Threading. When and why.

Threading. When and why.

By |2015-10-24T19:16:41-07:00January 26th, 2015|

To encourage true conversation, people must be able to discuss annotations as well as creating new ones. We tested prototypes of several different options, and settled on a threaded discussion approach, similar to that used by Reddit, Hacker News and other sites.

We’re well aware that the choice between threaded and unthreaded discussion is a deeply divisive one, with many articulate spokesmen on either side (be sure to read the comments on Jeff Atwood’s famous post about threading). Instead of saying “threading is better”, we’d prefer to say that threading (or perhaps ‘structured discussion’) may be best for some applications. We think that an annotated web is one of them.

First, lets review Jeff’s arguments against threading:

  1. You have to click through to see the content. This refers to threading done primarily in the Usenet or email style, where titles are what’s shown, and the body is deprecated and must be clicked to be seen. We agree. Threading done this way is painful.
  2. Branched conversations are disjointed and distracting.
  3. Branching makes conversations go off track.
  4. Flat forums are so much simpler and straightforward to read through.

So why do threading?


  1. Threading scales to handle large multi-party conversations, particularly on fast moving subjects, when multiple conversations may start happening in parallel, in contrast to slow moving ones where it naturally serial. When many people are trying to participate in a conversation at the same time, threading allows it to unfold naturally.
  2. Annotations (as opposed to comments below the fold) and the annotation data model are threaded by their very nature. They allow discussion to emerge precisely where it needs to. For technical discussions this is quite helpful. We’re well aware that there are times where ones thoughts apply to the whole rather than the part, that must be provided for as well.
  3. Threading allows precise discussion, and obvious comment/reply attribution. In a flat model, it’s difficult to know exactly when new comments are a reply to earlier comments, without clumsy hacks like ‘@username: I meant XXX , not YYY’. Put more simply: threading allows participants and others to easily engage in conversation.
  4. Reputation mechanics and voting benefit more from a threaded model.

We note that some of the web’s most popular forums are threaded: Reddit, Hacker News, etc.

We know that some people prefer a flat view, and we’ll work to enable this visually as an option for those who prefer it.  I’ll just note here that it’s easy to create a flat view out of a threaded forum, but impossible to do the reverse.

It’s very worth reading the replies to Jeff on his own article… after the first twenty or so, the discussion turns very much in favor of the threaded model, and many excellent arguments are made.

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