Threaded Comments Were A Mistake

Reddit (and some other sites, including, I think, this one) uses threaded comments, meaning that each new reply starts a new thread. Not only that, but threads which are unpopular get pushed below threads that are more popular, and in order to fit everything on the screen, threads are cut off automatically after about a half-dozen replies, with a “display more” option. This is pretty necessary to how Reddit’s whole karma system works. The order of comments changes based on upvotes and age, so a popular reply to an unpopular argument will get upvoted above the comment it’s responding to, turning the discussion into a muddled mess.

But as my title suggests, I don’t think is actually a good idea. Threaded comments encourage people to ignore everything past the first five or six responses. This means that specious arguments appear much more ironclad. People coming into a thread in an unthreaded, first posted is first displayed conversation (like with Facebook comments) will scroll through at least the most recent few pages of the conversation before responding. Threaded conversations encourage the community to respond not to the argument that can stand up to scrutiny over thorough examination, but to the argument that seems most sensible at first glance. This drastically favors ideas that can be explained in a few paragraphs (or less) and seem right on the surface over ideas that are more complicated and actually correct.

The argument that is easiest to communicate in a short space of time is the argument that relies heavily on memes. What a meme ultimately is, is a shorthand reference to a package of ideas that a community has already accepted. “Don’t taze me, bro” means a lot more than just a literal request to avoid tazing, and it can be used to communicate a lot of concepts in a very short space of time. Even better for the sophist, the exact set of concepts communicated by the meme is flexible. That meme comes from a specific event with lots of political baggage attached, but most people just take from it “the guy who does not want to be tazed deserves to be tazed” and a sophist can use that to make an argument that appears flippant, witty, and true, and which requires a more careful analysis to undermine. All the sophist needs to thwart that analysis is keep up witty, specious comebacks long enough to reach the “click to display more” threshold and bam, no matter how vapid his argument ultimately proves to be, most people will only see its strong start. Essentially, you can have an argument that goes:

Charlatan: Snake oil cures everything!
Skeptic: No it doesn’t.
Charlatan: These studies say it does.
Skeptic: Those studies are all funded by the Foundation For Convincing Suckers To Buy Snake Oil.

This also means that arguments get repeated a lot appear far more convincing. No one ever sees it getting ripped down under careful analysis, which means people are more likely to feel like it’s correct, and are more likely to repeat it. This means that a terrible argument gilded with the thinnest veneer of reasonableness can grow in popularity without the sort of advertising campaigns or bully pulpiting that’s usually required to repeat a lie often enough for it to be accepted as truth on merit of nothing else but the frequency of its repetition. People who want the argument to be accurate, whether because its vision of reality is optimistic or (more often) because it’s calling people they dislike wrong, stupid, or incompetent, will repeat the argument. If someone presents a counterpoint and takes more than a few comments back and forth to exhaust all the argument’s excuses, the only person who even sees the ultimate conclusion will be the person who made the argument in the first place, who usually becomes more entrenched in their opinion just because no one likes to be wrong about something.

If you’ve ever wondered why Reddit has such a strong hivemind and its posting is so heavily reliant on memethought, this is why. With threaded conversations (and to a lesser extent, the upvote/downvote system), original and analytical thought is penalized because its most compelling feature is its ability to fend off all counterargument, and no one will even see the conclusion of that grisly fight. On the other hand, an argument that’s little more than repetition of popular memes has the familiarity and popularity of its initial premises as its strongest feature, and that’s visible and will likely be made more visible by upvotes.

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