Sharding & Sub-Threads

I’m not sure what all features the board software supports, or how much power we have to request features, but I have been thinking about an issue with massively centralized conversation sources (MCCS) like the SDMB.

(An MCCS would be anything like a thread on a popular topic, the comment section under a popular video, the comments on an important news article, etc. on a platform that is widely popular and available to the mass public.)

In an ideal world, when there’s some important discussion that’s worthy of discussion and debate, you might want to get together with a half dozen folks of varying opinion, to discuss the matter.

On an MCCS, you have a million people trying to do the same and - obviously - that’s problematic. The discussion moves so fast that by the time you come to contribute, there’s always hundreds of thousands of other commentators. You can neither meaningful add to the conversation nor are you going to feel interested in reading through all of it (especially on comment-based systems that are mostly full of junk and present themselves in a non-linear order).

To solve this, we might imagine a straightforward solution like sharding: Split the members of the website into random groups that only see content from and by themselves. While straightforward, this solution isolates the different groups from the input of other groups. There’s no mechanism for cross-polination. You might add some abilities to view the others shards in a read-only mode but, without the ability to post, probably most people wouldn’t have much urge to explore the other shards. Alternately, you might let people choose their own shard and bounce freely among them, but this could lead to self-selecting into echo chambers, shard wars, etc. It’s probably not worth sharding unless you have such a large customer base that it’s simply impractical to do otherwise. The SDMB probably isn’t that big and we could probably do with a more advanced solution.

Comment systems (e.g. Disqus) try to handle this issue, somewhat, by presenting the discussion like a tree, rather than as an ordered list. Any reply to a post appears as a branch and - in theory - you could descend down any pathway in the conversation in a linear order, ignoring most of the branches that don’t interest you. But, in practical effect, most people reply directly to the main topic, ignore all the branches off the top, and the whole thing is a mess. There’s no clean way to display the data that is useful for meaningful discussion. (I have had some meaningful discussions with individuals on a comment system, but I doubt that anyone else will ever see any of what either of us wrote.)

I think the best strategy that I have seen is Slack’s sub-thread feature.

In Slack, you can post to the main channel or you can reply to a post. Once you reply to a post, it creates a sub-thread with the initiating post as the first entry. The UI is optimized for seeing the main thread and one sub-thread on computer, or browsing in and out of sub-threads on phone. There’s no ability to go any deeper than a sub-thread (no sub-sub-threads), but you can have as many sub-threads as there are mainline comments.

In general, this allows people to make the conscious choice between contributing to the main topic or starting a side discussion. They’re reasonable about doing so. Readers are free to only pay attention to the main courseway or dive into the side threads as well.

This sort of setup would help with breaking need threads. It would allow people to discuss the news items, without crowding out the news items themselves. It would help the moderators to moderate, by letting them push certain side discussions into a side thread, without flooding the boards with millions of threads to track or ignore in the list.

I’d suggest investigating if this sort of arrangement would be possible.

Slack killed one of my professional organizations because too many people had trouble figuring out how to use it, didn’t like the structure you decribe, or couldn’t get conversations going or questions answered because of misplaced responses. We now have no local professional organization. Soa no to Slack-like structures from me.

That doesn’t seem to me at all to describe the SDMB. Do we have any thread with even thousands of people commenting on the same thread, let alone hundreds of thousands?

Some threads accumulate thousands of posts; but they generally take quite a while to do so, and many of the posts will be multiple comments from the same few dozen posters.

As I say later, we’re probably more in a middle size. Many threads, we have about the right number of people. A few - like the breaking news threads or very popular debates like health care - you end up with more people contributing than can really all fit together comfortably.

One might say that this is a self-sustaining system. If you get too many people contributing then some percentage will become disheartened, slowly lose interest in the website, and leave. It may be an inhibitor to growth and it keeps us at a “just on the edge of too-big” level.

Plausibly, implementing a system that allows people to share the same space more effectively, would help to increase the customer base of the website without dropping the quality of conversation nor pushing people out.

Was that recently, or several years back? I’ve only been using it (at work) over the last ~2 years so I don’t know if it has had any changes that could have improved it since you were on it, or if it’s the same as it was for you.

My wife, who is not a techy, started using it as part of a class that she was taking and had no issue diving into it.

Recently. Part of this was that when a problem or difficulty was identified, the moderators (who were among our younger and not techie group admins) would just say, “Oh, but it’s intuitive.”

The scientific approach would be to enable the feature, let it go for a while, and poll the users. If they don’t like it, you turn it back off.

AFAICT*, Discourse doesn’t support what’s being described, so there is no feature to enable.

*From reading publicly available documentation and online discussion qbout the platform.