Threaded discussion is ultimately too complex to survive on the public Internet?

In 2012, Jeff’ wrote that he thought “threaded discussion is ultimately too complex to survive on the public Internet.”

Since it’s been nearly another 6 years, I was wondering if he still saw flat threads as the wave of the future, considering threaded conversations continue to be used by the largest and fastest growing social sites(Facebook, Imgur, Reddit)?

Given the apparent acceptance, perhaps even preference, of threaded design by these hundreds of millions of users, would he now be willing to consider incorporating threaded design into Discourse?

It seems that at the very least, this makes pragmatic business sense, since threaded conversations are now what the majority of people are used to using.

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No, I would not. For the record I am not against one (and only one) level of threading, but even that causes temporal and spatial problems with the discussion.

Also, are Imgur (?) , Reddit, and Facebook really discussion systems?

  • Reddit is a “post the funniest thing and vote to get it sorted above the others” system. Putting aside threading, the voting is probably as damaging to discussion as anything else, given that it re-orders the discussion. Good luck posting a reply to the fifth top level reply by votes and having anyone see it… ever.

  • Imgur is even more explicitly an amusement system given the focus on images. Race to post the funniest thing. Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course, but discussion is not in any way the goal. Odd to include it in this list.

  • Facebook is more akin to a commenting system than a discussion system. While I have been linked to interesting Reddit comments before, many times – that is a valid metric of “it is producing at least some interesting discussion artifacts” – I can’t recall a single time anyone has ever pointed me to a discussion on Facebook. Maybe that is because unlike Reddit, 99% of the discussion it produces are private and visible only to people in those conversations?

It is valid to ask “where is discussion happening today”, but it is also valid to distinguish between actual discussion and (the equivalent of) YouTube comments.

Also have you seen how Reddit is collapsing pretty much all older discussions for anons by default? That is not an argument in favor of threading to the nth degree…


It is almost impossible to read a discussion on Facebook. I regularly stop reading discussions I find interesting because so much and so many of the messages require anther click to see them. I have even seen tweets truncated on Facebook. It’s simply not designed for people to even read what’s there.


Putting aside threading, the voting is probably as damaging to discussion as anything else, given that it re-orders the discussion. Good luck posting a reply to the fifth top level reply by votes and having anyone see it… ever.

I’m just wondering why this can’t be resolved by enabling multilevel threading but having the comment order just default to chronological (sort by new). Wouldn’t this help counteract the damage that’s done by voting?

I’m really confused by the vigorous opposition to threaded comments on discourse. It’s like I’m just showing up to the discussion and not yet aware that threaded discussions murdered a baby or something. What’s the big deal?

For me, it makes returning to some piece of information or topic much easier. I can sift through comments to find the part of relevance to my interest.

Of course if I’m lovin the discussion, I’ll read every bit of it but generally I’m very overwhelmed with the flat discussion threads on discourse. It’s really stressful trying to have a discussion with people and understand where their comment lies in the grand scheme of the thread.

It just feels like a way more organized layout for discussion when I can minimize (easily, I don’t think there is an intuitive way to minimize responses that I don’t care about re-reading because they offer no value to the discussion in my opinion and i’m just trying to focus on someone else’s reply) a comment and move on to the next one and skip any replies to the minimized comment because it wasn’t really related to why I clicked on the thread.


If you really need full bore threaded, Discourse is not for you, I’d pick some other free open source tool.


I definitely get these points and I do agree there’s a place for multi-level threaded discussions. Thinking about the difference, I feel like the best use cases for nested/threaded (e.g. in my experience certain subreddits and Hacker News) are often of the nature “many individual people reacting to a thing” more so than “group of people having a conversation together”. This can be great, but it usually leads to responses with lots of fragmentation, which is why it’s helpful to be able to easily read certain parts while collapsing/skipping others.

Discourse on the other hand is explicitly conversation focused, and the linearity is a constraint to try to enforce that principle. We might think of the structure more like a group of people chatting at a party. Folks can join and leave the circle over time (weeks later, even!) but it’s still basically a single conversation, that happening chronologically.

One important thing to consider is that these two different types of interaction come with very different paradigms in how they’re moderated. With something like Reddit or HN the mods main focus is typically making sure contributors aren’t breaking the rules. With Discourse, moderators have a high degree of control over actually shaping the structure of the conversations.

One example is that when a discussion starts to go on a major tangent it’s common for mods to split the posts of that tangent out into a new topic, to keep the original more focused. Along these lines, users can even “reply as linked topic” too if a post in a different discussion prompts some good-but-not-super-related thoughts.

There are other things you can do as a moderator to help keep discussions manageable, like renaming topics to have descriptive titles, closing topics that become stale / irrelevant, removing individual posts that detract from the conversation, etc.

Discourse is definitely used in all sorts of ways, and there are sometimes mega-topics that can be hard to follow. Conversation gets unavoidably messy sometimes. But I think at least when it comes to the aim of fostering good conversations it helps to keep things reasonably focused. Ideally there shouldn’t be too many cases where you want to read a topic but find it filled with a ton of distracting stuff you have to skip!


Well said; this is also answerable by mentally substituting

  • I need lots of threads


  • I need lots of related topics

Which is absolutely supported and even encouraged in Discourse. Want 20 different tangents? Branch off 20 related topics and have at it.

The difference is that topics have unique URLs and titles that help people find what they are looking for. Heavily threaded conversations in comparison are like an unsearchable, chaotic ball of spaghetti.


Thank you for this. I found @codinghorror ‘s blog post sort of elaborating on this matter after I made my first post and everyone’s responses have been very helpful towards understanding what first felt like a confusing dogma to me!

I confess, I’m really only used to a format like reddit or Facebook. It’s been what shaped my understanding of group discussion/ commenting and there’s no doubt that’s why I find this flat, strictly chronological version of discussion very jarring.

Because of this I’ve really never felt as if I’ve missed any points on posts that I genuinely have interest in on Reddit (frick Facebook, pardon my French) and I learned to read a post’s various threads in kind of a methodical manner, collapsing so I can visually clear the way for my next thought that I focus on.

If reading a thread was my only method of locating information, however, I would certainly have missed out but I do try to make use of the search bar on every tool I use. Discourse is no exception to that.

I think our platform has a goal for the community to be more than just discussion, because discourse does have many capabilities to offer that has since made us hopeful it can also be, in a large part, a suite of task management/PM tools for users and teams.

There’s a lot of information on it but the organization is a big task and a wildly confusing thread can be just one facet of that.

Since I’m new to it and the community itself is newer, I think we just haven’t gotten to leverage all the different tools at our disposal to carry out the goals we have and make it something that is delightfully usable to all newcomers.

Thank y’all for the information and food for thought!


Couldn’t the threaded discussion problem be solved by a complete rethink of the UI.
Like look at the empty space at the right. All threaded discussions could be moved to the right side and use the empty space. Or other innovative ways to be able to move back to the main discussion with a few simple clicks.


But the “threaded discussion problem” has been solved … by Discourse.

I’m grateful that the Discourse team has not provided threading.


I think the problem has been solved in the sense that it was my understanding of how a discussion thread “should” be (according to my unique mental model).

I do, however, appreciate you pointing out the dead space to the right of the discussion. I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about discourse’s interface that makes me feel as if reading what’s happened since I left is a huge ominous chore. It’s so much scrolling, with so little “juicy” comments randomly snuck into a long scroll.

I think if I can build a theme specifically tweaking the comment cards and that wastes less visual real estate, I might be able to address this. I like that it’s not currently visually alarming but in a sense it kinda still is, because I can’t gather enough visual context at first glance.

What dead space? I’m currently on a mobile device, and the entire width is used.

I’ve seen some ‘indent’ based threading models, and they never handle reduced horizontal space well.

Add to this, it’s possible for new posts to show up literally anywhere in the vertical spacing. It’s only really readable after all the dust has settled, forget coming back after a while and catching up.


Philosophically, threaded discussions are important.

Sometimes, the best discussion is one random troll. Who has some views better than the OP. And everyone wants to dig into his post more than anything else.

That it cannot be done in a great looking UI is a technology problem which like all of them will be eventually solved.

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By its very nature (high noise level, lack of focus), a long and lively discussion is difficult to summarize and organize.

For a discussion to be fruitful, one need to:

  1. Reduce its lively nature, by setting formal or informal rules (in Discourse, this is done through the 20-characters limit; in Github, this is done through the engineering culture).
  2. Improve its focus. This can be done by attaching it to an identifiable item: a post, a document paragraph, a bug…
  3. Reduce its length. This can be done by ensuring the above-mentioned item has limited scope or is perishable.
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If what you want long discussions where most everything is worthless and one post is worth reading you should stick with reddit.


You can always summarize a long discussion by pressing the Summarize This Topic button under the first post (assuming you enter at the top, and if it’s a topic you’ve never seen before, that’s where you would enter).

This button only appears if the discussion has 50 or more replies by default though. It reduces the discussion to just the 10% most interacted (liked, replied, read, etc) posts. So a topic with 100 replies becomes a topic with 10 replies after pressing that button.

Note that Reddit now does this kind of summarization by default when you enter old reddit topics as an unregistered user, like so:

You can also easily filter the discussion in a long topic for any particular user by clicking or tapping on that user’s avatar and pressing Filter, then you’re only viewing one person’s posts.


Sorry to revive this thread, but I have something to add.

I, myself, are pretty happy with the flat discussion model for my own communities. However, when recommending Discourse to others the topic of threaded discussion usually comes to light.

A person I know already has good experience with the threaded discussion model (1 level of nesting only). The idea of the community they currently have is that the first post is somewhat of a prompt or a real-life account, the first-level replies have their own titles and start actual discussions inspired by the prompt, and the second-level replies are like regular messages in a discussion. This tends to work really well for what they want to do.

I would like to recommend Discourse to them so they can benefit from the great UX, post editor, slow mode, drafts, and great administration features. I would even offer to personally set up the forum for them, but it’s hard to do when this person has really good and proven experience with this discussion model and doesn’t want to change it. Currently they’re running a blog software modified to work as a forum, but the solution is starting to show its age in terms of features and stability, and was never a good idea to begin with in terms of maintenance.

All of that said to explain my use case, I think it would be a good (optional) feature to allow 1 level of nesting in thread comments. I understand there is no UX for this, so it would be complicated to do. This is just a long-term suggestion, but I think this would be really useful for certain types of discussions and communities.


This sort of happens already, if people click on a post’s reply button rather than the topic’s. Then you can click on the icon on the top right of a post to see the related replies (and it says something like “some replies are hidden” at the bottom).

Edit. Maybe it just hides the replies between the two relevant posts. It’s not a feature I use so I could well be wrong.


Sorry—That’s not the same model or an equivalent at all of what I said.

As I said, I like the current model, but it may not be the best for every community, and I’ve given a detailed use case as to why.


4 posts were split to a new topic: Highlighting the reply as linked topic functionality