I noticed that people were putting HTML tags in discussion group postings, and they didn’t know what to do about URLs. So I added some tiny text below the edit box where you type your posting… not that anybody reads tiny text, but we’ll see if it helps!

I’ve long believed that tiny changes in the user interface of any kind of community software result in dramatic changes in the character of the community that you create. I noticed this way back in college, when CompuServe forums generally had two-line postings and nobody ever quoted other people, but Usenet newsgroups had lengthy postings with 21-line ASCII art signatures and 50% quoting. Usenet resulted in the ultimate pathology: people quoting an entire three page article, and inserting their tedious nitpicks between every two lines.

My own discussion software does not have threading. “Threading” is technical jargon for a discussion feature where different people can branch in different directions by replying to replies. You end up with a tree of conversation. Most forum software has this feature and some people were rather angry that mine doesn’t.

I first noticed the value of one-train topics using the echo community software, which is, in all other respects, excruciatingly bad. Something interesting happens sociologically when you don’t have threading: the conversation is forced along one train of thought. People feel like they can respond to the original inquiry, or they can respond to the last post, but if they want to nitpick about the third post and there are already twenty more posts after that, it’s just too late. This seems to eliminate the most gratuitous trivial “yes, I agree” or “you nitwit, you misspelled that” kind of posting which makes it boring to read other forums.  The other thing which eliminates them is that there’s no automatic mechanism to quote other people. Sheer laziness will prevent most people from tagging on comments that aren’t an interesting extension to the current thread. If you really want to set off on a tangent, you have to write something like “I’d like to go back to what X said earlier…” which actually makes the whole topic read more coherently.

Another mechanism for eliminating trivial and uninteresting postings is the slashdot method of having moderators hide them. Theoretically, you can set your threshold high on slashdot so you only see the most interesting posts, but this gives the conversation a choppy feel when you’re reading it.


Michael’s TechInterview is back up and running, with its own discussion group. He’s moved it from Manila to CityDesk, which allowed us to completely decommission the Manila server.

About the author.

I'm Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Trello and Fog Creek Software, and CEO of Stack Overflow. More about me.