Why do we do it?
Why do we spend as much time, thought and energy sitting behind the keyboard, reading long screens of text and then typing in our comments? More text, information, data. Is it just the basic urge for conversation? Is this the quasi-intellectual no-life equivalent of gossip? Or are we doing something more? Well, writing stories could be the quasi-intellectual no-life equivalent of readers' comments in a provincial newspaper.
But no, there must be more. There is some pure delight when somebody writes a really good article and other people contribute some really good comments and everything comes out just perfect. We make it just right. But what is it? What do we make?
What do we do?
Essentially, we're publishing a never-ending global newspaper with an overgrown readers' comment section on steroids running out of control. But not entirely out of control. Rusty has constructed it in a certain way, he has established the rules of the game. And he occasionally tweaks the rules to make the game, err, the newspaper more to his (and readership's) liking. And his and readership's liking is something like, "interesting and well written articles, intelligent discussion, good navigation and hopefully some way to be able to skip non-interesting comments".
Any problems so far?
Well, basically, blogs have the tiny little aforementioned scaling problem. Too many people start coming in and the blog goes bad.
But "too many people" shouldn't make sense in the context of a blog. More people is good because more people write more good text. It's just that finding it in the megabytes gets somewhat tedious. After a time the proportion of interesting people and text becomes too low to bother. Take a look at usenet. Take a look at The Other SiteTM.
Kuro5hin is closer to hitting the scaling barrier by the day. Some symptoms: Many off-topic comments, regular is-trolling-good-or-bad trolls, and above all, confusion. Complete lack of familiarity over time. Every couple of days, when I get onto the site, any story that I previously read or commented on, is long dead. Most stories die in a day or two. Nowadays, people hang out in the editing and the voting queue, and by the time story gets to the front page, it's dead.
Why bother to post an intelligent comment, when you know you won't get any good discussion out of it, because two days is just not enough time? Why, for that matter, bother to research and write a good article, when it'll be dead in 36 hours?
I don't want just another blog. I don't want to read endless stupid tit-for-tat debates on trivial points. I don't want to see multiple penis birds or, god forbid, links to goatse.cx. I want my never-ending global newspaper.
Rant ends here. Below, I make a few suggestions for improvements.
How to make it feel better?
P1, P2 and P3 are proposals for simple tweaks of the rules to help with the quality of articles and filtering of comments.
Proposal P1: Rework the editing
Disable topical comments until story is posted. Make editing period of 24 hours mandatory. Allow the author to add clearly marked text to the end of the story even after it's posted.
Many people who really want to post an editorial comment, do not know that they do, hence many "+1 FP" topical comments. Also, real topical comments on unfinished story add much confusion to discussion, as they generate a lot of "where did he say that?" matter.
Proposal P2: Add more comment types
At least add "off-topic". Make it easy to post different types of comments, for instance, add an "add an off-topic comment" link to the comment footer.
We sometimes just have to catch up with people, or say: man, that movie was soooo good. Or say something about somebody's sig. Sometimes you just don't want to read those. Also, there are many good reasons to not include those in the default random-visitor's view of kuro5hin.
Proposal P3: Refine ratings
Change 0-5 system to multiple choice: "I agree (+1)", "I disagree (+1)", "Badly written (-1)", "Spam (hide)"
Average of 0-5 sounds simple enough, and it is. It's too simple. What happens in reality is that "how much I agree with it" has as much to do with my rating as "how well it's written". We just have to express our dislike for other people's viewpoints. It's only natural. This way we would have simple +1 / -1 votes to use for sorting and filtering and an instant poll for every comment, plus spam hiding. "Off topic" could possibly be added. See above.
How to make it last longer?
P4 and P5 are more complex proposals for keeping stories alive longer.
Proposal P4: Merge hot-list and story ratings
Get rid of a the voting queue. On every page, show hot-listed stories, then a set number of most popular stories, then new stories (say, newer than 36 hours). When user hot-lists a story, increase the story's popularity score. Maybe hot-list a story automatically after the user posts a topical comment on it. When a user cold-lists a story, hide it and decrease its popularity score. Allow the user to choose on which page to put the story and reflect these choices in the selection of popular stories to be displayed.
This would produce a continually updated scoreboard for interesting stories. Users would have incentive to keep the ratings up to date, since the look on their pages would directly depend on their choices. This would keep the good stories on the pages for a longer time and thus produce longer discussion. This helps with familiarity and continuity of the front and section pages, but brings up the problem of hundreds of comments for one story, which makes the discussion impossible to read. Hence...
Proposal P5: Restructure the discussion
Introduce an additional level between the comment and the story, the reply. Replies can only be posted to the story and to other replies. They can be edited and their rating system works similarly to the story ratings described in P4, but possibly includes the show/hide comments option. Comments work the way they work now.
This would distinguish between the two kinds of comments we have: chat - the (1 line comments), which is fine, as long as it's new, and the genuine discussion (the full-screen comments), which is interesting to read even if it's a week old. Imposing a mandatory editing period of, say 12 hours, would ensure that the replies get some review before being included in the discussion. Users can then happily chat about the story or the replies or anything, but you can safely turn off old comments or comments to old replies and not miss out on anything. Maybe we can even get rid of comment ratings all together.
Too much customization ability undermines P4 and P5.