To Thread or Not To Thread (Updated)

Updated January 23, 2011 at 1:30 pm: By a landslide vote of 21 to 8, non-threaded comments wins.  I have a clear mandate to change things back to the era before those latte-sipping threaded comment advocates took control of this site, and I will implement the change as soon as possible.  Thanks for participating in the poll.

It is clear from the different way in which some of the mobile device interfaces work that there is an underlying ability to request comments in threaded or unthreaded format.  I will dig around in Word Press to see if this is something that can be made optional.

[Original post from January 11 below]

Some readers are having problems with comments now that threading has been enabled.

The sequence of comments is no longer first in, first out, but rather is ordered within the threads making it hard to find updates scattered through the whole post.

An RSS reader will “find” all new comments based on timestamps, but someone who is just browsing for updates will have problems.  Conversely, for complex discussions with various subtopics, it can be difficult for someone reading the entire set of comments to follow each argument.

Please comment here whether you want threading left enabled or not.  I will decide the outcome based on feedback received up to Saturday, January 22.

43 thoughts on “To Thread or Not To Thread (Updated)

  1. I usually prefer threaded, oldest first.

    Is it possible to allow users to choose in WordPress (I know you can do it in Drupal)? Sometimes it’s convenient to switch between a flat and threaded view, depending on the context of the discussion.

    Steve: See my reply to another similar comment.

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  2. Steve, the RSS comment link sometimes is up-to-date, and sometimes it is not: I can go to the actual comment threads and see six or seven comments that have not been picked up by RSS. It can be 24 hours or more out-of-date.

    I am not 100% keen on threading even if the RSS feed was reliable. I think the threading can lead to too many side-threads as people thrash out their favourite arguments. On the whole, I vote for no threading in the comments.

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  3. I find the new threading system harder… for some reason my web browser’s RSS system is quite delayed in picking up articles, and seems to have a limit of 25 new comments (from this site only,) so I view the site w.o. RSS. As a result I’ve begun to browse the site using an iOS user agent such that threading is disabled..

    Steve: The number of items displayed by RSS is set by a parameter I can control, and I also have the option of feeding full articles or only summaries. Currently the settings are 25 items and full versions. Given the number of comments we get here, 25 is probably too small for those who don’t check often.

    Also, if people have problems with their RSS, please identify which browser or RSS utility you are using so that platform-specific bugs can be identified.

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  4. I find that when reading a post and the subsequent comments for this first time, having those comments threaded is a great way to follow responses to specific comments. However, if you come back to the post several days later, it’s much too difficult to find newer comments, and one has to basically start from the top and skim down looking for any new comments. Discussions on this site tend to extend over numerous days for each post (a good thing!), so I would suggest that the better option would be to have threading disabled.

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  5. Is it not possible to give users a preference to see threaded vs. inline?

    Steve: I have checked the WordPress docs, and there is no option to turn this on or off. It is possible that there is a plugin that provides an alternate way of viewing comments, but I will have to dig into the directory to see if one exists.

    One other formatting option that is available is to put the newest comments first. The current setting is to put them last so that someone reading the comment thread from the top down gets them in the order they were submitted.

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  6. The ideal would be if something in WordPress remembered your last visit and highlighted new comments.

    I prefer the threaded approach, because so many people here post replies to previous comments. When things were non-threaded, it was a lot harder to follow conversations.

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  7. I prefer threadless. As long as the comment mentions the name of the person to whom it refers I find it easier to follow.

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  8. Ahhh… for the days of Usenet, when full featured news readers supported both threading and keeping track of unread comments.

    Each year we seem to lose more functionality: Usenet -> Web Forms -> Blogs -> Facebook -> Twitter -> Blipverts

    Steve: I am not sure what the effect of presenting all of the content on this site in roughly 10 seconds would be!

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  9. Maybe because I am getting older I prefer things “the way they were” (well, for this anyway). Though it is useful to see a “sub thread” as it puts the comments to comments beside/below each other the problem is if one goes to your site often (as I do) I tend to look only at the ends of each comment set.

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  10. Pretty much agree with Leo who says:

    “I find that when reading a post and the subsequent comments for this first time, having those comments threaded is a great way to follow responses to specific comments. However, if you come back to the post several days later, it’s much too difficult to find newer comments, and one has to basically start from the top and skim down looking for any new comments. ”

    In terms of keeping track of different threads within one post, if commenters quoted a key sentence or two from the post to which they are responding to, it can give the reader the necessary context in the non-threaded display.

    While that would require more work from the commenters, maybe it could help them focus their post to specific idea or argument.

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  11. I am not sure if this platform is free or not, but pensionplanpuppets.com (part of SB Nation) uses threading but highlights the new posts in yellow. However, this works only if you are registered member on that site. If you are not registered or have not signed in, then it is only threading.

    Steve: Looking at that site, it’s part of Thomson/Reuters and no doubt has its own proprietary engine. I suspect that the “new comments” function for members is handled by remembering when you last visited based on your logon to the site, not by a cookie left on your browser. Any tracking of last access for non-registered users will be local to the instance of a browser you are using, and will require cookies to store this info locally, a function some users and/or browsers may not enable or support. There does not appear to be a Word Press plugin providing this functionality.

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  12. I do prefer the threads as discussion tends to be deeper and more focused.

    If posted replies could be titled, possibly with a default of any reply within a thread thereafter being RE: [posted reply title], that would make following the threads easier. But, baring that, I much prefer the new approach.

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  13. Steve, at one time you had a “recent comments” listing down the right margin of the main page of your blog. I found this very useful and added it to my site’s blog.

    I’m not sure why you removed it, but this was some time before the upgrade to the current version of WordPress. Any chance it can be returned? I suspect the list will provide links to the most recent comments, regardless of whether they are threaded or not.

    Steve: I could put it back, but note that the number of comments here sometimes grows rapidly, and a “recent comments” display will either be (a) immense or (b) omit things that may have gone up quite recently. That’s why I got rid of it in the first place.

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  14. I’m using Firefox 3.6.13. I normally just click on the RSS feeds link to get a quick update. Currently, the last post showing is from 9:22 AM, though just going to the comments section shows comments later than that.

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  15. The new setup is great. Everything is all neat and to respond to a reply direct like that is great. I am no good at website design or the techno stuff so…

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  16. I prefer non-threaded on WordPress. My usual workflow of clicking through on the oldest fresh comment in the RSS feed and then scrolling down to read the other comments works better with non-threaded.

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  17. I prefer non-threaded but it probably won’t be the end of the world either way. Although it would be nice if you could up that 25 item limit you were talking about earlier.

    Steve: Done.

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  18. What’s a little ironic about the whole on/off switch idea is that currently this site discriminates by device: When I view this site on my desktop, I get threaded comments; when I view this site on my iPhone, I don’t get threaded comments.

    I find that, prior to threaded comments, people would quote others within their comments so that people know what they’re talking about. Once threading was put in place, that becomes redundant and people no longer do it (or at least not as much). With this practice in place, and I view a thread here on my iPhone, I have no idea whatsoever on what is and isn’t part of a thread, it is entirely based on the old sequence-based last-in/last-out model, and few people are now quoting what/who they are responding to, leaving readers on the mobile version in the dark.

    I’m biased, as I’m functional in code language, but is it really that onerous to expect people to quote others (in a coherent format such as with blockquote tags)?

    Anti-thread.

    Steve: The difference in behaviour is due to different code serving content to different devices.

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  19. Another vote for non-threaded. I do the same thing as Leo Petr — click on the oldest unread comment on the RSS feed and then scroll down. Or, if it has been a while, I’ll go down to the end of the comments and scroll up until seeing something I recognize. Either way, I miss posts that are threaded.

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  20. In some ways I like the idea of threading but like many above, I find it difficult to find new posts.
    Anti thread.

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  21. I vote for no threads. It’s a pain in the ass when I see new comments added and although I want to read them I have to find them. The way it is now when I view your site on my iPhone I have to have a photographic memory to be able to find new comments in amongst the old ones

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  22. When I read comments via RSS (which is usually), I think non-threaded works better… but only if the person replying to a specific thread provides enough context via quoting so I can understand their reply. If comments are threaded, I can see why people might skip quoting, and this makes things tricky to follow if you are using RSS and getting comments in an oldest-to-newest flat fashion.

    That being said, I am old-school enough that I have to vote for threading. I just can’t stand flat discussion, precisely because people so often don’t quote, especially in the case of WordPress where there’s no easy way to quote and you have to do it by copy-and-past and HTML addition.

    So definitely pro-thread!

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  23. I prefer the non-threaded for the same reasons as Leo:

    “I find that when reading a post and the subsequent comments for this first time, having those comments threaded is a great way to follow responses to specific comments. However, if you come back to the post several days later, it’s much too difficult to find newer comments, and one has to basically start from the top and skim down looking for any new comments. Discussions on this site tend to extend over numerous days for each post (a good thing!), so I would suggest that the better option would be to have threading disabled.”

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  24. A “recent comments” list naturally has to be limited (usually less than a dozen), which can easily represent a small percentage of the new comments since one was last on the site for a site as busy as this.

    That said, having such a link to those most recent comments takes the reader directly to a comment in a way that is more beneficial with threading in place. Since a number of those most recent comments will not be at the very end of the corresponding topic, the links take one to the most recent comment in a particular thread. All that is necessary to read the new comments in that thread since one’s last visit is to go back up a few comments and start reading.

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  25. As an aside, how does one subscribe to comments via RSS? I read your posts vis RSS on my phone, but haven’t figured out how to subscribe to comments.

    Steve: The mobile version of the site does not have an RSS subscription link. You have to switch to the desktop version and scroll down to the very bottom.

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  26. Non-threaded. Threaded only allows you to go so many levels “in” before the reply option disappears, and that’s usually not enough when Steve and I argue back and forth … 😉

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  27. I find that when reading a post and the subsequent comments for this first time, having those comments threaded is a great way to follow responses to specific comments. However, if you come back to the post several days later, it’s much too difficult to find newer comments, and one has to basically start from the top and skim down looking for any new comments.

    I tried using RSS, but found it really didn’t work for me.

    However, I find that clicking on the Comments RSS link in the Meta menu at the top right of the page brings up a list of the most recent posts. I use this to check that I am seeing all new comments.

    I use Firefox with a large history file, and I personally choose to click on each item separately even if I already saw a reply when reading a previous item because this shows me at a glance which ones I have not seen yet.

    Steve: I see you have upped the number of items shown. Much better, but interestingly enough, with the dual discussions of this item plus the budget, it didn’t quite show all new comments for me.

    Steve: You will just have to visit more often!

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