific strategies to combat these problems.

  • Reverse Order Commenting: Some sites display the most recent responses first rather than last. This encourages people to read and reply to the latest information. Although, it assumes that older comments are less relevant and forces one to read the conversation backwards. 
  • Quoted Text: To help make sense of tangent threads, some forums enable users to quote the text of the comment they are responding to. While this makes it clearer, it also causes duplication of comments. Information is quoted and requoted, making the thread overly complex.
  • Threaded Replies: More sophisticated systems use threaded replies. This lets people respond to comments within a thread without quoting text. Instead, it creates a sub-thread that is indented under the original comment.  This system works well, though it still requires one to scroll through every sub-thread in order to read the main discussion.
  • Moderation of Comments: To make the best responses more visible, some sites allow comments to be moderated through votes or likes. While this certainly helps filter lower quality comments, it is vulnerable to abuse and requires active user participation.

Results have been mixed for websites using the above strategies. Slashdot, which implements nearly all of the techniques, still has confusing, meandering discussions. And, Facebook, which relies heavily on user moderated likes, has many problems organizing posts that garner hundreds of comments.

While there isn’t a clear solution to the problem, its obvious that what’s needed is a new way to think about online discussions – something designed less for a computer and more with respect to the organic way that humans communicate.