Backtalk Demonstration Site General Conference

Item 7: Why Backtalk is Weird

Entered by Jan Wolter (janc) on Wed Jun 9 16:04:37 2010:

So you are probably confused by Backtalk's user interface, because it
isn't really very like other BB systems you see on the net these days.

That's because it's a dinosaur, a web version of a conferencing system
called Picospan, written in 1982, which was a derivative of Confer,
written in 1975.  The Pistachio interface was a first cut at putting
this kind of conferencing onto a web page, written back in the days when
that was just beginning to be a possible thing to do.  Abalone is a
slightly more modern take on the same thing, written when browsers were
starting to get a bit smarter.  Development ground to a halt before we
really got into an era of browsers that could reliably and semi-portably
run fancy Javascript or handle complex CSS.

But what's weird is not so much the clunkiness of the interface, but the
basic paradigm for how one reads a conference.  It's based on the idea
that you don't want to read stuff that you've read before.  The default
behavior of the system should be to route you quickly to new material,
new items posted to the forum, new comments on old items.

This means that backtalk remembers what you have seen.  Backtalk is
perfectly capable of listing all topics in all forums, like most BB
systems do.  That info is just one click away.  But what backtalk
displays by default is the new material since your last login.  So when
you go to a conference home page, you don't see a list of every topic in
the conference, you see a list of the ones which are either new to you,
or which have had new comments since you last read them.  When you go to
the topic, you don't see the whole topic text, but just the ones that
you haven't seen before.  To re-read the old material, you have to click
on something.  And when you are done reading the new material on a
topic, you can click on a "Next" button to show you the new material in
the next topic.  So there is a smooth and easy way to travel through the
forum reading everything that is new.

Backtalk has various tricks to help with this.  If a topic is boring and
you never want to see it again, you can "forget" it, and it vanishes. 
If you love a topic, you can mark it as a favorite, and it will move it
to the front of the topic list.  Sure, most conferencing systems can
retire items or make them "sticky", but Backtalk lets each user do it
themselves, maintaining their own personal view of the conference.

This takes some getting used to.  It certainly works best for people who
really want to keep up with everything going on in the forum.  It
encourages and welcomes such people much more than people who are just
visiting to look for one specific piece of information.  It's great for
virtual communities.  Many of great virtual communities have been built
on conferencing software that worked this way.  The Well is the most
famous.  M-Net is even older.  Grex.  The guy running Sgrid complains
that his Backtalk system is too popular, and instead of just talking
about RC-racing, people are talking about everything.  This kind of
conferencing structure tends to do that.  It also tends to lead to long
wandering discussion threads, as each person just sees the last few
comments and comments on those.  I've seen discussion threads with over
16,000 comments (backtalk handles that just fine, by the way).

So this demo system is a really bad demo system, because there is no
activity here, so reading "new" responses shows you nothing.  But that's
really what Backtalk is all about.  People post things and then are
confused because they can't find them back.  Well, it's not that hard,
but it isn't trivial because seeing stuff you've already seen isn't
really the most important thing people want to do in a forum.
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