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Threaded Vs. Linear Discussion Tools

Nancy White - 8/03
There are two main asynchronous web conferencing structures: linear and threaded. These label describe how the messages are organized.

Threaded = documents in binders in drawers in filing cabinets. You go in for a specific file, not read the contents of the drawer. Messages branch off by topic. The focus is on individual posts, clustering by subject. The picture in the next postshows the outline view of a threaded interface.

Linear = clothes pinned on a clothes line in a row. Messages "pile up" in chronological order. The focus is on conversation, turn taking and time sequence.

Which One to Use?

Threaded is generally seen in two forms. The first is where you can see an entire thread on one HTML page. This is the preferred form. The second form is where you have to click to a separate web page for each message. This is slow and a cost problem when pay per minute. Avoid tools with this configuration!

Threaded forums are excellent for question and answers (Q&A), tasks that have very specific breakdowns of content into fine-but-related categories. Threaded forums can become very fragmented in large groups and unless well managed, difficult for group and team building. We can "bury our jewels" in a thread as people add more posts, requiring a certain amount of stewardship if we are to preserve and reuse those jewels.

Linear forums show all posts in one topic in chronological order, usually showing the most recent post. Linear forums are good for relationship and team building, brainstorming, dialog and social conversations. Linear is less helpful for convergent conversations, fragmented and detailed topics and coming to closure.

Both forms, and even a combination of the two, have their place and usefulness. However, people tend to have strong prefernces for the format they first used. Within a team, there may be some differences of opinions on this.

Example Tools

Some threaded boards:

Linear scrolling or Non-threaded web conferencing:


Hybrid linear scrolling & threaded:

Articles on Threaded/Linear:
An Argument Against Threading - http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1015

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