1. 71
    1. 30

      My experience with tree-based fora (such as this one) is that they lead to protracted, pointless arguments; those arguments persist because they are allowed to be sequestered as simply the subtree of some unruly node. Comparatively, my experience with—what I expected the author to compare to—linear phpbb-style fora has been more positive. A given thread maintains a modicum of focus, such that such arguments are clearly recognisable for what they are: antisocial behaviour and monopolisation of a shared space. Not that they don’t happen—not at all!—but the dynamic is better and, in return, I feel more willing to allow other people to say things that I might not like (within reason), out of a recognition that we are in a shared space and they deserve a voice too.

      Tree-based fora are a mechanism for depersonalisation necessary in the face of extreme scale; and it seems pretty clear that ‘extreme scale’ is not a good way to have meaningful social interactions, even over the internet.

      My experience with irc is similar to that with phpbb-style fora. How do these differ from the ‘linear feed’? I’m not quite sure, but here are some ideas:

      1. I haven’t actually had an overwhelmingly negative experience with the linear streams of posts on twitter and mastodon, though I do resonate somewhat with the given concerns.

      2. The fixed degree of structure (threads or subboards>threads, channels)—a tree, but of fixed height, with circumscribed roles for each level—provides a modicum of compartmentalisation and organisation—not enough to cause problems, but enough to provide some sense of grounding.

      3. Similarly, posts are situated primarily relative to topical mates, rather than relative to whichever other posts happened to be posted at a similar time, making the informational milieu more cohesive.

      1. 15

        My article was referring mostly to “personal” social media, focused around particular people - think Twitter, Mastodon - than forums. The issues I’ve outlined don’t really apply to forums, as you don’t want to keep up with any particular people, as much as particular topics.

        Also, I wasn’t thinking of the tree as a way to organize replies to a particular post (even though personally I think that’s a good way to do it), but as a way to organize all the posts you see in the first place. The same structure could work for fora with linear replies.

      2. 9

        I know this is a little rich saying it here on lobste.rs but, in addition to the tree-based structure, I’ve also found that link aggregation and a fixed, linear feed with “entrances” to tree-structured discussions are… well, I just don’t like them that much :(. Ten years ago I was active on a couple of them; nowadays lobste.rs is pretty much the only one I read and where I post regularly, because the community is selective enough to offset the limits of this structure.

        I am still active on one old phpBB-based website. It’s the website of a local computer magazine. The magazine is long out of print but some of us kept the forum arive, and we’re going to be organising the 25th anniversay meeting any year now. Even today, with a smaller community of people whose interests don’t overlap that much and don’t post too frequently, it’s still a better experience than almost every link aggregation forum I know.

        One of the things I miss about USENET and web bulletin boards (BBS-es were a bit before my time so I can’t say much about that) is smart discussion “kickstarting”. Topics started around a link weren’t an uncommon occurrence before Reddit & friends, either. But the way it usually went – unless it was a topic about some big, mainstream piece of news – was that someone posted a link along with some commentary, sort of a first bridge between the news and the community’s culture. It was rarely something as trivial as “here’s the link, discuss!”.

        This helped with a lot of things. It immediately steered discussions towards details that were relevant to much of the community – topics were often started by people with some clout in that community – and allowed the community to set the tone of any discussion. On a “naked topic” site, the one of the discussion is typically set by the author of the post being linked to. That’s… not always good.

        More importantly, because a lot of the things being discussed were in fact of immediate relevance to that community, lots of it was focused on content (I hate that word but anyway) created by the community, or with cultural relevance to it, rather than completely external stuff. Over here, we get to talk about the things we do and interest us on a daily basis mostly as side banter about articles written by others. I got my revamped site in the works and I realised I’d probably never post a link here; 10+ years of dealing with content spam have made us loathe the idea of linking to our personal pages in a community forum, so we’re often stuck discussing our stuff in the what are you doing this week/weekend threads.

        Another thing I really miss is the “community selection” effect. Despite a multitude of mechanisms – recent/trending/new/hot/top pages, dynamic up/downvoting and so on – I’ve often found that the content selection on the front page is meh, and the “new content” feed is hard to keep up with. This is less of a problem here but with larger communities it’s kind of exhausting.

        Despite not having much at their disposal other than word of mouth, linear fora somehow managed to make quality discussions and relevant links “bubble up” a lot better.

        In fact, back in 2006-ish or so, when up/down voting mechanisms and like buttons were just getting trendy, we experimented with a “thumbs up” system on that old forum I was talking about above. It was an unmitigated disaster. I was a number dork at the time, and I was one of the people in the moderator team who argued relentlessly in its favour. I was very, very wrong, it had a negative effect on discussions right away and we turned it off after a few months.

        Finally, a third thing I really miss about them was that they enabled a very wide selection of topics without discussions losing focus. Even narrowly-focused fora (think communities focused on writing emulators for RISC CPUs specifically) still had topics for friendly banters about movies. We also had topics specifically designed to just let people blow off steam and carry out their flamewars in peace. That kept discussions on all other topics very focused. And also surprisingly respectful, we had users who were at each other’s throats on the hot forums but were nonetheless best pals when actually talking emulation.

        Fora built around link aggregation can’t really have these. The only way to maintain general focus is to never deviate from a thread’s topic, which is great if you want to have good data for your algorithms but kind of an awful thing to build a community around.

        1. 4

          Another little thing the phpbb sites had were avatars and signatures. (Well some of the signatures not “little” at all lol) that draws the author of a particular post into focus.

          I still talk to some of the people who were on the phpbb sites I used to go to over ten years ago, but I only ever even recognize a handful of usernames on this website. I’m in complete agreement with you on these things, including that the voting systems are totally harmful - and people who say “don’t like it, don’t use it” fail to get that the very presence of it changes things.

          1. 1

            I’m in complete agreement with you on these things, including that the voting systems are totally harmful - and people who say “don’t like it, don’t use it” fail to get that the very presence of it changes things.

            Yeah, that’s why we dropped it. We noticed a bunch of things that were very detrimental to discussion in general:

            • When people agreed with a post for reasons largely similar to those in the post, they started to just give it a thumbs up rather than write out their own arguments. Thing is, because the community kind of frowned on “me too” posts, even when someone wrote out more or less the same arguments, they always tried to add some thoughts of their own. That gave depth even to general consensus. People could reach a wide level of agreement without the whole place degenerating into an echo chamber.
            • When someone found a post helpful, they also often just went ahead and gave a thumbs up, but a sketchier reply than they’d have previously posted, or none at all. Before that, most people would at least say thanks. That caused some sections to slowly decay into tech support-y forums, where problems were widely debated up until the solution was found, then someone would just do a thumbs up in the last post and say yep, that took care of it. We were afraid that new users would get the wrong message and feel entitled to support in a place that wasn’t even meant to be a troubleshooting/beginners’ support forum, it’s just computers were wonky back then and we helped each other a lot because no one knew all the ways they went belly up.
            • When someone disagreed with a post, they often rushed for the thumbs down button right away. By the time they got to posting things, they were either already angry and flamed even harder, or they’d already had their angry endorphine rush and just posted a snarky reply. Instead of hot topics that were hard to manage, but overall pretty interesting, we ended up with a ton of topics that were just deserts of snark.

            The “more natural” approach had its downsides, too, I get why ad-supported platforms don’t like them.

            At its peak, I think the forum had a few hundred really active users – the total member count today is like 15,000 but they were never active all at the same time, and most accounts had like a few dozen posts. A moderation team of 10-15 people barely stayed on top of it, and did in not just by wielding the ban hammer, but also by staying involved in discussions. Looking back on it, we definitely made a bunch of bad calls just because we were inevitably “in it” too deep.

            There was also a lot manual work (e.g. off-topic, but valuable discussions in a topic would get split from the main topic, flamewars got split and moved to a junk sections etc.) that took a lot of time. And moderation rules were… more like guidelines than hard rules, lots of people got banned because they were assholes and made the whole place worse for everyone, even though they never unambiguously broke a specific rule. If you run a community forum, that’s cool, but if you run a message board for influencers, brands and all that, you need to run a tighter ship.

        2. 1

          no, yeah, I’m with you on all of these things. very thoughtful and well said, and I appreciate you weighing in

        3. 1

          I am still active on one old phpBB-based website. It’s the website of a local computer magazine. The magazine is long out of print but some of us kept the forum alive

          Is it open to the public and if so would you mind sharing the site? I grew up on BBS style web forums and still love the format, participate in a couple but when I look at the ones I enjoy I have no idea how I’d every stumble on them today (small topical forums don’t fair well in search rankings), so I’m always on the lookout for interesting ones.

          1. 3

            It is open to the public but it’s not an English-language forum so I’m not sure it’s useful. But, you know, if you just have phpBB nostalgia, here it is.

            These things don’t fare well in search rankings, indeed, I think most of the ones I frequent are forums I heard about it via word of mouth, like IRIXnet.

      3. 5

        My experience with tree-based fora (such as this one) is that they lead to protracted, pointless arguments; those arguments persist because they are allowed to be sequestered as simply the subtree of some unruly node.

        I think a big improvement could be made if all sub-trees are collapsed by default so that people can focus on comments that are direct children of the main topic, and can choose more freely in which sub-thread to dive, versus the current state of affairs in which the top sub-thread gets a disproportionate amount of attention and sparks further discussion.

      4. 4

        I mean, in a linear thread, arguments are antisocial behavior and monopolisation of a shared space because the thread is linear. If a subtree can go off on its own argument, what’s the harm? (That would be equivalent, in a linear thread, to an admin moving the posts to General>Debates, I guess.)

        1. 2

          You have people ‘in’ your community whom you are not relating to in a positive fashion and with whom your ideal is not to relate to at all. As I said, that is a necessary measure when you scale, but it is better to not scale and retain personability.

      5. 3

        I delete so many comments before posting on sites like these in the ‘slashdot’ style, simply because I know I’m wrong already.

      6. 3

        linear phpbb-style fora has been more positive

        Counter-example: 4chan and Something Awful.

        1. 3

          I do think they are good counter-examples to discuss, and well worth bringing up. They’re both good illustrations of how other factors can be more important than conversation structure. 4chan has its identity model (easily-resettable tripcodes) and both of them have specific cultural goals which do seem to have had a strong effect on what kind of places they became

          (I note also that 4chan actually has tree structure, it’s just based on chronology not voting)

    2. 10

      (In the style of Normal Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech (1943))

      I enjoy linear feeds, and I’m tired of pretending I don’t! Threads, trees etc suck. They’re both annoying to navigate and progressively more inane in content as depth increases.

      1. 10

        UX-wise, every major site that still uses threaded views (Reddit, old and new, HN and here) are terrible not very good at illustrating what parent a reply is attached to, especially if it’s just after a massive sidethread.

        Another failure mode specific to HN is not “highlighting” new content in threads you’ve already read. Old Reddit with RES was ok with this, and this site is low-traffic enough to catch up on everything.

        1. 2

          I’ve noticed the former as a problem but not thought of it as a solvable UI issue, which is a bit embarrassing given the number of web sites that have header bars that stay with you as you scroll. I would think it would be easy to have a tree view where the first line of the parent comes down and you can expand any parent node without losing your place.

      2. 2

        progressively more inane in content as depth increases.

        There’s a lot of variance there. Often the discussion quickly becomes less relevant to someone reading along, being about things specific to the participants in the thread. But sometimes you have protracted constructive discussions from which someone reading along can learn a lot. And for me that makes up for the inanity.

    3. 7

      Can’t agree. You want to replace something less-than-perfect with something outright bad. Nor can I take it seriously when you say “dark pattern”.

    4. 6

      I wouldn’t call them a dark pattern, but on high-traffic datasets like the fediverse, they’re just plain bad in my experience.

      I built something similar as the author a while ago – a frontend for the fediverse to prioritize low-traffic accounts, and each author prioritized according to a heuristic for “how much original content is there in it”. It ended up on a pile of forever unfinished projects though. “Maybe some day” :)

      1. 1

        I would - in my experience they’re one of the main things that makes social media addictive.

        1. 9

          Here is an authoritative source, from the person who coined the term, so you don’t have to take my word for it:


          A Dark Pattern is a type of user interface that appears to have been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills.

          Normally when you think of “bad design”, you think of the creator as being sloppy or lazy but with no ill intent. This type of bad design is known as a “UI anti-pattern”. Dark Patterns are different – they are not mistakes, they are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user’s interests in mind. We as designers, founders, UX & UI professionals and creators need to make a stance against Dark Patterns.

          Hope that helps.

        2. 8

          Dark patterns are deliberately designed to be deceptive and hostile to the user; if the simplest approach happens to be addictive that is not enough. It is a useful concept so please look more closely and use the term correctly, lest it become diluted making it harder to call out cases of deliberate hostility.


    5. 5

      As this post discovered, it’s hard to separate the UI from the underlying protocol and data structures. Usenet was intended to be viewed threaded and the few non-threaded readers were unable to properly track thread metadata and so broke threads for everyone else (some mailing lists suffer from this today). It would be interesting to try to design a protocol to explicitly support multiple display modes. It’s probably easier for a read-only protocol than one involving comments.

      1. 3

        The simple approach is to just let the user download all the posts (without media), which is sort of what Secure Scuttlebutt does. The fun approach would be letting the user perform arbitrary SQL-style queries on their feed, but that would probably scale way worse than the simple approach.

        That being said, I don’t see how being read-only plays into this - submitting replies isn’t really related to how you display posts on the API side. Did you mean supporting the display of arbitrary replies?

        1. 3

          I’ve been playing with the idea of implementing a Mastodon API client that downloads everything that would normally appear in your home feed, plus everything reachable from those posts (i.e., the rest of threads) and backfills everything it doesn’t have whenever it connects and updates (e.g. daily). It indexes everything it fetches, and exposes a mu-style search API, which by default is used to create groups or bookmarked searches. Using sqlite for storage and for indexing metadata and something like xapian for indexing text, I don’t think it would scale too badly, as long as you don’t keep posts forever.

          I’m in kind of the same boat as you, in that I’ve implemented a Mastodon API client in the past, but haven’t really kept up with things. I know how much work it would be and have some more important side projects to catch up on before doing more than idly thinking about it.

    6. 4

      On Twitter, the way approach it right now is to read my feed chronologically and without retweets, suggestions, replies etc. The search function makes this easy:


      The only feature I miss is:

      I would like to collapse all tweets by a single user from the last 24 hours into a single tweet. So each user could show me only one Tweet per day.

      Because there are many people I like to keep updated about but they tweet too much. Limiting everybody to one tweet per day would be perfect.

      1. 5

        I would be interested in a client that groups messages by user, and only lets you refresh once a day.

    7. 2

      My partner does something very similar. A small service fetches his feed periodically, bucketizes them according to who posted it, and presents them as N different RSS feeds to his feed reader. It doesn’t split by days – each RSS feed is itself a timeline – but it lets you triage the posts & prioritize by poster. I’m going to forward this article; he’ll be tickled to know he’s not alone in wanting this.

      Mastodon or any AP server could support clients like that with a few simple changes: keep the home timeline around a lot longer (mastodon seems to default to 24 hours – should be more like 2 weeks), and allow each client to tag a post with a tiny amount of metadata, so they can remember which ones have been read or bucketized without having to keep a local database.

      (I still read in chrono order, oldest to newest, like an old twitter client. I just like it. But I strongly agree that presentation should be left up to the user.)

      1. 1

        iirc it defaults to a 400 post limit - for some people it might last a few days, for others it might not even show the entire day.

    8. 1

      People demand this every few years, and platforms add it, and then everything becomes a long sprawling argument across 2-dimensions. It’s really not better.

      And no, algorithmic feeds are not a “fix” for the “problems” of a simple linear time-based view. They’re cover for advertising at best, and in most cases exist mainly as a control mechanism.

    9. 1

      this is a very neat idea - a tree that’s organized by user-chosen criteria, not by votes or post history

      I do see a lot of problems with both linear feeds, and tree structures; I feel that tree structure leads to a lot of reactivity, to people saying stuff just for the sake of attention rather than because it’s a useful contribution. this is an interesting variation though, and might wind up differently.

      (yes, that means I wouldn’t build lobste.rs the same way if I were doing something from scratch, but eh, there’s a lot of ideas in the world, most of them deserve to be tried, and there’s no reason to make existing communities deal with changes.)