"Design matters" (Fred is an idiot, Part XVI)

If you ever want to know about the creation, nurture and health of online communities, ask Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

They’ve been doing this and thinking about how it works since before the Web, and you can see the results in the community of commenters at their blog, Making Light, where I often lurk to enjoy the conversation there, feeling like a busboy at the Algonquin in the ’20s.

“Design matters,” Patrick says, and he did such a nifty job of articulating why and how, that I asked him if I could post some of it here:

First: Threading is appropriate for online discussions where the objective is to get a particular question answered efficiently and then leave. Without particular software tools which are not built into web browsers (I’m thinking of Usenet reader software, or programs like the old CompuServe Navigator), it’s extremely destructive of the kind of open-ended, wide-ranging discourse for which people come to your site.

Threading makes it vastly, vastly more difficult to see when new comments have been posted. It causes productive discussions to split into smaller and smaller subgroups, and encourages toxic back-and-forths between a few (or, sometime, only two) people that wouldn’t have happened if the conversation were happening in the presence of all participants. It undermines the participants’ sense that they’re all in the same conversation. With threading hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall. With threading the line grows thick. Wait, those last two are Ezra Pound on “usura”, but you get the idea.

Second: Putting the comment entry box on top of the comments themselves, rather than below them, is a dreadful idea. It says “go ahead and leave a single drive-by remark.” It says that reading other people’s contributions before posting — the basic politeness of listening to an ongoing conversation for a little while before weighing in — isn’t important. It says that the only real relationship is between the reader and Fred Clark, and it downgrades the value of any possible relationship between the reader and other readers.

Third: The presence of “like” buttons is bad enough — we don’t have enough opportunities in life to rank one another and engage in pointless competition? — but what you may not be aware of is that when a user comes to your new site for the first time, the comments are ordered not chronologically but in order of their supposed popularity, as determined by which comments got people to clink the “like” buttons. There is a popdown menu that allows the user to tell the site to order the comments chronologically, but if there’s one thing that we know from years of studying this stuff, it’s that the overwhelming majority of users never change default settings.

To sum up, the design of your new site says three things to people who are considering commenting. The first is that comments are primarily a way for readers to leave a note for Fred Clark. The second is that the larger conversation (or the possibility of a larger conversation) doesn’t matter. The third is that popularity is the most important measure of value. I can’t imagine three messages less in keeping with what your site is about.

Those aren’t three messages I want to be sending. I am sorry for having done so and for not realizing that I was doing so.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    E. said,

    And, uh, they Haydens have a really bad history with not understanding, respecting, or dealing honestly with other people’s online presences and communities. (Racefail.) I wouldn’t hold them up as the be-all end-all of community creation.

    I rather suspect Fred’s opinion of the Making Light crew began forming years before Racefail*, that said opinion won’t be significantly altered by someone who can’t even get Teresa’s and Patrick’s last name right, and that you’ve got nothing new to teach your granny about sucking eggs.

    *about which I will only say that opinions about who was more or less ill-behaved do in fact differ, and “it’s more complicated than that”.

  • E.

    @Nicole J LeBoef-Little

    In case anyone is interested in reading about the Haydens’ history with Racefail, about which there are certainly multiple interpretations: Teresa’s own words. Context: after Patrick participated in a larger discussion about cultural appropriation, he was called out for what were perceived as racially insensitive remarks by a number of people, and proceeded to delete his lj. The screencap is Teresa responding by calling the people discussing the issue, mostly POC and allies, a “mob” and “nithlings.” She and her commenters also completely dismiss anyone who posts under a pseudonym, because they are “hiding” their true identities. The first bit makes my opinion of her less than positive; call me sensitive. It is the second bit that makes me distrust the pair’s opinion of online community, since so many online spaces are based on pseudonymity.

    They may be good people in their own spaces; in other people’s spaces, however, they step on toes left and right. So yes, take into account their work with Making Light — but don’t dismiss what they said in 2009, either. Not everyone who criticized them was a “mob” jumping on a bandwagon. Many people who criticized them had no idea who they were and were only responding to their public words. Many who criticized them had been fans for years, and ceased after their words in that conversation. I didn’t know who they were beforehand– but how they treated people in that discussion was enough for me to not look up their work afterward. Thus, I did not know they went by both last names.

  • Michele-my-bell-flower

    I have been a lurker (and sometime commenter) for years at typepad. I’ve been trying to read the commenting community here via my phone (as that’s very convenient for me), but disqus does NOT play nicely with mobile devices. I’ve had to give up reading the comments & that makes me VERY VERY sad.

    -Michèle my bell-flower

  • chris the cynic

    If you load up the source of a page (I’m not sure how you’d do that on your phone, but there probably is a way) then you can see all of the comments for a given page in text, not disqus, form.

    It’s ugly text*, but depending on what you’re willing to put up with it may be better than nothing.

    -

    *I tried to show an example, but it was converted into normal. instead of ‘ you get &#82 17; (but without the space) the line breaks are represented as text rather than actual line breaks, that sort of thing.

  • hapax

    Michele-my-bell-flower! [squee tackle hug!]  I’ve noted your absence and am so happy to see you!

    Look, I’m sprouting exclamation marks!

    (Please come visit us over at the old Typepad site, now “The slacktiverse”, as well.  I’m sure others have missed having you around)

  • Wanglin6520

    Geeknights podcast. In it we talk about the


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