message threading + web forum hybrid

This is kind of an interesting idea: it's a proposal for a new way to show message threads that differs from the standard way in that, instead of the "message pane" showing just a single message, it shows all the messages in the thread, more like an indented web forum.

<LJ-CUT text=" --More--(13%) ">

The other interesting part is that the tree structure is somewhat interleaved: normally, message threads are arranged by making a tree of parent/child relationships, and then sorting siblings by date. This gives a lot of priority to tree structure and very little priority to date: when new messages are added, they might show up anywhere in the tree, depending on which message they are a reply to. This is a slight misfeature of every threading system I've used, including the ones I wrote: you often have to turn off threading to be able to find things.

The proposed model uses the X axis for "replies" and the Y axis for "time". So you still get indentation showing who replied to who; but you can also assume that the newest posts are at the bottom. That's a pretty good trick!

One disturbing thing about their presentation is that making it be usable requires the software to throw away a lot of message content: they seem to be assuming that for this to look good, it'd have to recognise and strip out redundant quoted text in the messages. That's somewhat scary.

I found it very frustrating to read that PDF, because it's been a long time since I've read something that was structured as a "research paper", and I find that footnotes just drive me crazy! I want links, not footnotes. Even worse that, when you finally get to the footnotes page at the end, there are no links there either: there are titles and page numbers. You know, dead trees! What century is this?

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37 Responses:

  1. otterley says:

    One disturbing thing about their presentation is that making it be usable requires the software to throw away a lot of message content: they seem to be assuming that for this to look good, it'd have to recognise and strip out redundant quoted text in the messages. That's somewhat scary.

    What's so scary about it? Sure, quoting was useful back when everything was text. However, in today's world, it seems to me that if the software is capable of contextualizing replies for you, it's just redundant and error-prone.

    • jwz says:

      It's scary because having my mail reader decide which parts of the message to delete before showing it to me sounds error-prone. I can imagine any number of ways that could fuck up with bad, if comical, results.

      • otterley says:

        I understand that, but in such a model, there's no need for quoting at all, and so there's nothing to delete and nothing to fuck up.

        • jwz says:

          Sure, but if everyone was using this software, it wouldn't have to delete anything anyway. You can't write a new mail reader without accepting that your users will want to communicate with people who aren't using it.

          (Well, you can, I guess, but it won't work...)

          That's another reason that this kind of design would be more effective to deploy in a web forum first: captive audience.

          • bitwise says:


            You can't write a new mail reader without accepting that your users will want to communicate with people who aren't using it.


            Who's the target audience for this statement? The same folks who wrote mail readers that burp out messed up character coding, html by default, and a long history of attachment formatting hell?

            Surely you meant "you can't gain mail reader market share unless you insert deliberate incompatibilities with every other mail reader."

        • drreagan says:

          I often intersperse my comments inbetween chunks of quoted text to give context to individual paragraphs, and so I can address things point by point. Should the mail-reader strip out the quoted parts of the message that I sent, then my correspondant would probably have a hard time trying to piece together what I was on about. Of course, I'd be oblivious to this, as its not happening on my system, but somewhere halfway around the world.

      • Of course, mail progams should remove the ability to spew your orgasm of thought into the middle of a whole other message to begin with.

      • aml says:

        why wouldn't it just make the parts it thinks are quoted invisible in that view mode, but still retrievable when you opened a specific message in a new window (or something)?

        i mean, granted, it would still be shitty if it fucked up, but just annoyingly shitty instead of catastrophically shitty.

      • stywiz says:

        Guys, maybe I am wrong here, but I guess you are all thinking way to complex to understand that proposal for what it is!?

        I have the feeling this proposal is talking about email users with the eloquence of a Schwarzenegger Movie character. It is talking about I-print-out-my-e-mail-to-file-it users. It is talking about a group of users where some use e-mail like instant messages, because the don't know about IM and others use IM because the think it's the cooler kind of email. I am convinced the demo thread is not a demo; It's the typical conversation they have in mind.

        About the proposal: Yes I think it is a good way to look IM chats ;-)

  2. ntang says:

    That's interesting, and probably the best shot I've seen at displaying e-mail conversations so far, but I'm still a bit skeptical about it.

    The first problem is message length - it looks like it'll work best for short messages. Some conversations have individual messages that run for several pages worth of text, which would be much clunkier under that system, or at least it seems like it'd be.

    What I'm even more curious about, though, is how they'd display emails with inline quotes and responses, rather than the (increasingly standard) reply up top and quote at the bottom. With top-replies it's easy to strip the quoted text and just show the reply, but with interleaved responses it becomes much more challenging.

    Continuing along those lines, what happens when you have someone quoting multiple people along the chain in a single email? I've seen that (and done it) a few times, and while it's more "advanced" behavior than the "average" user would get into, it still does happen.

    The only way I could see any of that working is if the mail client actually attempts to see not just threads at the message level but actually breaks down the text and lays the entire conversation out in pieces, paragraph by paragraph (or even line by line) which would make for some potentially fantastic reading but seems like such an exercise in futility (some online conversations are nearly impossible for the human brain to parse, let alone some mail client) that I have to wonder if it's worth bothering.

    Still, it's a cool idea, and I'd be very interested to give something like that a test run and see how it holds up in real life. The idea's nifty, but implementation could be a real bear.

    • jwz says:

      Yeah, I think it's a cool idea, if not immediately practical as presented.

      I see it as being more interesting as "what something like LiveJournal could do" than as "what an email client could do." (Listening, <lj user="brad">?)

      The first problem is message length - it looks like it'll work best for short messages. Some conversations have individual messages that run for several pages worth of text, which would be much clunkier under that system, or at least it seems like it'd be.

      That's already the case with things like LJ, so we know what that looks like... It's a little awkward, but not unbearable. Also, most emails are short, right?

      rather than the (increasingly standard) reply up top and quote at the bottom.

      > > > > Because it messes up the order in which people
      > > > > normally read text.
      > > > Why is top-posting such a bad thing?
      > > Yes.
      Is top-posting bad?
      what happens when you have someone quoting multiple people along the chain in a single email?

      True, but "normal" threading systems also don't have any sensible facility for dealing with that. The References header is an ordered list of ancestors, one parent.

      • ntang says:

        > Is top-posting bad?

        Oh, trust me, I'm well aware of all of the problems with top-posting. I've given up on trying to convert people, though, too much of the business world have become top-posters by default and when I've tried internal replies, half the time they've been confused and missed some of the replies. I use internal quoting when replying to "real people" who can actually follow it and use top-posting in business correspondence and everyone is more or less happy.

        True, but "normal" threading systems also don't have any sensible facility for dealing with that. The References header is an ordered list of ancestors, one parent.

        Just because old systems don't handle them well doesn't mean new ones shouldn't attempt to. :) Also, older systems don't try to auto-prune and condense messages; quoting multiple people would absolutely wreak havoc with their system. If it didn't condense the messages like that, it'd be less of an issue.

      • brad says:

        I hate LJ's threading. On my wishlist is giving people a way to change it between different formats.

        The limiting factor with the web is you ideally want the client to be able to dynamically change things around, jump between places, without doing more HTTP requests, and you don't want to make all comments downloaded in every HTTP request... and you can't depend on javascript... and HTML (even with DOM) is very limiting.... just all a pain in the ass.

        I think a better plan might be to make a XUL app or something, distribute an "LJ Browser" app using open protocols, and make LJ support that.

        I think I just need to give access to comment data and let people start being creative.

  3. terryray says:

    To me, the whole concept was best summed up by this picture. Seems reasonably cool to me. Makes me almost wish that I was still in a world where I could hack my own mail reader to try.
    • jwz says:

      Aha! Another one drinks the kool-aid!

      What do you read mail with now?

      • terryray says:

        I wonder which kool-aid you mean: the email reader choice, or the fact that I created a LiveJournal account just so that I could reply here?

        I got sucked into the MacOSX world about 18 months ago, because it was just too damned cool to have a Unix box that had good graphics and UI stuff on top of it. So, I finally abandoned the increasingly-creaky exmh mail reader and switched to Apple's Mail.app. It broke down under the load, and I had to switch to Microsoft Entourage for a while; fortunately, by the time I couldn't stand that any more, Mail.app had grown up a bit and I was able to switch back. I'm pretty happy with Mail.app now, except, of course, when I get all nostalgic and want to hack on my mail reader some more.

        • jwz says:

          I meant the LJ kool-aid.

          Is threading in Mail.app done Right?

          I'm still using 3.02 for mail, but I really want to believe that there's something better by now.

          • terryray says:

            I rarely use the threading, so I'm not completely sure. (I rarely used threading in Netscape 2&3, too; it's just me.) I haven't seen anything Wrong. I saw a case where it put in the dummy header line, so they got that much Right.

            It also has a feature that made me think of you: you can select multiple folders, and it will merge all the messages from those folders together into one list. If you merge in your Sent folder, then your replies will get properly threaded in.

            This strikes me as More Right than Netscape and the big religious battles we used to have as to whether your own messages should be filed in your Inbox.

            • idcmp says:

              Evolution 1.4 has Virtual Folders, where you can select multiple mailboxes (local or remote), and specify criteria to match ("Where Status != Deleted"), and it will create a fake mailbox for you to browse with all messages that match (akin to views in databaseland).

              I just tested adding my Sent box to my Incoming and Saved mailboxes to a Virtual Folder and in threaded mode my sent messages appear staircased properly down the thread. Cool.

          • dbaker says:

            As far as Mail.app in 10.3.2, I don't know about "Right," but certainly Think Different. The threading is the one main weakness in Mail.app. It uses some twisted, unusual logic and has a clunky interface.

            FWIW, I just switched from mutt two weeks ago, which I used since 1998 when I switched from elm, which I used since I used /usr/bin/mail in 92 or so. It's definitely a big transition but I'm more on top of things.

    • aml says:

      ibm's email r&d project has a cool graphical thread indicator too:

      their gathered thread concept is alright, too. not enough to make me use whatever lotus version this shows up in.

  4. asim says:

    they seem to be assuming that for this to look good, it'd have to recognise and strip out redundant quoted text in the messages. That's somewhat scary.

    Not a big shock, considering the "new data first" style of the Outlook and O. Express programs. I think it's more wordy -- replying in-line means I don't have to repeat context -- but I'm curious as to where this is going, anyway.

  5. avva says:

    This looks like a very promising idea.

    One possible problem is that in a long conversation, you would frequently see a reply to some early message placed so much down below that you won't immediately know its ancestor. Sure, the pretty line would be there, but you'd have to scroll a lot, every such time. This is already a problem if the late reply is in some large subthread, so that the intervening messages take up more than one screen and you can't easily see which message the lone late reply is a reply to; but in this system the lone late reply will go all the way down (which, I agree, is great on the other hand, because it lets you discover it easily).

    What makes the usual threading system kind of bearable for me, in long conversations, is having a clearly visible indicator of unread messages in the thread view, so that when I'm scrolling the whole thread fast, I can immediately recognize new late replies to old already-read messages. This is relatively easy to arrange in email, harder in Usenet and (at least currently) imppossible in LJ.

  6. franklinmint says:

    and I've never been particularly happy with that, but it's much more sane than gmane, for example.

    One difference is Google News doesn't display the full content this way, but let's you advance through a thread 10 posts at a time, and jump easily. Perhaps an email reader that showed multiple messages in the way that Google News does (10 in a row, hierarchy and date indicated in a separate pane) would be interesting.

  7. ciphergoth says:

    I can't see this working when you have hundreds of mails to thread - every message would have dozens of those lines through it, and you'd quickly lose track of which line meant what. Maybe you could make it work if you selected a subset of messages to display - and you could step through subsets with the keyboard until you'd seen all messages.

    It's good to see innovation in this area. And I can't help but wonder if the knowledge that it would annoy the Slashdoteers was extra motivation for posting it here :-)

    • jwz says:

      I can see that being a problem too.

      But, one interesting thing they mentioned in the paper is that, when a message has only one child, they don't indent it. At first this sounded totally wrong to me (won't that make it look like a new thread?) but the way they did it was actually kind of ok: the parent has an icon next to it, so it's still called out as the thread-head. But anyway, they did this because of the observation that most messages have only one child: threads are more often "deep" than "wide". So this change makes threads tend to grow down more often than they push in to the right.

      If their assumptions are right, then that'd greatly reduce the number of navigation-lines.

      I guess "how much a thread display pushes to the right" becomes more a factor of how many times the conversation forks and less a factor of how many sequential replies there are.

      • babysimon says:

        I guess "how much a thread display pushes to the right" becomes more a factor of how many times the conversation forks

        Of course, if the conversation forks a lot, you have bigger problems than how to indent it.

        I wonder if this system would have a similar (but more muted) effect to those web forums that intentionally disallow threading to discourage off-topic posts.

        • antifuchs says:

          I wonder if this system would have a similar (but more muted) effect to those web forums that intentionally disallow threading to discourage off-topic posts.

          Oh, and I thought they did that to force people to repeat context and to prefix their postings with "@username:" shit.

          Yours is the more optimistic explanation (-:

  8. mr_stru says:

    The lurker mail archiver does this sort of thing to mail. Some of the debian mailing lists are available in this format from which I've selected a random thread

    Of course it doesn't do the quoted content deleting or anything of that nature.

    • earle says:

      Siesta's mail archiver can do lurker output, as well as normal output. (Example.) One of my favourite features is that you can get it to display the first line or paragraph of the message, letting you scan past entire threads at high speed.

  9. latchkey says:

    Of course MIT has their own deal...

    http://haystack.lcs.mit.edu/

  10. blech says:

    This is oddly reminiscent of the Lugnet thread display, which I've been raving about for years (it dates from at least '99) to anyone who'll listen, and a lot of people who won't.

    http://news.lugnet.com/build/sculpture/?n=714&t=i&v=a

    This is a better example of how it copes with reasonably large threads (and I'm sure that there are much bigger ones, if I cared to go looking).

    http://news.lugnet.com/starwars/?n=1394