I have a revelation this morning, one of those ideas that just jump to the front of your mind in the morning after possibly stewing somewhere in the back while you slept - or longer (one of those mysteries of the mind, I guess). After telling the catbox of the idea I've been informed that I am not the first to have an idea like this, but I'll present my argument in a way that, hopefully, has not been done before, and as convincingly. I believe that my experience designing GUIs, websites, and my education and training in usability of interfaces will come in handy here.

My belief may be wrong and my ideas may be stupid and this may be an epic fail and I am sometimes regarded as a dumbass, but, hey, I am fully aware of this; but anybody who has known me for a long time knows that for every 1,000 stupid ideas I have, I have one brilliant one that knocks people on their asses and this may be one of them. Hey, the idea almost knocked me on my own ass, it was one of those light-bulb-above-the-head moments - BING!

This idea kills several birds with one stone, the birds being a handful of complaints that have been floating around for years:

  • Lack of Feedback on writeups
  • Lack of encouragement to improve writeups, or a user's writing skills/style in general (because of lack of Feedback)
  • Lack of Feedback and/or Encouragement for - specifically - new users to improve
  • New user retention (many leave, berated, frustrated, their first writeup eaten, often without enough explanation - again, stemming from a lack of feedback)
  • Current user retention (how many good writers have we lost, in the "fled" category? Where are they going and why?)
  • Usage/popularity going down in general

You may notice that all of these, arguably, can and do stem from a feedback problem. There have been many ideas to help the problem, and all of them have failed miserably, in my estimation. We've tried experience points for leaving comments. We've tried GP. In the end, the only users that care about XP are users who still don't have a lot and who want to level up soon. And as for myself, I rarely care about GP, that's not to say that I won't care more at some point if some sort of clever way to spend them comes about that interests me.

There may be many users who really love the GP, sure, but my point is, these have been largely ineffective. Why? That's the question. I have the answer. Unless you're using real money, and let's face it that is not in any way feasible, the only other reward system that is effective for users on a community website feeds the ego, not a virtual pocketbook. It has to do with human psychology, community psychology, and the psychology of the reward system as it pertains to social networks and community websites.

So what is my idea, you might be screaming at the computer right now? Simply put, Comment Threads.

Think about it. Why have websites like YouTube and Facebook been so successful? Or Amazon? These sites have proved to have a "stickiness" as they say. No NO, I'm not saying we should be like them, just hear me out. They answer the question: How do you encourage participation? This question has been quite elusive for us.

First of all, they provide a service, as does E2. We have that covered. First and foremost, YouTube provides users with a place to store their videos in a way that they can easily play, pause, stop them, and share them with others by emailing links. Facebook, it's an easy way to get your name and face out there for networking purposes. Amazon, you can buy stuff. E2, it's a place where you can write and display your content as well as your skills and ability to produce that content. Community websites that fail have no value at their core. We have that. But beyond that, how are these sites so sticky? What keeps users coming back again and again and again? Why are they so addicting to so many people, in particular when talking about Facebook?

The answer is the secondary way you encourage participation, besides offering a core value. The late Peter Kollock, who was unfortunately killed in a motorcycle accident in January, was an associate professor of the University of California, Los Angeles. He was a sociologist, and he came up with Four Motivations for Contributing:

  1. Reciprocity
  2. Reputation
  3. Increased Sense of Efficacy
  4. Attachment to and need of a group

Reciprocity is basically giving feedback. You can do that on E2. It fulfills a sense of "giving back" to the community. But that's not what makes the successful social websites so sticky, as it turns out. Efficacy has to do with doing good work for the sake of doing good work, and on E2 you contribute content partly because you feel good about doing so. And of course we all have an attachment to a group of some sort except for those who are exceptionally anti-social. And these days a lot of groups people join are online. And at E2 we have, I feel, a great group of people here to be a member of. But let's focus on the second one, Reputation. As I've said, on E2, you can contribute, it's a great group to contribute to, and you can comment on writeups, but what crucial, last piece of the puzzle are we missing??

Kollock surveyed (somebody did, I believe it was Kollock himself) users of a restaurant review website some years back. When he asked people what they liked about it, they said they liked reading the reviews so they knew where to dine (efficacy). When he pushed them further, No, what do you really like? they said they liked giving feedback on the reviews (reciprocity). When he pushed them even further, what they REALLY liked about it, was the comments on their comments. This is what was so addicting. They loved establishing that Reputation on the website and users, like users on Facebook, etc. were hooked by the Comment Thread, essentially.

On E2, you can give feedback on writeups using the message system, but there isn't much incentive to do so because what the people REALLY want, when pushed, is to see the other comments, and get comments on their comments (from the author, OR other users!). When it comes to giving feedback on writeups, not only are the incentives we currently have inadequate, there isn't a fast way to do it. Unless you have the function turned on that puts a comment field on the top of a writeup like what I have, you have to either put insulting or complimentary softlinks on the writeup, or click on the user's name, and then locate the message box on their homenode, and then you have to either copy and paste the name of the writeup (if it's too long to remember) so they know what you're commenting on. This is why the typical new user won't give feedback very often. In fact, one could even make the argument that not only is feedback not encouraged enough, feedback is actually discouraged!

HOWEVER, if there's a comment thread (and an anchor link at the top of the node so the user knows there is one) at the bottom, and the user sees a discussion going on, most would be adequately encouraged to give their own feedback. In fact, new users who have used other social websites have come to expect this functionality and might be turned off by the lack of it. This also speaks to usability and user expectations. But back to participation... if you're walking into a room where there's a party going on, unless you see a friend, you're not encouraged at all to go up to somebody and strike a conversation with him or her, especially if you're the shy type, but if you see a conversation going on between several individuals you want to be in on it. It's the same mentality here. A Comment Thread will encourage new users (and old) to participate more, which leads to more feedback on the writeups, which in theory leads to better quality writeups and more rewards for contributing content, and all lead to more addiction to E2, which leads to more user retention, new and old. Email notifications of updates to the thread would help, too; ever since joining Facebook, probably the #1 thing I anticipate when I check my email now are Facebook emails, comments on my status updates or notes, or others that I have participated in. A comment/feedback thread would excite users even more to paritcipate on E2.

OK, sure, there many counterarguments you'll come up with.

  • E2 will become a discussion forum
  • Flame wars
  • Endless "Yeah, me too!!" messages
  • Or any other of the typical useless crap you see on forums
  • It's too hard to implement
  • Do we really want to read comments on a writeup left two years ago? Five?
  • Will this be something ELSE editors have to police?? WE'RE BUSY ENOUGH!
  • I am a blithering idiot

It is not a perfect solution, but it will be much MUCH better than what we have now. E2 will NOT become a discussion forum and nodes won't get filled with ancient comments. It's simple. Put expiration dates on comments. Make the Comment Thread only visible to logged-in users. Users who encounter Everything2 who are not members and are just doing research won't be bothered by a long stream of comments and counter-comments that they may not be interested in. It would satisfy, to some extent, the "we should be more like Wikipedia" crowd. Of course if it was visible to guests it might encourage more users to sign up, but it's a concession on the idea I'm willing to make to satisfy skeptics of it. And about stupid and/or offensive comments, or editor policing, let the author of the writeups, or authors of the node (this is something I still haven't worked out, if there's a thread on each writeup, or each node) edit the comments. We could also make the Comment Thread module collapsable/expandable. You could easily do this with ajax or Jquery. Hell, I could code it myself! Or users can turn it on or off in their Preferences. And it really shouldn't be all THAT hard to implement, adding the thread. Code could just be grabbed from any of the other numerous websites doing it and modified.

If you are still not convinced, ask yourself this question; what is your personal vision for Everything2? Do you want it to be more of a social and/or community website? Or Wikipedia? Or, if you think it should be some sort of combination of both, which direction are you leading more toward? I'm not going to make a judgment here, all are valid visions for the website. But if you are in the camp that we should focus more on the social and community aspect of Everything2, you should appreciate this idea. It's a logical improvement and step forward from what we currently have in place. I know E2 isn't much of a business or a profit-making venture, but we are in competition. We've made many improvements to the site since its inception, but in a little over a year we will be ten years old! In internet years, that's like a hundred! We have changed little. We are being left behind. As much as I am not a fan of the term, but I'll use it to further my point, I think we should enter the Web 2.0 era with everybody else. We are becoming antiquated I'm afraid.

But I'm not complaining. Don't take this that way. I love Everything2. It's why almost every day I'm checking in, chattering in the catbox, and still producing the occasional writeup. I am so glad that swankivy introduced it to me way back in 2003. I am grateful for having had it to display my writing talents, or lack thereof, in a public way, and I am very grateful for the friends I've made here. I'm not threatening to leave or anything silly like that. That, and the seemingly endless belly-aching from some users, the bitching and hollering about a free website to post their crap to is a pet peeve of mine. But nevertheless a Comment Thread would be one great way to improve E2 and address some of the reasons other users have been complaining about.

Maybe it's too radical, though. Maybe what I'm really suggesting here is Everything3. I don't know. But please seriously consider it. I really believe in this, I believe it can do what I claim: encourage more participation, feedback, better quality writeups, more user retention and "stickiness."

Thank you.

- artman2003

Some thoughts on a disconnect in e2's use

The Database and the current scene. How they fit together, how they fail to fit together, and how to make them fit together better.


Sometimes, well, you find yourself teaching granny to suck eggs... You know she can do it, but unless you actually tell her in writing then it's not out there in The Commons. Thus I'm coming out with another one of my tracts about the underlying way this site works, and most of you will all know this already. For those web designers amongst you in particular - sorry. The topic for today? The difference in perceptions of e2 for regular users and Guest User.

E2 has a unique structure, at the core of the site is this gradually accumulating database of writeups, these writeups pull in the google-hits which in turn pulls in Guest User. Like any website the aim should be to maximise the number of hits who become repeat readers, and then convert these repeat readers into logged in users. The gold is in elegantly converting these users into contributors. There's going to be some-sort of percentage drop off; let's call it 100%-10%-1%-0.1% for convenience, but thats a wild assumption and likely wrong.

At the moment e2contact dedicates a huge (and productive) amount of work converting the 1% to the 0.1%. These are the baby-noders people tend to get worried about, and a lot of e2's angst comes from the feeling that we are somehow being unfriendly towards them. In broader terms tho, we must try to make sure that the 1% are the sort of users who can bloom on this website. And since this is the last step in a selection process we've already winnowed down our users substantially, we have already biased our group.

Turning Google hits into repeat readers is bound to be a bigger issue, because it's selecting those who make it past the later hurdles. Here I finally start getting to the point: I think the site as seen by a new user is very different to that seen by a regular, and not in a good way. Coming here from Google you find a writeup, you follow any prominent links, then you follow the softlinks... It's likely that the next thing you do is to type random words into the search bar. All of this means that E2 to outsiders is primarily the database. Here the big names from the past are very prominent, with people like Pseudo_Intellectual carrying a weight of 1535 writeups heavy on stylised writing and clever in-jokes (sorry P_I, somehow you've become the type example for an early e2 pirate noder). Only after a little playing around do you even discover the front page, and you never encounter the catbox until you create an account. This is at odds to regular users, my e2 experience is dominated by New Writeups, Cream of the Cool, Cool User Picks and The Catbox. This is an enormous disconnect in perceptions: the average writeup age is somewhere around 2001-2004, so if Guest User falls in love with the content of the database then it's likely that the current - arguably more conservative - website may be a bit of a disappointment.

What is needed is more context on each writeup, so the different eras of e2's site history are more obvious. The fact that the database is indexed by title really doesn't help, and when united with shared nodes of different aged writeups, the time independant nature of softlinks, Guest User is being led on a wild goosechase... The obvious context is all database-based. And this problem can only get worse as the site ages - integrate your writeups may be becoming a problem.

My suggestion (and there are bound to be others equally as good) is to increase the focus on the author, putting each writeup in the context of their body of work. That way we can hook Guest User in to our best writers and immediately they are using this place more like we regulars do - TheDeadGuy once referred to e2 as a radio station for your favourite writers, tune in to their latest installment.

How do we make the author a more prominent entity? First, let's look at the current situation. To get to other writeups by an author from one node it takes a click on the author button (taking you to their homepage), followed by a click on the User Search page, then finally opening up a new tab for each separate writeup - horrible, horrible, horrible. I, personally, have never managed to work through one writer's collected works this way, and it's not for want of trying. The need for tabs in particular is incredibly clunky. On top of this, the user search is by default sorted by date, with the most recent writeups the most prominent. The most highly regarded ones aren't obvious to Guest User.

There are numerous relatively easy ways to make this better: I've suggested that we put forwards and backwards arrows on each writeup so that Guest User can page their way through your collected works. Alternatively we could put a "would you like to read more" next to the name in the header, linking directly to the User Search page (I think homepages are an acquired taste). Another thought would be to put the name of the author on Cool User Picks (node title is a really poor way to navigate). Ideally, the User Search could really do with a bit of a facelift; making it more of an advert and less of a cataloguing tool. An ambitious solution would be to show the first paragraph of a user's writeups as a thumbnail. This could use something similar to the Cream Of The Cool code. Any of you reading can probably think of other ways to do this, but anything that leads Guest User more to the author and less to an amorphous aging database is likely to increase our stickiness.

The ideal has to be internet flypaper, that catches every Google hit and then lets the best users rise to the top of the site. I realise all of this requires edev to invest their time in coding, so I only suggest this now when edev has the biggest head of steam we've ever seen. At present I hear a lot about how to make e2 more friendly, but this social backbiting about the 1%-0.1% seems, frankly, rather irrelevant when there is obvious low-hanging fruit at the 100%-10% conversion. If we want e2 to grow, we have to pull in Guest User and keep them entertained.


At the time of writing e2 has today had 593,005 hits... Mostly wasted.

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