The argument for comment threads under writeups

For some time now, I've been mentioning offhand that comment threads under nodes might be a good idea. Some people agree with me, some don't, several wanted more information about what I had in mind specifically so here it is.

I regard E2 primarily as a platform for writing cool text for other people to read, and for reading cool text written by other people. Secondarily, E2 is a forum where readers and writers can discuss their work and pass feedback. At the moment, textual feedback happens in two ways:

  1. You send a private message to the author; they might send a private message back, if they haven't fled. I get very little feedback this way.
  2. You discuss the writeup in the chatterbox with whoever else happens to be around. I find very few writeups at all get discussed in this way.

I am suggesting that we should have a public comments thread under each writeup. Here, people reading the writeup can give feedback in a way which is

  1. visible to other readers who might come along and want to add something to the discussion,
  2. not necessarily directed at the author but at other readers and
  3. semi-permanent, so that readers coming along years later can see the discussion that went on and maybe pick up where it left off.

I believe that this feature has been conspicuous in its absence for a very long time.

A thread under each node?

No, a thread under each writeup. I feel as if one comment thread should discuss one single work of text. A node is merely a collection of works of text which coincidentally happen to be filed under the same title; a node is rarely a collaborative effort and therefore rarely needs commenting on as a whole.

Wouldn't the comments swamp E2, turning it into a glorified message board?

This can be avoided using good presentation. User interface shapes usage. E2's "major export" is the original writing of its users. That should be placed front and centre. It must be made clear that comments aren't content. Comments are secondary and should be in the back somewhere. For example, see Wikipedia's Talk pages. There's one Talk page for every Wikipedia article and much more besides; they can become incredibly long and involved. However, the Talk pages are figuratively speaking "backstage"; the Wikipedia "product" is the article, and that's where 99% of its users spend most of their time looking. The same should be true here.

How would comments be presented?

When you look at a node, all the writeups should be visible. Below each writeup, maybe a small piece of text saying "10 comments". This text links to the writeup view.

When you look at the writeup, all the comments are visible below it and you can add some yourself if you want.

Comments should appear in a smaller font than the main node (and the rest of the site), to highlight their lesser importance.

What about threads under things other than writeups e.g. homenodes?

Nah. E2 should be about writeups and comments should be about writeups.

A single thread, or a tree?

I find tree-based discussions irritating to try to follow, (and, from a coding perspective, impossible to paginate properly). Tree-based discussions seem to allow a maximum amount of depth/indentation before they have to terminate (or wreck the site design). E2 writeup discussions should be able to continue indefinitely. But that's just me.

Should users be able to vote on comments?

I can't think of a good reason to bother with this. I don't know what anybody gains.

Should users be able to edit or delete their own comments?

Sure, everybody makes mistakes.

Couldn't that be abused?

Um, I suppose so. Edits could be annotated on the comment ("sam512 modified this comment on YYYY-MM-DD hh:mm:ss"). Deletion could be annotated too ("sam512 deleted this comment"). Edits and deletes could be disallowed after a certain amount of time has passed (maybe an hour?) (This is an example of an extra feature that could be bolted on - or not - after comments themselves are in place.)

Should everybody be allowed to comment?

Comments should be visible to all, but commenting should be a level power to keep out the riff-raff.

Would recent comments or popular comment threads appear on the front page?

No. We do writeups. Writeups go on the front page, comments are secondary. But I can see a good reason to add some superdocs listing the latest comments, maybe, or the latest active comment threads.

Who would moderate comment threads?

I think: content editors and chanops. Content editors focus on actual nodes right now, but allowing powers over comments too seems logical. Chanops already have responsibility for moderating the live discussion in the chatterbox; comment threads (which are live discussions, just slower-moving) should be right up their alley. I'm sure the two groups can easily bash out some moderation guidelines. For the users, "Don't be stupid" might be sufficient guidance.

What powers should be available?

Closing/reopening comment threads, deleting comments, editing comments.

What if there are too many comments to moderate?

A "flag comment" button is a solution which works in many other large-scale forums. (Again, this is a v2.0 feature that could wait a little while before being implemented.)

Should authors be able to comment in their own threads?

Yes.

Should authors be able to moderate their own comment threads?

There are good arguments for both answers to this question.

I think an author should have permission to close/reopen the comment thread under a writeup of their own. And of course an author can flag abuse like anybody else can. But beyond that I say no. E2 isn't a place where you come to carve out a square mile of the nodegel just for yourself and ignore everybody else. E2 is a place where you come to share your work and share in other people's work. Part of that is not being selective about what criticism you permit.

Should comments be opt-in or opt-out?

I say opt-in for current users and opt-out for fled users.

Should comment threads be automatically permanently closed after a fixed period of time?

No. If there's still something to say, just because it's 5 years later doesn't mean it shouldn't be said. We are exhorted to node for the ages, and that means that future noders of every year will hopefully see something relevant in our writeups.

Also, most of E2's writeups are from more than 5 years ago. Suddenly enabling comments but only enabling them on a small percentage of all writeups is a great way to ensure that nobody actually finds out about the new feature and it never takes off.

What if users start commenting on incredibly old writeups?

That would be great! E2 has mountains of old content that is begging for deeper analysis.

What if noders don't want other users commenting on their old writeups?

They can close the comment threads in question.

Won't this change drive people away?

Yes. Every structural change to E2 drives existing users away. However, an equally important question is how many new users will join.

Won't we end up with millions of YouTube-quality comments?

Not if we make commenting a level power. Then, only people who've written a good node or two can comment.

What about writeups as replies to other writeups?

There was a time when we were told writeup does not mean reply, but that editorial policy has quietly been retracted. A writeup responding to another writeup is totally permissible now, provided that the response writeup is long/involved/smart/robust enough to stand as a writeup in its own right.

Comments are nothing to do with this.

What about Everything2 is NOT a BBS and Everything2 as a discussion forum?

Those writeups are merely observations about the current state of Everything2. They're not prescriptions for the future.

What if we attract thousands of unwanted users?

In the event of an emergency, we can always go back to being unpopular.

A Consideration of Comments on Writeups

Preface

We're all discussing a proposed feature which isn't coded, but is easier than you might think to implement. As such, don't freak out because we're doing something horrible. We're just talking. But please feel free to add your voice if this idea horrifies you. Because it still might be a reality, and it'd be best if we addressed everyone's concerns to make it the best reality it can be.

To me, the point of adding discussions is to encourage feedback and increase interaction. It falls somewhere between the public catbox and long form writeups; and it potentially provides a place for something that presently has no sanctioned place on the site: long-form criticism or discussion of a writeup. Although the "blab" box was already created to encourage feedback, it doesn't fulfill this need as well as it could because: (1) its intent (to message the writeup's author) is not clear to many, (2) it does not allow public discussion about a writeup which can elucidate things for future readers, (3) it does not provide a clear route for back-and-forth between an author and a commenter attached to the writeup

Some History

With the work already put into usergroup discussions by Swap and those before him (sorry, I don't remember who the coders were who worked on it originally), E2 already has nested comment threads which work fairly well. If you're in a usergroup, you can create a discussion, all members of the group will get a message when you do so, and you'll get messages if people reply to a comment you've made. Content Editors and gods had this feature for a long time, but Swap expanded them so that they could be specific to any usergroup.

This means, if there is a writeup pertinent to a group you're in, you can already have a discussion on it. Just create a new discussion, in the text of it link to a writeup, and then add your commentary. Others can reply.

But interface is everything. People simply don't do this. Doing so would have a limited audience; this sort of behavior isn't suggested by the design, since there isn't an easy way to create a discussion right from a writeup; and many people reading this probably just learned that this place has had discussions for years.

How I Had Thought about It Working: Opt-In Not Opt-Out

The way I had thought about this working was that a user interested in comments on their writeups could enable discussions on them: either turning discussions on for their new writeups by default, or clicking the box to allow discussions on individual writeups. Further, these comments would only be visible to logged in users, keeping the focus of the site to the writeups, and the community aspect primarily to those actively writing. I like sam's idea of not displaying the discussion on the node page, but providing a link to go to the discussion. That keeps the page design clean while still making the feature obvious and easy to get to when somebody is thinking about it.

Further, I had envisioned that the discussion would be controlled by the author of the writeup. Yes, this means that a user could be a prima donna and delete anything critical or not up to their standards. But it would also mean that adding this feature would not force editors/chanops to make very difficult calls about appropriateness and bounds of speech. This necessarily would mean making it opt-in. If comments were opt-out, given that most writeups are by writers who are no longer regular users (or by bots), somebody from staff would have to monitor them; that is, if we deemed they needed to be monitored at all. There is always the option of making comments a sort of "free speech zone", with all of the consequences that entails.

Potential Benefits

Speaking from a writer's perspective, if you really want feedback, putting a form to give it right on the page is going to be valuable. It makes back and forth much easier than the current message system, explicitly associates everything with the writeup rather than crossing back and forth from messages to editing writeup and back, and allows others to see comments that have already been made. Making it opt-in also guarantees only those ready for feedback receive it; or at least, only those who think they're ready for feedback until they see what feedback can really look like. And that raises the larger question of the effect of comments on the site in general.

More comments and more commenters means more activity, means more writing, and so on in a feedback loop. The easier it is to contribute and be involved, the more people who will get involved, and the more rewarding the writing experience can be. For all my reservations about Wikipedia, it is this approach which fueled their massive success. Today, they have semi-protected so many pages, it's hard to imagine what that place used to be. But they have so many contributors, they can afford to be a little standoffish to avoid vandals. E2 does not presently have this luxury. Further, they actually open their comment area ("Talk pages") to everyone, logged in or not.

So, on the extreme end we could let Guest User post writeups and comments without logging in. Obviously, we don't do this, and it's unlikely to be in the cards. But the less we emphasize comments, the fewer users we get involved, the less people will find them helpful, and the less we make the coding time spent on them worthwhile.

A Version 1 Approach

I'd suggest making comments visible to logged-in users only, and postable by anyone who has verified their email address. (Older users may not be aware, but you must now verify your email address before you can post writeups or chat, to keep spammers out. Same logic here.) We can use the code that already exists, and works pretty well, but notify the author (rather than a usergroup) when comments are posted. We'd turn the preferences for "allow comments on my writeups" on by default for new users, but off for existing users. I'm way open to chanops and Content Editors hammering out between them what to do about patrolling comments, but the idea of "if a comment gets flagged twice or more, it sends a notification to all eds" would strike me as fine. Easy enough to implement, but maybe not in v1. As the code is now, you can already edit your comments to your heart's content. There is no voting or other GP benefit for adding comments.

Everything else, technical wise, could be v2.

The bigger issue raised is the social one, which would be a question of what would be appropriate content. Things like "Is it appropriate/useful to just have a comment of praise that doesn't provide constructive feedback?", "How about 'me too' or '+1' replies?", "Should comments be restricted to the writing styles or factual concerns of the writeup, or would replies or criticisms of opinion pieces be acceptable?", "How far off topic should a discussion be allowed to go?", and so on are all policy things that aren't really up my alley. If people are writing full-fledged, writeup-quality stuff in comments, that's not a bad thing, but we'd rather see them in writeups. Should there be some kind of official limit on comment size to suggest that sort of thing? (Right now, they have the same length limit as writeups, which is huge.)

All in all, I know abuse is more on people's minds with such a thing, but I don't expect people are likely to be dicks about this sort of thing if it's restricted to logged-in users. Noders are, by and large, good people.

Feedback about Feedback

I'd love to see some daylogs from people who hate the idea of comments and why. I know you're out there, and your opinions on this matter would be valuable if stated publicly or at least passed along to somebody on staff who can air them to the editors.

In addition, if you guys haven't, I'd suggest trying out the usergroup discussion feature and seeing how it feels. If you're not in a usergroup, I can make a throwaway one just so you can test comments and provide thoughts on how they work/could be improved. Just toss me a /msg.

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