Designing a Message Board
Recently I decided to start building an image/message board as a programming exercise, based primarily on the 4chan model. The main problem I’m interested in is designing the board in order to encourage better conversations. In light of the recent discussions this sub has had on migrating to a reddit alternative, I thought this might be something people here might have some ideas about as well.
Some design decisions:
Anonymity v. Pseudonymity
A fixed identity affects the conversation by bringing in reputation. There are some pros. Sometimes consideration of reputation will encourage users to invest more time and effort into making quality contributions. On a small enough board it may discourage rudeness. It allows users to identify users who should be ignored and those who should be listened to attentively. It places each comment within a context, so that the agenda behind it can more accurately be discerned.
However, I think anonymity offers greater benefits and really brings out the advantages of online conversations. In real life and more and more of the internet it is impossible to speak your mind on any genuinely controversial subject without worrying that the consequences will come back to bite you. This is a real burden, especially for people with autism or social anxiety. Anonymity allows you take risks, whether that means the discussion of taboo subjects or just letting yourself be silly. While anonymity may allow people to make lower quality or more combative comments without any repetitional cost, it also virtually eliminates all sorts of social signaling. It allows people to open up about personal topics without worrying that they may be identified and it allows people to break with their tribe on a case by case basis without worrying that someone will hold it against them. While anonymity makes friendship more difficult, it also makes much of the silly interpersonal drama that plagues small forums impossible. It simultaneously strengthens the sense of a collective board culture while reducing the pressure to conform. And when necessary, a permanent identity can be established through tripcodes or some other form of digit signature.
I’ve also considered some hybrid system. Perhaps the OP could decide whether identities should be masked in their thread, or pseudonymous chats could be combined with anonymous threads or some such system, but I’m not sure either really offers any advantages,
The main sorting systems for comments are chronological, by vote, or by engagement. This is an issue that I am much more undecided on.
If users are allowed to vote and sort by vote total, almost all of them will do so. The judgment of the crowd is often wrong, but users have limited time or limited interest and it’s better than nothing. Unfortunately, voting has a number of pernicious effects on the discourse.
Downvotes are especially bad—even the threat of downvotes can have a chilling effect on dissent, even though they are meaningless imaginary points. They punish especially hard people who actually tried to make a valuable contribution, only to be rudely rejected, while the worst sort of shitposter actually enjoys them. If the ratio between downvotes and upvotes is not displayed, even a post that a whole crowd of people strongly appreciated may appear to have fallen on deaf ears. The main issue is the disparity between the effort required to make a post and the effort required to downvote. Actually arguing your point requires an investment of time and effort, but downvoting is quick and easy. Naturally basing the visibility of content around a cheap signal results in the lazy and the careless having a disproportionate impact on the conversation. There is also a lack of recourse —at least if someone responds to your effortpost on 4chan by calling you a faggot you can respond in kind, but if a crowd of people downvote you you just have to take it. Downvoting even more than voting in general creates an in-group/out-group dynamic and imposes the fear of ostracism. In my opinion, if someone is really unwelcome somewhere they should be told so in a straightforward way by the mods or ignored rather than being run off by the mob.
Upvotes have some drawbacks as well. Considering that people who will lurk and vote vastly outnumber people who will put in the effort to actually comment, voting puts most of the power over the discourse in the hands of people who aren’t fully engaged in the conversation, who might be browsing looking for a brief distraction while waiting to pick up their prescription or while taking a smoke break. Sorting by vote promises to promote quality, but ends up mostly promoting easily-digested pablum with a broad appeal. Voting encourages conformity, for good or ill. Votes will always be used as an agree button, regardless of the virtues of the community, because people naturally believe comments that conform with their biases are more reasonable than those that do not. Voices of dissent will be drowned out and ignored and many will leave.
At the same time, voting is a cheap signal of appreciation and may encourage better quality comments on average or produce a better reading experience, especially if one only reads the top of the thread, which most users do. A possible solution might be a system that grants voting rights only to quality contributors, perhaps determined by their own average vote total, and/or limits the number of votes so that they are used more frugally for higher quality content. Vote counts could also be hidden from other users or even the commenter himself and used only for sorting purposes—this might lessen the pressure to conform but only slightly and would reduce the beneficial effects of positive feedback as well. I have no clear perspective on these design decisions.
Chronological sorting has both pluses and minuses as well. It is more egalitarian than voting, and forces thread-readers to encounter opinions that may offend them. It eliminates karma-whoring but also forces thread-readers to sort through worthless comments themselves. The only way to signal agreement or disagreement is by actually posting, which means lurkers have no ability to dilute the conversation and results in content that requires higher engagement. Someone who wants to dominate the conversation has to post a lot rather than just pandering for votes, which is less rewarding and reduces this type of behavior. Spam of this kind can be discouraged with a captcha.
On the other hand, chronological sorting makes prolonged conversations increasingly difficult to understand. Long threads tend to turn into solitary posts as the various sub-threads become increasingly convoluted. New participants often speak their piece without reading the full thread, leading to redundancy and frustration. Still, in smaller threads chronological sorting can produces a single, unified conversation rather than a bunch of separate sub-threads and increases the sense of community. Chronological sorting can be implemented without threading, but I think threading is essential for readable conversations.
A third, less conventional option is sorting by engagement/number of replies, on the theory that any comment that warrants a reply is adding to the conversation. This will naturally lead to threads that focus on whatever users are actually interested in, whether or not they admit it. It might encourage trolls, but the kind that actually post funny, irresistible bait, since this method of sorting would produce a norm against replying to worthless posts. I curious about how this would turn out. It would reward provocative, compelling posts.
Sub-forums v. Tagging
Should threads be posted under separate sub-forums or sorted by tags? Should the sub-forums/tags be limited to a pre-defined list or user created? Perhaps this is only an issue in larger communities. I tend to favor sub-forums, since they create a smaller shared community of people who tend to browse the same sub-forum, whereas tags tend to invite participation from the larger community. Limiting their number consolidates information, but can also create community tension. Perhaps they should be limited initially before being relaxed as the community grows?
Anyway, I know this is way too long but if nothing else it helped me clarify my thoughts. I’m interested in hearing any opinions on message board design, regardless of how much you agree with any of my opinions. It’s really helpful giving me a direction to take this project.