Thread management: comment nesting, direct replies, forking conversations

DS Danyl Strype Public Seen by 115

I get the value of nesting replies to comments in Loomio threads. It allows me to reply directly to the content of a comment, eg by answering a question or offering corrections or clarifications, even when the resulting comment wouldn't make sense as a reply to the discussion starter, or lost within the general flow of comments proceeding from it.

The problem is, in my experience with groups that use comment threading, it creates two kinds of confusion. One, it can be hard to tell when and where new comments have been added to a thread since last time I checked it, and to read them in the context of the preceding discussion. I usually find I can only do one or the other (although the 2.0 UI has elements to may make that easier). The more serious problem is that as more and more conversations branch off from direct replies and go off on their own tangents, threads can tend to metastatize into unwieldy mega-threads. These become increasingly hard to navigate, as well as chunking together things that in many cases would be easier to find, and *make decision* on, in their own thread.

My initial response, in a nutshell, was that instead of infinite regression of nested replies, replying to comments could "fork" the conversation, by starting a new thread. The context box in that new thread could be auto-generated, with text giving the title of the original thread (linked), and the text of the comment being replied to and the name of the author, with a link to that comment.

However, as mentioned above, I can see the value of being able to make direct replies within the body of a thread. Also, if every one-off reply that attracts no further discussion ends up creating its own thread, that would create another sort of clutter.

So maybe the default is that only one layer of nested replies is displayed in a thread. If a group member replies to a reply, that tends to suggest a new discussion is branching off, so that's when a new thread is created. Maybe instead of "reply", the text on the button could say something like "fork", or "branch". Maybe clicking it could pop up the usual new thread popup, populated as above with links to the original discussion, the comment the new thread is branching off from etc. Both the comment that was the root of the new discussion, and the first reply, could have a UI element (a fork or branch icon?) indicating that a new thread has branched off them, and linking to it.

Another thing I notice is that users tend to click 'reply' when they're not really making a direct reply at all, just adding to the main discussion on the topic of the thread. Maybe when these buttons are clicked, the UI could ask the user if it would be better to make a general comment using the comment box at the bottom of the page, rather than replying directly to this comment or branching off a new thread? With the "reply" button, this text could be in the comment editing box, and disappear as soon as the user starts typing. With the "fork"/ "branch", it could be included somewhere in the new thread popup.

In fact, this misuse of the direct reply feature to continue the main discussion might also be reduced if the comment box was always available at the bottom of the screen, maybe in a minimized form, that maximizes into the full comment box when clicked on. An even more effective way to limit the misuse of direct replies by starting whole new discussions inside them could be to limit the number of characters they can be. Once the user goes over that limit, the UI could suggest they instead make a general comment, or start a new thread. This notice could give them a UI element to click that takes them to the other comment box, or it could just be a warning that comments over X characters will be added as a general comment in the main discussion, rather than nested as a direct reply.

EDIT: in a small group, it's easier to evolve norms for how to use Loomio, and larger organizations that work together a lot and have other channels (especially in-person meetings or voice conferences), can decide on norms and train group members out-of-band to understand and follow them. In large, loose networking groups though, where the Loomio group may be the only place members interact, and participants may drift in and out over time, this is difficult if not impossible. In my experience, such groups really need the UI to guide new or occasional participants in their groups on how to use the tool productively.

BTW: Sorry if I'm creating a double-up on existing thread(s) about comment nesting and forking discussions. Global search hasn't been implemented in the 2.0 beta (and I can't figure out how to turn it off right now), so I did try looking manually for any threads on these topics but couldn't find any.

EDIT: Here is the forking topics discussion, which is tangentially relevant to this: https://www.loomio.org/d/cDPIAS95/forking-topics


Greg Cassel Sat 3 Aug 2019 4:39PM

Painting with an extremely broad brushstroke here: I think that indefinitely nest-able replies is a perfectly fine tool which is frequently misused. Misuse is a cultural problem, often related to insufficient guidelines. I think that cultural guidelines should ideally be developed by each community (such as a Loomio group) instead of being systematically imposed.


martin ➬ Sun 4 Aug 2019 8:30PM

Thanks, @Strypey , there is a lot of good thought in your post.

However, I think that no one size will fit all, and no matter how much you'll try, people will make mistakes and abuse a forum, whether accidental or with purpose. This is why my preferred approach would be to allow moderators to easily move stuff around, split subthreads out, move comments around, even merge then, hide duplicates etc..


Danyl Strype Mon 5 Aug 2019 3:55PM

Misuse is a cultural problem, often related to insufficient guidelines ...

I remember this same line of argument, applied to email lists, being used to argue that Loomio was itself unnecessary. I disagree now, for the same reasons I disagreed then. The whole point of thoughtful UI is to save groups time and energy haggling over use norms, and trying to remember them and train new members to follow them. The various poll types are "systematically imposed" and this is a good thing! For both Loomio users and for Loomio itself. When a user joins their second group, they already know what UI elements are available and the broad strokes of how they work, although of course specific usage will vary subtly according to group culture.

my preferred approach would be to allow moderators to ...

It doesn't seem kind to moderators to make them do work that could be avoided with some thoughtful UI design. I'm all for having a range of options in the group settings for groups that want the tool to guide users differently from the sane defaults, or not at all


Greg Cassel Mon 5 Aug 2019 5:55PM

I disagree now, for the same reasons I disagreed then.

I might be missing something, but to me @strypey it doesn't look like you directly disagree with my statement that misuse is a cultural problem. It just seems to me that you believe it's a relatively deep & perhaps intractable cultural problem, and therefore you think it'd be desirable to impose technical limitations which could act as "liberating restraints". I disagree for many interrelated reasons. I think that each community should work hard to develop its customized rules and guidelines.


martin ➬ Mon 5 Aug 2019 9:35PM

It doesn't seem kind to moderators to make them do work that could be avoided with some thoughtful UI design.

I agree. I am just saying that no matter what the design, even the most power-y of the power users will make mistakes, and it would help a lot given the longevity of threads (Loomio to me is as much about knowledge&information management, as it is about communication&coordination) if they could be cleaned up.

It should probably be an option to allow everyone to do this basic cleanup, especially if there is some sort of undo functionality.


Robert Guthrie Mon 5 Aug 2019 11:55PM

I agree with you on both having a good ux and making it easy to correct mistakes for people as a helpful facilitator.

I'm keen to do both.


Robert Guthrie Sun 22 Sep 2019 6:40AM

I've had a big breakthrough on this topic recently!

We've built a really capable thread rendering system in Loomio 2.0. I believe it will make it possible to navigate threads with thousands of comments just as easily as those with a few comments. This is live today, I encourage you to go for a browse through existing large threads and pay attention to the loading. No more clicking "load more", ever.

I've also found a way to let admins/authors change the structure of a thread, so you can choose the direction and level of nesting.

Click the "Newest first" to open the modal

This is a global setting. IE: You're changing how the thread looks for everyone. It takes a minute to apply.. Don't worry, I'll add these warnings to the form.

So if you want to have a thread for ongoing updates on a topic, then switch it to "newest first". Or if you want to have a discussion without divergence, then "oldest first, not nested" perhaps?

I think you'll approve @Strypey .

This is under dev now, but working well and I expect to release it within 2.0 beta in the next few days.


Robert Guthrie Sun 22 Sep 2019 6:42AM

Also worth mentioning that we've implemented a generalised "Move comment" feature, so you can move comments and their replies between threads.


Z. Blace Sun 22 Sep 2019 7:12AM

Good. Looks a bit like Slashdot.org comments,
which for me have always been the best way to handle this.

I also strongly believe there is a way to have multiple nestings,
just a metaphor of left-to-right needs to be dropped :-/


Danyl Strype Sat 4 Apr 2020 11:21PM

FYI I still see infinite regression of nested comments causing all the problems I identified in the OP. It's an anti-feature for most Loomio groups where I participate ( [see the recent thread management discussion in the OAE group](https://www.loomio.org/d/28SNCvkj/formatting-and-usage-of-threads-in-the-oae-group) ) and would be best turned off by default, with an option in 'Group Settings' to turn it on for groups who choose to use it. Speaking of which, is there a way for group coordinators to turn off nested comments across a whole group? I can't seem to find it in 'Group Settings'.