Opting into Experimental LW Features

by Raemon1 min read3rd Jul 201926 comments


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We recently added an "beta testing" option for LessWrong. If you go to your account page, you'll see a checkbox for "Opt into experimental features".

Right now, the primary feature under development that isn't yet released to the public is Single Line Comments. This is an attempt to fit more overall comments in some areas.

Recent Discussion

For example, recent discussion now looks like this, where each post loads 4 comments (and highlights them if you haven't read them), but only shows significant amounts of text from the most recent comment:

You can click on a recent discussion item to mark that item as 'read', and make the green line go away.

Posts with 50+ Comments

On posts with 50 or more comments, comments below 10 karma will appear as a single-line comment:

Mousing over a SingleLineComment will show a hovercard with a preview of the comment.

Clicking on a thread will fully expand all of the children of the comment that you clicked on. Doing a search (Control+F, or Command+F) will also expand all comments (so that you won't run into annoying things where you try to search but the comment isn't displaying all the text so you can't find the quote you're looking for.

This is all still under developed. Admins of the site have been using it for the past month or two to see how it works, and tweaking it until it felt usable. It's now at a point where it seemed good to let other LW users try it out and see if it seems like an improvement.

(Before releasing it publicly, we plan to build some sort of safety-valve-checkbox where you can turn it off easily)

26 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:10 AM
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I have now tried this twice, and in neither case did I leave it on for more than about 10 minutes. Votes and poster name are not sufficient for me to know if I want to read a comment, so I have to pretty much roll-over or expand everything.

Skimming and scrolling is _SO MUCH_ easier and faster than that, on both mobile (note: I tend to use 8" tablet more than actual tiny phone) and desktop. Either hide the not-good-enough comment entirely so I don't have to think about it, or show enough (maybe first 5 lines) for me to decide if I want to read more.

Or leave it optional - this may simply be a strong preference of mine that others don't share. Note: calling it "experimental features" is a mistake. Call it "(experimental) collapse most comments by default". This makes it possible to have multiple experiments running, and allows those of us who hate this one to still participate in other experimental features. The even better middle ground is to have a checkbox for this feature, AND a checkbox for "opt in to new experimental features", which will cause any future experiments to be turned on until the user turns that experiment off.

It's good in theory but probably not practical for us to make separate experimental feature checkboxes for every feature set. Experimental features change pretty rapidly, might change names or otherwise get reworked in a way that makes individual checkboxes hard to maintain. (Note that right now the experimental features also do things like show you a new link to the /shortform page on the sidebar.)

But you can probably get what you want by toggling the nearby checkbox "Do not collapse comments on Posts" and/or "Do not collapse comments (on home page)"

(A week ago we also broke the singleLineComments in a way that made them much more annoying, which will hopefully fixed within a day)

Are you looking for feedback on single line comments?

Information leakage alert: the screenshot there includes a comment from a now-deleted user; ordinary LW users viewing the same thing will see neither that user's name nor their comment. I don't think exposing that will do any grave harm, but you might consider using a different screenshot. (Also, if anyone thinks that deleting their account on LW _actually deletes their account_ they should be advised that apparently it does not.) [EDITED to add: to be more precise, in collapsed view ordinary LW users will see an error message in red instead of the username and truncated comment text; when expanded they _will_ see the text but _won't_ see the username.]

Whoops. And, yes, the whole point of experimental features is that people can give feedback on them.

OK, so my feedback is that I have never ever seen a feature of this sort (unless intended only to hide outright spam and the like) that is any improvement over just leaving everything there, and this instance is no exception.

Perhaps the ability to collapse discussions, rather than having them start collapsed and providing a way to un-collapse them, might be useful sometimes, though I'm struggling to think when I'd actually use it. But this is (for me) a waste of time. Seeing half a line of a comment is usually not enough information to decide whether reading the whole thing is worth while, so the overall minimum-hassle solution is just to uncollapse everything. Thankfully I can make that the global default here on LW; if not, I'd just be clicking the "please expand everything" button every time. (Or, if there weren't one, expanding everything by hand and cursing the admins.)

Perhaps it might be different if I were reading LW in order to acquire information about some particular thing as efficiently as possible. And perhaps there is some desire for LW to be more the sort of place one goes to acquire information efficiently, rather than e.g. a chatty social venue. Except that if LW were more "academic" in that way -- something more like the Alignment Forum, perhaps -- then I would expect an (even) higher proportion of the comments to be ones well worth reading for anyone interested in the topic at hand, so auto-collapsing would still be a net loss.

First, again, by the time this rolls out (if it rolls out) there'll be a pretty prominent checkbox for "don't collapse things", so you won't be forced to view things this way (and this'll more prominent that the current user option is)

(The following is just explaining why I prefer the SingleLineComment setup, or something close to it, not trying to explain why your preferences are wrong. :P)

The frame for why I think this is important is not "I want to find information about a particular thing." It's "I want to explore a few different options for what to dive into, and then pick the tastiest option depending on what mood I'm in." (There is a shared assumption between these frames that there is too much information to consume it all. Do you actually just read every comment on a thread and find it valuable, or every comment in RecentDiscussion?)

The intent is not that you use single-line comments to do that. Rather, single-line comments are intended to make lower-karma comments fade into the background, so you can do a breadth first sample of discussions that are more likely to be interesting.

In the case of RecentDiscussion, one comment per post is expanded enough to get a sense of what's going on in the conversation, and you get to see if particular authors have commented that you tend to like reading. And if the most recent posts are all things you're not interested in,

Restaurant metaphor

To me, the default, fully expanded version of RecentDiscussion, or posts with big comment sections like this one, feels like going to a restaurant where there is no menu. The way I find out what's available to eat is to walk to a table that has the first item on the menu, decide whether it's good enough to stop and start eating. And if not, walk to the next table and do it again. And repeat for 100 tables.

Whereas a good menu a) lets you peruse a high level of what sort of items are available, b) usually shows you a picture of the items that are particular specialties of the restaurant in question. And then if none of those appeal to you you can read through the rest of the list.

One thing that might not be obvious is that, on posts with 50+ comments, comments that are unread-since-your-last-visit are fully expanded by default. The assumption is that you're either arriving at a giant comment thread where it probably makes sense to first glance at the 4 most upvoted conversations (which might be deep in an otherwise mediocre comment thread), or you're catching up on existing discussion (whereupon getting to the latest comments probably makes most sense)

(by contrast, collapsing things as I go doesn't help with any of that)

Have you seen my code for doing this back in LW1? It's not working now for obvious reasons, but you can take a look the screenshot to get an idea.

Oh cool, did not know about that.

I typed that on mobile so couldn't explain more, but I think there's no need to automatically collapse comments, if you just make the comments take up the whole width of the browser window, and highlight the comments with high karma. This way the user can easily browse through lots of comments by just scrolling down, and choose which comments direct their eyes at, without having to click on anything.

(The automatic collapse feature might still be useful on smaller screens.)

If comments took up the whole width of my browser window, I would find them acutely unpleasant to read. I like my text fairly small and I have my window full-screen; text becomes difficult to read when each line is more than about 15-20 words. (The exact figure depends on size, personal preference, how long those words are, line spacing, etc.)

Yes, I _do_ tend to read every comment on a thread. Or, sometimes, none, but usually if I'm bothering even to look at the comments on a post then I'm going to look at them all.

I don't eat at restaurants with literally no menu. If a restaurant has a large intimidating menu, I read it all anyway; if I visit it a few times I will get to know what I like. I won't be helped by a menu that says "Something containing chicken. Something containing turmeric. Something roughly round in shape." which is roughly what the collapsed comments provide. The menu is only useful in so far as it (together with my past experience, the overall look of the place, etc.) gives me a good enough mental picture of each dish to have a good idea whether I'll like it.

(An important distinction between visiting a restaurant and visiting Less Wrong: When I go to a restaurant, typically I intend to each a roughly fixed, fairly small number of dishes. I don't generally go to LW with the intention of reading three comments and then leaving. I don't so much mind there being no menu if what there is instead is a great multitude of little snacks I can try dozens of without feeling ill.)

Collapsed comments don't (for me; I must stress that I'm not claiming to speak for anyone else) give me any useful view of what's available; seeing the first few words of a comment tells me little, and I try not to prejudge things too much on the basis of author or score.

Expanding comments that are new since you last visited is a good idea. If I could get that (on all posts, not just ones with 50+ comments; why would I want that restriction) without any collapsing of comments I haven't read yet, that would probably be useful. I'm interested in tools that let me read all the comments efficiently. I'm interested in tools that help me decide which comments are worthy of more attention. I am not interested in tools that try to decide for me which comments I will want to read. If I want that then I can go and read Facebook with "top stories" mode turned on instead of LW.

(on all posts, not just ones with 50+ comments; why would I want that restriction)

To clarify, only posts with 50+ comments have collapsed comments, so it wouldn't make sense to expand comments on posts with less than 50 comments)

Sure. But the thing I was saying might be useful (which, I understand, has nothing to speak of in common with what's on offer right now) is auto-collapsing all comments I can be presumed to have read or decided not to bother reading on the grounds that they were already there the last time I visited the discussion. That would be useful even on posts with <=50 comments. (At least, it would be useful there if useful at all; it might be that I'm wrong in thinking it would be useful.)

Ah, yeah that makes sense.

Perhaps another question – so long as comments are expanded like normal, is there anything you feel like you-in-particular are lacking re: the "be able to read all the comments easily" thing?

(Curious how to related to Recent Discussion in particular – do you use that part of the site?)

I'm not feeling any glaring lacks. Of course it's possible that there are possible changes that once made would be obvious improvements :-).

I do use the "recent discussion" section. I actually don't mind the collapsing there -- it's not trying to present the whole of any discussion, and clearly space is at a big premium there, so collapsing might not be a bad tradeoff.

Nod. That’s where I found single line comments most important and the use case I originally designed them for. (And then I was actually a bit surprised when I turned out to prefer them on lower-karma comments on large comment sections, without much modification)

(One of my imary motivations for SingleLine comments on RecentDiscussion is so that Shortform has a chance of actually getting seen. If I have to read each comment in order, I have a very tiny window to catch if an author I like has written anything interesting, or a new author has started writing good stuff)

Seeing half a line of a comment is usually not enough information to decide whether reading the whole thing is worth while

I want to argue that this is a huge problem with the way people write here. If I have to read the whole comment to find out what the whole comment is about, that really limits the speed at which I can search the corpus. Sometimes, not only do you have to read the entire comment, carefully, you then have to think about it for a minute to decode the information. Sometimes it turns out to just a phrasing of something you already knew, in a not-interestingly different form.

If you don't make a body of writing easy to navigate with indexes and summaries, people who value their time just wont engage with it. They wont complain to you, they'll just fade away. They might even blame themselves. "Why can't I process this information quicker", they will ask. "I feel so lost and tired when I read this stuff. Overall I don't feel I've had a productive time."

If someone's writing a whole post then for sure they should try to make its structure clear, perhaps with headings and tables of contents and introductory paragraphs and bullet points and whatnot.

I don't think that's usually appropriate for comments, which are usually rather short.

So, e.g., I don't think your comment to which I'm replying right now would have been improved by adding such signposts. But, even so, I don't see how I could tell whether I want to read the whole thing from knowing that it begins "I want to argue that this is a huge problem".

There might be benefit in providing some sort of guidance for readers of a whole comment thread. But it's hard to see how, especially as comment threads are dynamic: new material could appear anywhere at any time, and if order of presentation is partly determined by scores then that too can be rearranged pretty much arbitrarily. (And who'd do it?)

You might hope that a collapsed pile of comments is itself a sort of roadmap to the comments themselves, but I think that just doesn't work, just as you wouldn't get a useful summary of A Tale of Two Cities or A Brief History of Time by just taking the first half-sentence of each paragraph.

I did think, as I wrote, that the beginning of the comment would be a good summary, but you're right, not enough would be visible in the preview.

Perhaps if the comment previews were a bit longer.

Feedback would be good.

Also, good catch with the username. Updated it with a new one.

Yeah, deleting your account still allows admins to access the account data, though obviously no one else can see it. This has also been the case on LW1 where imported the relevant data from.

Rather than it being a simple checkbox to opt into the "collapse comments below 10 votes" feature, it might be better to allow the user to choose the threshold themselves. In my experience, except in specific technical topics, comments with karma above 10 are usually expressing popular opinion that is unlikely to lead to an update in my mental model. Because of that, I'm unlikely to opt into this. However, I've also found that comments at 1 karma (no votes) are also often in the same category. So being able to set the threshold at just 2 or 3 would be pretty useful, to both conserve space and also avoid skipping over potentially the most useful content.

What was I thinking actually (after seeing it on a variety of posts with varying karma ranges of comments) is that my own preference is probably for it infer where to set the threshold based on the minimum, average and maximum karma among comments. I think I also probably prefer the filter to kick in at 100 comments instead of 50.

I think maybe having it default to "auto infer" but you can set the threshold manually (and easily) might be the best version.

Yeah, I think us making it a settable threshold is correct, though we might not have that ready at launch or get around to it for a bit because it's just additional technical complexity.

I'm not sure Single Line Comments are completely necessary. Liberal use of the [-] hide button is a pretty good alternative for browsing threads in a similar way- read a summary, move on, see the whole of the thread before dwelling on any of the details and descending into a subthread- but I do like it, it's probably a step forward.