Threaded conversation vs Flat conversation

Two months ago I opened the topic:

I was hoping to steer the conversation to improving Discourse. However, it seems almost weekly a new topic derail pops up, longing for threaded conversation over flat conversation.

This brings me up to the is the point of this topic, I would like to have a canonical spot to discuss the merits of threaded vs flat discussion. A place we can point people when they say, “OH MY this is not threaded”

To kick this off, this is how I see it.

Threaded systems are prevalent on the web, most famously we have slashdot, reddit, hacker news and others. It is not as though one “way of doing things” is unequivocally better than others, each have their merits.

###The benefits of a threaded system

  • Tangents are very easy to handle
    • and even can be ignored
      • by collapsing or reading past indents
  • Conversation is “more” open, anything can go. Are you discussing “Obama on Syria” want to discuss “Obamacare”, no problems.
  • It is what many people are used to, why change something people already love?
  • Somewhat tolerant to people who only like the “flat discussion format”, if people start doing “threaded” discussion on a flat system they can destroy it.

###The benefits of a flat system

  • Catching up with the live evolution of a flat discussion is vastly superior to catching up in a threaded discussion. In a threaded conversation you are often reloading the entire page to see which sub-conversation got updated.
  • It forces you to stay on topic. Tangents are handled poorly by-design, meaning your discussion is forced to be way more focused.

Related topics:


As to my personal preference, I vastly prefer flat discussion. I find pure threaded discussion very problematic, and it is not only the indenting. I find it creates all sorts of sociological problems, as its a platform that allows people to beat a completely irrelevant drum on any topic.

Tangents are great. Tangents are one of the things which makes boingboing wonderful. And if you don’t like a tangent, collapse it and ignore it.


This is the constant balancing art forums have… on one side you have slashdot/hackernews/reddit. Places where any tangent goes and keeping tabs on tangents requires furious page reloading.

On the other hand you have flat forums (that are actually the majority of forums out there) who optimise for allowing people to easily catch up on a topic.

Discourse is a hybrid, primarily flat design.

While there is certainly reasonable topical ebb and flow in any conversation, too much and it basically breaks the Internet.

If I had a topic titled

Post awesome pictures of dogs!

… and two people in that topic start arguing about the merits of dogs vs. cats, or Bush, or which breed of dog is superior, or about that dog shooting incident, or pictures of cats just to be ironically funny?

Is that really what the reader signed up for when they clicked a topic titled

Post awesome pictures of dogs!

Allow “tangents” long enough, and often enough, and you’ll end up no different than this:

I would argue that choosing to intentionally break the context of links you clicked on directly undermines one of the most fundamental ways the Internet works: you click on a link, and you get something reasonably close to what you expected. Otherwise we are tricking every reader who ever clicks on the link, which feels like

I would argue that tangents and dynamic conversation is one of the principal reasons many people read boingboing comments. The amount of people who are upset at the lack of threading and the comments being moved off page kinda backs me up here.

Comments being moved off page is a totally different discussion.

But we can certainly agree to disagree on what constitutes “too much” digression in a topic. My definition is, any series of replies that would surprise a typical community member who clicked on the title is off-topic for that topic and should be in a different (but linked) topic.

That’s what Reply as New Topic is for.

May I offer a suggestion? Instead of deciding what is best for the users, why not let the users decide which they prefer— and implement a toggle that switches between threaded and flat.

Also, @CaptainPedge: Spot on.

If you build a tank-ship-plane you often end up having a crappy tank / crappy plane / crappy boat

Traditional solution in newsreaders is to offer both. Click one button for threaded; click another for strict chronological.

Why is the entire world trying to reinvent NNTP and its toolset? Badly?

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Ekranonplans are awesome!

Because it sucked?

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