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I’d like to propose a change to how we structure discussions. In brief:

  • add a comment flag tangential
  • make tangential discussions less visible
  • aiming both to provide space for those discussions, and to hide them a bit

Examples where this might apply:

  • A technical post on golang generics, and a comment thread on “generics in go yes/no”
  • A post announcing a vulnerability in a C program, and a comment thread on “rewrite in rust yes/no”
  • Discussing whether a given submission is off-topic or not
  • Discussing the wider context around a submission (the go thing is an example, but this could also be pointing out that there might be a hidden agenda, …)
  • Plugging related projects, anecdotes (e.g. “by the way, I built something like this recently: here”)

This isn’t just (or even primarily) about hiding those threads. It’s also about providing explicit space for those discussions. E.g. I’d like community members to be able to plug their related projects without wondering whether that’s on-topic. It would be good to be able to question whether an article is on-topic without derailing the on-topic conversation. More generally, there seems to be a clear desire to discuss these tangential topics, and also clear friction with those who’d prefer to focus on the concrete content. I think trying to accommodate both could be helpful.

As to what “make tangential discussions less visible” would mean, two concrete ideas:

  1. Add a second separate comment section below the main comment. Top-level comments flagged tangential just get moved there. Nested comments in the top section that are flagged tangential get uprooted and moved there, with a link back to parent.
  2. No changes to the comment section. Instead, add a toggle to hide any comments (and their replies) tagged tangential with a user-configurable default (in which case it should probably default to hidden).

One thing to figure out would be how to decide that something is flagged tangential. Two separate tangential flags might work for a start?

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    A post announcing a vulnerability in a C program, and a comment thread on “rewrite in rust yes/no”

    Also, such comments could be created by default.

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      That’s a good idea. Maybe we could offload all bike shedding to adversarial neural networks. We can check in every once in a while to see if anyone has won.

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      I recently made a patch to remember collapsed threads for more or less the same reasons: to (persistently) hide conversation threads I’m not really interested in.

      I suppose this is a tangential comment 🙃 But there may be other ways to solve this problem outside of the one proposed here; and I think this may actually be enough for quite a number of cases.

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        I really like the idea of being able to hide some threads - but such a setting should ideally also hide the threads from a user’s view of the /comments page.

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          I never use that page; so I didn’t think about that 😅 It won’t be possible to implement that with the solution I wrote, since the /comments page doesn’t list all the parent thread IDs. It would have to store it in the backend and filter on the SQL query or the result, which is rather a lot more work than the few lines of JS I wrote.

          Or maybe list all the parent thread IDs on /comments in a data-parents=...; but that seems a bit ugly.

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            Also: this should be a dedicated hide/show button I think, rather than doing it on collapse/expand: that would be quite surprising.

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        I think this is a good idea, especially as the site scales and “barely on topic” - tangential, even - discussions happen more and more, that probably need in some way managed but more subtly that moderation.

        An example was where in the call-for-mod-applications one thread quickly became about an individual’s political beliefs. It wasn’t irrelevant, but it wasn’t something that deserved to be pinned to the top the whole time (because who doesn’t want in on a good political bash) at the expense of less exciting but more relevant questions.

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          I could have sworn I implemented this already many years ago but it seems I’m imagining things. It was a “fork” link shown on each comment to moderators that would break it and its children into its own thread, which had a link back to its original position in the original thread. It wouldn’t happen automatically in response to voting because it would fragment things too much, but moderators could allow large off-topic threads to live on their own in a new root-level thread.

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            Why not have a hide function for comments, as we do for stories? Threads hidden by more users could be moved further down (don’t know whether this is done with stories). New replies on these threads wouldn’t clutter your view up if you hid them.

            Aside from that, a voluntary meta section for discussing on-topic-ness and tags would be interesting

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              I think this is a good idea. I often get a lot of value out of side discussions, but I also get frustrated when they crowd out on-topic comments.

              The first idea, giving these an explicit place to live under the regular comment section, seems like a great way to explicitly promote side discussions and separate them from on-topic discussion.

              I’d also suggest that the box for posting top-level comments have an optional checkbox “tangential” so that you could send your thread to this section directly.

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                What about a separate venue for this?

                Lobste.rs does firmly moderated, focused small on-topic conversation really well. Trying to mash something lobste.rs doesn’t do into what it does well seems like a dilution of value.

                A separate venue (e.g. another lobste.rs install, or a discourse) with automatic topics created for each post, but with a different remit of broad ‘tangential’ discussion as opposed to social content curation.

                (#tangential: I think what’s actually required is the ability to have a subjective view of a federation of individual lobste.rs services, with sites like what the current lobste.rs site is being important curated indexes.)

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                  #tangential^tangential I’d love a federated lobste.rs!

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                  I don’t see that this is a problem that needs solving. Not a very interesting point of view, but I thought it could do with being represented here.

                  I also agree with @gerikson’s point that despite intentions the marking of conversations would be akin to downvoting and would cause contention over the definition of tangential that we don’t need.

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                    I can see multiple issues with this suggestion.

                    First off, comments marked/flagged “tangential” are automatically second-class, because users can set these to hidden.

                    This creates a conflict of interest - most commenters would not set their own comments to this status, because it would automatically limit their audience. Were the power to set this status assigned to the community, it could be used as a “soft” disapproval flag. Same if the power was reserved to the mods.

                    Add a second separate comment section below the main comment. Top-level comments flagged tangential just get moved there. Nested comments in the top section that are flagged tangential get uprooted and moved there, with a link back to parent.

                    (my emphasis)

                    This sounds like a UI nightmare to me. What happens if a nested comment is flagged tangential, but its reply isn’t? Suddenly there’s a gaping hole in the comment thread which one has to jump backwards and forwards between sections to fill.

                    Lastly I’m not a fan of the binary nature of this essentially arbitrary classification. Part of the participants in a discussions about the shortcoming of C will see a suggestion of using Rust instead to be tangential and disruptive, but one can argue with equal validity that the RIIR approach is the “right” one. Deeming one part to be “tangential” therefore just devolves into a popularity/majority discussion.

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                      Deeming one part to be “tangential” therefore just devolves into a popularity/majority discussion.

                      Isn’t it always thus?

                      To me this is an interesting possibility to explore that breaks the typical approach to self-policing a community: downvotes and pile-ons.

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                        This sounds like a UI nightmare to me. What happens if a nested comment is flagged tangential, but its reply isn’t? Suddenly there’s a gaping hole in the comment thread which one has to jump backwards and forwards between sections to fill.

                        No. The whole subtree moves.

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                        I really like this idea.

                        I tend to like the first approach more, perhaps with the caveat that there is no explicit “make a top-level tangential comment” box.

                        Also, once a comment is flagged tangential and moves below the fold, I think all normal flagging options should be available but “tangential” should flip to “on-topic” or the like so a comment could move back up.

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                          I like the idea for ‘tangential conversation spaces’, but I don’t think the idea as proposed is feasible:

                          1. It’s already subjective and a hard problem to decide exactly what is on-topic in comments of a post. If that could even be pinned down, there would be 20 or 200 topics that are ‘tangential’ to that, with corresponding multiplier in the subjectivity of choosing those. Who decides what is on-topic, what is on-topic-tangential and what is off-topic?
                          2. What if this produces 2X more comments? 2X moderator load is probably a lot, 5X or 10X might not be feasible.
                          3. What are the expectations around moderation for on-topic-tangential discussion?