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Get in the Box!
A Critique and Webcomic about Notes
I really enjoy Substack Notes. I’ve made dozens of new connections with people who are just fun to talk to and interact with. I have regular conversations with people who challenge my thinking and as a result cause me to think more deeply about various topics.
Despite these many benefits, Notes is not the easiest place to have a conversation. I believe there are two issues that are holding Substack Notes back from becoming the salon for discourse thatis trying to create in her personal Substack. These are:
One major problem is that unless someone replies directly to you or directly to your post, you won’t be notified. Visibility for those replies is entirely dependent on you being logged into the platform at the time the reply is made and being lucky enough to be at the top of the scrolling list of posts. Otherwise, it’ll be lost.
I feel like this is a massive problem with Notes because it deprives users of the connections and relationships that would otherwise happen organically. How many times has someone commented on my post and I didn’t respond simply because I didn’t see their comment?
Go scroll through any post with several replies. You’ll see a lot of interaction at the beginning of the post because that’s when the author of the post was on line. People are replying to them and then the author is responding, but eventually the author is called away to other responsibilities. The problem is that the post itself is persistent and many times will continue to gather replies during the author’s absence. All of those replies will be invisible to the author unless they navigate back to that post, are tagged by one of the users, or if someone replies directly to one of their comments.
That’s less than ideal. It’s a problem for the author because all of those latter replies will wonder why other users received replies and they didn’t. It’s a problem for the end user because their point of view is not being seen… much less considered.
I wish Substack would introduce a new type of notification that says, “New replies have been added to your post” or “New replies have been added to a post you commented on.”
The downside to this is that not everyone wants to receive that many notifications. So, give people the option to disable these types of notifications if they want.
The second problem is the way the commenting system works. At present, users are presented with a pop-up box when they comment on a post. By itself this isn’t an issue. The reason it’s problematic is because that pop-up box only shows the post to which you are responding and if that post or comment is very long, it’ll be cut off. Additionally, the inability to see comments from other users while in that composition window stops people from referring to the comments made by other users. So, if Jack, Jill, and Mary are all discussing the merits of different types of window panes, Jill will have a hard time referencing the exact model of window pane that Mary favors in her comment unless she remembers to write it down before entering the comment box. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to back out of a comment box because I wanted to remind myself of how someone said something or make sure I had my facts straight before replying, but I can say it’s happened enough (and many times while I’m right in the middle of writing a comment) that I wanted to write an actual post to try to persuade people to consider a change in design.
The other problem with navigation is that it involves too many clicks. Think about it. You find a post you want to comment on. There are a dozen replies from five different users. The topic really interests you so you want to do more than comment. You want to dig deep and have an actual conversation with these people. So, you click on the original post. The comment box pops up, you leave your remark. Now, you are dumped back to the original post and you move down to the next comment. Click on it, leave a comment, and you’re dumped back to either the main feed or the main post. You’ll repeat this process over and over again for each new reply to which you wish to respond. And, none of this even begins to address the nested replies that can happen when people respond to your initial comment on their comment on the initial post…. you see how convoluted it’s getting?
I’m not saying any of this is a horrible mess that is unworkable because that simply isn’t true. The existing system works and it does so with style, but I do believe a less dynamic version of the site might facilitate conversations more easily.
What if we lost the comment box pop-up and had a flat version of the site? Click on a post and all of the comments are right there. Choose one that you want to reply to and you’re presented with a composition box right there in-line with all of the other comments. You can scroll up or down to see all of the replies because the composition box hasn’t taken over your screen and you still have the ability to navigate even after you’ve entered text. Plus, there’s only one click to enter the post and another one to comment. No more of the in and out of the current system. Even if Substack decides not to implement my specific ideas I do hope they’ll come up with a system that preserves visibility for the entire conversation and minimizes clicks.
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This post was inspired by real world usage of the site. A week and a half ago, I encountered a post made bythat eventually got around to talking about the book and the movie versions of Dune. As conversations do, this one meandered and morphed into a discussion about What was Dune really about?
It was like catnip for me. I don’t know how many replies I left on that post, but I could still talk about it. I am totally ready for the moment that someone launches a Dunestack!
Yet, the experience of trying to navigate back and forth between the main post, new replies, nested replies, and everything else was frustrating. It also inspired the following four panel comic:
If you have any interest in that original conversation about Dune, the Note is still up and still seeking new comments. If you do choose to leave a comment though, please tag me because otherwise I may not see your reply.
Here’s the original Note: