What's the current status/thought on threading?

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Arete One
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What's the current status/thought on threading?

Post by Arete One » Wed Jan 19, 2011 9:08 pm

During the testing of a new phpBB 3.0.8 site for a relatively small group of users, one asked about being able to see replies to a topic in a threaded view, so that replies appear directly underneath (and preferably indented) the message that inspired the reply, rather than the flat view that phpBB provides.

A search on the topic of "threading" brings up some discussions that are rather dated. From what I read, the feeling is that the flat view is to be preferred, and phpBB will not be supporting a threaded view option.

Is that pretty much the perspective still? Or are there plans to make it possible to switch between flat and threaded viewing? Can anyone point me to a discussion of flat vs. threaded that makes the case for why one is considered better?

BTW - I've suggested that people who want to ensure their replies are properly associated with the message they're replying to use the Quote button.

TIA.

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Re: What's the current status/thought on threading?

Post by tbackoff » Wed Jan 19, 2011 10:17 pm

Arete One wrote:From what I read, the feeling is that the flat view is to be preferred, and phpBB will not be supporting a threaded view option.

Is that pretty much the perspective still?
I believe the developers have already stated that threading is not in the future. That said, you could always request someone to write up a MOD that will do this.

By the way, users can use the "quote" button to quote posts that their reply is aimed toward.
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Re: What's the current status/thought on threading?

Post by callumacrae » Thu Jan 20, 2011 8:31 am

IIRC, phpBB was originally built as a flat alternative to the other, threaded, bulletin boards, so I can't see them adding the ability to have it threaded. You could always, however (as said above), request a modification. I generally find it easier to understand when I use the quote button anyway.

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Re: What's the current status/thought on threading?

Post by Marshalrusty » Thu Jan 20, 2011 11:07 am

Feature requests for new major versions (before they are feature frozen, of course) are always considered when submitted as RFCs on the development board.

There are currently no plans for this feature and it is not a simple one to implement efficiently. Certainly "switching between" the two modes would be very difficult, but choosing one of the two per board (or even per forum or per topic) is potentially possible.

I would suggest maybe starting a post in the MOD Requests Forum to see if someone wants to write up a MOD, as it would be a fun one to code.
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Re: What's the current status/thought on threading?

Post by dandv » Thu Jun 23, 2011 7:21 pm

I was looking for the same feature, indenting replies (which, in effect, would create a threaded view). Forum-software.org themed Drupal's Forum component to look just like phpBB, and Drupal's Forum is threaded. Here is an example of what it looks like in production:

http://www.forum-software.org/mybb/user-opinion

Personally, I find the "indented replies"/threaded view much easier to follow than quotes, but I know this is a religious war and phpBB will not support threads in the foreseeable future. Still, I wanted to point the OP to an alternative solution that has the UI they seem to seek.

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Re: What's the current status/thought on threading?

Post by Lumpy Burgertushie » Thu Jun 23, 2011 7:43 pm

I find this strange. the whole point of the way phpbb was designed ( and most other current bulletin board software ) was to get away from that old fashioned, mailing list type of look.

I doubt you will find much support anywhere for returning to it.

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Re: What's the current status/thought on threading?

Post by dandv » Thu Jun 23, 2011 10:46 pm

Lumpy Burgertushie wrote:I find this strange. the whole point of the way phpbb was designed ( and most other current bulletin board software ) was to get away from that old fashioned, mailing list type of look.
I really don't want to hijack the topic. I've worked as a User Experience Designer for Y! and there are many logical reasons I could list why threaded conversations are easier to follow. Also, I find that more modern social news sites (reddit, slashdot, the Stack Overflow family, to name a few) and commenting systems (Disqus (example), Intense Debate (example)) support, if not favor by default, a threaded view. Do note that these systems are geared towards discussions where individual posts tend to be shorter, which is keeping in step with the decreasing attention span of recent years. On the other hand, a threaded topic is a superset of a flat topic, because you could always render the threaded topic with an indent of 0 for all posts, and you get the flat view. Users can also just reply to the whole thread rather than to an individual message, so they can choose "flat" even in a threaded system.

I come to this debate with a user's experience, and no investment in one system or another. Those who've chosen flat threads, however, are deeply invested and will never be convinced that there might be a better alternative, so if anyone wants to tell me to stop debating, I most gladly will.

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Re: What's the current status/thought on threading?

Post by Lumpy Burgertushie » Thu Jun 23, 2011 11:10 pm

I did not check out your examples but the type of "threaded" discussion we are talking about here is the old style of indent, indent, indent ad nauseum until you have to scroll sideways for days to see the next post title.

I never liked them because when topic/thread got so big you could not figure out where you were in the discussion anymore.

That was the type of thing that was used in email digests, in listserve email lists etc. etc.

At the time there were no alternatives. and them came the world wide web and html pages etc and then came phpbb ( just a little biased here ) with a clean simple to use and understand way of displaying discussions.

I hope that they never go back. There are still a few old "threaded" style boards out there but I never visit them anymore.

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Re: What's the current status/thought on threading?

Post by dandv » Thu Jun 23, 2011 11:44 pm

Lumpy Burgertushie wrote:I did not check out your examples but the type of "threaded" discussion we are talking about here is the old style of indent, indent, indent ad nauseum until you have to scroll sideways for days to see the next post title.
That was definitely a problem, especially with e-mail when repeated '>' quoting would also wrap lines horribly at the 80-character cutoff.

The modern solution is to stop indenting after a specified level (e.g. 3 deep, as advised in this quite comprehensive essay on curating comment threads.
Lumpy Burgertushie wrote:I never liked them because when topic/thread got so big you could not figure out where you were in the discussion anymore.
I never had that problem on reddit. You can collapse or drill into a branch of the discussion if you're interested. As for topics that get too big (notorious examples are topics with too general titles, e.g. "Dell Latitude" on notebookreview.com with close to 2000 posts), they are unmanageable in flat form, unless you are willing to read all 2000 messages to get up to speed. Most users never do, and blindly ask one more FAQ in the topic, further increasing its gargantuan proportions. Huge topics are exactly a great example where reddit's threaded, dynamic content approach would help: you drill into the direction of the discussion that you care about (say, the notebook's fan issue), and ignore everything else.
Lumpy Burgertushie wrote:At the time there were no alternatives. and them came the world wide web and html pages etc and then came phpbb ( just a little biased here ) with a clean simple to use and understand way of displaying discussions.
Right. We have modern alternatives nowadays, with AJAX (which is actually 10+ years old and still not adopted by phpBB).

As a developer, I understand the difficulties of adapting a large code base to use new technologies. The problem is thinking in terms of the current implementation constraints (see this thread here) instead of thinking in terms of what a better or more flexible solution would be (again, threaded discussions can very easily be rendered "flat", so "threaded" is without a doubt the more flexible solution).

I'm also aware that starting from scratch, or doing a complete rewrite benefiting from the experience gained while developing the legacy solution, may often result in a better solution, developed in less time, provided that the rewrite is done by the same programers who wrote the original code and have all the test cases accumulated over years - see this essay on code rewrite. This view, however, is not popular, just as it's not popular to backpedal on one's opinions, or even worse, on a group's opinions. MyBB is doing it, though, rewriting their acknowledgedly antiquated PHP and concepts using a web application framework.

From this informed standpoint, I'd take a second look at the threading vs. flat debate, and at the examples I mentioned in my previous post.

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Re: What's the current status/thought on threading?

Post by Pony99CA » Fri Jun 24, 2011 2:36 am

dandv wrote: I really don't want to hijack the topic. I've worked as a User Experience Designer for Y! and there are many logical reasons I could list why threaded conversations are easier to follow.
Go for it. This topic is about the "current thought on threading", so that kind of input seems to fit perfectly here.
dandv wrote: Also, I find that more modern social news sites (reddit, slashdot, the Stack Overflow family, to name a few) and commenting systems (Disqus (example), Intense Debate (example)) support, if not favor by default, a threaded view. Do note that these systems are geared towards discussions where individual posts tend to be shorter, which is keeping in step with the decreasing attention span of recent years.
I've used Disqus and it's OK. However, it probably does threading because it doesn't support quoting. Even in a threaded system, quoting is still necessary if you want to make it clear which piece of a post you're addressing.

By the way, I wouldn't call Slashdot "modern"; it was one of the first social news sites from before the dot.com boom.
dandv wrote: On the other hand, a threaded topic is a superset of a flat topic, because you could always render the threaded topic with an indent of 0 for all posts, and you get the flat view.
First, as a math major, I wouldn't call either a superset. They both show the exact same content, just in a different order and perhaps with different formatting.

Also, removing the indent does not make it "flat"; it just makes it look flat. The biggest difference between threaded and flat views is the post ordering, not the indenting. By default, in phpBB's flat system, posts are sorted by date (ascending), although you can also sort by other keys and in descending order. in a conversational/threaded view, the root posts may be sorted by date (ascending), but the branches and leaves aren't. Within a given root post, each level may be sorted by date (ascending), but merely removing the indent won't change the default ordering.

And that's the biggest problem that I have with threaded views. The post ordering makes it more difficult to find just the newest items. You have to scan the whole tree to find them. Yes, you can add a view that only shows new items (but without quoting you won't have context) or you can somehow flag the new items, perhaps with color, borders, highlighting, etc., but you still have to scan the whole tree.

Also, as Lumpy mentioned, you have the indenting vs. scrolling problem. If people keep replying to replies, you either indent so far that horizontal scrolling is necessary or you have to reset or freeze your indents at a certain level, which makes it look like the posts aren't threaded properly.

Furthermore, unless you display the whole tree on one page, pagination becomes more difficult. If you want to display 20 posts per page, you could end up starting a new page way over on the right side due to indenting (even if that page only contains posts at that level).
dandv wrote:Users can also just reply to the whole thread rather than to an individual message, so they can choose "flat" even in a threaded system.
Unless all users choose to "post flat" or there's an option to view flat, that's not true. They're just posting flat.
dandv wrote: I come to this debate with a user's experience, and no investment in one system or another.
Your first paragraph seems to contradict that. :D

As a former developer and user experience person myself, I don't have a problem offering a threaded view as an option selectable from the UCP. In fact, from a database view, it might only require one or two new columns -- a "parent" post ID and possibly a level counter (to make things faster). The parent ID would be useful without threading -- it would allow making the QUOTE attribution a real link to the quoted post, which is useful when somebody has trimmed a quote (like I often do). That's also something that I believe vBulletin does.

The harder part would come trying to implement the view, as you can't just use a simple SQL statement to sort posts. There might also be other "gotchas", like what happens if you delete a "root" post or merge two topics, but I'm just considering the basic view problem right now.

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Re: What's the current status/thought on threading?

Post by callumacrae » Fri Jun 24, 2011 8:29 am

The option should definately not be available in the UCP, if it should be available anywhere it should be in the ACP. There is one board (IPB) that I regular, and IPB has the option in the UCP. But if everyone uses flat and one person uses threaded, it's a mess - people don't respond to the right posts, people don't reply to individual posts at all and just chuck it on the end, etc.
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Re: What's the current status/thought on threading?

Post by /a3 » Fri Jun 24, 2011 9:49 am

dandv wrote:
Lumpy Burgertushie wrote:At the time there were no alternatives. and them came the world wide web and html pages etc and then came phpbb ( just a little biased here ) with a clean simple to use and understand way of displaying discussions.
Right. We have modern alternatives nowadays, with AJAX (which is actually 10+ years old and still not adopted by phpBB).
What do you mean? Where would AJAX be suitable for use within phpBB? You act as if everything should be AJAX. But AJAX and hash-bangs do have their problems. ;)
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Re: What's the current status/thought on threading?

Post by callumacrae » Fri Jun 24, 2011 11:06 am

/a3 wrote:
dandv wrote:
Lumpy Burgertushie wrote:At the time there were no alternatives. and them came the world wide web and html pages etc and then came phpbb ( just a little biased here ) with a clean simple to use and understand way of displaying discussions.
Right. We have modern alternatives nowadays, with AJAX (which is actually 10+ years old and still not adopted by phpBB).
What do you mean? Where would AJAX be suitable for use within phpBB? You act as if everything should be AJAX. But AJAX and hash-bangs do have their problems. ;)
I think he meant that stuff like sending posts / moderator and admin actions, and even searches should be done using AJAX.

Although if everything should be done using AJAX, I also disagree with the use of hash-bangs - we have window.history.pushState().
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Re: What's the current status/thought on threading?

Post by Arty » Fri Jun 24, 2011 11:52 am

Callum95 wrote:Although if everything should be done using AJAX, I also disagree with the use of hash-bangs - we have window.history.pushState().
IE doesn't support it, not even IE10 preview 1, so it can't be used in forum software.
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Re: What's the current status/thought on threading?

Post by Pony99CA » Fri Jun 24, 2011 9:06 pm

Callum95 wrote:The option should definately not be available in the UCP, if it should be available anywhere it should be in the ACP. There is one board (IPB) that I regular, and IPB has the option in the UCP. But if everyone uses flat and one person uses threaded, it's a mess - people don't respond to the right posts, people don't reply to individual posts at all and just chuck it on the end, etc.
As I've already shown (I hope), the conversational/threaded view is just that -- a view sorted differently. Topic sorting is controlled in the UCP, so this should definitely be a UCP option.

That said, if an admin wanted to disallow certain views, that should be an ACP option, but that doesn't contradict the fact that the view should be a user choice.

As for people who "don't respond to the right posts", I have no idea how that can happen if there's a Quote or Reply To button in each post. I have seen people using phpBB link to "wrong" posts because they were using a non-standard sort order and they copied the address bar URL (with the start= parameter) instead of using the "little box" icon in a post to get the post's URL, but that had nothing to do with threading (because phpBB doesn't have it :D).

As for people who "don't reply to individual posts at all and just chuck it on the end", that can happen in phpBB, too, if people use the Post Reply button instead of the Quote button.

I'm not denying that the board you're talking about has those problems, but it sounds like that could be an IPB usability problem. That doesn't mean that mixed views have to have poor usability. It could also mean that my previous comments are correct -- people don't like scanning the post tree to see the new content.

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