Yesterday I attended the online community session of Web2Open, a barcamp-like meeting going on within Tim O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 Expo. (The Expo has a huge number of attendees, it’s doing very well.)
I put forward a number of questions I’ve been considering for later posts, but one I want to make here is this: Where has the innovation been in online discussion software? Why are most message boards and blog comment systems so hard to use?
I know this is true because huge numbers of people are still using USENET, and not just for downloading binaries. USENET hasn’t seen much technical innovation since the 80s. As such, it’s aging, but it shouldn’t be simply aging, it should have been superseded long ago. We’ve gone through a period of tremendous online innovation in the last few decades, unlike any in history. Other old systems, like the Well, continue to exist and even keep paying customers in spite of minimal innovation. This is like gopher beating Firefox, or a CD Walkman being superior in some ways to an iPod. It’s crazy. (The users aren’t crazy, it’s the fact that their choice is right that’s crazy.)
One reason USENET has not evolved is that nobody owns it, and as such, there is less motivation for people to fix and improve the parts they own and control. Individual web sites have owners, and those owners are keen to make them better to either attract more attention or make more money. This has moved most innovation into the web space.
USENET is still superior to most web messaging systems at dealing with high volume traffic. The traditional USENET arrangement involved local access to material that was pre-fed to a local server. As such, access to articles was local and instantaneous. Once users taste instantaneous access, it is very hard to go back to slow remote response times, even for fancy new features. (Though AJAX applications like GMail, which do some things with local access speed, have managed to pull people away from local apps into remote ones.) More recently, RSS readers have been able to pre-fetch information to provide an instantaneous UI to material published that way, which may finally deliver this functionality. Today, many people access USENET through a more remote server, as many ISPs simple contract out USENET service to an outside company, though they try to get a quick, low-latency connection to it.
Likewise, USENET delivered everything in one application. In a typical USENET application, users track all their subscriptions to all newsgroups, and get the same interface to all of them. This is not present in web message boards, but is done for RSS readers. RSS readers, however, are primarily used with news feeds and blogs. Many sites do allow them for comments but their use is not very common for threaded message boards, and indeed most do not present a threaded interface.
The threaded interface, which came to USENET with Wayne Davison’s ‘trn’ over 20 years ago is found in a number of web message boards. However, a variety of basic functions on threads are sometimes found, but more rare than should be expected:
- Understanding which articles have been “seen” (not necessarily read) and which have not, and presenting threads in this fashion
- Quick skipping to the next thread (single-keystroke) or elimination of a branch of a thread or an entire thread from reading in both a current session, and permanently.
- Permanent skipping of posts by particular users (known as a killfile or bozo-filter.)
- Browse, choose and read: USENET readers allow users to examine the set of threads with new messages, quickly pick the threads they would like to read, and then present as quickly as possible just the articles in selected threads, with easy skip onward.
USENET at its peak had newsgroups with several hundred thousand readers involved and many seeing 10,000 or more messages per month. Yet it was and is possible to follow an online community of that size using the USENET tools. There are sites today with message volumes on single topics in these ranges but they are usually browsed and read scattershot. USENET handled about 4 million articles/month in 1995, in an internet vastly smaller than today’s.
It is often felt that online community simply doesn’t scale, and that’s true when it’s close-knit. There, the limit seems to be somewhere between 100 and 200 intimate users. However, better tools can present ways to have workable communities that are less closely knit, but still have commonality at larger sizes. However, I don’t see that much of them.
Of course, I have not tried every possible web message board out there. Some are much better than others, and I welcome input on what you think are the best, and why.
One factor that may play into this innovation problem: advertising. Commercial web sites now almost all are funded by advertising. Making it very quick and easy to get through all the messages on a web site may not appear to be in an ad-seller’s interest, though it should be if it attracts more users. Of course, I didn’t write the blogging software I am using (drupal) so it has just the same basic threaded comment system you see everywhere, though it does at least offer rss feeds of comments and comments on particular posts. However, it’s currently not very easy to track comments on particular threads around the web with RSS feeds. For one thing, the polling approach of RSS (vs. USENET’s and E-mail’s “push” approach) makes it hard to deal with a thread that dies out slowly, and few RSS readers are set up to have you be subscribed to thousands of threads, only a few of them being updated, and do it in an efficient way and with a threaded presentation.