Most blogs on the web are in reverse chronological order — the most recent article shows up first. I think this works pretty well for a reader, because you get to see the most recent, current state of the blog and if you like what you can see then you can easily dig deeper. Also, you can easily see if a blog has been inactive for a long time and move on if you don’t care about the back-issues. I’m going to be calling this ordering “blog order” for the rest of the post.
Comments on blogs are typically in the opposite order. The first comment you see will be the oldest and the most recent comment will be at the end. In some ways this makes sense. The comments are generally conversations that people are having about the post. It makes sense to have the comments in chronological order so that people can follow the conversation as it progresses and so that people read what other people have written before commenting themselves. However, this doesn’t really scale beyond a few dozen comments. There are going to be very few people who will care to follow a conversation that spans a hundred comments. The majority of people care more about expressing what they have to say than about reading in depth about the rest of the conversation. Of course this means that there is going to be repetition because these people haven’t read what’s written before.
For me there is another aspect that I think is worse than some repetition. Seeing a line of a few hundred comments I often decide not to write a comment at all. After all, my comment is going straight to the end of the line and how many people (apart from the original post author) are seriously going to take the time to go that deep to read my comment? As a writer of blog I think that is a serious issue because I don’t people staying away from from commenting because they think no one is going to read their comments.
What if blog comments were also in blog order? That way, the most recent comments are on top and readers get encouraged to write their thoughts. But this makes the repetition problem even more serious and also threatens the conversation nature of the comment system. You can’t really get in on a conversation unless you know what has been talked about before. Putting comments in blog order makes it easy to miss previous conversations and again reduces the effectiveness of comments as community builders.
Instead of making the comment the unit of organization, what if we shift focus to the conversation thread? Let’s take the most recent conversation thread and bump it to the top. Inside each thread, the individual comments are still in chronological order. This ordering has two important characteristics:
- The newest, most active conversations rise to the top. Readers can see what others are talking about and join right in. And if there aren’t and long conversations currently going on, the latest comment is on top helping individual comments get read.
- Each conversation is chronological encouraging readers to read through what’s been said before adding their own contribution.
The idea to emphasize the conversation over the discrete message isn’t new: it’s the main distinction that separates forums from email. It’s also the reason Gmail is so awesome: excellent support for threaded conversations. There are of course challenges to be addressed, especially in terms of UI and how to deal with threads that encapsulate divergent conversations. But these problems will only get addressed as they become more common. I think it’s about time that the web moved from the flat chronological comment system that is so popular to a richer, more useful one that plays an active role in fostering conversations and community.