When commenting systems go bad

Just recently, one of my favourite blogs moved a new home on Wired and, in the process, moved to the Disqus commenting system. I’ve sat in many meetings where Disqus has been named as the desired commenting system. I have often found myself on the fence, preferring, say, the built-in WordPress commenting system over any third party system, but still understanding that the issues with managing very high volumes of comments can encourage companies to outsource them. Until recently, though, I hadn’t had any real in-depth experience of using Disqus as a commenter.

I have now. And I have discovered that Disqus kills conversation and frustrates users.

The problems with Disqus surprise me, because they’ve been around a while and I would have expected them to understand how online discussions actually work, and adjust their tool to facilitate conversation. Instead, Disqus quashes conversation. Here are the issues, and possibly a few solutions:

Comment display is broken
There has long been a debate in commenting circles about whether threaded comments or flat comments are best. The truth is, neither are better than the other, both have their strengths and weaknesses. But Disqus, or at least the installations of it that I have recently seen, do not provide an option to view comments in a flat, strictly chronological or reverse-chrono order.

When you have a rich and fast-moving conversation in blog comments, threading kills it because it is nigh-on impossible to know where the new comments are in the various threads. An option to show comments in a flat view would allow users to quickly see which comments are most recent. We are smart enough to thread the conversations we’ve read already in our memories, but wading through threads in order to find the one new comment is a chore no one will bother with.

This means Disqus kills conversation in big, complexly-threaded discussions.

Being able to easily switch between views would be even better, so that you can find the newest comments, but then switch to see them in context of their threads.

Comment paging is broken
If there’s one thing that drives me nuts about Disqus it’s that there is no “view all” option. On my favourite blog, I have to page through comments in chunks of 40 at a time and, once the thread gets over 80, it becomes very tedious on page reload to have to re-page through to the newest comments if I want to actually see them in reverse-chrono order. My only option is to then view them newest-first, which means I have to then find the join, which is again a pain in the arse, especially if when I last looked there were 100 comments, and now there are 200.

I recently saw a blog post with 900 comments, which were only accessible in pages of 10. If anyone thinks that people are going to bother to page through all those comments, ten at a time, they need a reality check. It’s already hard enough to get people to read comments before they write their own, but this just encourages drive-by commenting, which is very bad for conversation and community-building.

Disqus needs to have a “view all” option. I don’t care if it takes a minute or two to load, I just want everything, on one page, so that I can scan it at speed to pick out the comments I care about.

Other issues:
Login kills comments. On the train into London this morning I wrote a comment, then realised that I wasn’t logged in. I logged in with Google, as I usually do, and Disqus threw away my comment. WTF? Really? That’s how you treat logging in?

Newest first is weird: Newest first also does really weird stuff with within-thread threading which I haven’t get got my head round, but it bloody annoys me.

Page refresh breaks flow: On a lot of commenting systems, if I refresh the page in order to fetch new comments, the browser will remember where I am on the page and all I need to do to continue reading is, well, continue reading. Not with Disqus. Refreshing the page essentially resets Disqus, meaning that I have to re-page through everything and search for my place. A comment bookmarking system might help with this, or they could just offer a persistent single page view.

Just say No to Disqus
I have to say, I would now actively militate against clients using Disqus if they have any desire to create conversation and community. Disqus frustrates passionate readers, drives away interested but less committed readers, and makes genuine conversation difficult or impossible. It seems to be a great system for collecting comments to be ignored, but it’s terrible if you actually care about your comments or your commenters.

Given that Disqus has been around since 2007, the fact that it hasn’t cracked comment display yet is shocking to me. I honestly thought they of all people would have nailed it. Quite the opposite, in fact: Their design can only be described as user-surly.

25 thoughts on “When commenting systems go bad

  1. Hi Suw. I could not agree more!!! As you know your favorite blog is/was mine as well. If there are more than 80 comments it is near impossible to read them all, leave alone in chronological order. As many may have noticed the blog does not get a lot of comments anymore and i personally have friends who just gave up on it.
    One other thing i regret is that if you click a link someone posted you move to this page instead of opening a new window. ( Yes i know wordpress does the same but trying to get now leaves me with a blank page ever so often and if i should be able to go back, loading takes sooooo much time. And if i clicked a link in the second 40 comments charge i end up with the first 40 again. I did not even bother to try with the third 40 comments.
    This new site might be well known, or prominent people post there but i wish Eruptions would move back to the old site. And i dont even dare to wonder how it would have been if 1000 comments would be posted like during the Eyjafjalla experience. Jon Frimanns page gets 900 comments in a day while Eruptions gets 50 or so…. go figure
    We are not the only ones having problems.

  2. Nested vs. flat threads, paginaton on/off, order of comments, various login settings — these are all configurable options. I’d agree with you that some of the default settings are poor but I don’t think it’s fair to say “Disqus kills conversation” simply because publishers are too lazy to customize the tool.

    Initially I was very resistant to moving comments to a 3rd party like Disqus, but I’ve been using it on a number of sites over the last 2 years and, while it’s not perfect, I think it’s a well built service. Of course there are trade-offs with everything… For a blog I too prefer WP’s commenting system, but for larger sites I think Disqus has some attractive features.

  3. Hi,

    Found this post via Hacker News. Each of the points you raised above are surely either matters of personal opinion and preference, or are actually configurable by the site in question’s administrators. Hopefully your experience will improve as the sites’ owners get to grips with the configuration options.


  4. I think it’s great that the site owners can configure all these things, but I do think that the reader (especially an engaged ‘client’ who returns each week) should be able to set some personal preference defaults as well.

    Disqus lets a user set a global profile for their accounts, across different sites, why not let them choose their comment viewing preferences there, with the caveat that some choices may alter the website owner’s ‘vision’ of how they want things to look.

    The majority of site visitors will see things they way they were intended, and those engaged commentors would view things in a way that is best conducive, for them, to be part of a site’s community.

  5. Just a quick response because I’m in a cafe waiting for a friend, but if the configuration option for what are *user* preferences are only available to the *publisher* then that’s a massive flaw.

    It doesn’t help me that Disqus could do what I’d like it to do if I can’t make it do what I’d like it to do.

    As for the publishers, I don’t believe they are being lazy, more that those making these configuration decisions aren’t engaged in long conversations and so don’t really think about configuration from the user’s point of view. Again, if the defaults are poor, that’s down to Disqus and they should do a better job of creating defaults that actually work.

    I would be interested to know exactly what is configurable and how, but that doesn’t change the fact that these options are not available to me, the user, the person who actually should be able to make these choices.

  6. Isn’t a bigger issue that they drop a cookie on your users/take your data? There’s obv no such thing as a free lunch – but think people are only just waking up to this… Not sure if Intense Debate (Automattic) does things differently/any better, to be honest…

  7. “Those who don’t understand Usenet are condemned to reinvent it, poorly.”

    These were all solved problems with threaded newreaders twenty years ago — trn and slrn allowed you to read the newest posts and easily walk back through the threads. It also had scoring, kill files, and most everything needed to quickly catch up on hundreds of ongoing conversations.

    As another plus of the older tools is that they did not have built in editors. So when composing a post or a reply they would invoke your choice of editor (vi or emacs) and allow you to type in something better than a glorified text box.

  8. Personally I love Disqus — it makes it easy for me to comment across the web and have my own commenting profile. Facebook comments are good because it’s easy to get notifications while logged into Facebook, but it doesn’t aggregate my comments in the same way Disqus does. Personally I like their interface better than IntenseDebate. I understand you have gripes from an administrator point of view, but I think your stance is harsh.

  9. Nearly every frustration you mentioned are things that the site owner has control of with Disqus. They can turn off threading and provide an option to view all comments (or at least larger pagination increments). Since we empower the site owner to control that, they will depend on your feedback to improve the experience.

    That said, your points highlight the lack of control by individual commenters, which is something we’re shifting our focus to in a big way in the coming months. Moving the aforementioned options directly to the commenter is part of that, along with a number of other improvements that will make it a more pleasant experience to comment.

    Thanks for your thoughts, they’ll definitely be a consideration as we move forward.

    Community Support @ Disqus

    PS: Your comment definitely shouldn’t be thrown away after logging in, we do auto-save your input. Would you be so generous to send us your reproduction steps and which browser was used? http://disqus.com/support/

  10. Suw – I also found your article on Hacker News this morning and am pretty surprised by how uninformed you are about the subject you’re writing on.

    Like the comments above stated, the owner of the site has the control to customize all your little issues. I use Disqus on two of my blogs and really like it, it’s clean, simple, free and I can ditch the trolls. Yes, there are issues from time to time, but to go out and say “Say No to Disqus” is simply ignorant and only makes you look silly.

    Why not signup for a site and take a look yourself rather then make some “sky is falling” claims.

  11. “…if the configuration option for what are *user* preferences are only available to the *publisher* then that’s a massive flaw.”

    What commenting system exposes all of these preferences to the user? On this blog I can’t switch from flat to nested, or change the sort order, or adjust pagination. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen those as user options… or that as user I would want them.

    Really, I don’t mean to me rude, but it just seems you’ve written a post trashing a product you have little experience with.

  12. I hate to be rude, but with a background in journalism, I’d think you’d know to research what Disqus can do before saying it cannot.

    Having the configurations done by the site owner is standard.

    Lastly, if you were on a train writing that comment and then had to log in, I’m going to assume you were on a cell phone. The functionality that you call missing may have just been due to the technology on your phone.

  13. Wow. That was a pretty distorted analysis of Disqus. Are you against Disqus specifically or commenting systems in general? Statements like “Disqus kills conversation in big, complexly-threaded discussions” are misleading and not true. Have you checked vibrant discussion sites like http://www.avc.com where comments routinely go up to 300-400 without any issues. The opposite actually happens: Disqus starts to fuel conversations because it’s easy for a user to become part of it.

    As a user, I want more control over my comments and I don’t want to be signing in every time. Disqus provides a seamless user experience and a lot of tools for the blog/site owner as well. In contrast, signing-on to native commenting systems such as the one on this blog is a dreadful experience, and I can’t follow the conversation unless I come back to it. What a productivity drain that is.

  14. i switched from the native comment system to disqus on my blog (AVC) over four years ago and was amazed at how it energized the discuss. i loved it so much that i invested in the company and now am on the board of disqus.

    as the other commenters have said, everything you don’t like can be customized in the disqus settings. it is an amazingly powerful system. i would recommend you take some time to understand how it works. you will love it, I am sure.

    and it does such a good job with spam that you won’t need a captcha

  15. I encourage you to take another look.

    Put aside the things you didn’t know about that your readers have alerted you to.

    Put aside preconceptions and thoughts of conversational structures and think about the end goal of this all. The key to the wonder of the social web, and that is community.

    Disqus, while just treading on the outskirts of this has the potential to encourage community within a contextual community of discussion (like this one) but also across a network of conversations and communities.

    I wrote this post years ago, but it still speaks to the power of what Disqus is moving towards.

    Comments, Conversations and Community http://awe.sm/5YEfF

  16. Hi again SUW
    Dont know but how it looks the d…s reading hackernews want to make our problems with commenting on our fav blog look stupid. Our host is a very busy man with a new family and his interest are volcanoes and he simply does not have the time to try figure out Disqus for month. He has a real life!
    I still agree for the 3 sites Eruptions was on, the commenting system now is worse than on any other site before. And that is an international blog and not everyone is a native speaker or a facebook-freak.
    Who cares what is most popular … Noone with at least some braincells.
    And i do not like it that people hit on you for speaking the truth.

  17. Thanks for raising the issues about Disqus. I also gave up trying to follow the a recent conversation on Eruption due to difficulties in both finding new comments and following the thread of existing comments.

    We’re starting to use it for our website next month. The apparent complexity of customizing it to be user-friendly is something we’ll need to watch.

  18. Thanks to everyone for the comments.

    To those telling me that all this is configurable, or that I haven’t researched the tool, or that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d ask you to re-read the post. I’m writing as a user with no ability to configure the settings of Disqus at all. I used Google to log in, and that gives me precisely no user options except whether or not I want to receive email notifications.

    This is not about what Disqus can do if you’re setting it up, but about the experience I have had of it as a user. And, I’m sorry to say, my experiences with Disqus so far – and not just on Wired, I might add – have been uniformly painful.

    One cannot simply dismiss a user’s experience as somehow invalid just because you haven’t shared it. Indeed, anyone involved in tech, at any level, should learn how to read through a frustrated user’s reactions to any tool and pull from it any useful nuggets that may be found within. And however annoyed I was when I wrote this, and I was very annoyed indeed, I still tried to be constructive with ideas for how to improve the tool.

    Ryan, I’m glad to hear that Disqus is taking these sorts of issues seriously. I’ll happily give you further ideas for improvements or discuss these problems with you if you would find it helpful – my email is in the sidebar.

  19. There is a tendency to expect the user to conform to the software.
    We are told ‘we don’t understand/use it right’ etc… NO … a good tool doesn’t need instruction or tuition, well, not if it’s a simple tool like commenting.
    I have to agree with Suw, there is much that still has to be improved.

  20. Hi Suw – would you by chance have any examples you could share from clients or other sites that let the user customize the items you were talking about vs. only letting the admin control them? As Ryan, mentioned, we are weighing some of these considerations (we do already let users customize things like default sort order and timestamp format) and it would be great to pass along examples to some of the folks on our team.


  21. Totally agree — My fave blogs moved to Disqus (wired, cultofmac, etc) and unless I enter the page in a very specific way I cannot comment. Very frustrated.

  22. JW, can you elaborate a bit? Our top priority for commenters is to make sure you can comment quickly and easily; if this isn’t your experience then we are dropping the ball and I’m really sorry about that.

    The most helpful information for us would be to know at least one page where you’re commenting, what exactly isn’t working properly, and if you could provide a screenshot that would be incredibly helpful. The best instructions on how to take a screenshot I’ve ever seen are at http://take-a-screenshot.org/

    Feel free to continue the conversation here or contact us at http://disqus.com/support directly if you’d prefer not to clutter up Suw’s site.


  23. Here’s an interesting comment on Slashdot criticizing Disqus from a different angle:

  24. Wow, is your commenting system broken! It left out the link I posted (the only point of my comment) and inserted somebody else’s photo next to my comment! I guess your anti-spam measures won’t let me post a link… anyone wanting to read the Slashdot commenter’s anti-Disqus comment (I wasn’t the poster) should Google slashdot.com for the phrase “Arrogance of Disqus”. Now let’s see if *this* system inserts someone else’s photo again…

  25. I agree precisely with your reaction to Disqus. I use it as a reader on the Sun news sites in Canada, there is some lively political debate on there but it includes PLENTY of trolls; people who use racist & homophobic language, personal insults, etc etc, at least 1 out of every 10 comments.

    I also give up following the discussions after a few hundred comments – despite being deeply engaged in the discussions – because finding your place in the stream is impossible after a while. These are usually hot-button, front-line political topics – Sun media specializes in conservative dog-whistles – and I admit it would put any comment system through its paces on a daily basis.

    You end up wandering away. I suppose that’s good for my Meatspace Life but kind of ennui-inducing.

    I finally created an account on Disqus itself but the way things are organized there – wtf is a dashboard vs a profile, things are really overlapped / confused – hard to grok. I find my responses and likes and other people’s responses and likes get jumbled into a tiny window and I get confused.

    I get the option to reply via email and be notified via email, which is good too… but it all feels clunky and… well… AOL-ish.


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