The Drawbacks of Threaded Discussions

By Deane Barker on December 20, 2012

Web Discussions: Flat by Design: I agree with Atwood: threaded discussions have too many drawbacks, not enough benefits.

[…] threading tends to break crucial parts of discussion like reading and replying in deep, fundamental, unfixable ways. I have yet to discover a threaded discussion design that doesn’t eventually make me hate it, and myself.

The biggest problem is that they invite people to get off-topic.  Threaded discussions splinter, badly, and the overall experience is worse for it.

Before you jump to their defense, review Atwood’s complaints, and he has many:

Rigid hierarchy is generally not how the human mind works, and the strict parent-child relationship it enforces is particularly terrible for fluid human group discussion.

[…] it absolutely kills me that there might be amazing, insightful responses buried somewhere in the middle of a reply chain that I will never be able to find.

[…] I find that in the “indent everything to the right” game, there are no winners, only losers. It is natural to scroll down on the web, but it is utterly unnatural to scroll right. Indentation takes the discussion in the wrong direction.



  1. I tend to agree. For short conversations, flat discussions are infinitely better: maintaining pure chronology allows participants to respond to several other conversational points in one post rather than several.

    The only time I see threads working (reasonably) well is when conversations explode into massive epic threads, with hundreds-to-thousands of posts. You can see that on sites like MetaFilter, where the discussion thread below an important or popular post turns into a sort of long-form chat room, where no one expects new arrivals to catch up on what’s been said. Tools that allow people to “fragment” a conversation into new separate discussions are sometimes useful, but it really feels like we need a commons/warrens model rather than a “deep hierarchy” model for high-traffic comments.

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