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Chronological Order of Comments on a Post

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I never get this right. There are times when I will be reading a post and it feels as if the chronological order of comments would make better sense. At other times, such as the comments on this post on IP Democracy (which has newest comments on top), seems opposite. I actually found it quite difficult and counter intuitive to read through the comments on that post to follow the story as it unfolded. Scrolling upwards on a post is just plain weird. On more popular posts, readers tend to complain when the list of comments grows beyond a certain number and they loose the forest for the trees. The TechCrunch comment threads are simply useless if you want to follow any part of the discussion and I tend to just read the highlighted ones from Michael or the other authors. On the other hand, comment reply threads are unwieldy, take up too much space and somehow fail to mirror forum discussions. Alternatively, outsourcing comments to a third party is just not an elegant or attractive solution for most people.

I feel that commenting systems on blogs need to evolve some more. Some blogs have decided to spin off comments to forums. Others have moved their comments to external services such as Disqus. Yet others like TechCrunch move comments to a linked forum for further discussion after the post has become somewhat stale.

What do forums have that comment threads on blogs do not? Are paged comments a good idea? Should comments threads be pruned by type? Are you more willing to participate in a forum discussion than post a comment on a blog? If that is the case, how could we enhance commenting on blogs to mimic the reader involvement of forums?

I don’t think there is a single right answer. However, I do consider our readers’ comments to be the lifeline of our blogs and shy away from shipping them off elsewhere. That being said, Disqus and Intense Debate have the right idea but the execution takes away from blog ownership. Comment editing and tagging, and comment to post and comment to commenter relationships need a lot more TLC if comments are to become as ubiquitous and as widely used as forum posts. Gravatars go a long way in bringing those relationships closer to a global audience but more needs to be done.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the present state of comments in the blogosphere. Did you come across a commenting system that bridges some of these gaps? Was there some feature that stuck with you or made you go Hmmm? What would make commenting less of a hurdle for you?

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  1. Khristopher (7 comments.) says:

    Threaded comments are the way to go if you ask me.
    Comments is the area WordPress really needs to focus on.
    More options are needed when it comes to this.
    Wordpress should offer threaded comments as an option.

  2. Alpha (2 comments.) says:

    I don’t think there’s a profound difference between comments in a blog and comments in a forum. Too long conversations are in danger of becoming boring (or simply useless) regardless of their form and type. Places with a lot of activity just need to be properly moderated.

    The only advantage of forums is the paged layout and maybe there should be such an option in WordPress as well.

  3. infmom (8 comments.) says:

    The mechanics of commenting on and reading posts is primitive now compared to what used to be. Before CompuServe blew its old structure away and went with a Prospero web forum format, it had the best message board structure ever. All discussions were fully threaded and you could choose to read them in thread order, or in strict chronological order without regard to threading. Using what was called “offline reader” software, one could keep track of all discussions of interest and capture all replies–again, in the order of one’s choice. One could write replies to selected messages and then upload all the replies at once, instead of having to post each one individually. The original purpose of offline readers was to capture messages at the highest speed possible and then sign off and allow the user to read and reply without the meter running (a matter of supreme interest in the days when all online services charged by the hour).

    Furthermore, whether one used an offline reader or went through the message boards in real time, it was easy to go back to a previous message, so it was totally unnecessary for people to quote back huge chunks of other people’s messages just so they could provide the context for their replies. (Not that people who came in from less sophisticated message board formats didn’t do it, of course.)

    Nowadays, who has a system that works that well? Not even the people who originated it.

  4. crashsystems (1 comments.) says:

    One thing I like about comments on digg pages is that there are multiple options on how you can view them. I like the concept of a comment tag cloud too, though there is probably the potential of that being abused.

  5. Chris (26 comments.) says:

    I generally do not read through a gigantic list of comments. If there is something in particular that I am looking for, I typically use the find function on my browser. I have seen very few ways of sorting a large number of comments in a readable way. While I hope someone comes up with a great idea for doing it, I will probably still ignore threads that (seemingly) go on forever.

  6. Simon (2 comments.) says:

    I agree with much of what has already been said – basically taking some features common on forums, and adapting them to blogs.

    Pagination is a must, as is sort options (newest, oldest etc), and threaded comments certainly need to be a default option. Subscribing to posts / follow up comment notification may also fit into the core functionality well.

    The final thing I’d like would be a keyword search just above the comment area, which would filter comments, in case I wanted to look for something more specific. I’d also prefer it to be javascript driven (ie. no submit button needed), with a regular form backup.

    I’ve seen some comment systems attempt to give commentators a central profile, along with comment history across all blogs using the system. Not sure if I’m sold on the idea, but could be another use for the WordPress API key…? (or maybe not)

  7. Cynthia Brumfield (1 comments.) says:

    Yes, I agree that how I have my comments structured on IP Democracy is not optimal. The problem is: I designed and maintain this blog in Movable Type myself and it’s safe to say that CSS, HTML and Movable Type commands are not my forte. I can perform the basics by intensively mimicking what others have done, but it takes me hours to figure things out and I don’t feel like spending money on a consultant to fix problems. So, I tackle the issues one at a time…next up: how to fix my comment section so that it’s more readable and makes sense!

  8. Fiona (2 comments.) says:

    I generally like threaded comments, particularly when there IS discussion between the commenters, but some people don’t use them right, and I tend to ignore other people and just make my own comments, regardless of whether it’s been made already!

  9. Rosina Lippi (2 comments.) says:

    What I really, really would like is to give the visitor the decision on how to order comments — newest first or oldest first, and the ability to toggle back and forth between these as necessary. Some blogging software has this built in, but not WP.

    Threaded comments are also a good thing, but not crucial in my view.

  10. Dhruva Sagar (15 comments.) says:

    I prefer threaded comments as well, they help you get a better idea of the comments.
    Regarding the order of the comments, well in case the comments are paginated, I would somehow prefer newest first and so on because that would give me a better idea of how things are going now in the comments section, looking at a comment that came a lot earlier wouldn’t be something i’d be interested in, on the other hand if the comments are not paginated, then I would want the chronological order.

  11. jenny says:

    On very active blogs threaded comments are best. I like newest comments first on my blog because most of our readers check it fairly often and read every comment. I also have an old “smart unread comments” plugin that uses a cookie to display a list of the visitors’ unread comments on the sidebar. I don’t know why this isn’t a standard feature or why no one has made a newer version of it.

  12. Gray (1 comments.) says:

    i agree with Khristopher. comments support is lacking in wordpress, one reason why i shy from letting my readers comment. i’m still looking for a plugin that: pushes comments to bbpress (while maintaining the “awareness” that a certain thread is specially for a certain blog post), and when bbpress supports threaded posting.

  13. turnipHed (1 comments.) says:

    I would have to agree that if you are commenting on a previous comment it would be great to be able to tag that comment – with my blog the conversations die off pretty quick but I can see the importance of making it easier to follow an online conversation….

  14. Tal Galili (10 comments.) says:

    Chris – thanks for the interesting comment.
    I would actually more like to see comments from different blogs being aggregated – to allow a full user profile.
    (An open social-network, through blogs)

  15. Louis (1 comments.) says:

    I agree, Gray. I would love to see that kind of functionality. I’d like to see functionality that would let there be like 5 or 7 or 13 comments on a post. Once it reaches a preset number then several things happen.

    1) Comments are closed.
    2) All comments already made are posted into a thread on bbPress.
    3) Users are sent to the bbPress forum thread to make additional comments.

  16. Marina HotForWords (1 comments.) says:

    I am using 2 WordPress plugins that have changed my life… WordPress Thread Comment and WP Paged Comments both written by a Chinese guy (speaks very little English) and they do the following (I get 500-800 comments per post by the way)…
    Thread comment not only threads my comments, but it EMAILS the commenter when someone SPECIFICALLY replies to their comment.. that creates MAJOR stickiness for my users. The second plugin paginates the comments and REVERSES the order, with the latest comment at the top.

    I find that the reverse order works well in that it feels fresh.. with the latest comment at the top.. and the threading remains in sequential order, so it’s easy to follow the threads of the conversation.

    It seems to be working really well for me.. as I have people spending hours on my website having conversations with each other. What you would only normally get with a forum.

    Here is a post from 2 days ago with 773 comments: http://www.hotforwords.com/2008/05/12/roger/

    I would still like an option to be able to allow the user to view comments in the format they prefer.. but so far this seems to be working really well for me. There was some hesitation and complaints at first for the reverse order and the pagination.. but my comment numbers quintupled after the change and people really seem to be spending a LOT of time on my website talking to EACH OTHER.

    Marina

  17. Mark Ghosh (386 comments.) says:

    Very interesting comments, keep them coming!

  18. ryan says:

    My personal favorite style of comments: Disabled.

  19. TruePath (1 comments.) says:

    Hmm, I really should clean up and release my improvements to the threading code for Brian’s Threaded Comments for wordpress.

    Anyway the obvious (and perhaps only) significant difference between forums and blog posts is the ability of readers to start entirely new threads. Optimally this allows sub-issues and off-topic discussions to spin off into their own conversations.

    I, however, usually prefer to read blog comments to forum posts for precisely this reason. Forums end up migrating all over the place the fact that users can’t create new discussion threads willy nilly helps keep the issue focused on a blog. Ultimately though this may just be a disguised preference for smaller communities.

    By encouraging conversations to branch off forums are a better fit for larger communities whose primary worry is cluttering discussions with too many posts. For small communities where failure to reach critical mass is the bigger worry comments are the better choice.

    I’m doubtful that there is much that can be down to improve the situation except perhaps by providing better blog/forum integration. Aside from that it seems that every possible configuration in this space is occupied. This isn’t a presentation issue and no clever programming hack can change the fundamental dynamics of comments and forums.

  20. Mari Adkins (2 comments.) says:

    Threaded comments would come in handy – the ability to respond directly beneath any given comment. I believe there are plugins which do this, but having it built-in to WordPress would go a long way.

  21. TruePath (2 comments.) says:

    When I looked most of the threaded comment plugins were pretty old and ratty for wordpress but I rewrote a bunch of the code in Brian’s Threaded Comments and have it working nicely on my site. When I clean it up a bit and integrate better with email subscriptions/feeds I will formally release the code (if someone really wants it they can email me).

    I have mixed feelings about including this functionality in the default wordpress install. If it weren’t for feeds I would say yah go ahead and leave it as a plugin. The reason I say this is that it’s not obvious how you would sanely change the theme API to support both options without breaking many themes or making it too tough to support both options. If most users are going to have to edit their theme anyway it seems reasonable to release as a plugin.

    The reason I’m now leaning towards including the option in the base system is the fact that ideally threaded comments should be reflected as such in atom feeds and this kind of integration seems better done at the base system level.

    Of course if I was rewriting wordpress from scratch I would build this in from the ground up with a themeing API that was built with this in mind but then again if I was doing this I certainly wouldn’t write it in PHP (please at least perl if not python or ruby).

  22. Mari (2 comments.) says:

    I understand the programming logistics would be a pain in the arse. :)

  23. Bobby Cheeta (1 comments.) says:

    One was able to approach the matrix problem. I am not sure, it worked though. It would be nice having an option to be able to allow the user to view comments in the format they prefer..

  24. Justin - SEO Zombie says:

    Right now I’m going with nested comments. I like scrolling down cronologically, but thought seeing a @poster and having to scroll back up, was a pain. Also I teach things on my blog and people ask a lot of questions, so nested comments make it really easy to reply directly to a person’s question. And I can easily keep track of who I have answered.



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