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jdavidb (1361)

jdavidb
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http://voiceofjohn.blogspot.com/

J. David Blackstone has a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Engineering and nine years of experience at a wireless telecommunications company, where he learned Perl and never looked back. J. David has an advantage in that he works really hard, he has a passion for writing good software, and he knows many of the world's best Perl programmers.

Journal of jdavidb (1361)

Tuesday September 01, 2009
10:53 AM

What's the deal with relative times?

[ #39565 ]

It seems to be all the rage today for sites to give timestamps only in an approximate, relative fashion: one hour ago, two days ago, etc. Among other sites, I see both Twitter and StackOverflow doing this, so apparently it's popular for both the technical and the general communities.

I can't figure out why. It's annoying to see two posts marked "one hour ago" and wonder which one was posted first. It's particularly annoying to see two posts marked "one hour ago," then check back and see that suddenly they are an hour apart, because one of them was "two hours ago" and the other is still "one hour ago," then to see them both finally mysteriously become "two hours ago."

Are real timestamps actually that hard for normal people to understand? Am I the only one in the world who ever wants to know if two posts are a five minutes or fifty-five minutes apart?

My favorite message board is hosted on UBB.threads (not my favorite software, but the community is good), which I think gives the user a profile option to disable this inanity. I can't find that on Twitter, and I'm about to check Stack Overflow, where I bet I won't find it, either.

Who thought this was a good idea? Who decided it shouldn't be a per-user option? And why in the world is everyone copying it?

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  • I agree, this gets annoying. But I don't think it's the relative times in and of themselves. It's the enormous loss of precision that always seems to accompany this design pattern.

    If it said "23 minutes ago" and "55 minutes ago", I would be fine with it.

    • You're right. As I began writing, I realized it wasn't so much the relative aspect as it was the approximate aspect of it.

      --
      J. David works really hard, has a passion for writing good software, and knows many of the world's best Perl programmers
    • I demand nanoseconds. How else will we be able to tell who got first post?
  • What I don't like about absolute times is that everybody is forgetting to display the time zone. Or it would be nice if the time would be displayed in my local time zone (I think this should be possible using Javascript).

    • What I don't like about absolute timestamps is that even if someone show's the timezone, I'm supposed to be able to do timezone localisation in my head for all of the world's timezones.

      Relative time makes the real world time something that I as a regular human can actually understand.

      • Where in the world have you seen a site that displayed absolute timestamps in each individual poster's timezone, requiring you to convert, rather than just displaying all times in the viewer's timezone?

        --
        J. David works really hard, has a passion for writing good software, and knows many of the world's best Perl programmers
    • use.perl.org doesn't post the year. That's OK for recent posts, but for threads of a few years ago, that is quite annoying.
      • This is configurable. I've seen the year on use.perl posts for years.

        Admittedly, the default should be changed.

        --
        J. David works really hard, has a passion for writing good software, and knows many of the world's best Perl programmers
    • Every decent site I've seen allows you to select your timezone.

      Of course, personally I'm a complete geek, and my timezone is "UTC", but normal people can get US/Central, Europe/London, or whatever.

      This has been a solved problem for years. Even DST can and does happen automatically. (Of course, for those of us who want it to NOT happen, some sites are still a problem.)

      No Javascript required, at all. Slashcode has done it without Javascript since 2001 or so.

      --
      J. David works really hard, has a passion for writing good software, and knows many of the world's best Perl programmers
      • I notices recently that rt.cpan.org does not show a TZ. Neither the Mediawiki-based page for the CPAN Meta spec proposal mentioned some days ago here (http://perl-qa.hexten.net/wiki/index.php/CPAN_Meta_Spec_Proposals).

        Then I went curious: how does Wikipedia does it? No time zone either there. But the German pages displayed the last modification date in my local time zone! Without any javascript, it is part of the HTML. Then I wandered around the recent changes page in the various Wikipedia languages to find