Friday, April 25, 2003

Worn Threads

I'd like to talk about what comes after threaded online conversations. But first, a small digression.

I did a little online research to find out when online threaded discussions were invented. Certainly, the oldest BBSes and the first Usenet newsreaders didn't have threads: all of the posts were sorted, usually in chronological order. At some point, newsreaders like trn (threaded readnews) came along, which grouped posts by which post replied to which. It was a great step forward. The digression part of this story is that it was very difficult (and I eventually gave up) to find the "oldest" threaded reader on Google. I searched for "first" or "oldest" or whatever, but of course the pages that are top-ranked are the best or most popular, which (as normally they should) swamp the weaker signal of "oldest."

Back to threads. As I said, threads were a great step forward; if you don't believe me, go read Usenet for a while with all the posts sorted by time. (Isn't it weird that we read email sorted by time and not threads?) However long ago that invention was, it was a long time: at least fifteen years, maybe twenty.

It's time for another step forward, a step I'd like to think will be as big as the step from unthreaded to threaded. And, to be frank, it's a necessary one to save open online discussions, because Usenet is already far beyond its limits of scale.

What's wrong with threads? Theads aren't bad by themselves, but they are limited in their ability to capture aspects of human discourse. For example, sometimes a "thread" (as defined as a series of reply-to posts) will -- gasp! -- change subjects. But reply-to doesn't know anything about that, unless (as almost never happens) a poster edits the title of the post (usually to something appended with "(was...)". This is somwhat analogous to biological speciation over time: at what point in evolution can we say it's a new species? Sometimes it's gradual, sometimes its puntuated. But in any case, eventually it is a new species, but threads often don't acknowledge this.

There are a lot of other pieces of this, but the bottom line is that I'd like to see online discussion boards using threads as the entry level of functionality, not as the end of the story.