Shortform Beta Launch

by Raemon2 min read27th Jul 201918 comments

67

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We've had unofficial experiments with shortform for over a year. More and more people have been trying it out and finding it useful. Now, we're pushing shortform into an officially supported feature.

My description of shortform, inspired by pattern's comment, is:

Writing that is short in length, or written in a short amount of time. Includes off-the-cuff thoughts and brainstorming.

Why shortform?

Sometimes shorter is better

I've noticed when I write a Facebook post... it ends up exactly as long as it's supposed to be. I write 3-5 paragraphs that nicely encapsulate my idea, and then it looks about the right length, and I click submit and have a nice, clear discussion.

When I start writing a LessWrong post, sometimes I look at the beautiful serif text on the nice blank white page and... I dunno, it feels like I'm supposed to write a 3 page essay, so I do. But my idea would have been better if I expressed it in 3 paragraphs.

Sometimes off-the-cuff is better

I also often want to brainstorm early stage ideas in way that isn't (necessarily) optimized for others to read – figuring out how to explain something well might be hard, and I'm not even sure the idea is good yet. But, people who've been following along with my thought process and understand what I'm gesturing at can still chime in with ideas.

Sometimes I just wanna start writing without worrying about what sort of thing I'm writing yet.

There's also an important in-between case, where maybe I'm writing something off-the-cuff and brainstormy, and maybe I'm actually writing a full treatise on something important. And I just... don't want to spend cycles figuring that out. I want my editor to feel unopinionated, and I want to be able to click 'submit' at the end without stressing out about whether I'm submitting 'good enough content'.

Sometimes, this results in an initial shortform comment eventually getting revamped into a major post.

For all of these reasons, and more, it seems useful to have a part of lesswrong optimized for shorter writing.

New Features, focusing on Visibility

Shortform is created in the form of comments (attached to an automatically generated shortform post). The new features mostly aim to:

  • Automate a lot of work. Instead of having to manually create a post called "So-and-so's shortform", you just start writing a comment, click submit, and then that post is automatically created for you
  • Improve visibility. Part of the point of shortform (in some cases) is to be a bit less visible. But so far it's been extremely un-visible, appearing only in the Recent Discussion section of the frontpage, usually only for a couple hours.

Features include:

New /shortform page

If you're in the mood to engage specifically with shortform content (as an author or reader), you can go to lesswrong.com/shortfom. There you can:

  • Read the latest shortform content. Currently, these are sorted by "most recently replied to", with the 3 latest replies shown underneath.
    • If a shortform item has more than 3 replies, there'll be a "N additional comments" button you can click to load more, and the reply with have a little "show parent" icon to indicate that there's conversation missing.
  • Start writing a shortform comment. When you click the "submit" button, you'll automatically generate a shortform post, and your comment will be added to that post. The comment will appear below in the stream of content.

It looks like this:

All Posts page visibility

If you're using the All Posts daily view, the top 5 shortform comments from that day will be visible (and you can click "load more")

Clicking on a shortform item will expand it and load replies.

Upcoming Features

This is all just the minimum viable product to get things rolling. There are some obvious features to add, such as:

  • Letting users subscribe to individual people's shortform
  • Making it easier to permalink to shortform content
  • Making it easier to convert a shortform comment into a full post

Let us know if you have other suggestions or feedback

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18 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:16 AM
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Not sure how to find that section from mobile.

Whoops. Forgot to add it to the mobile menu. Will do so soon.

Bug report copied from a FB comment I made:

I was browsing shortform and noticed that a comment was elided (presumably for low score) in a way that made its children appear to be children of its parents. This is really super duper misleading. LW should find some way to indicate that this is not the case, other than the existence of a tiny "show more comments" link that isn't necessarily even very nearby.

[I have no reason to believe that this was specifically a shortform thing -- I assume it will do this elsewhere too. This is just where I discovered it.]

I think this is actually specific to shortform. A couple people have made similar comments.

The /shortform page, each post only shows the 3 most recent replies. It displays an 'show parent' icon if there are intermediate replies between comment and the top-level comment, but it's still a bit confusing.

I can imagine coming up with better UI for this. I don't think it makes sense to show the entire comment tree, because the whole point is let you skim for conversations that are interesting and then dive into them (and having to read through 5 different 50-comment-length discussions could get quite unwieldy). But maybe there's a way to more clearly showcase that the comments aren't (necessarily) direct descendants of the parent.

But my experience with facebook (which did a similar thing a couple years back) was that initially I was like 'aaaah facebook why are you only showing me a part of the conversation?", but I then quickly learned 'ah, actually it's not that hard to click to expand the conversation, and now that I know to do that it's actually useful to be able to skim for conversations that look interesting and then dive into them.'

(Facebook does an additional annoying thing of hyper-optimize for the most exciting comments, rather than showing the most recent discussion, which makes it harder to track what's going on. But I think we could just... not do that)

I have some thoughts on how to locally improve the UI (such as making the "load more comments" button much more prominent), and if those prove insufficient can looking into a more serious overhaul.

Facebook does not in any way have the specific problem I'm pointing to here, which is that the nesting structure of the comments is misrepresented. Facebook never elides a comment while showing a direct child of that comment. Of course, facebook only supports a single level of comment nesting, so it does sometimes elide a comment while showing a same-level reply. But I think that does not appear misleading, both because (1) fb users are thus accustomed to a reply-looking comment NOT being a reply to the thing it's displayed under, and (2) the 'show more' link is DIRECTLY in the place where the eye goes searching for the missing comment, not in some unrelated location down below.

(EDIT: Another thing I realized while composing my other comment: If you use the 'reply' button on facebook, and you're replying to a reply to a comment, so that you generate a same-level reply, it will be prefixed with the name of the person you're replying to. So at worst I will see a comment starting with "B: (reply to b)" nested under a comment by person A, which is another cue that the intermediate comment has been hidden.)

Dunno, when FB first introduced that UI I found it quite confusing. (i.e. FB only has two thread levels, but prior to this UI change, you could reliably expect a comment in a given thread level to be preceded by the preceding comment).

I agree that if we can avoid the confusion it's preferable to do that (I think showing the nesting levels may be the correct approach, it requires a bit more dev-time than some of the other options so it may take awhile longer)

Also note that the comments I assume you're looking at do have an "show parent" icon on them (which comments normally don't have). [this isn't an argument that the status quo is okay, I'm just sort of pedantically arguing that the status quo isn't much more confusing that FB was when it introduced it's own truncation scheme]

I do see the "show parent" icon, now that you have pointed it out, and I have viewed a short-form post with missing comments, expanded the comments, then explicitly gone back and looked for the comments I knew were missing. I would say that it is extremely subtle. I couldn't find it, even when I was looking for it, until I knew exactly which comment to look for it on.

I think (absent a more-code solution) a reasonable thing would be to replace the tiny subtle icon with text like "(... parent comment omitted, click to show ...)" (presumably on a line by itself above the current top line.)

Right now I claim there is really no indication that a comment is missing unless the reader is extremely familiar with the interface, and even then it's tiny and would be easy to miss even if you knew where to look.

I think displaying this in a non-misleading fashion would be pretty easy -- just display the divs for any intermediate elided comments, but with no content in them. Then the nesting will be visible. You could display their content as '...' or 'show comment' or whatever if you wanted, but I think the minimal solution without that would totally solve the problem where I claim the current display is super misleading about the context of comments.

(The most severe example of the thing I'm pointing to would be something like:

>  A: I hate puppies, kick them all!
>      B: You are a terrible person!
>          C: I agree completely.

being rendered as:

>  A: I hate puppies, kick them all!
>      C: I agree completely.

with no direct indication that anything is missing. The example that prompted me to complain was not at this level of severity but the out-of-context reply was jarring and confusing.)

In the past you (Raemon) have referred to this as the "shortform feed," but in this post you don't. Is this intentional? (But then in the comments, you say "feed" again.)

To me "feed" suggests a chronological order. Have you considered making the shortform posts sort by age of comment, just as lists of posts usually do?

Similarly, when LW migrated from OB, adding nesting and voting, it made the OB posts sort their comments in chronological order, to preserve the conversation structure. With the advent of 2.0, these posts have lost their special status and are sorted by votes, making the comment conversation unreadable (example). If you do implement a default sort nudge, you should apply it to these posts, too.

[I guess this comment should have gone here.]

Before we implemented shortform as a feature, some people created posts for themselves to put comments on and called them "shortform feeds". This is a misnomer, because they're not feeds in any sense of the word, so we decided not to call them that. But it looks like there were some residual linguistic habits.

The OB thing is incorrect. The comments on the post you linked are by default sorted in chronological order, same as on old LW:

LW Screenshot

Thanks. I guess I got confused from mainly using greaterwrong, but I did test it before posting.

The MVP described here doesn't seem functionally any different from an open thread.

The future features clearly go beyond that, and the current MVP seems a reasonable stepping stone towards those. But ... is it worth considering just adding those features to comments generally, or comments in threads with some special flag set (which would then need to be set on the open threads), rather than introducing a whole new thing?

(I'll hazard a guess that that's actually roughly how the current implementation works.)

I'm thinking, e.g., that "convert a comment into a full post" might be something people sometimes want to do to comments anywhere, not just ones they called shortform posts. And that it's not entirely impossible that someone might want to be able to subscribe to a feed of all of some other user's comments, though that seems a bit extreme.

I think the most important thing to change, in terms of creating a different vibe than open threads did, is the /shortform page working the way it does, where it feels more like facebook or tumblr than an open thread.

This was actually closer to how I thought about the issue – I mostly wanted a bunch of features that happened to be useful generally, while also enabling a particular paradigm. Open Threads and Shortform Feed posts are basically the same mechanics with different vibes, where an important part of the shortform vibe (from my perspective) is that a shortform feed* post communicates a greater sense of author ownership (both of the overall Shortform Feed post, and off individual comments within it)

[and yes, under-the-hood, the new shortform features are identical to what they've been for the past year – the difference is mostly that shortform comments and posts get a boolean "shortform" flag that can be referenced by search operations]

Jimrandomh's perspective was more oriented around making shortform a fully fledged featureset, and he can probably do a better job than I articulating why that made more sense to him.

Bug report: When I went to /shortform, the comment box was already filled in with a private message that I wrote (and sent) about a year ago. It was neither my first PM nor my most recent.

Huh. Quite weird.

Interesting, my guess is that at the time the PM system didn't yet have a separate localstorage address (which it has now), and the shortform feed doesn't yet have one either, so those two ended up overlapping. We should make sure to add a separate localstorage address to unfinished shortform posts.