Threaded conversations are a poor tool for social interaction

Since the internet has existed, and even before then (on BBS systems and so on) threaded conversations have been used as the primary means of social interaction and debate. From this conversation, to Facebook or Twitter, Slack, YouTube comments, the Discuss comments sections for hundreds of newspapers, IRC, Usenet, or practically any system anywhere, the user’s primary social interactions rely on threaded conversations.

In 40 years, the sum intelligence of UI designers and developers have produced nothing better, so in every new product, we always use the same way of communicating.

This tool has no sense of history or nuance. It provides no background information. It does not help it’s users learn, or evolve. Even when we build more intelligent and complex systems, the communication hub is invariably a threaded conversation, (see StackOverflow, GitHub etc).

So, here we are, having another threaded conversation. It might work OK, and might end up productive, but I believe the only reason that is able to happen, is because people on this forum already have a shared point of view and interest. On the other hand, a single troll arriving could soon turn this thread into a flame war, and have it suffer from the same demise that most communication on the internet does today.

I think there are a few serious problems with threads, as the primary method of interaction on the internet:

  1. Threaded conversations don’t scale - the more people there are involved, the less likely anyone is to use their frontal cortex before replying to posts.

  2. One troll can hyjack the thread and destroy any useful conversation and rapport between participants. Trolls have too much power to influence conversation.

  3. No one feels like they are being heard, so have to use stronger language and less subtle points to have any hope of anyone noticing them.

  4. Being a troll is incentivised, because people get more attention when they say an outrageous thing. This is an example of negative reinforcement.

  5. There’s no real incentive to spend time and effort backing up your point with research and facts. Most debate is shallow and based on automatic prejudice and reaction. Longer posts don’t get read, and you get more attention for saying things that people already thought and believed, whether they are true or not.

For a long time I’ve thought that this is partly a UX issue, and that we as humans and developers have given ourselves an inappropriate tool which just encourages abuse and lack of thought.

As a software dev I feel some responsibility for this. I feel like as an industry we need to design better tools and interfaces which encourage constructive criticism, fact based debate, and incentivise that sort of interaction. They should discourage hate speech and unthinking replies - not just by banning abusers, but by ensuring the game doesn’t favour such actors. Right now, the game does favour such actors - two such case points, Milo Yiannopoulos and the US president.

To some extent we have some such existing tools. For example, though StackOverflow is largely thread based, it incentivises thoughtful answers and helpfulness to some extent. It rewards users for their work, novel solutions to problems, and their expertise.

My question is - how can we do things better? How can we move from “the loudest wins” to something more like deliberative democracy?

What tools can we build to stop the facile “like” being the only way to incentivise people’s interactions?


I fully agree with you. This community is the first time I encountered Discourse and I was having similar thoughts.

Stackoverflow and Github are much better at threaded discussions (i.e without trolling), and I would like to add Hacker News to that list.
Both SO and HN use (elaborate) reputation systems to do the job. Github does not, but - having used it a lot - I never encountered a single troll there, strangely enough… maybe because its quite specialistic/technical, targeted to devs only. Where github threads break down is in very long discussion (e.g. like in NodeJS project)

The deliberative democracy concept is interesting, but maybe hard to scale and less inclusive… but food for thought. In a way it is about preparing something for a larger group to allow e.g. voting. Thank you!


Thanks. I mention deliberative democracy as an aside. It’s an approach that helps deal with contentious issues that people generally won’t agree on to begin with. It also works much better in person than on the internet, but my thought was about using tools to incentivise deliberation and consensus in an internet setting, understanding that humans don’t often reach agreements until they are forced to understand the subject they are discussing in more depth. I don’t think the "democracy’ part is always applicable, but deliberation is always more preferable than insults and trolling. To achieve that, you have to be incentivised to actually think, and discussion threads don’t encourage thought in many cases.

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I thought I’d seen an example of a contentious Github thread recently - it’s fairly civilised in the scheme of things, but I guess that even highly technical conversations can frustrate and anger people in some conditions:

Ah yes, I see what you mean. Some technology bashing, zombie pictures… very long thread as well. Good example… hope it doesn’t become a trend :slight_smile:

I guess the best results all require some kimd of reputation system. Maybe something like tiered discussion threads (e.g. you can up/downvote but not comment in ‘upper tier’ threads until you have a proven track record / something useful to add to the topic).

Back to the Humane Tech Discourse… there is a lot of good info after just one week, but things are already getting dispersed / hard to find. Some kind of working environment is needed where we can follow up in topics that are started here.
But first, imho, it is good to know more on the plans of the founders… I asked about the roadmap in a separate thread.

There is a bigger picture here. the main question can people in Society communicate without “filters” and moderators.


Thanks for your post.

Isn’t the problem that we have not evolved to communicate this way? By that I mean large groups of people do not by their very nature communicate anonymously, they are mobs. As you pointed out, threaded conversations do not scale without eventually encouraging the loudest and most extreme behavior because all the voices are drowning out each other.

In “real” life when we have a single large group (ie a company, country, etc.) we break into smaller groups where we discuss or negotiate equally. Reputation matters much more in a small group than in a giant group. When a consensus is reached, the subgroup group leader then speaks for the group, taking the groups’ opinion forward to other leaders from other groups. Other groups may then join that group, building a cohesive movement or ideology. The wisest and most articulate rise to the top, not the trolls.

What if you made a site that started out with several small groups instead of a single giant group like a threaded site? Any new member would be added to an established small group, similar to someone joining a department in a company. Group size would be finite. The newcomer then learn the norms of their local group and either continue to contribute and participate or leave. If they have a strong opinion they have to persuasively convince the other members of their small group. If they are disruptive they are banned from the group. The group leaders would be articulate enough to be elected by the subgroup, encouraging arguing from a logical and convincing standpoint. Elections of group leaders could be weekly or some other short period of time. If a person was passionate about whatever issue was being debated they would want to be a group leader.

As the site grows with more and more members, more subgroups form. The leaders partake in the subgroup and the leadership groups. Eventually a leader arises who is hopefully the most articulate and intelligent. If they aren’t they can be voted out. The site by its very nature would discourage trolls or others who want to post and leave while encouraging members to contribute quality instead of quantity.


I think you have a good point, in that large groups naturally have problems with any type of conversation, and that breaking into smaller groups is the only way for people to have civilised discourse. It makes sense that that’s also the same structure that is used in political parties, campaigning groups, businesses and so on as well.

I wonder how you would put people together in these small groups automatically on the internet. Would you randomise it, or select differing opinions somehow? Select similar opinions?

I think there’s also the question of how you avoid too much structure and arbitrary hierarchies. I think heirarchies are inevitable, but constructing them artificially is often the cause of anger and frustration amongst groups of people, rather than a way to empower people to make decisions and collaborate together.

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I would model it on the way it works in the non digital world. When joining a forum people would self select their specific areas of interest which in turn would pair them with a small group. It would be similar to joining the local chapter of a political party. I would not base it on similar or different opinions other than broad categories of shared interest. People almost always join local groups because they want to share an interest, not because they have a contrarian viewpoint. The technology would not require a new behavioral norm to be learned in order to use the software, traditional behavioral norms already exist for joining small groups.

I agree with you about structure and hierarchies. However, I would argue that so much of the poor behavior on the internet is because the barrier of entry is set too low. It takes twenty seconds to make an anonymous online name on youtube and troll everyone. Even this site could be hijacked and destroyed by trolls if a Reddit mob turned against it.

Maybe an answer is to do the opposite of the current trend and raise the barrier of entry. For example, when you first join you get one post a day. After a week, two posts a day. After three weeks, three posts a day. Maybe after a month you are given an unlimited amount of posts and full membership (excluding troll behavior, of course).

If you truly cared about an issue you would stick around even though you couldn’t post much initially. That time would be spent reading other people’s posts, learning the behavioral norms and goals of the overall organization or group. Then, at the end of the month, if you were still around, you would be assigned a small group to be part of. At that point, if you desired, you could begin trying to convince others of your points of view and become a leader.

The entire site would then be built of dedicated, focused people, committed to a goal. Yes, there would be a big barrier of entry. But I would think true quality and genuine discussion would be a natural byproduct of such an organizational structure.

Anyway, thanks for your posts. I’ve enjoyed reading them.


Interesting discussion so far. Threaded conversations definitely have their downfalls, but their benefits are worth mentioning. They don’t scale well, but they provide a high level of visibility to conversations. In that way they are great education resources for passive observers. For example I get a lot of helpful information from Slack channels that I don’t contribute to.

I have been thinking along these lines for a few months, and I’m surprised Reddit doesn’t find a mention in this thread. I find its commenting system good if not perfect. Its comment voting and nesting help quite a bit.

In general, we need to (a) quantify the quality of comments and (b) make sure their reach and ability to interrupt are proportional to the quality. Some of the ideas I have played with in NammApp are:

(1) Define a low-quality comment as one which is too short or is not in the expected language
(2) Do not automatically upvote low-quality comments
(3) Do not send mobile push notifications about low-quality comments
(4) Optionally do not send even in-app notifications about low-quality comments

There are many more options…

Am I making sense?


I have to go on record as agreeing with this post. I think that threaded conversations are the NUMBER ONE problem with the world. What I mean is, since Zuckerburg forced us into rooms with hundreds of strangers in 2012 (after going public and needing ways to make the site stickier) the hate (or perceived hate) has spread like wildfire. Before that it was only YouTube comments where people lost their minds (because, before Google bought them, you could be totally anonymous and so most were…but the nastiness spilled out into non-anonymous YouTube and…Facebook.)
I can’t become interested in small issues like infinite scroll or youtube autoplays when there is a 2 Billion pound gorilla in the room. Until he rolls back that feature, a large part of society is stuck in the 3rd grade. (Facebook is where 1/3 of humans on Earth form their impression of the world.) We are animals, but learned over hundreds of thousands of years how to get along and not want to kill each other and steal each other’s stuff. In 5 short years we’ve undone a lot of that by getting slammed together in anonymous, disfunctional threaded forums. Alright, cheers, good luck out there.


This quote really hits home for me. I’m going to process all the points though and come back with a more thoughtful response that it deserves. For now, I just want to acknowledge that this conversation is so important and worth having. Thank you for starting it, Chris.

Hmm, it’s hard not to read your comment as incendiary. Perhaps it’s intentionally so as a test of the level of discourse and discerning intelligence in this community? Saying that threaded conversations are the number one problem in this world begs for counter argument. I would posit that isolation and fear of retribution for speaking your truth are perhaps more at the root of said problem than the threaded conversations themselves. Fear of rejection and not fitting into the group that seems to know the rules of the conversation in said thread cuts more at the heart of the problem. To use a playground analogy for a second, you’ve got lots of games going on and lots of groups, but if you’re there quiet new observer and you’ve been dropped in without the language and social norms learned by the others, what do you do? Probably watch and feel more and more isolated that you don’t know the ways of the others. Eventually, at some point, someone from the group has to invite the outsider in. Interaction requires only two participants. It starts with “hello, wanna play with us?”.
Anyway, perhaps you just hit a nerve because of my own experience, but even so, for that I thank you. It got me thinking. That’s sometimes enough. In my world, a good thought exercise is indeed time well spent. Thanks again.

Hi all, thanks for your input!

This discussion will be continued in Addressing the 'too long, didn't read' problem of threaded discussions in this forum and this topic will be closed!